There’s No Such Thing As Free Parking

free parking

I’ve just signed the petition by Leeds Independents to stop the council imposing new parking charges in Leeds city centre. However, I think the petition presents some badly flawed arguments and I am in favour of charging for parking – there’s no such thing as “free parking”.

The main argument is that the charges are “a stealth tax that will deter people from visiting the city centre” and that the “city’s independent shops, restaurants and bars – the very things that make our city unique – will be impacted the hardest.”

There’s actually three arguments entangled here, and it’s worth separating them.

I’m not really competent to comment on the economics of the parking debate but I recognise a loaded phrase when I see one, and “stealth tax” is a bit rich. I’m not a driver and don’t own a car, so I could equally claim that everything is a “stealth tax” on people like me who subsidize vehicle users whether we choose to or not (remember, there’s no such thing as road tax!) At least a parking charge is up front and honest. As far as I know any revenue that accrues to the council legally has to be spent on transport related projects (roads don’t build, maintain and repair themselves) but I shall check that. But this argument is much less important than the following two.

Parking charges will deter “people” from visiting the city centre the petition claims. “People”? Last time I looked owning a vehicle wasn’t a sufficient and necessary condition for claiming status as a viable human being. “People” will not be deterred from the city centre, a proportion of car users will. Wouldn’t it be better to find out which car users will be deterred by the charges – they may not be the people who make any difference to the independent economy – rather than assume every driver deterred is a potential punter lost?

And is it true that car drivers are independently inclined? It’s certainly the case that the more cars you cram into a city centre the fewer cyclists and walkers feel like they are welcome. And there’s tons of research suggesting that younger people and the more affluent metropolitan knowledge worker are turning against vehicle ownership and looking to live in places that have a better quality of life. Maybe – and it’s just a maybe – that if we lost a few car drivers from the city centre we’d gain in other ways? Look at all those cities I mentioned in my last post (best places to live with the most thriving economies) and you’ll find that most have consciously cut down on parking space, and through much more imaginative means than tinkering with a small bit of the tariff. (Copenhagen’s boss of traffic cut down the portion of public asphalt that cars were allowed by three per cent a year since 1960. He had no political mandate, he simply didn’t tell anyone what he was doing. Not democratic – and heaven forbid we were so bold in Leeds – but ask the indies along Stroget street if it was a good thing … there were hardly any in traffic dominated 1960, but it’s an indie paradise now in the longest pedestrianised street in the world in one of the least parking friendly city centres.)

Where I do agree with the petition is on the lack of adequate public transport and the dominance of the city centre by the needs of giants like Trinity and The Arena. But I’d argue that the more we grease up and bend over to satisfy the needs of car drivers the less chance we’ve got to get the public transport the city deserves. And places like Trinity are a suburban infestation – easier car parking simply facilitates turning the city centre into a corporate air-conditioned nightmare.

The oddest part of the petition is this sentence; “To go into the city centre on a Sunday and just wander and enjoy the architecture is an important part of Leeds.” Try wandering around admiring the Cathedral, the Town Hall, Civic Hall, Parish Church, City Square, Corn Exchange … in fact try taking a picture of any of the “things that make our city unique”, or sitting somewhere comfortable just to take it all in … sorry guys, but make way for the traffic flow, us independent wanderers are an afterthought. Cars rule. We’re just minions. More and easier parking isn’t going to help the independent cause.

I’ll end with the last paragraph of the petition: “The council doesn’t own the city, the people of Leeds do”

No, the council does not own the city, but also no, the people of Leeds do not own the city either. Cars own the city.

So, happy to sign the petition – I don’t think the current suggested charges are credible or effective – but I think if we really want to develop a thriving independent Leeds we really do need to rethink what the heck that means. I don’t think it means free parking.


  1. A very quick google reveals:

    Living Streets report:
    ‘Pedestrians spent up to six-times more than people arriving by car.’
    ‘In London town centres in 2011, walkers spent £147 more per month than those travelling by car.’
    ‘A study in Bristol found that retailers overestimated the number of customers arriving by car by almost 100%.’

