Extracts first published in the Brent & Kilburn Times on 12/12/2019
Last December, I started a discussion with Brent Council over its “historic good-will gesture” of free parking over the Christmas period. I was encouraged by the reply I got which included: “The offer could change in future […] We are very much working towards promoting better air quality and will do everything we can to help tackle the issue of clean air and congestion”. I was also reassured by their acknowledgement of the evidence that prioritising walking and cycling had clear economic benefits over promoting driving to the shops. This is especially important for local high streets and independent shop owners who often rely on good sales figures over Christmas. This is supported by global evidence elsewhere. The conversation ran well into the current year.
Alas, here we are again, one year later and nothing has changed. Or has it? The world over is finally waking up to the fact that motor transport is badly damaging everything and everyone, killing people slowly as well as abruptly. Brent Council has declared a climate emergency and started with the citizens assembly process. Abundant evidence continues to pour in, headlines after headlines, about the impacts on health of pollution, a substantial bulk of which comes from unnecessary car use for local trips. This is particularly bad for children’s lungs on main roads. And that’s even before one begins with considerations over the impacts on the overall safety of all road users and the lack of active travel. Car ownership in Brent is around 50%, and the other half which consists of anyone from families to the elderly, seem to be doing fine with buying food and shopping for special occasions like Christmas.
Christmas shoppers on foot can spend up to six times more than those who arrive by car and footfall increases between 20-35% said a research by Living Streets. Investment in walking and cycling, particularly around safety and public realm, has led to an increase in retail spend up to 30% where implemented. The outdated decision of free parking doesn’t seem to rely on the evidence available but rather on the usual erroneous inflated figures and misguided perception that customers only drive to the shops. Free parking is a disservice to people in Brent. It will simply lead to an increase in demand and induced motor traffic concentrated in areas of high footfall, making our high streets more dangerous, more polluted, more congested, more unpleasant and less appealing. People may well decide to buy elsewhere or online as a result which defeats the very purpose of the decision.
The premise for this decision is to support local high streets. This is certainly an honourable cause but isn’t local the key word here? If you are local to your high street, why would you need a car, beyond a specific mobility need? Why would you need to do all your shopping at once? Don’t shop owners want people to come back more than once a year? Don’t carrier bags, bicycle panniers and baskets or even cargo bikes work just as well for shopping? Doing a big shop once a week is more in line with shopping behaviours observed in a mall or an out of town supermarket rather than locally. And how such recurring decision is measured and evaluated? Examples elsewhere show that free parking does not necessarily lure shoppers. Has Brent council produced some evidence that this does indeed support the high streets?
If the council wants to support the businesses that make our high streets so special, considerations must be made to create an environment around them more appealing so people will come and stay there, going to cafes and browsing shops rather than just passing through. This is the one asset, independent shops and local businesses have over big soulless shopping centres and online retailers. Make shopping a pleasurable experience, make it nice and inviting, make it a destination where it feels good to spend time as well as money, where you can meet up with friends and family. Even Martin Blackwell, the Chief Executive of the Association of Town & City Management said in 2017:
“There is evidence that suggests towns and cities can thrive in cases where parking has been significantly reduced.” and “Parking is not a universal panacea and free parking certainly is not”Re-Think Parking on the High Street report
An overall forward-thinking council attuned to the latest developments over the environmental, health and transport challenges ahead would have offered a bold new approach, in line with other initiatives the Council seems to be doing well. Something like a Christmas Car-Free Day, free one day bus pass, even why not, a £10 voucher to use on a e-bike share scheme for free, against proof of purchase of an item from a local high street. Or follow the lead of Lambeth who have set up a free cargo bike delivery service in time for Christmas.
Just imagine what our high streets could look like! Beaming with gentle, human paced passing trade, children safely playing and enjoying the pretty lights and decorated shop windows. Roads would be open to a more inclusive and independent travel with a reduction of road danger. The air wouldn’t be so poisonous. You wouldn’t have to run at pedestrian crossings fearing for your life as irritated drivers grew more impatient by the induced traffic. People would linger up and down the High Street, taking the time to know their local shop owners, giving the opportunity to foster that special interaction that is unique to independent local shops and necessary to build loyal and long-lasting relationships.
The decision to ‘offer’ free parking, far from being a gift, is anachronic, toxic, only aimed at people wealthy enough to own a car and it will cost us all dearly. To quote parking policy expert, Donald Shoup in his 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking: “In addition to the monetary cost, which is enormous, free parking imposes many other hidden costs on cities, the economy, and the environment”.
So why do we continue on this path?
Sylvia is the current Brent Cycling Campaign Coordinator. She is a Cricklewood resident and a cargobike mum of two.