Generally, I don’t do problems. They are opportunities to change practice for the better.
Cars don’t move much
Cars don’t move very often. Most of the time they sit outside your home, then sit outside your place of work. Occasionally they sit outside a shop, or a leisure centre. You get my drift. Cars do an awful lot of sitting.
And when they are sitting they take up space. Lots of space. Belfast City Centre is not very big. A very walkable square mile or two, well connected by public transport. Yet it hosts about 14,000 parking spaces. Each taking up roughly 15 square metres of prime city centre real estate. Around 30 football piches, not including space for access. Occupancy of car parks at peak time is about 60%. Or: 12 of those 30 pitches are always empty.
The implementation of Belfast on the Move has coincided with an increase in the number of cars parking in the City Centre.
Belfast on the Move is a small success. The number of people going into the City Centre has increased; the number of cars entering the area above has gone down. Translink Metro and NI Railways have seen an increase in passenger numbers.
The public perception is that Belfast on the Move is a failure because congestion has not decreased.
Reduction of congestion for private vehicles was never the purpose for the scheme. At its core the scheme is designed to shift people from private vehicles to other forms of transport and removing through traffic to the Westlink:
Road space in Belfast has been reallocated to public transport and impressive numbers justify the building of bus lanes. At Great Victoria Street two out of every three people access the City Centre by bus for the price of a lane of car traffic.
The survey period between 2011 and 2013 saw an increase in consumer confidence, so the increase in people accessing the City Centre cannot be totally ascribed to Belfast on the Move.
Let’s park that there.
People cite convenience as a motivation for on-street parking over multi-storey parking.
It is well observed that people are not willing to walk more than 1000ft, 300m or 5 minutes to access public transport.
The density of public bike hire schemes correlates with the scheme’s success. The optimum distance between stations is 300m. There is pressure to expand a scheme too thinly, leading to poor uptake.
Large airport car parks offer bus links to parking sites more than 300m from the front door. Any closer and people will walk.
In airport terminals and stations it is worthwhile putting in moving walkways if the gates or platforms are more than 5 minutes walk from the front door. Moving walkways are slower, but the benefit is derived from arriving at your gate or platform without moving a muscle.
At the front door of my place of work there is a small multi-storey, named Car Park 2. Queues of cars build at 10:00 and again at 14:00.
A larger multi-storey car park, Car Park 1, is just that bit further away from the entrance. It is just within the 300m radius from the front door. The total number of spaces on the site is more than adequate to absorb the number of vehicles.
Drivers, despite causing chronic congestion and blocking junctions, will wait for a chance to park close to the front door in Car Park 2, rather than find a guaranteed space in Car Park 1 and walking.
The congestion on the City Hospital campus is caused by a large number of drivers competing for a small number of premium spaces. Just like Central Belfast there is an over-provision of spaces, but public perception is of too few spaces, because of the queues.
It appears humans will prefer sitting in a queue for a longer time than it takes to park further away and walk.
On Twitter cyclists deplore that on-street parking is taking up road space that could more usefully be used for moving people on bikes. Similarly, hauliers need access to shops and businesses for deliveries. They have been lobbying for more and better enforced loading bays.
Looking at the raw statistics you could lose all the on-street parking in Belfast and still have ample room to spare.
But it’s never as easy
At 80% occupancy a person seeking a place for their vehicle is more likely to consider the location full.
Car park operators will try and increase occupancy by showing at the gate, or at the city centre’s edge, how many places are left.
Car park operators use guides to lead people to empty spaces. These guides can be high tech or human. In this way car parks can increase occupancy above 80%.
Modern Dutch bicycle parking facilities at railway stations use sensors to track occupancy, highlight empty spaces and charge for overstaying. But can this be done on the streets of inner city Belfast? For cars?
In San Francisco they have dynamic pricing, with a phone app to show where places are available and the cost of parking. This encourages people to park in cheaper, less convenient, locations and reduces cruising for free spaces. This has increased occupancy and reduced congestion.
Up to 1/3 of congested city centre traffic are motorists looking for a space to leave their vehicle. But, are they looking for any space? Or are they looking for a premium space, nearest their destination?