    Think there’s parallel UK research but found this for the US
    ‘Bikers out-consumed drivers over the course of a month. True, they often spent less per visit. But cyclists and pedestrians in particular made more frequent trips to these restaurants, bars and convenience stores, and those receipts added up.’

    Cars take up way too much of our city living space AND they are economically less beneficial to retailers than walkers or cyclists, whose needs can’t be served if cars take all the space.
    Rant over.

    1. I know! There’s research (from London, but still) paid for by the main parking consultants club, which reveals that walkers and cyclists are the one’s to woo into the city centre. People who park often are there just for the job then they bugger off back to a pretty village where there’s a dinky main street and a twee pub. Walkers and cyclists are committed to the place. Free parking probably shuts independents down. Ridiculous really.

  2. If we accept that the challenge to the imposition of parking charges is an economic one (fewer people to spend money in independent shops and bars) then we should take the argument to its logical conclusion and encourage the kind of parking that enables more people to travel into the city and park securely.

    So let’s take Portland’s lead and convert 163 on-street car parking spaces into 1644 bike parking spaces. More people, spending less time stuck in traffic, unencumbered by having to find loose change for the meter, free to spend more time and money in city-centre bars. Just think of all those extra 2 quids to spend on halves of Erdinger! And as Ali suggests, they’ll probably ride their fixie into town more often (evidence here – from Portland again but there you go

    This isn’t a pro-bike, anti-car argument. This is the extension of the economic argument, espoused by the bar owners in the YEP on Friday. More space for more consumers, challenging the inefficiency of those who come in private cars and take up space that could be occupied by 10 people on bikes. Who cares if 163 car owners no longer shop and drink in the centre of Leeds? They’ll be replaced by 1644 new consumers.

    And I bet more of them will have beards, so they’ll fit in perfectly. Everyone’s a winner.

  3. I have a car, I pay an extortionate amount to park in the city already and for that reason I mainly shop, seek entertainment elsewhere. I came into town on Saturday to ship and take my kid to the vastly over priced cinema (and they wonder why it’s empty!). I paid an extra seven quid to park! Next time I will go to Castleford for the cinema and meadowhall or white rose to shop. I can park free there. Every day.

  4. I would much rather see fewer parking spaces overall than have parking charges on existing spaces. This is because fewer parking spaces is a fair and sensible policy. A city centre should be a place that is used and enjoyed, not a place for dodging cars amidst a fog of pollution.

    Parking charges are regressive. I won’t be surprised to see Leeds City centre full of ultra low sports cars that would need a Chinese Acrobat to climb in and out of, parked ostentatiously at the side of the road with blue badges on the dashboard exempting them from charges.

    1. There is always someone, who thinks that people with a Blue disabled person badge, should not be allowed a nice car.

  5. I’m with Chris on this one.

    Phil, just because I’m against exploitative parking charges in the city centre why does that mean I’m against pedestrianisation, or giving walkers greater priority? You’re tangling the very issues you seek to separate.

    I live too far out from the city centre to walk in (and certainly too far to walk back with purchases). Bus Day Riders cost £4.60 a head, or just short of £20 if the four of us in our house go in together, as we do in the car. And of course any whizzy transport scheme for Leeds is always planned Headingley to Middleton. The A65 corridor doesn’t get a look in, and any special offers on that route stops at Kirkstall.

    I’ve been in the habit of visiting Leeds city centre about once a week for pleasure and usually that’s on a Sunday. I park maybe five minutes out from the very heart, I browse, buy a coffee or a beer, enjoy the pedestrian streets and maybe impulse buy from one of the indies.

    Midweek I avoid town. If I do have to go in it’s a commando raid to buy something I need with 10 or 20 minutes ticking on an expensive meter. I curse inwardly if the shopkeeper engages me in conversation as I need to be out and away before the warden pounces with a £70 fine for overstaying. No coffee, no beer, no impulses. In and out.

