Thursday, June 17, 2021

City centre parking management – what matters most

For many years there has been an enormous discussion centring on the importance of car parking in town and city centres. While the need for abundant and affordable parking is plain, this must be balanced against the need to reduce traffic in urban areas, and the congestion and pollution that is associated with it.

While public transport may offer some solutions, it is limited since there is no alternative to the flexibility that a car or other personal vehicle may offer the urban user.

Why parking matters

Cities are thriving centres of business, but are also home to millions of residents, many of whom are car owners and may want to travel around their area freely, making car parking an essential part of the landscape.

Balancing these myriad factors is not as straightforward as it may seem, though it is becoming increasingly apparent that car parking must become flexible to be able to accommodate the needs of everyone.

But as more vehicles come onto the streets, there is an ever-increasing need for parking spaces both in public and residential areas. It is believed that, in the UK:

  • Every second sees 800 cars parked.
  • The average car size has grown to over 6 feet long, while parking spaces are generally designed to be only 5 feet long.
  • While around 80 % of the UK’s 28 million houses were built with a contained garden at the front, approximately a third have been transformed into hard standing parking spaces.

Not enough spaces?

Currently, there is simply no viable means by which it is possible to count the exact number of parking spaces in each country as it is both flexible and can include disused urban areas such as wasteland, but it has been estimated that the total number of parking spots in the U.S. could be as many as two billion spaces.

The estimated figure in the UK is a mere 1.3 million parking spaces, it is believed that there are likely to be between 8 million and 11.3 million spaces in total once casual use and company parking allocation has been included. A report by the RAC found that, in cities:

  • Research shows that, on average, cars tend to be parked at a person’s home for 80% of the time.
  • They are parked elsewhere for a further 16% of the time.
  • The average city-owned car is in use for only 4% of the time.

City parking provision range from simple first-come first-served on-street type spaces to multi-storey car parks of varying sized and capacities, but also include surface-level off-street parking, and public and private business facilities too, so the volume of spaces available is liable to change almost on a daily basis. With an ever-increasing vehicle-owning population and the need for vehicles to allow us to travel around, parking remains an issue that we need to plan for.

However, over the last few decades, parking has become a controversial issue.  Ever-increasing parking charges – with many operated by profit-orientated private companies and requiring significant fines, and a general lack of provision have caused immense anger across the UK.

While parking managers, local authority committees, planners, and town centre managers are working to mitigate these problems, and lasting responses that work for everyone are difficult to engineer.

Growth in car ownership

The UK car-owning population has grown from 2.5 million in 1952 to 34.5 million in 2012, and while parking allocation has broadly kept pace with that growth, upsurges in ownership over the last two decades have led to a shortfall in availability of parking.

This gap appears to be widening with studies finding that drivers are spending more time trying to locate elusive spaces, and the entire experience instilling significant stress on them.

Certainly, many urban councils and local authorities are attempting to alleviate this gap by allowing for flexible solutions in residential areas, and utilising unused areas as necessary, but the widening gap between vehicles and available spaces continues to rise.

Even with Government initiatives designed to make public transport more appealing, car drivers are plainly always going to be in existence in significant numbers and the problems associated with parking need to be addressed.

How parking can improve

Plainly simply creating more spaces isn’t the answer.   If you create spaces, people will fill them; if you then create more spaces, more people will fill them as availability encourages people to use their cars rather than the consistently tiresome – and expensive – public transport system that exists in the UK.

The key to ensuring that there is sufficient parking without the need to create many thousands more parking spaces is technology, and both parking apps and hardware-based car park solutions are leading the way.

There are no shortage of parking apps and many are able to pinpoint open spaces with great accuracy. Most apps work well in major cities such as in London as well as other major UK urban areas.

They tend to be a simple, user-friendly app that works via interactive maps of the local area which update regularly to show you where there are likely to be parking spaces.  However, unless they are close to you, they can be taken quickly, and this is a major downfall of any app.

The use of sensors

There have been successful trials, however, of in-situ sensors that can be used to analyse parking patterns as well as potentially direct drivers to empty spaces. Parking information is basically a Big Data problem, and the sensor work carried out by several companies such as London start-up company Parkopedia has gone a long way to helping planners understand parking preferences and area usage.

By analysing the amassed data, the company have uncovered interesting information from static data, including car park saturation points and availability to dynamic data such as open spaces and changes to traffic flow.

This data is invaluable to local authorities and parking departments as if gives a highly detailed view of parking habits allowing them to determine what measures – if any – need to be put in place to deal with parking issues.

The data obtained via these sensors in London has shown, for instance, that parking space occupancy in some of the cities busiest areas is consistently only around 60 or 70%, so effectively, that area could easily cope with having 10 percent less parking.

Other areas have been shown to be chronically short of available spaces and require more or smarter parking strategies.

While those changes are dependent upon the available space, the fact that this information is now available gives a reliable picture of parking within a city and that is a huge leap forward.

The need for parking will always be with us, because our cities have not been developed with public transport in mind and are too inconsistent to be a credible alternative for much social travelling. This means that carpark planning will always be an essential part of our cities, but building on the huge steps now being made, parking your car may become a lot less fraught.

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