Sunday, 1 June 2008

Parking in Bristol

It's obvious to everyone, motorist or not, that car parking is in crisis. From the motorist's point of view it's either too expensive or too hard to find, and from the walker's or cyclist's point of view parking takes up valuable road space that ought first to be allocated to those passing along the road. Increasingly the competition for parking spaces leads to illegal and dangerous parking that obstructs footways and cycle lanes.

Each year such examples of blatantly illegal and, I would say, arrogant parking as those illustrated here (and here) become more common and unremarkable. It wasn't so long ago that pavement parking was unknown, but when it started to appear in Bristol in the 1980s the police failed to stamp it out (when doing so would have been relatively easy) so that today it is so established that the police and local authorities would hardly dare do so.

But parking is one of the key issues that must be tackled if Bristol's aspiration to be a green city is to have any credibility. Clearly walkers are entitled to expect that footways and the main road crossing points are kept clear. Apart from the danger of obscured sight lines at road crossings and actual obstruction of the footway (especially for those with baby buggies or wheelchairs), the presence of vehicles on the footway undermines the status of walking, sending a negative signal when we should be striving to send positive signals.

Cyclists suffer particularly from on-street car parking, not just the illegal sort on cycle lanes but the generality of kerbside parking. Most streets in Bristol are perfectly wide enough to allow a reasonable coexistence of cyclists and motorists, with each being able to overtake or undertake the other, according to traffic conditions, quite safely and without intimidation. But add in kerbside parking on one or, more often, both sides of the road and cyclists and motorists are left to compete for the same limited space, with predictable consequences.

Roads exist to allow people and goods to be moved around safely and conveniently. That should be their overriding function, but in the UK we have allowed a situation to arise where motorists have come to assume that they can use roads for parking their vehicles, for the most part free-of-charge, even at the expense of the safety and convenience of others. That is not the case everywhere - in Japan for example you are simply not allowed to park in the street!

If we are to restore acceptable conditions for walking and cycling this parking crisis must be tackled. The first steps in doing so are clear enough - effective enforcement of the existing rules. But we must go further, challenging the assumption that the street can be used for free storage of motor vehicles. Parking space is a valuable commodity in urban areas, yet for the most part on-street parking is given away free-of-charge. This represents a massive subsidy to car owners at the expense of the whole community, including non-car owners - the opposite of a green tax, more of an anti-green subsidy.


James Barlow said...

"Parking space is a valuable commodity in urban areas, yet for the most part on-street parking is given away free-of-charge. This represents a massive subsidy to car owners at the expense of the whole community".

Given that the money spent on upkeep of roads is far, far less than the total amount of tax collected from car drivers, the subsidy is actually operating in the other direction.

And I suspect that you'll find that most members of the community also own cars (75% of UK households own at least one).

Anonymous said...

No, Mr Bow-Tie, I think you'll find that the amount spent on building and maintaining roads is far *more* than is collected from car drivers.

Where are my figures? Well where are yours then? you've just repeated a cliche.

James Barlow said...

Statistics? Here you go:

Tax collected from road users: £45 bn

UK Government spending on roads: £7 bn

Woodsy said...

" Japan for example you are simply not allowed to park in the street!"

Leaving a three-piece suite lying around in the street is a criminal offence known as fly-tipping.

I for one look forward to when leaving a motorised three-piece suite stationary in the street is treated similarly in this country.

Well done Japan!

thebristolblogger said...


Who do you think will make better green choices? Individuals or the government?

That extra £10 or £15 a month going to the council tax for parking is enough to mean a family can buy organic milk, eggs and cheese every month rather than non-organic.

Do you really believe that the government/council would use this extra revenue for green purposes?

Chris Hutt said...

That's a good point, bristol blogger. I too think that the Council should be spending less of our money and limiting their activities to the basics.

But charging a market price for parking doesn't have to mean an overall increase in taxation. In theory the net revenue raised could be compensated for by a reduction in Council Tax for example.

This would benefit the least well off who can't afford to run cars anyway and disbenefit the better off who tend to have more cars per household, which is what you would call a progressive tax, is it not?