    Does anyone really believe the £1 for 4 hours starting rate on Sunday parking is anything other than a proof of concept? Now all the expensive legal work is done that rate will tick up steadily every year as surely as night follows day.

    So the pleasure trips will stop, as anything I spend on parking is deducted from my day’s pocket money. The couple of coffees in The Light, the pint in the real ale pub or the falaffel roll in the market don’t happen. The trip is less fun than it was. Why am I bothering again?

    Foot. Shot self in. Leeds has.

    1. You’re spot on about the likely annual increases in the charges – I don’t suppose there’s a promised price freeze on the charges for the next 10 years? Thought not.

    2. I don’t think I’m tangling anything. More cars in the city centre means fewer overall punters. There’s tons of research (never mentioned by the Yorkshire Post). It’s not about personally being against pedestrians – most car drivers don’t personally want to give us all athsma, it’s just an unintended consequence. And the more money we pump into making car driving the easy option the less chance we have of ever getting decent public transport.

      And I’m not defending the proposed charges. I think the current charges are ridiculous, the new ones just odd. I would simply argue that “free parking” is no solution. What we need is rational, researched, pragmatic parking charges. “Free parking” in a city centre doesn’t help the motorist either.

  6. To be fair, Richard, they just spent £18m on the A65 corridor. A lot more than gets spent on walking and cycling measures as a rule.
    And 32% (I think) of Leeds doesn’t have access to a car and more than that have only access to a car occasionally so around half of Leeds don’t get to choose car as an option for how they get to town.
    Now that isn’t an issue if we have a level playing field but the argument against more pedestrianisation or cycle lanes is always that we can’t take space away from the car so it really is a choice as a city of what we prioritise.
    By the way a Family Day Rover on the bus and train (for the WHOLE of West Yorkshire!) costs around £9 assuming your kids are young enough to count as kids!

    1. I take your point Ali regarding the A65 bus lanes .. but they just shave a couple of minutes off the last third of any bus journey into Leeds.

      From Rawdon at peak time a 33 bus takes between 60 and 75 minutes to reach the bus station. 40-45 minutes of that is taken up with delays at the Ring Road/A65 junction. The improvements kick in at the abbey. The A65 corridor serves Leeds communities all the way to White Cross/Guiseley, and the only investment in public transport we’ve seen is painting the bus stop signs red.

      We no longer qualify for kids’ fares, but I am grateful to Rob Greenland for telling me about the £7-80 ticket that lets four adults travel together at weekends. I’d never heard of it. Mind you, the name ‘Family Day’ does rather imply mum, dad and the kids unless you read the small print.

  7. It’s very difficult to have any reasonable discussion on a subject so dominated by personal anecdote and flawed comparisons to other cities (but I’ll have a go).

    I’m not in favour of implementing Sunday parking charges because, as has been pointed out before, they are likely to rise in the future and are a regressive tax. Soon, city centre parking will only be affordable by the rich and all those parking spaces will be full of Range Rovers (as most already are).

    The real issue here is a lack of credible alternatives.

    Take cycling for instance. I spent two years cycling into Leeds from Morley (around 12 miles round trip) on a daily basis. I’ll admit it was hard. I’m neither infirm nor unfit and it took a lot of getting used to. It’s still quite an undertaking and certainly doesn’t work if I want to go into town with the kids or bring very much back with me.

    The geography of Leeds is such that the city centre sits in a basin and almost every route out of the centre is a significant ascent. This is in stark contrast to other cities where cycling is more popular, such as York, Portland and Copenhagen, all of which have many residential areas on a level as their city centres and enjoy correspondingly increased bike usage.

    Another issue for Leeds is that the centre is, by and large, surrounded by light industry and impenetrable arterial roads. Both of these present a significant barrier to those wishing to walk or cycle in from the residential areas as you are forced to navigate dangerous junctions by way of being herded through a maze of metal barriers and dozens of tedious pedestrian crossings.

