Smarter Cambridge Transport

Should Park & Ride parking be free?

Cambridge’s MP and all three voting members of the City Deal Executive Board have called for the £1 parking charge at Park & Ride sites to be removed. The intention is good, but the policy is wrong.

The seven P&R sites run by Cambridgeshire County Council (which includes St Ives and Longstanton) cost a little under £2m per year to manage and maintain (staffing, lighting, business rates, etc). The £1 charge covers £1.1m of this; the rest is covered by fees paid by the bus operators.

In simple terms, the idea being floated is that the City Deal would pay the County £1.1m per year to compensate for the loss of parking revenue. This would ultimately be funded by a tax on staff parking at workplaces in Cambridge.

But an important question is not being asked: Is subsidising parking the best use of £1.1m of public money?

Most complaints are about the ticket machines (which are being upgraded very soon) not the charge itself. Simply allowing people to pay any time before they drive away would remove the stress of having to pay before boarding a bus.

So let’s consider people who can’t drive to a P&R because of age (young or old), disability or poverty. A bus service within walking or cycling distance of home is a lifeline. But P&R competes with rural bus services, so we need to be careful not to make P&R so attractive that it makes other services unviable.

Consider also people who can’t use P&R because service hours don’t fit with their working hours. Addenbrooke’s staff typically start and end their shifts around 7am. P&R services don’t start until after 7am. Shops stay open until 8pm on Wednesdays, but the last P&R buses leave around 8.30pm, too tight for most retail staff.

Here’s a suggestion for how that £1.1m could be better spent to get more people using public transport:

  1. Subsidise extended hours for P&R and rural bus services. Councils are perfectly free to tender contracts to run additional services.
  2. Remove the £2 bus departure fee (about £300,000 per year) that the council charges operators to use P&R sites in return for a 25p reduction in P&R bus fares.

Removing the £1 parking charge is politically attractive, but a more nuanced policy is needed to avoid undesirable side-effects.

This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 8 February 2017.

Edward Leigh

Edward Leigh is the leader of Smarter Cambridge Transport, chair and independent co-opted member of the Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Panel, chair of the South Petersfield Residents Association, business owner, consultant, and occasional blogger about making the world and Cambridge a better place to live.

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