Monday, 11 November 2013

“Free” parking isn’t free, and it’s a really bad idea for Brighton and Hove

Milton Friedman (a first citation on this blog, despite his Nobel Prize for Economics) published a book in 1975 with the title 'There's no such thing as a free lunch.' This refers to the economic theory that whatever goods and services are provided, they must be paid for by someone - you don't get something for nothing. The economics of the free lunch come to mind when it comes to the current Brighton brouhaha centred on free parking in the city.

This post is a shameless mash up of two news items, from Brighton Area Buswatch and Brighton & Hove Friends of the Earth, and concerns moves by local politicians to offer free parking at council car parks in the run-up to Christmas. This is to be discussed at a special meeting of Brighton & Hove City Council’s Policy and Resources at 4.30 tomorrow (Tuesday 12 November) at Hove Town Hall, with a vote on a motion by Conservative and Labour Councillors to allow free car parking at five Council run car parks on Saturday 7 December and on Sundays 8, 15 & 22 December.

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If passed, the result will likely be more cars on the roads, leading to more traffic congestion, delays to bus services and more pollution and congestion for pedestrians and cyclists to endure. As Buswatch notes, buses are the lifeblood of Brighton and Hove, a huge success story, carrying four times more people than in most similar sized UK cities…..This achievement has been sustained through a partnership between bus companies and Councils. It is a policy enthusiastically supported by all political parties which has lasted for twenty years. Cycling has also increased substantially, mostly due to new cycle priority measures. A large number of people travel to Brighton & Hove by rail too. Brighton is the busiest station on the south coast. Trains are easily the quickest way to reach our city from London and many other places.

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The overall result is that Brighton & Hove is officially the least car dependent city outside London. Many city authorities and politicians elsewhere are envious of this status and visit Brighton & Hove to see how it has been achieved.

So Brighton Buswatch questions the wisdom of encouraging more cars onto already congested roads with free parking offers, given that the past twenty years have shown that investing in good public transport is the most effective way to keep our city moving and build a thriving local economy.

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As Brighton & Hove Friends of the Earth (BHFOE) point out, how can it be justified to spend Council tax-payers’ money subsidising greater car use in the run up to Christmas? It goes against the city’s long held sustainable transport policies which have developed under administrations of all political colours. These have served the city well to date and this can be demonstrated by the fact that we have shop vacancy rates well below the national average.

In the city some businesses have cried wolf over the impact of car parking charges and availability, and we’ve been subjected to unsubstantiated claims that these were killing the city. Yet Brighton and Hove has one of the better performing retail centres in the UK. In addition, studies have shown that traders can overestimate the number of shoppers arriving by car, and underestimate those who walk, cycle or use public transport.

BHFOE views the proposal as a knee-jerk response to short term political pressure, costing Council taxpayers money at a time of huge budgetary pressures: money which would be better invested in improving the public realm. This could be used to overhaul the bus shelters in London Road or fund other public realm improvements which would have a permanent economic benefit on the area.

As a recent report by Living Streets highlighted, making places better for walking can boost footfall and trading by up to 40% and in London town centres in 2011, walkers spent £147 more per month than those travelling by car.

The current proposal is socially divisive and sends out all the wrong messages, reinforcing the prejudice that car drivers are more important than those who walk, cycle and use public transport to do their shopping. Given that since 2004, spending by car drivers has fallen while spending by public transport users and walkers has increased, this proposal also seems economically flawed.

Given that nearly 40% of households do not have access to a car and many who do still prefer to walk, cycle or use public transport to get into town, the Council should be rewarding these residents while focussing on filling the empty seats on buses and trains. This would be a good way of encouraging greater use of public transport and bringing more people into the city centre, without the stresses of driving in the busy Christmas period and creating more congestion and pollution.

As BHFOE concludes, “The Council shouldn’t accept the assertion that free car parking is the best and only way of boosting local trade when the evidence is to the contrary. At a time of scarce resources we should invest in improvements that bring lasting economic benefit, not splashing out on short-term giveaways.”

It’s beyond laughable that motorists, normally so obsessed about the costs of everything, can be so blind to the actual economic costs and benefits around parking their cars. Did someone mention lunch?

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