    Buses are an option, but the fares have risen astronomically over the last few years. It was actually the rising costs of bus travel, not motoring, that prompted me to switch to a bike for commuting.

    There’s no magic bullet here. Leeds is quite hostile to alternative modes of transport. We have no subway, trams or light railway, no dedicated cycle routes or cycle hire schemes, very few park and ride services, poor terrain and a large separation between residential and retail areas.

    But there are also many missed opportunities.

    The Holbeck viaduct spans a great swath of the Southern part of the city and has the potential to provide level, safe, segregated access into the city centre. The council has ignored this option for years now and it is only recently that a community group is trying to make it a viable option, but it is still likely to be years before it is in use, if ever.

    Since privatisation, the bus companies have put profits at the top of their agenda. Routes have been cut, fares have gone up. £7.80 is still far too much for a family to ride into town for a couple of hours. If the revenue collected by city centre parking charges was used to directly subsidise public transport then the plan would have credibility and a clear benefit but we have no such promises.

    There are no home delivery services. Lugging a large amount of shopping home on public transport isn’t feasible. If the supermarkets can deliver my shopping to my door, why can’t I drop off my shopping bags at a kiosk in town and have them delivered (for a modest fee) to my home later in the day? I’d be far more likely to use public transport if I knew I wasn’t going to have to struggle home with everything I’ve bought. Why is no-one doing this?

    You can’t price people out of their cars when there are no attractive alternatives. This needs to be about making the city centre accessible to all, not making it less accessible to poorer car drivers.

  8. Crux of the problem is that these charges being introduced to a fragile Sunday economy are going to lead to a significant number of shoppers going to the out of town shopping centres to park for free. No big problem for the stores with a presence in those and the city centre, but bad news for all the independent stores, bars, cafes, restaurants and farmers market stall holders reliant on decent footfall figures to scrape by.

    All very well the well meaning vocal minority of greenies going on about public transport and bikes and the indignant types that mutter about more fool those who are going to deny themselves all the pleasures of the city centre that clutter up discussions on this issue, but the fact is, there are going to be less people in the city centre as a result of this and less money being spent there.

    My own vested interest in this is as a Farmers Market stall holder, twice a month out on Briggate with it just about being worth its while across the year, as you’d expect there are all sorts of factors that affect takings for all traders along there, weather being the main one, but by and large the people you see are there on that day because they can save their families a few quid with the parking that day and get a lot picked up in one go.

    Public transport the greenies cry – yes, the public transport network in this city has such great capacity for a comfortable experience taking whole families plus all the shopping bags back and forth in a timely manner on there isn’t it? Nope, am afraid the reality is the out of town shopping centres are about to do very well.

    Farmers Markets are reliant on good passing trade which we may be about to lose and carefully balanced costs. What with a recent stall rent rise plus all the traders having to fork out for the parking too, don’t be too surprised if the market ultimately gets sacrificed in this futile council exercise to raise a few quid to pay for extra traffic wardens and keep middle-management somewhere in the lifestyle their accustomed to.

    As we saw from the closure of Anthony’s in the Corn Exchange, even big independent names aren’t safe from sinking in the city, there are lot for whom this move may well tip over the edge too.

    (rant over!)

    1. Sorry to have to clutter up the discussion with some facts and hard headed business research, but maybe you should look at the studies conducted by the Association of Town and City Management along with the British Parking Association, research commissioned by London Councils, Stuff by the RAC (especially their report Spaced Out), all on the BPA’s website

      All of the research – conducted within the past year or two, all of it in the UK – “finds no clear relationship between charges and the amenities on offer in a location”.

      The London research shows the average spend on things like Farmers markets is much higher from your moaning green cycling types than it is from car drivers – and they are more likely to be committed to independents, unlike car drivers who apparently would let a measly quid parking fee for four hours put them off shopping with you and bugger off to Asda instead.

