A few weeks ago, when the proposal to open certain central Brighton and Hove car-parks for free on Sundays was first mooted, I wrote a blog post saying that this was a terrible idea – and likely to lead to gridlock without producing any tangible benefits for local businesses. Yesterday, having parked my car in the free but nearly-empty Norton Road car park and while walking along a Church Road that was not exactly teeming with shoppers, I reflected that talk of gridlock was not looking especially clever. Reports from friends and collegues about central Brighton suggested it was busy but still moving. Of course there is still time for a late surge of shoppers, but why was I so wrong?
In transport policy terms, my two main arguments remain intact. It is still demonstrably true that traffic systems operating at or near capacity are extremely vulnerable to small increases in traffic volumes. And there isn’t any real evidence that reducing parking charges will boost local businesses. You could argue that the Council has not exactly gone out of its way to advertise the free parking, but I don’t think that’s the issue either.
The obvious answer is that, ten days before Christmas, the road network is not operating at anything like full capacity – that people are simply shopping less. Now in recent years retailers have reported people arriving in the shops later and later in the run-up to Christmas – and that may yet happen – but the obvious conclusion is that the cost-of-living crisis – falling real pay, increasing prices of essentials – is finally beginning to hit Brighton and Hove in a way that so far it hs largely avoided. We do not yet have the empty shops of city centres in the North of England, but the economic facts of life in Brighton are often lost behind the local hype; a city with sky-high living costs – especially housing – but with employment based to a considerable extent on sectors like retail and hospitality in which low pay and casual employment are endemic. Perhaps the economic realities are really beginning to hit home.
And the implications of this are significant. It means, for example, that much of the rhetoric about parking charges damaging the city is looking very threadbare; it’s the wider economy, and it’s important to remember that groups like Unchain the Motorist who obsess over parking charges are also opponents of the living wage for the city – something of much more fundamental importance in the city’s economy. And it is more important than ever that pro-austerity politicians are simply not allowed to get away with narratives about parking charges; they may have an effect but it’s austerity, falling pay and the soaring cost of living that are doing the damage. (It’s also never time wasted to point out that if they are serious about advocating park and ride, that implies reducing parking in the city centre).
I remain convinced – on the basis of evidence from cities elsewhere – that these one-off reductions in parking charges will have almost no effect on local businesses. Indeed, many cities elsewhere in Europe and even in the US have found that it is restraining the car that turns cities into places where people want to be, and where they support local businesses. Here in Brighton, my guess is that the impact of this very limited free parking will be too small to be measurable – lost in the statistical margin of other, bigger, trends.
What I think this issue has taught us is that the gridlocked Saturdays-before-Christmas of the good years have gone. And if – like the advocates of free parking – you believe that luring motorists into the town centre brings prosperity, you have some explaining to do. On a wet day when not much was happening in central Hove it was difficult to avoid the feeling that the parking charge narrative gave way to the much more grounded and substantial one of austerity.