Are ‘Environmental’ Parking Charges a Good Idea?
A short time ago, I wrote about the parking charge scheme in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. Officials there first started thinking about this scheme back in 2005 and introduced it in October 2009. The scheme was then abandoned in July this year following a change of council. The new council claimed that the scheme was confusing and not working, but with only a few months’ experience, one might suspect that the decision was more political than technical. Since published information about the scheme is rather thin on the ground, it is difficult to judge.
The council first introduced a program that set resident parking permit charges according to the engine pollution that a vehicle produced. Electric cars, hybrid vehicles and other cars with low emissions got free permits, whereas “gas guzzlers” paid a premium. The same principle was later extended to parking meter charges.
The schemes were an honest attempt to influence car choices and reduce pollution; there is some dispute about what the figures actually show happened, but notwithstanding that, the council made the decision earlier this year to abandon the variable meter charges, saying that the scheme had not worked. RingGo, which provided Richmond with mobile phone payment services, reported, however, that meter payments made by vehicles in the least-polluting category had risen by 38% and, they claimed, this showed the scheme was a success.
I think that is too simplistic. Any increase is hardly pointing out the success of a scheme that has as its primary purpose a reduction in car use. More pointedly, the borough’s meters are not the only option for parking in Richmond. Faced with higher meter charges, the drivers of vehicles with greater emissions may simply have switched to using competing private car parks, whilst the owners of “greener” vehicles took advantage of the cheaper (and now potentially easier to find) parking meters.
More seriously, in terms of the principal objective of the scheme, Kingston upon Thames town center is less than four miles from Richmond, and it is entirely possible that drivers of larger vehicles simply relocated their “retail therapy” to Kingston, where the meter charges are actually lower anyway. If this happened, it could mean that the scheme had actually had the counter-intuitive effect of actually increasing vehicle mileage by vehicles with higher emission levels!
Notwithstanding the decision by Richmond, which has received large amounts of publicity, many other UK local authorities have now opted for some kind of emissions-based charging regime, either for their meters and car parks or their residents’ permits. At least four other London boroughs have adopted the philosophy, plus the cities of York and Edinburgh. And most recently, the town of Milton Keynes is planning to introduce a “green” parking permit that will allow residents with low-emission vehicles to park in the town center for $50 per year instead of paying 20 cents per hour. That’s hardly a charge level that would discourage car use, I feel. Cities in the USA, such as Austin, TX, Fresno, CA, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City have also launched similar schemes.
Now that’s an interesting thing about many of these schemes. They are promoted as part of a green agenda – designed to reduce car dependence – but again and again when I look behind the rhetoric, I see that the numbers tell a different story.
Both the London Borough of Camden and the City of Edinburgh, for example, say that their schemes would actually reduce parking costs for 60% to 65% of affected drivers! How can making car ownership and use cheaper reduce car dependence and use? For sure, the scheme offers an incentive to own less-polluting vehicles, but as I have said before, if you spend $64,000-plus on owning a Range Rover, I really do not see that an extra pound a day (about $1.61) for car parking is going to make you rush to trade it in for a Prius; it’s just not going to happen.
I have no issue with the basic philosophy of these types of schemes. The principle is clear: to charge drivers proportionately more to park larger (i.e., high polluting vehicles). The schemes do not seem to have as an objective to reduce car use; rather, they seek to influence the type of car being used. However, it seems to me that largely for political reasons, many municipalities that are going down this route see it as politically expedient to balance the rise in the cost for high-emission cars with a reduction for less environmentally damaging vehicles. Clearly, reducing motoring costs for anyone is not conducive to a desire to reduce car use.
I also believe that such an initiative cannot be looked at in isolation by the cities concerned. There seems little point in applying such a measure to one element of the parking supply if other competing facilities are unchanged. Drivers will simply adjust their behavior to get the best deal in the new competitive environment. Certainly in a case like Richmond, the risk that drivers of larger (i.e., costlier) vehicles will simply relocate up the road to another borough to shop could mean that local retailers lose business.
Finally, I believe that the proponents of such schemes need perhaps a reality check when it comes to their pricing strategies. A 100% increase in parking charges across the board could be seen as political suicide, but when this represents a fraction of a percent of the total cost of running such vehicles, perhaps the councils need to be just a little braver if they want to see the schemes work.
Peter Guest is Parking Today’s correspondent for all things British and European. He can be reached at email@example.com.