      I’m neither green nor a cyclist. I’m not swayed by well meaning woolly minded ideology, I want the city centre to work, that’s all, and I’d rather we relied on research than the usual Yorkshire Post headline blather.

      I too think these charges are wrong-headed – Leeds already has high parking charges comparatively (doesn’t seem to put many people off as far as I can tell) – and will affect the wrong people. That’s why I’d like to see them stopped. But I’m not against charges in principle. I think charges that were properly thought out and targeted would help Leeds Independents. Free parking does not.

      1. It’s worth pointing out here that the BPA is a trade body who represent car park operators, so it’s hardly surprising that they’re promoting studies which didn’t make any negative finding in relation in increased parking charges. As long as their members get their slice, I’m sure they’re happy.

  9. It’s not about parking or modes of propulsion –“2 legs good, four wheels bad” – it’s about shared and responsible access to central Leeds.

    I don’t drive but I don’t demonise cars, nor do I fetishize walking … and can’t stand cycling myself. After 28 years in London I am resigned to the fact that in a crowded city that you either walk or take public transport – and you just get on with it. Best move Our Ken ever made was to introduce the wonderful Oyster Card and make London affordably accessible to all. And every business in inside the Congestion Zoe some years ago when it was imposed had to redefine their business model and expectations. Most adjusted. London could not have continued as it was.

    When I moved to Leeds ac couple of years ago fulltime I was persuaded by friends to try the bus so I wouldn’t have to walk through an – umm – edgy part of Beeston in the dark in the winter by myself, to get home from Temple Works. I took the bus a few times, paid a fortune, and got lost. Lost on a bus? Yep, I have no sense of direction whatsoever, the route was ridiculously circuitous, I had no idea where I was in the dark, and I always got off either too early or too late … dodging people trying to interest me in the contents of their paper bags as I ran for my building. So I started walking in convoy with some of our artists who lived out that way – the “walking bus” thing. Then I moved house to somewhere I can walk safely day or night, to and from work and everything else. If I need to haul big stuff I take a cab or a friend helps out.

    I can’t count the number of times someone in Leeds has told me –like @philkirby – “I waited ages for a bus at night, none came. Had to walk for hours to get home”. So until there is viable public transport in Leeds – because it is unlikely we’re all about to become cyclists overnight, though I fully support everyone’s right to safe cycling and clean air – pissing off yet another group of people trying to get around a city with poor public transport, over some trumped up and regressive parking charges is mad. EVERYONE NEEDS ACCESS.

    @philkirby has been doing his research indeed over the last few weeks – and there are some great examples of accessible cities. I came originally from the Jane Jacobs generation in Toronto who stopped the massive and killing Spadina Expressway from cutting my city in two in the 1970’s, all in the name of faster car traffic. But Toronto has excellent public transport (including commuter trains) and good home deliveries, so cars are more for “special” if it involves the crowded city centre.

    I reckon most of the people responding to this article – as drivers, cyclists or pedestrians– would love to have a mix of ways to get around safely, comfortably, cheaply and with respect for others. There is no one solution – we all need access. But what we first need is mutual respect and some decent public transport: that’s a good start.

    1. Agree, but we are still in a situation where cars are still seen as the solution and everything is secondary to that.

      There’s no such thing as “off street parking”. There are just streets. it’s a decision how we use and share them. Tinkering with tariffs at marginal times of the week won’t do anything to sort out the traffic nightmare in the city centre. It just makes drivers feel like they may as well use the “free parking” out of town.

  10. Phil, that study relates to London, which has a very different shopping & transportation history and culture to us out here in the provinces. Besides which, academic studies relating to social behaviours rarely have their finger on the pulse of reality. For every highly qualified Neighbourhood Improvement Consultant armed with a clutch of studies on urban regeneration that’s been sent into the good old deprived parts of the city on a nice fat salary, you’ll usually find trail of projects that have flopped miserably!

    Proof of what I say either way will be in the pudding come the new year, or rather all the unsold puddings glistening in the sunset on the Farmers Market.

