Transport for the many, parking for the few

DSC_2393JPGParking is a fascinating subject. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Control parking and you control the world. It can turn normally rational human beings into the most confused and angry souls. When people are caught out and charged it's unfair, a stealth tax, a money spinner and sad faces on the front page of the local paper.  Everyone loves something for nothing though don’t they. When drivers see a chance to fight a proposed parking regime through local action they get all Wolfie Smith. Any opportunity to beat the system by parking where a sign is wrong or line missing and they become an opportunist. There’s websites and effectively a cottage industry dedicated to getting off parking tickets.

These individual fights for parking freedom are replicated across the land meaning parking is politics. It pickled Eric enough for him to want to change the meaning of double yellow lines. He felt that he and other victims of the war on the motorist should surely be able to park for free, (FREE PARKING KLAXON) nip in a shop and buy some jammy dodgers every once in a while.

More recently you only have to look at comments by Jeremy Corbyn - that hospital car parking should be free (FREE PARKING KLAXON) to see its even twisted his melon. He even went as far as to describe car parking at hospitals as an essential service.

“Our hospitals are struggling from underfunding at the hands of Theresa May’s Conservative government, but the gap should not be filled by charging sick patients, anxious relatives and already hard-pressed NHS staff for an essential service. Our NHS needs a Labour government that will stand up for the many, not the few.”

I must confess that I was more than a little surprised that this had become something of an official stance and political promise from team Corbyn. There seems to be little doubt that the NHS could do with more funding. But is this the reason why hospitals are resorting to charging for parking? Hospital parking has to my knowledge been something you pay for in most places for some time.

That’s not to say it’s not a real burden on some. If you are a regular patient, visitor or member of staff this will of course be a significant amount of money especially on a low income. It is however only a small proportion of the total cost of driving. A politician could make a much more robust statement about the cost of car use being a significant issue in low income households in general. But does this mean the answer is free parking?

Whilst I’m not underestimating the political value of such a promise to some it doesn’t really sit that well with other inclusive policies. This is mainly because it only benefits (or not) those who own a car. I don’t know car ownership rates of labour party voters or potential labour voters but I would assume its not 100%. Across the length and breadth of the country only about a third of the poorest households have access to a car. It’s also the case that car ownership and usage increases with wealth. Despite what some may think car ownership is certainly not for the many.

Now cards on the table here, I like a lot of what Mr Corbyn says. My dad also spent years as a cancer patient driving himself to hospital appointments and depending upon his circumstance at the time sometimes paying to park while he was there. I think I understand where the idea originates and sympathise greatly with the people intended to benefit. The fact that Labours proposal would be funded by a tax on private health care would even in theory provide a little bit more equality in access to healthcare.

In a different world (if we weren’t so addicted to cars and they didn’t put a lot of people in hospital either directly or indirectly) maybe I would be inclined to agree. There is without a doubt an argument for acute care, cancer patients, those with severe mobility issues etc. to have access to car parking if that is part of the best mobility option available for them. This argument is however built on the assumption that active travel couldn’t be part of treatment for whatever the patient is suffering.

But for the moment lets ignore any direct benefits to individuals from less car use. The issue for me (and presumably decision makers) is who else is in the ‘etc’? Are we talking about the parking needs of the patient or their extended family and friends or both? Where do you draw the line and how? Is it really possible to provide free parking for all those who want it and is it even a good idea? Surely you only want necessary car journeys. But who defines necessary?

Yes, as harsh as it may sound I’m going to argue that there’s a few problems with giving a free parking permit or two with every cat scan. Firstly, parking management is about simple supply and demand. It’s about managing demand so that it doesn’t exceed supply. Of course, someone else (other than the car driver) can pay for the luxury of parking, but that takes away your main weapon in managing said demand, that of the cost. No-one really likes talking about it but one of the main reasons for charging for parking is to deter people from driving somewhere in the first place.

The problem here is convenience. Assuming car ownership, money for fuel etc. it’s relatively easy for most people to drive from where you live to the hospital. It will often be described as being the easiest way, which can sometimes mean the quickest but nearly always means the least active.

If parking is free (textbook psychological barrier to car use unlocked) more people would drive to hospitals more often. This would mean more demand from people whose journey to hospital by car might not be in the ‘necessary’ category.

Which leads us nicely back to the practicalities of parking management. The reason organisations are brave (I’m sure many think stupid) enough to enter the cut throat world of parking management is that ideally you always want some parking spaces to be available. That’s why you manage it in the first place. The idea is not to fill all your spaces. In an ideal world occupancy level should be about 85-90%. That means there’s always going to be spaces for people when they want them.