In fact if parking charges ultimately help liberate more people from the financial burden of car ownership and use(by making the alternatives more attractive)then many people might enjoy better, greener lives.

Chris Hutt said...

In reply to James, I accept the figures you put forward since I know what a diligent researcher you are. But...

1. As you know, so called motoring taxes are not hypothecated, i.e. not allocated to any particular area of expenditure, but merely another contribution to the overall pot of general taxation. There is no reason why motoring taxes should bear any relationship to expenditure on roads.

2. Nevertheless if you insist on making a comparison, you should also take account of the various social and environmental costs of motoring, such as the pollution which contributes to many premature deaths, road traffic "accidents", denial of opportunities for children to play and explore outdoors, and so forth. I don't have figures to hand but I remember that Friends of the Earth once calculated that total motoring costs far exceeded the revenue from motoring taxes.

3. Motoring taxes do not differentiate between vehicles that spend almost all their time parked off-street and those that spend all their time parked on-street. It cannot therefore be claimed that the benefit of on-street parking is
covered by motoring taxes.

Joshua Hart said...

The question we should all be asking is- why does vehicle parking- unlike every other commodity- operate outside the boundaries of market economics? Why is valuable public space on the street given away for the most part free of charge to drivers when no similar benefit is provided to those living a lower carbon lifestyle and cycling, walking or taking public transport? Why do supermarkets and shopping malls make parking free at the point of use while bundling the huge price of parking facilities into the cost of nearly everything we buy? Why are non-drivers STILL forced to subsidise drivers in 2008? These arcane policies benefit the automakers and oil companies at the expense of the rest of us. The truth is that if drivers had to take responsibility for the real costs of driving, most people would choose a less selfish way of getting around. Bristolblogger, the true cost of a parking space is a hell of a lot more than ten or 15 quid a month- how much is 100 square feet worth on the Bristol property market? Gumtree is currently listing private parking in Clifton and the city centre at 100-150/ month.

Chris, I think you are referring to the FOE study at

Also, an in depth analysis of how underpriced parking contributes to our transport ills can be found in the excellent High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup, a planning professor at UCLA.

Keep up the great blog, Chris!

Elizabeth said...

I would like just for the moment to get away from the argument over who pays most, and concentrate instead on restoring the balance in our life, particuarly in transport, which dominates it to a great degree.

The point about returning to the position we had after the war, when parking in the street was considered to be illegal and policemen made people aware of the fact, is that not only would it ease the oppressive traffic jams we all suffer from at the moment, but it would restore the balance in numbers between pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists. At the moment, the vast majority of people are the motorists with their greater killing power, and they are therefore in the dominant position. No-one can deny that. (The aesthetically and intellectually appealing idea of shared space perplexes me a little on that account.) Moreover, HMG and local government are terrified of them, and will always back down in any attempt to curb their dangerous and polluting behaviour.

But the minute these motorists cannot count on leaving their cars in the street, outside or near to where they are going, they will not have the same desire to go everywhere by car in the first place, and their over-riding numbers will fall. This is the position in Japan, where anyone is allowed to drive any vehicle anywhere without being fiscally punished or made to feel antisocial: it is just that they must use private car parks, high tech ones and very expensively hidden away at the tops and bottoms of buildings, when they arrive. So most people don't bother, but bicycle or walk, or use the bus, the tram, or the train instead, and the result is a much more tranquil, healthy, and better balanced life for everyone. With 30,000,000 people living in Tokyo alone, it needs to be, and we should heed their example as we get more crowded ourselves every day. With so many more pedestrians and users of public transport to cater for in Japan, the arrangements made for them are of a much higher standard. Even the traffic lights and crossings are more intelligently and considerately planned from the point of view of the pedestrians, as they are not the tiresome and feeble minority they are here.

If you go to the Cotham Pharmacy you will be able to buy booklets of old postcards, showing familiar Bristol streets without traffic. They look expansively spacious and restful to our eyes. Occasionally you will see a tram, or a horse and cart, or a bicycle, all alone in the middle of these strangely wide open spaces. The reason they look so wide, dream-like even, is that they are not jammed with stationary traffic, and not lined on both sides by parked cars. Instead your eye is drawn to the architecture on either side. Have a look some time, and have a think about how our cities could be.

thebristolblogger said...

