Retailers, parking and cognitive bias

Too late to inform the debate on parking and shopping in Brighton, I’ve recently come across a fascinating piece of work commissioned by London Councils looking at the relationship between parking charges and local businesses.  The work included a literature review, a questionnaire to local authorities and a market research exercise.  It’s important because, as the literature review reveals, this is an area in which relatively little work has been done.  There’s a lack of real evidence (although the report does take a macro-economic theoretical sledgehammer to the idea that there is any such thing as “free” parking – there’s always a cost and effectively that cost is borne by those without cars – who of course tend to be poorer).

But the conclusions are significant, and reveal something very important about the debate.  In summary the key conclusions are:

  • people coming into town centres by car spend more on each trip, but make fewer trips.  Those using other modes make more trips, spending less per trip, but more overall;
  • retailers on the whole greatly exaggerate the proportion of their trade that is car-borne – in some cases by up to 400%.
  • ultimately what determines the success of a town centre is not parking policy, but the variety and quality of local businesses

This is wholly consistent with such evidence as does exist for mainland Europe and the US that restricting car use, and making urban environments more accessible and pleasant to non-car users, boosts local businesses.  The literature review also emphasises that unlocking those benefits requires a strenght of political will that is rarely found in the UK.

Retailers’ exaggteration of the importance of car-borne trade is a classic example of cognitive bias: in this case confirmation bias.  It’s significant because the debate in Brighton and Hove has largely been conducted without hard evidence – it has very much been an an exchange of interests.  The transport issues in Brighton are quite obviously not the same as those in London, but there is little to indicate that the reaction of retailers in Brighton will be free of the cognitive bias of their London peers (and in arguing that the Unchain the Motorist case is likely to have fallen victim to confirmation bias I’m not suggesting for a moment that we on the other side – including those of us with a professional background transport policy – have not fallen prey to the same kind of biases. But it is essential to be aware of and understand them).

But it does show the importance of an evidenced debate.  The overall conclusion of the London Councils report is that much more research is needed – a not uncommon response from research consultancies, but in this case it looks pretty justified.  But the evidence that it does bring together suggests we remain a long way from a grounded debate about transport policy in Brighton.  In particular it demonstrates that policy-makers must never take the politically-easy route of taking campaign groups at their word; mature policy-making is about asking questions, seeking justification and looking to ground decisions on a basis of real evidence.  It’s also about remembering that in transport policy the best outcomes are rarely simple and often counter-intuitive.

The debate in Brighton remains one about politics and power rather than transport outcomes; we need to do better than that.



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