Back to the airport
Airline companies try to eke profits out of the tightest of margins. They need to ensure maximum bums on seats to make it worthwhile flying. The 6:55 from Belfast to London will be very sought after, but the 14:30 not so.
So they charge more for a seat on the 6:55 and less for that mid afternoon slot. A number of passengers who don’t have morning business meetings can be persuaded to fly at a later time.
But if they charge a premium for all early morning seats all the passengers may well fly with someone else. So the airline puts a few seats on at less than cost price to generate interest. And as the plane fills up the prices go up.
Belfast city centre parking does not work that way. A uniform charge is applied whether you find a premium space outside your destination, or if you drop the car off some streets away. We expect more from and pay more for parking in multi-storeys, but again, a single hourly charge is levied.
Can city centre parking not be modelled on airline pricing? So, as premium spots fill the prices in the area go up, but around the corner the price could go down as an inducement to park there instead and walk a little further.
Traders, especially those in premium locations, will object to charging more for parking. But, if I were a shopkeeper I’d worry that time customers spend looking for premium parking places is time not spent in store.
The trader could subsidise the cost of parking outside their shop, either directly by paying the parking operator, or indirectly by refunding the customer.
However, if I were a trader I would not chase the car customer. A number of studies have concluded that car customers are not as important as people think. Car parking does not equal footfall. Cars don’t shop, people do.
Another group who consistently oppose removal of on-street parking are disability rights groups. They demand and get prime parking spots in the retail heart of Belfast. Despite there being ample accessible spaces in multi-storeys within a short radius.
Whilst TransportNI rate provision for pedestrians, cyclists, public transport and road hauliers higher than for private cars, a blue badge means these motorists are considered first. A blue badge should only prioritise them over other drivers, not over all other road users.
In 2012 BBC NI reported that the cost of enforcement of parking restrictions is not covered by income generated from issuing fixed penalty notices and car park charges. Effectively, the tax payer is paying for car parking.
Local government has gone further in the past, offering free on-street parking as a boost to trade, despite there being no clear evidence this actually works. It is a knee jerk reaction to traders’ demands.
TransportNI thinks tax payers footing the bill for car parking is justified. But I challenge them to provide data to support this stance. Is it good value for money? And in a time of serious financial constraints can our government be generous with tax payer’s money, especially supporting something that already costs us dear?
Motorists are blind to the true cost of parking. When they are charged at anything like cost price, national newspapers get involved and call it a rip off.
Since 1 April 2015, Belfast City Council controls most city centre car parks, but TransportNI retains control over on-street parking. Now we have two public-funded authorities with different remits and priorities offering competing services. Splitting control of parking is arguably not in Belfast’s best interests.
The Council has recognised the issue of car parking, but can other service providers be brought to share the same way forward?
Beside the two authorities, a number of privately owned car parking companies operate in Belfast. Some illegally. Additionally, any city centre employers have private car parks for staff use. All in all 30 football pitches, of which 12 are permanently empty.
All these car parks are invitations to car drivers to visit Belfast City Centre by car. And it’s very difficult to rescind that invitation. Car parks demand access, access demands big roads and big roads deter pedestrians and cyclists.
Road hauliers have been lobbying local authorities for improved loading bays and their better enforcement. Making some car parking spaces loading bays will help. Better still would be to ban car traffic from certain sections of town completely, with manually operated or automated bollards to allow HGV access before, for example 11am.
Loading bay abuse is rife as Chris Murphy documents:
Belfast car parking, as the Council’s Strategy document highlights, needs to be rationalised. Fewer, more efficient multi-storey car parks, accessible from the city’s inner road ring. Car parking must be centrally coordinated, so strategic objectives to turn Belfast’s city centre into a place where people want to come, shop, work, learn and relax, without the constant throb of road traffic dominating.
Removal of on-street parking where there is a multi-storey in close proximity is essential. Introducing dynamic pricing to regulate supply and demand and advertising the up to the minute cost of parking at the city centre’s edge.
Opponents will need to be swayed and shown they will be better off in a city that doesn’t prioritise private car access.
Belfast City Council is inching towards this future, and every move forward, taking away space from cars and giving it back to people should be applauded.