I’ve locked horns with two of our Penarth councillors on a number of occasions in relation to their obsession with increasing the tax burden on residents for no good purpose. That’s how I put it anyway – they might class it as “Reintroduce traffic wardens to deal with parking problems in Penarth” and “Fight against car parking charges for Penarth town centre”.
Back in April 2012 this was my take on the issue:
To me it makes perfect sense for the Vale to be raising revenue from people who can afford to drive into town. We know that 21.5% of Vale households have no access to a car or van, and we also know that poor households are disproportionately represented within this sector. Why poorer people should be effectively subsidising richer peoples’ use of cars is beyond me – this seems to be a fabulous example of a regressive ‘tax’ regime. It seems that Gwyn and Lis are siding with the people who are best able to kick up a stink about things that disadvantage them – the thrusting middle class – rather than those who are less able to voice their concerns – older people or people just about scraping a living who haven’t got the time or inclination to trouble politicians.
And 10 days later I said:
Could it just be possible that we could do away with both parking problems and traffic wardens by a simple system of parking charges or meters? But don’t just take my word for it, see what Professor Donald Shoup has to say on the subject.
Followed a fortnight later by:
Lis and Gwyn know that I have a much simpler suggestion to deal with the ‘problem of parking in Penarth’ which would actually raise revenue for the council. Hopefully traffic wardens as the solution to parking issues isn’t something they’ll be dogmatic about just because it’s one of their pledges, should they receive the blessing of the electorate next week.
The only argument I’ve ever heard in favour of free parking in Penarth is one voiced by local businesses – that charging for parking would kill their businesses because customers would decide to shop elsewhere. So perhaps Penarth businesspeople might be surprised to find out that in one Bristol suburb, for example, 2/3 of shoppers cycle and walk to shops and just 22% come by car. Businesses typically overestimate by double the proportion of people driving to go shopping.
But there are some deeper societal issues at stake here, aside from the usual arguments about accessibility to shops. ‘Free’ parking has a cost. It wastes money, degrades urban design, increases the area of impervious surface, it makes town centres less hospitable for pedestrians – and who buys from shops if not pedestrians? – and encourages overuse of cars. And then there’s the additional costs associated with driving, for which pursuit free parking is the principal beneficiary – air pollution, traffic congestion, collisions, wasted time and wasted fuel. These are the costs that society pays for not charging for parking in Penarth town centre. Who pays for ‘free’ parking? Everyone.
Now Lis and Gwyn would probably snap my hand off if I told them I had an invention that could help wean us from our vehicles and make Penarth’s streets less dangerous, congested, and polluted. The funny thing is, it’s not my invention. It’s been around for 80 years or more: the parking meter. And the parking meter hasn’t stood still for 80 years either. Technology has enabled parking meters to change the rates charged in order to facilitate the most efficient take-up of parking (85% occupancy seems to be the ideal). San Francisco has just such a scheme, in which parking charges vary from $0.25 to $6.00 per hour. And as you’d expect, payment can be made by mobile phone, and you can download an App that will not only tell you the going rate but will help find you a vacant slot. Meanwhile Oklahoma City has come up with a novel idea it calls “Pay and Display”, although perhaps the novelty here is that the units are solar powered.
Charging for parking spaces can increase revenue in businesses. It might seem counter-intuitive – after all, people could just as easily vote with their feet – sorry, tyres – and pop over to Barry, Cowbridge or Cardiff to do their shopping, where they can find plenty of free parking. But over the pond in Seattle, restaurants’ takings and profits both increased when car parking charges were extended from 6pm to 8pm. This finding is hardly surprising if you look at the history of parking meters. When they were first installed, in Oklahoma City, shops fronting parking meters reported increased sales, and streets without them begged the city authorities to install them.
And the rationale? When you charge people to park cars in busy areas, you get a higher turn-over of vehicles, meaning more potential customers. And in quieter areas, lower parking rates can attract additional patronage. The idea is that parking spaces in the town centre should be used by people doing business there, going shopping and eating in local cafes and restaurants, not by workers or other long-term parkers. Short-term parkers are less sensitive to the price of parking than to the length of time it takes for them to find a space.
I don’t know one person who doesn’t think that parking in Penarth is a problem, especially at busy times. But it’s not a problem of lack of spaces, it’s a problem of insufficient turnover. Turnover that can be improved by charging for parking. It’s well worth checking out the experience of Old Pasadena in the USA to see the difference that can be made to civic space by charging for parking. Clearly there are three areas of Penarth that would benefit from a car park charging arrangement: Penarth Station car park, the pier, and the town centre (Glebe Street, Windsor Road and Ludlow Street past the Royal Mail depot).
Finally, I can’t be the only one to have noticed Sustrans Cymru’s moving campaign “Where have all the children gone?“. Their excellent 4-minute video is most definitely worth watching. In a Penarth whose streets are absolutely dominated by cars and traffic, I challenge any of you to not regret the passing of the possibility of playing in the street.
So it’s time for Gwyn and Lis to recognise that there’s no such thing as free parking. Parking without incurring a charge has a cost to all of us. Society pays it, and people driving their cars are free-riders on the backs of the rest of us. If our local councillors are truly concerned about social justice and equality, they’ll run the traffic warden scheme for a year as a pilot that enables them to tick the manifesto box and then get Vale officials to examine the case for parking charges in town. And I haven’t even mentioned that parking meters actually generate revenue for the council, revenue that could be put towards, for example, installing free wi-fi throughout Penarth town centre, making it the first fully wifi-capable town in Wales. Or towards making sure that the street furniture is spick and span, the streets litter free always and the paving of the highest quality. The trick is to spend the money where it’s generated. And let’s bear in mind that everyone would benefit from these public improvement measures, so there’s a good chance the electorate might smile on it too.
I look forward Gwyn and Lis’ Damascene conversion.