Park and ride – sustainable transport?

As part of my Geography BA dissertation at Cambridge University, I had to submit a dissertation of 10,000 words on a subject of my choice within geography. I chose to research Cambridge’s park and ride system, and specifically whether it is environmentally sustainable. A number of people suggested that I write a brief article about my work for the newsletter, as park and ride financially and politically dominates the Cambridge transport system to some extent.

In the last five years or so, there has been much debate academically about the effects of park and ride nationally, in terms of the environment, travel patterns, and on town centre economies; in particular, whether park and ride decreases traffic (as might be expected) or increases it. In order to attempt to silence claims from critics that park and ride increases traffic, the government commissioned a report, which subsequently came up with a particular figure for average trip length reduction.

Research undertaken by Graham Parkhurst at University College, London, established that park and ride systems generally fall into one of two categories: ‘environmental’ park and ride (which aims to reduce traffic overall) and ‘economic’ park and ride (which aims to increase city centre access to maintain its economic potential).

Parkhurst found that crucial areas of the government’s report’s analysis had been omitted. Instead, he found that park and ride generally increases traffic, sometimes justified by councils by describing their systems as ‘economic’ park and ride.

I looked at various aspects of the Cambridge system. Firstly, I researched its effects on traffic levels. While I was unable to prove conclusively that traffic was being increased or decreased, there is little evidence of traffic reduction. Partly this is shown by the Councils’ continued refusal to remove city centre parking, meaning that park and ride simply adds to parking capacity and is hence likely to increase traffic (as there is little restraint).

A second area of my research was the financial aspect of the system. The costs of building and running the sites comes from both the government and from city centre parking charges. I considered it somewhat ironic that a system whose intention is partly to decrease traffic in the city centre should be so reliant on money from what it is potentially trying to discourage! I calculated a subsidy of £1.06 for each return journey undertaken on the system. Altogether, around £16 million is being used to provide around 5,000 extra parking spaces.

Because there is such a large subsidy, park and ride is put at an advantage compared to conventional service buses, e.g. in terms of service quality. There is some evidence nationally that this endangers what are often already marginal bus services – leading to cancellation of services and consequent increases in social exclusion. Also, people drive to a park and ride site and use a bus from there, rather than using a bus from the start of their journey.

The council claims that city centre parking revenue has by law to be used for parking-based projects, such as park and ride. However, a recent test case in Oxford indicates that this no longer has to be the case.

The Council’s view appears to be that the Cambridge park and ride system is somewhere between environmental and economic park and ride. My research indicated that it is the latter, increasing accessibility to the city centre for car users. Whilst it may be enabling welcome initiatives such as the core scheme, the latter is not necessarily decreasing traffic (rather, is only reducing through traffic) and is in any case not uniquely possible due to park and ride. Park and ride caters for the car driver’s needs rather than trying to change behaviour.

My conclusion was that, for a considerable amount of money, Cambridge park and ride is not decreasing traffic levels, and that such money would be more employed elsewhere in a way which could decrease car use. In terms of cycling, the campaign’s proposed ‘supercycleway’, the Chisholm Trail (see Newsletter 17) is one such idea which could decrease traffic, having benefits for both car drivers and cyclists, and be considerably cheaper than park and ride. Additionally, the current under-provision of city centre cycle parking, for which there is genuine demand, could be solved with less than 1% of park and ride spending, for instance.

I believe that Councillors and Council Officers would be wise to reconsider park and ride policy in Cambridge, on the grounds of both cost and effectiveness, and indeed the opportunity cost it represents against other modes of transport.

I have published my dissertation on my website. Please take a look and let me know your comments on it!

Martin Lucas-Smith