Among the more surprising aspects of the current by-election campaign in Hanover and Elm Grove is the return of Park and Ride to Brighton’s political agenda. Labour has advanced Park and Ride as a key solution to Brighton’s horrific traffic problems – promising a Park and Ride site “close to the A23” as a way of freeing up Brighton’s congested roads.
There is no doubt that Brighton has a horrendous traffic problem. On a warm summer weekend the queue of traffic coming into the city forms a three-mile near-stationary snake through the town and often extends several miles beyond it. The way in which minor incidents in the city trigger instant chaos are eloquent of a traffic network operating way beyond its capacity. Brighton did have a small park-and-ride scheme within the city boundaries at Withdean – but it was poorly-used and unviable. It made no appreciable difference. Park and Ride, therefore, has never been far from local politicians’ agendas.
But you’d have thought after the last time they would have been more circumspect. The previous Tory administration committed itself to a park and ride site at Patcham Court on the outskirts of Brighton, apparently overruling the objection of Patcham’s three Tory councillors. It was an appalling plan that would have involved demolishing homes and concreting over allotments (some of Patcham’s allotments have been under continuous cultivation since the 13th century). The environmental effects would have been disastrous; Patcham’s suburban streets turned into rat-runs and a massive issue of toxic run-off into underground watercourses. In other words, the people of Patcham (and I’m one of them, and happy to declare my interest) would have paid for this act of obeisance to the mighty car in hard environmental coin. The most encouraging thing about the ultimately successful campaign to stop this nightmare was to hear people who had never really thought about the issues before start to draw conclusions about our society’s relationship to the car and the insidious way in which it dominates our life.
After that, it’s no surprise that the draft City Plan – managed by the Green administration but recently approved with the support of all Brighton’s political parties – explicitly rules out Park and Ride, although retains a commitment to consult in future.
Leaving aside the local Brighton difficulty of finding anywhere to concrete over (Labour at one stage was muttering darkly about concreting in the South Downs National Park – is that really what they mean?) the general evidence remains: Park and Ride is not a serious approach to reducing congestion in a city like Brighton and Hove. The bulk of the evidence is in a report commissioned from the DfT from W S Atkins in 1999 and, more importantly, in further work building on that report by Professor Graham Parkhurst of the University of the West of England in 2000. The conclusions of that work are summarised here but the key broad conclusions are:
- There is no real evidence that park and ride reduces overall traffic levels. On the contrary it is likely to increase trips, especially around the park and ride sites, as people who would not otherwise have travelled into town by car use their cars to access the park and ride facility, especially if the bus fares are subsidised:
- Any reduction in car use is likely to be offset by new traffic occupying the liberated road-space, insofar as traffic movement in the town actually becomes quicker.
- Park and Ride depends on significantly reducing parking provision in the city centre. But Labour (and Tories) in Brighton have been campaigning for cheaper city centre parking. You can’t have your transport policy cake and eat it.
- There is a significant diversion effect – some journeys actually become longer as people divert from their usual routes to get to park and ride sites. In a city where constraints on space means that you may not be able to put your park and ride sites in optimal locations (and Brighton is certainly one of those) that effect will be larger.
- Park and Ride is expensive. You need to build and maintain sites and provide subsidised bus services, and the evidence Parkhurst provides shows that you need to pour subsidy into schemes to make them work. Might that subsidy not be better employed in providing the sort of urban traffic-management methods that – even against the DfT’s loaded appraisal criteria – offer vastly better returns?
Parkhust concludes that “Urban-fringe bus-based park and ride provided with dedicated bus services is better described as a policy of car traffic redistribution than a policy of car traffic reduction”.
And in that lies the crux of the matter. To understand why Park and Ride is a poor solution, you need to consider not just the traffic impacts, but the distributional effects of that subsidy – and its sustainability. In other words – who is paying? And who is getting the benefits?
The case for Park and Ride in Brighton at least appears to be based on the need to generate employment in the city by servicing car-borne visitors. There are obviously huge questions about whether that is sustainable in the long-term (although it has to be noted that Brighton’s economy has been based around visitors for a very long time). There are plenty of measures to show that Brighton has suffered less from recession than other parts of the country – part of the London hinterland effect, perhaps. But there is no doubt that Brighton as a city with a young and growing population needs jobs. There are however issues of whether that visitor-driven economy is actually the best way to achieve that, and whether the profits generated by those visitors are actually reinvested in the city. In the case of smaller businesses that’s far more likely than where those visitors are spending in chain stores; but there is a serious debate to be had about whether the long-term future of Brighton’s economy lies with small businesses, serving local markets and reinvesting locally. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but it’s desperately important to ask the questions. The adoption of Park and Ride appears to me to prejudge that debate completely.
Second, what are the real social and environmental costs of an economy based on car-borne visitors? These are notoriously difficult to assess but they include pollution (obviously), safety and community severance. We in Britain have a habit of patting ourselves on the back for our falling road casualties, but those figures mainly reflect better safety for vehicle occupants; our record on safety for vulnerable users, especially children, is very poor.
And there are big distributional issues too – car use is closely related to income, and the poorest and most vulnerable in society are least likely to have access to cars and to be most directly affected by car dependency and the way in which it distorts economic and especially planning priorities – as well as the public health issues related to car use. Transport policy makers often forget that a third of the population has no access to a car – and that those people are likely to be poorer and more affected by issues of safety and public health. Policies that promote car use effectively represent a huge subsidy to the better-off.
How does all that pan out in Brighton and Hove? I don’t know – because the evidence isn’t there. But in Britain’s self-proclaimed greenest city we need to be able to answer those questions, and go beyond the conventional appraisal methods for road schemes which, based on arbitrary assumptions about time-savings and the value of accident reduction, display a heavy in-built bias towards middle-class car users. As I’ve said on this blog before, to be Green you have to be red, and to be red you have to be green; the issues are all mixed in together.
What all this suggests to me is that Labour is indulging in a piece of populist bag-of-a-fag-packet policy making – saying things that are superficially plausible and have a potential simplistic appeal without engaging at all with the issues. And the issues in Brighton are – quite simply – what sort of a city do we want to live in? One with high, sustainable employment, certainly; but also – I’d argue one in which the car is not our master and in which those who do not have a car are systematically included.
There is a huge paradox in Brighton that, with a Green administration, we seem to be hugely lacking in a Green vision. Recently-issued figures show, for example, that Brighton has an appalling record on recycling; the administration’s reaction seemed, as so often, to lack a sense of the political dimensions of this. We need a big debate in Brighton about what sort of city we need to be; Park and Ride, it seems to me, is a symptom of a city-wide political culture that does not want that conversation to happen.