Car Parking & Town Centres


I recently held a business focus group and workshop to try and identify some of the major parking issues facing the town centre.  I’m sure many places would be able to identify with the issues that came up.

Firstly, I asked, “What is the biggest challenge facing the town centre?” That’s in the widest context and I guess many places would also say the same; congestion and accessibility, but also the quality of the offer, out of town competition and a need for integrated transport.

We know that, in general terms, the public are looking to find in town centre.  A value for money offer, a great experience, wide choice, good use and accessibility of technology as well as facilities for an ageing population.  Looking at parking specifically, the British Parking Association commissioned research to ask consumers what was important to them.  You may be surprised to read that “price” was not No 1!  There are, in priority order:

1 Locationfree-parking.720x420

2 Personal safety

3 Safe environment

4 Tariffs

5 Ease of access

6 No/little queuing

7 Number of spaces

8 Effective surveillance

9 Size of parking space

10 Appropriate lighting

So what are the lessons for all towns and cities?  What should we do to best meet the need of the customer?

Integrated Transport.  You can’t look at parking in isolation.  Things like park & Ride, cycling and even walking are part of the answer.  Increasingly Car Clubs and Car Sharing e.g. Lift Share are part of the mix because we do need to…

Reduce traffic at the centre:  finding ways to make traffic move more smoothly needs a multi-pronged approach.  A few years ago, Rugby BID, working with the Council, arranged for local businesses to hand out free parking tickets to customers – at periphery car parks just a few minutes further out.  Result, long term additional patronage of under used car parks.

Understand the Customer: If you know how and why customers act the way they do you can put in place tariffs and mechanism to meet the differing needs of shoppers, commuters and tourists, who all want different things.

Understand how traffic moves:  A fascinating experiment in Norwich paired the BID with Noggin, who put in place very cost effective traffic monitoring based on the speed and tracking of mobile phone movements as a proxy for cars speed.  It showed very quickly, and graphically, where there were bottlenecks and when.

We must use technology to make payment easier for the customer, who really doesn’t like pay & display.

Safety (after location) is a top priority for the customer.  That’s personal safety as well as security of their car.  That means good signage, lighting and, ideally, monitoring.

The elephant in the room is that perhaps the day is not too far away when technology enables a driverless car to automatically find the most convenient space for your journey and, through a chip in the parking  space/car to automatically bill you for the time parked in that space.  In which case ignore the above!

That gives rise to the thought that perhaps variable pricing, the EasyJet principle, might become a reality.  By that I mean the spot at the top of the multi-storey is cheaper than the one on the ground floor (less far to walk), or its cheaper when the car park is quieter i.e. as you pass 50% capacity the prices edges up, more expensive at 70%, 80% etc. Or Saturday afternoon is more expensive than Tuesday morning.  Have you ever tried booking a flight to somewhere warmer at Christmas?  The prices can be eye watering!  The laws of supply and demand as applied by EasyJet (Note: Other airlines are available and do the same thing!).

As Kelvin Reynolds, BPA Director of Policy and Public Affairs, once told me.  “Nobody ever paid for a parking space. They are paying for the opportunity to do whatever they want to do when they get out of the car!”

6 thoughts on “Car Parking & Town Centres

  • Nice piece Martin, thanks for the namecheck! It is really important to appreciate that ‘price’ is not the deciding factor when it comes to choosing somewhere to park their vehicles, but more likely its convenience and safe places, such as ParkMark accredited car parks. So called ‘Free Parking’ is not the panacea and in any case, there’s no such thing as a free parking place – somebody is paying for it. This is true everywhere: in town centres, at the beach and in the countryside. Some car parks may be free at the point of use but someone is paying for their upkeep and maintenance. If they are patrolled to keep them safe someone is paying for that too. So-called free parking is subsidised in some way, either by council tax payers or business ratepayers or a combination of both. People don’t park to park. They park on their journey to do something else: to work, to shop, to play. People travel to attractive places and the quality of the parking is the first and last impression of that experience. Few travel to places just to look at the good quality free or cheap parking! Parking is a means to an end – not an end in itself, and its poor quality high streets that lead to their decline.

  • It is good to see the Hygiene Factors rating high on the list, as they should do. Ok ‘tariffs’ seems to be sandwiched in the middle, which you could argue that it is a balance of all/a number of the elements that is important as opposed to one. It would be interesting to see how this differs (or not as the case may be) geographically and demographically. It would also be interesting to carry this out again in 5/10years, to see if there is any impact from the likes of driverless cars and other innovative influences. Should car park owners be thinking now how to re-use or sell their assets?

  • Interesting reading Martin.

    We have just launched a cashless parking product ‘Tap2Park’ where customers can pay on-line and we are looking to build in a number of the technologies you speak of including variable pricing.

    We are also keen to partner with clients that want to link in the local businesses so that there is a reason to park or indeed return to the car park. Offers from the local coffee shop or bakery for instance or parking paid for by a store if you spend say £300 on a new suit during your visit! – Lots of opportunities here we believe.

    • Hi Steve,

      That sounds great. People do hate pay and display! I spoke to a technology company yesterday that are developing the car/space beacons. Let me know if you want an intro.

  • I disagree. Pay and display is simple easy and clear whilst phone payments are unclear, overlong, convoluted and unsecure.

    • Really? In Kent they have been using NFC, you just touch your phone like using an Oyster card, for 5 years. Its much simpler than you think, and as the BPA says, “Paying in advance (the traditional way through providing pay and display machines) has its place in some locations but clearly in others it can create a deterrent to town centre visitors to have to return to their vehicles sooner than they otherwise would. This is why we encourage local authorities and private operators to provide alternative methods of payment” So, it’s about choice if you want to attract all users.

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