Surely the acid test for these kind of regressive taxes/charges designed to change people's behaviour is will they work and change people's behaviour?

Evidence suggests no. As James has pointed out vehicle taxation is massive and petrol prices are through the roof. Is anyone changing their behaviour?

So what's the point of more of these taxes/charges? Is it that they feel like the right thing to do?

The fact is if you charge for street parking people will pay it because as motorists keep saying over and over - "there is no alternative".

Every time we have these debates motorists say exactly the same thing, which is provide a state of the art public transport system and we'll switch.

The charges/taxes without any viable alternative will simply act like all regressive taxes do and hit the poorest hardest.

You'll find people will sacrifice in other areas - cheaper, crapper food, cut down household heating, cut out childrens after-school/weekend/holiday activities, etc.

Is it really sensible to assault further the poorest's quality of life and their children's and elderlies' health and wellbeing for an - at best - marginal tangible gain?

Chris Hutt said...

BB, I think many of your points have already been addressed, but let me try once more.

In the first place we have a situation where the Council manage road space on our behalf. They make some of this space available for car parking. Due to an excess of demand over supply this space is valuable, perhaps in the order of £1,000 p.a.

The question is should they charge users of these parking spaces this value, or should they subsidise car users by charging less than the true value? I suppose there is also the theoretical option of charging more than the true value, in which case one could call it a tax.

If they continue to subsidise car parking, as you advocate, the beneficiaries will continue be those who own cars at the expense of those who don't (who will be contributing to the subsidy through Council Tax). The more cars owned by a household, the more the benefit.

It's quite clear that car ownership rates are closely related to wealth. The poorest areas (predominantly in south Bristol) have the lowest car ownership rates so the poorest collectively receive much less of the parking subsidy. The overall effect of the subsidy is to transfer wealth from the poorest areas to the wealthiest.

I therefore fail to see how you can call the removal of this subsidy (and balancing reductions in Council Tax, etc.) an "assault" on the poorest or a "regressive" tax.

Elizabeth said...

The beauty of the Japanese example is that it diminishes the role of government, surely what most of us here want, don't we? The provision of parking is no more the responsibility of government, local or national, than the provision of cars. It is all the responsibility of the private motorist and his various suppliers, and no-one questions that. If you want a car, you pay the market price for it, unsubsidised; if you want to fill it up with fuel, or get it mended, ditto; and if you want to park it at your journey's end, that is also something you pay the market price for. It is a matter between you and the private car parks, and nothing to do with the national or local government. All the state is responsible for is the upholding of the law that you do not obstruct the highway. Roads are exclusively for driving along, unimpeded, not for parking cars, vans, and lorries in, with or without their engines running. And the pavements are strictly reserved for pedestrians and bicyclists. No-one would dream of driving on to them to park. So if your journey by car is important enough you will be able to make it, quickly, quietly, and efficiently, because the road is clear. In other words, if you can afford the huge cost of a motor car, and its fuel and insurance, it is also supposed you can afford the cost of parking it, discreetly, and out of everyone else's way. If you are a builder and need to stop outside a house and unload, there is a regulation size of lorry - Japanese in scale and cleanliness - which you may not exceed. That makes a very sensible difference too, and one I wish had here.

Joshua Hart said...

Bristol Blogger's comments are just so wrong and backward it makes me shudder. BB, you fancy yourself a populist voice for Bristol, but on this issue you are grossly misinformed, and I'm wondering why.

The facts are precisely opposite to what BB says- the true "assault on the poorest's quality of life and their children's and elderlies' health and wellbeing" is brought about by overdependence on automobiles caused by many factors, one of which is underpriced motoring and parking.

Massive parking and driving subsidies are far more insidious than simply transferring wealth and advantage from the poor to the rich (as Chris rightly says).

They also are responsible for deteriorating the quality of life of everyone in Bristol, but particularly those who have little choice about where they live and work- those limited by economic circumstance, the young, and the aged who are often trapped along roads with heavy traffic, and suffer tremendously, often in silence.

