The Local Economy and the Free Parking Myth

It’s no secret that our local villages and our town centres are struggling. The way we buy things has changed for a number of reasons and the smaller shops within our communities are paying the price.

However, there are some who believe that the cost of car parking is the reason people are shopping elsewhere, yet it may well be the use of cars in general at the root of the problem.

Times have changed

Love them or loathe them, the private car allowed people to travel much further and carry more stuff, without even breaking a sweat. We humans are nothing if not inherently lazy, so we embraced the car and used it to travel out of the neighbourhood for our shopping. In the old days we would have bought all of our groceries from the local greengrocer or butcher; our screws & nails from the local hardware store and much of our entertainment from the local newsagent. We would have also bought just enough for a couple of days before returning to the shops, because it was all we could carry.

These days we’ve become accustomed to driving to an out-of-town superstore and filling the boot with enough for a couple of weeks –another reason why food waste is another growing concern. Our expectations of what we can buy when we go shopping have changed, leaving the local village out in the cold. Our villages don’t offer the same economies of scale, nor the convenience of getting everything under one transaction; under one roof; or indeed a points card we can fill up for an occasional voucher through the post.

Now that we have the internet, things have changed once again. No longer are we confined to the local area in pursuit of a good deal, we can shop from a global marketplace and buy goods from as far away as China. We may make the moral argument to ourselves that we should be shopping locally, but how many of us really are?

These days we have villages that may not have a greengrocer, or a butcher. Instead we have villages that may have a pub, a betting shop and a fish & chip shop, but very little else. Whichever way you cut it, there’s not a lot of incentive there to drive to your local village, regardless of how much it costs to park there.

The Cost Issue

Let’s face it, it’s free at the point of use, but free car parking is anything but free. Land has a cost and, depending on where that land is will generally dictate it’s value. Free parking is a cost to the land owner. Apart from the supermarkets who may well own the land, parking provided by the Council is paid for by each and every one of us, whether we drive or not.

Over in the USA, Professor Donald Shoup wrote a book called “The High Cost of Free Parking” (from Waterstones). Shoup argues that free parking has contributed to car dependence, rapid urban sprawl, extravagant energy use, and a host of other problems.

The space issue…

Your average parking space here in the UK is 4.8 metres by 2.4 metres, or 11.52 square metres. That space is often allocated whether there is a car in it or not. However, many of the cars you see being driven around these days have a single occupant, so in essence each individual who enters the village is consuming 11.52 square metres, for as long as they are there and whether or not they buy anything.

The amount of space being wasted effectively reduces the amount of custom a village can take, in the same way that a restaurant has a finite number of tables, or “covers”. Cars are inherently wasteful, whichever way you cut it. No only that, if you remove restrictions or conditions from the deal you’ll likely find the space being used by employees & residents, not shoppers. So, why do people insist on peddling the myth that paying for parking deters shoppers?

As we touched upon in our Wants vs Needs post, people don’t want to be told that they should leave their car at home and perhaps walk or cycle to the shop instead. People will find a vast array of excuses to keep doing exactly what they are doing. Unfortunately, even if there was unlimited free parking in our local villages, people would most likely still go to where they can buy everything under one roof, with everything in one trolley and every item on the same receipt, with the same customer service option and most likely, 24-hour opening.

Shopping locally requires work. You have to carry things as you go; you have to browse individual stores and in many cases, reign in your expectations a little. You also have to pay slightly higher prices because Mr or Mrs Jones the butcher can’t buy anywhere near as much meat as your local supermarket. People, generally speaking, don’t like having to work for things, nor are they very good at taking a long-term view and often require instant gratification. There is little doubt in our minds that shopping locally is the right thing to do, it’s just not the easiest option right now.

This is most likely why we have a largely overweight population, saddled with thousands of pounds worth of debt on credit cards and car loans. Free parking isn’t going to fix that, nor is it going to fix our high streets and villages.

OK, so what will?

Fundamentally, our priorities need to change. We can’t have a liveable space where children can play and people can exercise and relax at the same time as a car-centric society that prioritises cars over vulnerable road users. Cars are noisy, heavy, metal boxes that tend to kill people through collisions; through pollution and through the inactivity of the occupants. This we know already, but how many more hours per week are we working to afford that car? To afford that new TV? To afford that bigger house in the suburbs where at least one room is full of junk we no longer use?

What if you didn’t take on that £10,000-£50,000 hire purchase agreement for that new car? You could work fewer hours; you could work closer to home; you could shop locally and you could spend more time with your friends and family. You know, like we do when it snows…

If we all did that, imagine the possibilities. We’d all be a lot fitter and healthier; our high streets would be full of people on bikes; our neighbours who run the shops would be able to make a living and you wouldn’t be in thousands of pounds worth of debt trying to keep a car on the road. Our air would be cleaner, too.

Something to think about, perhaps…

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