Thursday 9 January 2014

Car Parking in Cambridge - ITS SO UNFAIR!

Puberty is hard, we all remember that.

And its really hard on the motorists of Cambridgeshire who seem be stuck in the earliest stages of adulthood. Skin problems (lack of sunlight), unexplained things happening to their bodies (accumulation of fat), constant tiredness (no exercise) and mood swings (petrol fumes) seem to create the same mentality that typifies early teenage years.

Nowhere does this show more clearly than in car parking, a topic of discussion in which, for the most part, facts and reason have no place. And any emotional, emotive argument basically comes down to THIS IS TOO HARD, ITS SO UNFAIR,  WHY OUGHT I PAY SO MUCH, CAMBRIDGE HATES ME BECAUSE I'M A MOTORIST etc.

Parking your car in the middle of Cambridge isn't cheap. But it shouldn't be - this is a small city centre with finite space, and even by the worst standards of the UK horrifically congested with far more cars than can get through it. In between the privately owned cars are taxi drivers and bus drivers jostling for space, all of whom resent the very oxygen cyclists breathe because it could otherwise have sustained their engines for another hundred yards or so. The City Council control the major car parking sites, and they run this commercially - they aim at something like 85% occupancy, and they set costs and waiting times accordingly.

Everyone mostly agrees that things in the city centre are and pretty much should run commercially - rents are set that way, shop prices, the survival of businesses, etc. are subject to market forces. And its the job of the City Council to (1) get the most money back from its investment in parking, (2) balance the needs of different travelers, shoppers and business owners in the city, and (3) keep the city centre moving such that people even bother to come. If they get this wrong then when everything is so clogged with cars you can't get in or out, everyone suffers.

And viewed in such simple terms they're doing very well. Car parks are always busy - I never go past one of the multi storeys without there being a queue, and while the recession certainly hurt retail here we've come through with the lowest shop vacancy rate in the country. The City Council makes a bomb out of parking upwards of £4million per year, a massive proportion of their income. And while its very easy to marvel at so much money seemingly squandered on so little of obvious worth, only a fool would suggest that parking costs are killing Cambridge retail - the car parks are full (even over-full), retail here does better than elsewhere in the East of England.

Now you might argue that its still tough for retailers in Cambridge, and you'd be right. Its very hard for smaller, independent retailers here in particular, at least in the city centre, meaning that if you're looking for retail property not on Mill Road or up on Burleigh Street (for example) you're probably boned - the tight space and high demand mean that its really just chains who can afford the upfront costs to set up shop in the middle of town, making Cambridge arguably Britains most clone town. So maybe the LAST thing we want is to make the city centre more desirable for motorists by encouraging people to drive here if our goal is to keep Cambridge interesting...

But lets take a step back from this.

The argument that parking is too expensive in Cambridge is preposterous - yes, its expensive, but too expensive? Whats our goal, to get as many people in to the city to spend as much money as possible or are we looking to subsidise motorists? If the car parks are full and making a good profit then its absurd to suggest that the car parks are too expensive - if anything that implies we could increase the cost further. Besides, the roads are gridlocked already so cheaper parking will simply mean yet more traffic woes for motorists to bellyache about.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that we do so well with such a high cycling modal share - the impact of cars on shopping are always over-stated - and if the goal of our City Council is to maximise shopping spend they should be supporting more public transport and cycling, which in a half-arsed fashion they do.

No doubt the blue-rinse Tory fendlanders who dominate the County Council elections will bellyache ad infinitum et ultra that they can't afford to drive in to the city and park, while also bemoaning that all sorts of other things aren't subject to proper free market economics. Frankly, I believe that Cambridges response to them should be to tell them to bugger off to Peterborough or Ely - we don't want them and, frankly, changing things to make them happy would cost us more money than they'd bring in.


  1. Good blog, and I agree with many points, but free market economics is not a pancea. We also need regulation to keep things equitable. In this case, I believe there should be cross-subsidy from people driving into the city, and those who choose to park there, and this should go to pay for reduced park & ride pricing. Pricing levels could be adjusted from time to time to maximise usage of P&R sites and minimize carpark queueing & traffic levels into town.

    Not everyone can cycle, and not every errand is possible by bike (for most), so giving people a cheap alternative to getting into town is important.

    As an aside, I believe that P&R bus pricing should be per-vehicle-load, rather than per-passenger, to keep it clearly cheaper than driving to out of town destinations, and to discourage parking-in-the-suburbs for those with a vehicle full.

    1. I wouldn't argue that free market economics is a panacea, merely that the free-market argument in favour of cheaper parking and more cars in Cambridge is bunkum.

      I would argue that it really is possible to bring a car in to the middle of Cambridge for an errand - but the cheaper we make parking, the harder that becomes. Its not as simple as keeping parking cheap to allow people easy access to shops by car, which of course would means= that when you really DO need to bring a car in you probably won't be able to park it.

      There are many other interesting and reasonable arguments to make re. car access to Cambridge - but for the most part I don't hear them. I hear whinging, bellyaching, moaning crap.

  2. I had been thinking of writing a blog post along substantially the same lines, but you have saved me the trouble.

    Each town or city is different, is size, demographics, road network, scale of retail provision, character etc, but one thing which unites them all is that the local authority has to strike a balancing act between traffic management, fostering local business, and earning a fair return on assets owned by their council taxpayers.

    As it is, developers will tell you that about the lowest-value use for a development site (apart from not developing it at all) is car parking. A developer would always prefer to get permission for residential, retail or business use in preference to building a car park, but obviously the planning department has occasionally to demand that they build a car park to maintain the balance of the town as a whole.

    From that point, the council needs to maximise its investment return short of killing the town centre - as you say, the same bellyachers would not be impressed if they let out surplus business premises at below market rents, or gave away social housing. But at the same time it can't reduce prices too low - quite apart from their fiduciary duties - because too low a price incentivises overstaying (bay-blocking) beyond the point at which the parker is adding any further economic value to town centre businesses, and new arrivals, whose wallets are open, can't get in.

    The correct price will differ from town to town - here they have pitched at 80p/hour whereas in nearby Guildford it is £1.20/hour and car parks are similarly occupied, and in Midhurst the first two hours are free - it is all a question of what the market locally will bear. Even within this town, the price ranges from 50p for two hours at one car park, through 50p//hour at another, to 80p/hour at the most popular - the latter would be impossible if there was no incentive to use one of the others, and the usage stats obtained under FOI show us that the priciest still sells twice as many parking hours per space as either of the others.

    I normally cycle to the shops - it's not the cost, which is immaterial, but the sheer bloody inconvenience of having to find a free space, walk to the ticket machine, have the right change, and take it back to my car. I can get from home to shop door faster by cycling, despite the slower travelling speed.