These assaults on the quality of life of Bristolians are well documented in Bristol City Council's quality of life report available at

They include noise pollution, air pollution, traffic danger, loss of independence, and massive deterioration of community and social lives.

If we want to talk about inequitable distribution of impacts, let's talk about children in Bristol injured and killed by car. Do you think it's the rich kids who are getting hurt? According to the BCC, almost 25% of Bristol's child casualties occurred in the most deprived wards. Only 1% occurred in the least deprived wards. Similar inequitable distributions can be found when you look at air and noise pollution.

Rich people who live in leafy, walkable quiet Clifton drive their 4x4's on the M32 through places like Easton, while the poor have to pick up the unpaid tab of noise, cancerous air, and dead kids.

In the long term, of course, the impacts of automobile addiction on the poor will be exacerbated by climate change, especially in the developing world.

If drivers were made to pay the true cost of driving, and the revenue were hypothecated to improved public transport and cycling and walking, there WOULD be an alternative, as there is in the Netherlands and Germany, where cycling is a major transport mode and public transport is subsidised.

BB, your blinkered opposition to road taxes, belief that "petrol taxes are through the roof" and your lashing out at projects like Chooseday make me wonder whether you have your own vehicle dependence issues to overcome.

If you really want to be a voice for the poor and disenfranchised, you would support cycling, walking, and public transport, modes which are egalitarian progressive, and (in theory at least) available to everyone.

Such support necessarily involves restraining the use of the car.

Or are you like new labour, who claims "modal agnosticism" on transport much like a doctor who remains "cigarette agnostic" while the patient is dying of lung cancer?

James Barlow said...



One concept that is worth considering is a more general privatisation of the road network, which is a solution that satisfies everyone.

If the public property of the road network - particularly non-trunk urban roads - was transferred formally into the hands of the families living on each street then they could each choose how to handle parking - ban it, permits, meters, Tokyo/New York-style parking structures.

This would also have other knock-on benefits, both social and environmental.

Much of the danger to pedestrians is down to risk transfer due to the efficiency of the roads - they are well made and so vehicles are able to safely drive faster. If privately held roads were allowed to degrade they would form natural traffic calming measures without the need to spend lots of money on road humps and chicanes. And a few potholes and cracks would also improve drainage, and provide a home for hardy wild grasses and thus increasing local biodiversity (or some nonsense like that; I'm sure the Greens can fill in that bit of the policy proposal.)

Chris Hutt said...

James, some of those very interesting ideas are similar to what Professor Donald Shoup (link in sidebar) argues for kerbside parking. He suggests that local communities should determine their kerbside parking policy, which would typically mean market prices for non-residents and concessionary rates for residents, with revenues going to fund community projects of their choice.

thebristolblogger said...


Your ideas on 'subsidy' appear to be entirely contrary to the generally accepted principles underpinning the British Welfare State. These are that is in order to tackle inequalities of the type you describe, money is raised for the state from progressive general taxation (ie. the wealthier pay more) and used to provide services that are free at the point of need. It's not a perfect redistributive system, partly because no tax system ever is and partly due to contemporary political constraints.

However to suggest that this system could be improved through the introduction of regressive taxes is economically illiterate and politically suicidal (the poll tax was a regressive tax).

Let's do some back of a fag packet sums around your regressive car tax:

So 75% of households own cars. The median household income is currently around £25,000. That means 50% of the households earn above this and 50% below.

Let's be generous and say those households on or below the median are income tax neutral due to benefits like tax credits etc. They therefore receive around £2,000 a month or below.

You wish to charge some of them a flat rate £80 a month to park their car - payable to the local authority. Combine this with the £100 - £120 they already pay in council tax to the local authority and we're looking at a potential local authority regressive tax charge for below-median earners of at least 10% of their household income.

10% of household income is an interesting figure because fuel poverty in the UK is defined as spending more than 10% of household income on fuel. At a stroke you've potentially created a whole new form of poverty aimed at 50% of the country's lowest earners - local regressive taxation poverty! (Even if we make the unlikely assumption that all 25% of non-car households are in that bottom 50%, you're still targeting potentially 25% of the population with a new form of poverty).