But us human beings are able to be irrational and predictable at the same time. There are always going to be times of the day, days of the week and weeks of the year when more people want to travel. If they’re doing this mainly by car this means demand for parking will also be greater at times than it will at others. This is the case in town centres, seaside resorts, rural beauty spots, airports, shopping centres and of course hospitals.

The problem is despite us knowing this to be the case we will still drive and try to find a spot. This might mean sitting in a multi-storey fuming whilst inhaling vast quantities of fumes, or circling a seaside car park like a hungry gull. We can’t help ourselves. This is of course where the price/permissions bit normally comes in and parking management in general.

As populations grow, hospital trusts merge and services offered become broader demand for parking at hospitals is becoming greater. This isn’t helped currently by alternatives such as local buses being undermined by cuts. Ah but new car parks I hear you say! Well you can’t keep can’t keep knocking down buildings to build bigger car parks for a whole host of good reasons. This is especially true if those buildings are hospitals and you are the NHS.

So, if you want to provide parking for free you’re going to have to provide access on a needs basis and presumably this is going to be on some point system or other meaning that those with circumstance that meet the criteria are given a waiver or free parking vouchers or something like that. But for the good of this piece lets brush aside the difficulty of managing parking without being able to set the price to manage demand. So that’s free parking for all patients, family and friends who want it.

There’s just the hospital workers and their parking to solve. Let’s just pretend for one minute that yes providing free parking spaces for NHS workers will be the one example in the entire history of the world that works. Well that’s that sorted. There’s no issues with the NHS laying on thousands of parking spaces for workers. Except there is! Organisations the length and breadth of the country are encouraged by government bodies including the NHS to encourage a healthier workforce and support more cycling and walking. Public Health England has even identified the problem and talks about the dominance of the car deterring walking and cycling in ‘Everybody Active Every Day’.  

Should the NHS really be giving free parking spaces to staff when it knows the outcomes of car use and sedentary lifestyles? Should it be actively subsidising car use whilst not doing the same and more for walking and cycling? Is the problem that staff have to pay to park at hospitals when they drive to work the issue? Or is it that the NHS has an over reliance on staff travelling to work by private car?

For the benefit of this discussion lets again pretend that it is a good idea that the NHS encourage their staff to drive to work as parking can be managed without cost being a factor and staff show restraint in their use of the facility.

What about workers who don’t drive? Will they then get some form of increment to make up for not benefiting from the parking privilege? Or will those who chose to walk, cycle or get the bus be effectively disincentivised? Why should NHS workers who drive get given free car parking spaces?  Surely the NHS and in fact unions wouldn’t support some staff getting a benefit that lots of others wouldn’t?

But lets not let a few teething problems get in the way of a good idea. It sounds great doesn’t it. Free parking. Let’s just pretend that there is a way to manage staff parking and placate those who don’t benefit. We are the holders of the secret and we’re going to use it to manage free parking at hospitals. All people need to do now is drive to the hospital to enjoy their free gift.

You see this is where another and arguably more significant problem might crop up. To benefit from the whole free car parking thing car drivers’ have to drive to the car park. You can guess what will happen to congestion on local roads near hospitals.

This means that everyone who lives near hospitals, works at them or just uses the local road network suffers increased levels of traffic and all the negative impacts that come with it. This costs money, time, the environment and rather ironically people’s health.

The size of the contribution hospitals make to local congestion should not be understated. For the past 5 years I’ve been working on a major roadspace reallocation project that aims to change the way people travel around an east London borough.

One of the major junctions is being converted from a fast relatively free flowing roundabout to a signalised junction that provides crossing points for people walking and cycling. There is a major hospital located right next to the junction which contributes significantly to the traffic congestion at this location. The project should in the long term that coupled with other policies like charging for parking will mean more people walk and cycle to the hospital. This should of course mean it becomes much easier for those who have to travel by car to the hospital to do so as well. But if parking is free….

So, do I think a pharmacist really be given free parking so they can drive to work to give out inhalers to children who live off the nearby main road? the answer is probably no.

If Mr Corbyn and Labour really think about it free parking is not the solution they’re looking for. I don’t even think the lack of free car parking is the problem. This is surely the lack of good, affordable or free access to hospitals for patients, their visitors and staff.


What we really need are hospitals with good public transport access that are also easy to walk and cycle to. This should of course be complemented by effectively managed car parking for those who really need (and want) it. Maybe revenue generated from parking can be used to pay for the buses, the footpaths and the cycle tracks. A hospital transport and parking policy for the many not the few.

Jon Little 

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