    1. Ha, totally agree on consultants. And agree about waiting for proof. I think these charges are bad, though I’m not convinced they’ll be as damaging as expected. What we need are more people in the city centre – that includes cars. But there is limited space and it has to be rationally apportioned. Right now it doesn’t seem to be well thought out. It’s pissing everyone off.

  11. I actually agree that charging low amounts on evenings isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if your out on an evening its usually for a meal, night out or entertainment – all of which nobody is going to stay at home for the sake of a reasonable parking charge.

    But for Sunday shopping its different, especially for your typical family who say need to get clothes shopping done and need to eat something while their out too, do you go to city centre and pay an extra £4 for the privilege or out of town shopping centre for free?

    There’s a lot of fantastic produce on offer at the Farmers Market, so much of the trade comes from those families who’ve come for a day of clothes shopping and are pleasantly surprised by what they see, smell or taste on the stalls. The “green cycling types” actually make up a very small percentage of custom, though gawd bless em and their knitted jumpers and wispy beards 😉

    1. The ‘green’ bus and rail types are actually 62% of people in West Yorkshire so they might have an effect on the local economy

  12. “I think these charges are bad, though I’m not convinced they’ll be as damaging as expected.”

    Depends on what the expectation is really, city centre won’t be a ghost town, but even if one in ten shoppers is going to go elsewhere now, that’s a significant drop in income across the board.

    1. Take your point, that was a lazy statement. And I do agree the proposed charges are bloody foolish and won’t help. But I do think simply arguing more cars = more punters is not necessarily true.

      There’s no such thing as an “off street parking space”, there are just streets that we decide to use for this purpose or that. Wouldn’t it be great if we could collectively come together and decide how we organise the city? I want the independents to survive and thrive – I don’t drive and I don’t go to shopping malls (I don’t have a woolly jumper or a whispy beard though!) – but I think we can be more imaginative than lowering parking costs. And I think the council could be a hell of a lot more imaginative than thinking faffing with marginal tariffs will help anyone.

  13. It’d be nice if there were realistic alternative mainstream transport solutions, but really, there ain’t. Would love to see Leeds as a cycling hub like Cambridge or use Tuk Tuks & motorbikes like they do in the far east, but this is Leeds, one has to shrug ones shoulders and say, there aren’t enough jumpers and stick on wispy beards to go round for the first idea there and too health and safety regulated for the 2nd and 3rd.

    1. And there won’t be as long as we do what we’ve always done and get what we’ve always got – more cars on the road, static amount of space in the town centre.

      It’s not the people with jumpers and wispy beards that’ll have much impact on public transport it’s the people with the budgets and the responsibility. And if Leeds wants to be “Best City” we’d better make sure they have some imagination and leadership. Who said leadership was the ability to imagine better when everyone is saying “It’ll never happen in our city”.

      Look at Copenhagen – took 50 years. Look at Bogota – car drivers had guns, and the death rate was incredible. If they can do it there with no money and against an armed culture that said it couldn’t happen, surely we can do something here? Or do we just give up and all go to Tescos?

  14. It isn’t all about shopping (an activity which I gave up trying to do in Leeds long ago) – the £2 per night parking charge is likely to have a drastic effect on cultural activities such as amateur theatre at The Carriageworks. Rehearals for a play normally span at least 25 evenings – that will now add £50 to the cost of being in the cast or backstage crew of any production. If you live in an area with poor public transport, or have limited mobility, or have a lengthy walk from the bus route to your home, or are bringing a child into children’s theatre (etc, etc) you’ve just been kicked in the teeth by Leeds City council once again. This is the most short-sighted, damaging policy the council has ever come up with – and all for an anticipated £400,000! Why not raise this amount – or more – by charging £1 for the fabulous firework display on November 5th? At least everyone would feel they’d got a bargain then!

  15. If the traders are so worried about losing trade in the city center due to car parking charges then why don’t they offer to subsidise them?

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