Firstly this is a totally inequitable way to tax people. Is it not better to tax people on the basis of their ability to pay? And secondly, at least about half the population is unlikely to vote for it ...

I also note that neither you nor Josh have addressed my point that your tax proposal will not alter people's behaviour because they have no alternatives. If this tax doesn't clear the streets and get cars off the road because car use - in the jargon - is demand inelastic (ie. increasing the price will have little or no affect on usage) what is the purpose of it? If all it does is raise revenue then why not raise that revenue through a progressive (ie. ability to pay) tax?

Josh, I've not addressed your points because I think you've misunderstood me. I agree that vehicle use needs to be dramatically cut. I'm making a technical point about what demand-side measures will achieve this. I believe it should be done through major transport infrastructure investment funded from general taxation, not through regressive taxes aimed at controlling behaviour (I think I've outlined my reasons above).

On the subject of my personal transport choices: it's probably not that wise to assume people's political and economic views directly equate to their lifestyle choices.

Chris Hutt said...

BB, why should providing car parking be considered a function of the welfare state? It's hardly in the same category as health care, where the recipients of the benefit are by definition suffering some degree of disadvantage, often making them less able to pay.

Your calculations ignore what I have already said - that I'm not proposing that parking charges should be as well as Council Tax but instead of, so the net revenue to the Council remains the same and charges for parking reduce Council Tax.

Let me offer some figures (2001 census) that are more representative of Bristol than the 75% car ownership rate you use. Overall there are 162k households and 165k cars in Bristol. But ownership is not distributed evenly, so 29% of households are car-free (have no car) while 25% of households have 2 or more cars.

The geographical spread is very uneven too. To take the extremes, the majority of Lawrence Hill households are car-free (55%) and only 8% have 2 or more cars, while only 10% of Stoke Bishop households are car-free while 49% have 2 or more cars.

It's clear that any subsidy to car owners will benefit Stoke Bishop households (1.5 cars each on average) three times as much as Lawrence Hill households (0.55 cars each). By the same token any tax on cars will take 3 times more wealth from Stoke Bishop than from Lawrence Hill. How can you call that regressive?

As for not challenging your claim that people will not change their behaviour in response to changing prices, you yourself contradicted that earlier when you said that people would respond to higher parking charges by buying cheaper food.

Every day in Bristol hundreds of people make decisions about whether to become car owners or not, where to live, where to work, where to send their children to school and where to shop, all of which impact on their need to use cars. Are you seriously suggesting that the cost of car ownership and use will have no bearing on those decisions?

Pedestria said...

Excellent blog Chris, with clear and thought-provoking posts. Just what Bristol needs to be able to work through these issues, as is obvious from the number and quality of the comments too.

I wholeheartedly agree with Elisabeth - we need to find ways to restore the balance in our lives. Looking at how other countries manage issues such as transport so much better than we do here in the UK can be really helpful.

Joshua's also right to ask;

"Why does vehicle parking ... operate outside the boundaries of market economics? Why is valuable public space on the street given away for the most part free of charge to drivers when no similar benefit is provided to those ... cycling, walking or taking public transport?"

It is definitely the poor who suffer most from the modern car obsession and the hypermobility of those better off, as Prof John Adams (UCL) has shown.

Just piling more buses on is not a genuine solution. So many already go around empty for a start.

The real issue is how we can kick the stinking car habit and reorganise our lives and work around walking and cycling and the fresh air, green spaces, social interaction and healthy exercise that come with them.

thebristolblogger said...

- why should providing car parking be considered a function of the welfare state? -

Because in economic terms that's how the utility we derive from our roads and streets currently operates. It doesn't work on market principles. We have a nationalised system of roads funded from progressive general taxation from which we can all derive utility free at the point of use, the same as we have a nationalised NHS, nationalised state school system etc. Would moving to a market-based system for roads lead to improvements on the evidence of what the market has done for the national rail network and for Bristol's public transport?

