New parking business in Europe

A European focus on parking will help the debate on charges and other key issues, says Nick Lester, president of the European Parking Association and London Councils corporate director of services

The European Parking Association (EPA) was formed in 1983, but like so many European organisations, in its first few years it existed more because there was a feeling that it should rather than for a very defined purpose. More recently, however, both the purpose and the style of EPA have developed and changed.
Across Europe, starting in the biggest cities, there is an increasing recognition that parking policy has a crucial role to play in managing traffic and improving access in our cities. Ideas such as ‘axes rouges’ in Paris and ‘red routes’ in London rely on effective parking management and control, however retailers increasingly blame parking restrictions and charges for the loss of business.

Key issues
Understanding the relationship between parking and economic activity, and getting this accepted is one of the key issues for the European parking industry at the moment. While some cities do accept this, in others parking is seen as either simply a revenue raising issue or an irritant and political foray into the issue on this basis have led to serious problems.
Famously, last year a new Mayor was elected in Rome on the basis of abolishing parking charges as these were, in his view, just money raised at the expense of ‘innocent motorists’. Within a few weeks of his election the day of the removal of charges was marked by newspaper headlines celebrating ‘liberation day for motorists’. It took only three days of the chaos that ensued from lack of management for those same newspapers to demand that the charges be brought back and a further day for the demand for charges to be brought back ‘NOW’.
Parking charges are, indeed, widely seen simply as revenue raising, not just in Italy, and their role in management is not widely understood. Witness the decisions by the Welsh and Scottish governments to attack parking charges in hospitals as ‘a tax on the sick’ and the subsequent decision to abolish these charges. The impact was immense, leaving patients and visitors nowhere to park as the spaces were taken over by those avoiding parking charges elsewhere and informal car sharing arrangements. Those desperate to park have blocked ambulance stops while overflow cars parked in residential areas have been subject to aggressive damage.
Retailers have also attacked parking charges as causing a loss of business and in almost every country in Europe different experiments have been made to cut parking charges as an attempt at economic stimulus. Whether these have been the reduction or abolition of charges altogether or schemes such as the first hour or half hour free, the boost to retail sought has never materialised. Although we all tend to suffer from the ‘not invented here’ syndrome, ensuring the lessons of these experiments are circulated throughout Europe does help develop the argument.
Many of the problems in exchanging best practice and the impact of different ideas are caused by a lack of comparable data and EPA is committed to the concept of a European observatory of parking issues where comparable data will be gathered and published. This will help the debate on charges and other issues, and will support proposals in the European Commission’s green paper on urban mobility.
The observatory will also help the exchange of best practice on enforcement issues, which can also be contentious. European issues are featuring larger in this area as the problems of enforcement against foreign registered vehicles, both for parking and other traffic issues also grow. At present vehicles from other European countries are effectively immune from parking and traffic enforcement unless physically stopped by a police officer.

Reducing greenhouse gases
Parking has also a contribution to make in the environment debate. Poor parking management means that traffic searching for a parking place can make up to 30 per cent of all the traffic in a city centre. Improvements in understanding the contribution that can be made by the industry, including such things as real time parking information, can help reduce this.

Many cities already provide real time information on the number of parking spaces available in car parks and EPA is now working both to get this information into in-car satellite navigation systems and to use new opportunities, such as Galileo, to get this technology into the on-street area. Reducing the amount of ‘searching’ traffic has considerable benefits not just in reducing congestion but also in reducing CO2 and other pollutant emissions.
The parking industry can contribute to improving the environment in other ways too. Carefully designed car parks in city centres can provide opportunities for removing traffic from streets, leading to pedestrianisation and overall environmental improvements. Such designs must, however, be done with care and be part of an overall package of measures for an area, not just done on their own. Good examples can be seen in Maastricht, where both traffic and environmental improvements have been achieved.

Quality of operations
Above all, EPA is committed to improving the quality of operations of the parking industry both on street and in car parks. The prestigious bi-annual EPA awards celebrate the best new and renovated car parks in the continent together with other parking initiatives. The best new car park for 2009 is in Liverpool One – the key new retail area in Liverpool – where it has contributed to this successful project for enhancing economic activity in the city centre. At the same time, EPA’s European Standard Parking Awards provide a good minimum standard of design and management in parking throughout Europe – and a standard which is increasingly being met.
Some car park operations provide real value and contribute to the best urban design standards, but the parking industry overall does not always have a good public image. Efforts by all sides to improve quality of operations – even where all demand cannot be met – is central to this.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Eastern Europe where rapid growth since 1989, coupled with a perception that the faster car ownership grows the more increasing national wealth is demonstrated, has presented cities with a major headache in managing traffic and parking. In these countries the concept of parking management at all is novel and the parking industry is very new and quite undeveloped. EPA provides support for these areas where we are all anxious to ensure that lessons of past experiences can successfully be included in new developments for the future.
Parking can be seen as a niche market of little interest except to those involved. However, it is critical to the development of our towns and cities. The European Parking Association is at the heart of ensuring that the industry maximises its benefits to our communities.

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