More and/or free parking is the no.1 quack remedy for high streets. We need to be Myth-busters.
I’m reading a book at the moment called ‘Made to Stick’, written by the brothers Heath. It explores how and why certain ideas lodge in the popular conscience while others don’t; and begins by examining a few ‘urban myths’ – tales that become widely accepted as truth despite being unsupported by any evidence beyond hearsay (and usually being, in fact, untrue).
I was surprised that the authors didn’t choose to cite, as Exhibit A, the myth that more and or free parking is vital for high street health. The frequency and certainty with which this ‘truth’ is spouted is such that one could be forgiven for assuming the assertion is based on convincing evidence. Like, you know, facts. Only it isn’t. At least, I haven’t been able to uncover any, despite having searched both high and low.
I’d start by going over the pitiful ‘evidence’ that Mary Portas used to substantiate her recommendation that “Local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes that work for their town centres” (‘Review into the Future of Our High Streets’, December 2011), only I did that in LTT587 (January 2012). Instead, I’ll present highlights of my more recent researches and requests for facts. They’re presented in bullet form for brevity and clarity.
· Eric Pickles telling the faithful at a Conservative spring forum that an “over-zealous culture of parking enforcement” and a “rigid state orthodoxy of persecuting motorists” is damaging small businesses across the UK.
· Mary Portas responding to the above by tweeting that “Councils with any sense and commitment to their local shops should listen to Eric Pickles”, later confirming her weak grasp of the complexities of the high street by adding, “Anything that allows shoppers to stop has to be a good thing” and naively treating what local retailers (her constituency) say as robust evidence.
Queuing to park free for 10 minutes: a recipe for high street success. Apparently.
This is an old Daewoo advert: the perfect town from a driver’s perspective. Apparently.
Oodles of free parking: superstores have got the answer. Apparently.
· Telegraph columnist, Cristina Odone, likewise bigging Eric up, calling him “ever sensible” and going on to add “I blame traffic wardens for local shops' slump in sales, restaurants' empty tables, and over-congested roads”, without offering anything demonstrating cause and effect.
· The founder of a Welsh farmers’ market blaming its failure on parking charges and claiming that “a direct relationship between parking charges and footfall has been shown”. When I asked for evidence, he referred me to a survey commissioned by confused.com which, inter alia, says that motorists say they choose where to shop partly based on parking charges (but doesn’t find out if they actually do). He added: “Mary Portas must have based her recommendation on something”.
· A Labour activist telling me that “trade is up 40% since the Greens were forced to lower charges in London Road (Brighton)”, but being unable to respond to my request for data in support of her assertion.
· A Civic Society in Cheshire saying reduced parking charges “helped” in nearby Trafford, but again being unable to follow up with any data.
· A respected fellow professional telling me that, where she lives in south east London, “an increase in free parking coincided with the resurgence of the high street”. When I asked if this could indeed have been just a coincidence, she pointed out that “a lack of evidence doesn’t disprove if there are no studies”. She’s quite right, of course. Only there are some studies, which I’ll tell you about.
But first, let me make very clear that I’m entirely open to finding evidence that does demonstrate how making parking cheaper and/or more plentiful helps local retailers. It’s just that I haven’t seen any; and neither has anyone else I’ve been able to contact (unless they’re keeping it to themselves, which would be very naughty of them).
My concern here is essentially twofold. Firstly, in the absence of evidence supporting the health-giving powers of more/cheaper parking, politicians should not commit themselves so whole-heartedly to a policy direction that may actually not achieve the positive outcomes they claim with such a show of crusading self-righteousness. Secondly, the relevant research that I have been able to unearth suggests, at the very least, that anyone who genuinely has the health of high streets at heart would be far better off promoting access by walking, cycling and public transport, than by car.
This research, which I urge you to explore for yourselves, includes the following. Rather than provide web-links I’ll simply list the reports, which you can easily search for online. The Relevance of Parking in the Success of Urban Centres (London Councils, October 2012); the Town Centre Studies conducted by Transport for London in both 2009 and 2011; and Sustrans Information Sheets FF39 and LN02. There’s more (check the bibliography from the London Councils Report), but they’ll do to be getting on with.
Re-Think! – Parking on the High Street, published earlier in the year by the British Parking Association and the Association of Town & City Management, presents research showing that the more parking spaces a centre has, the higher its footfall; which is simply relaying the obvious fact that the more people that arrive (by whichever mode), the more people there’ll be. While the research also found that the relationship between parking charges and the quality of the local retail offer was variable, it uncovered nothing in terms whether price influenced that offer.
The final document I’ll refer you to is a very recent report – Open for Business – published by the London Assembly Economy Committee: an investigation into what can be done to bring empty high street shops back into use. It covers parking, of course, recommending the prioritisation of turnover of parking spaces. It also says that, in its next Town Centre Study (following the 2009 and 2011 studies mentioned above), TfL should go deeper into the effect of parking initiatives on high street performance.
I’ll second that. More evidence is needed to ensure that the vital matter of parking policy is taken out of the realm of instinct, anecdote, opinion and, worst of all, political opportunism.