- I'm not proposing that parking charges should be as well as Council Tax but instead of -

I'm confused by this. Are you proposing:

1. That council tax be scrapped and that the local taxation burden be met just by people who have to pay street parking charges for their cars? In which case you'd be looking at punitive tax rates in the £5k -£10k a year region. (I won't go into detail but punitive taxes are hard to collect and manage because their high cost incentivises people to find ways to avoid them and yields tend to dramatically fall for the collecting authority).

2. That those in need of street car parking simply be exempt council tax and pay parking charges instead? In which case what's the point? A like-for-like tax with a different name is a revenue neutral rebranding exercise. And what's the incentive to not park on the street if you simply move from paying one charge to another?

3. Have I missed something really obvious here?

- By the same token any tax on cars will take 3 times more wealth from Stoke Bishop than from Lawrence Hill. How can you call that regressive? -

Because your measures of wealth and ability to pay - geographical location and car ownership - lack accuracy and create perverse outcomes.

My next-door neighbour is a married lorry driver with kids earning around £20k plus, perhaps, a further £5k from overtime and his wife's work as a dinner lady. His next-door neighbour is a single public sector accountant earning £55k.

In your view my next door neighbour with a low income is being subsidised by people in Barton Hill because of his next-door neighbour's high income and should therefore be liable for more tax. This is neither equitable nor a fair reflection of his ability to pay more tax.

On the issue of car ownership. My next-door neighbour runs a car, his neighbour does not. On your measure of wealth the man with £25k a year should pay more tax than the man on £55k a year.

If you want to calculate wealth and the ability to pay tax, why not just use the far more accurate measure of income rather than deciding it on the basis of where you live and whether you own a car?

- people would respond to higher parking charges by buying cheaper food -

Should we judge a tax designed to reduce car use a success if it instead alters the operation of the grocery market?

- Are you seriously suggesting that the cost of car ownership and use will have no bearing on those decisions? -

Precisely yes. As I said, without serious alternatives demand for car use will remain price inelastic and the effects of rising costs will be marginal (a point I've already made with regard to petrol prices). If you're very, very lucky you may get 2% or 3% shift away from cars to public transport, etc, albeit at a huge political cost.

If you're looking for major shifts, say 10% plus, you need to look towards the funding of significant public transport infrastructure from general taxation.

Chris Hutt said...

BB, I recognise that streets are available to use on a similar basis to health care and education, free at the point of use, and we could have an interesting debate about whether that makes sense today.

But the large scale use of our streets for the storage of private motor vehicles has always attracted charges when demand exceeds supply. Parking meters were introduced to the UK 50 years ago.

In recent decades the areas where demand for on-street parking exceeds supply have extended far beyond the city centres and so charging must be extended since there is no other proven method of resolving supply/demand imbalance.

So charging for on street parking, as opposed to driving, has long been an established and grudgingly accepted principle. Such charges need to reflect the market value of those parking spaces in order to ensure a reasonable degree of availability of vacant spaces.

It is logical that any revenues (from parking or otherwise) received by the Council should be used to reduce the need for public funding through taxation, hence my suggestion that Council Tax could be reduced.

Depending on what the market value of on-street parking turns out to be, the level of Council Tax could be dramatically reduced. Would that be a bad thing? Isn't Council Tax a regressive tax in your view?

There is on average one car per household in Bristol, so charging for car parking and using the revenue to reduce household tax has a broadly neutral effect on one car households, which constitute 47% of households (2001 census).

However the current subsidy of on-street parking hugely benefits the 25% of households with two or more cars at the expense of the 29% of households who are car-free.

For example if we assume that the average annual parking subsidy per car is £500, then that represents in the order of £25 million being transferred from car-free households to multiple car households in Bristol every year.

While there may well be anomalies such as your neighbours, in general that represents a huge shift of wealth from the poorest households to the wealthiest, as well as a huge incentive for multiple car ownership.

Just look at how closely car ownership levels correlate with other indicators of quality of life. The comparison of Stoke Bishop with 1.5 cars per household and Lawrence Hill with 0.5 cars per household illustrates that starkly.