Monday 5 January 2015

Parking Mad

I know I give the impression that I am not fan on the Conservatives, but they do spout some nonsense when it comes to transport-related matters.

This week, I thought I would return to the musings of the Greater London Authority Conservative Group (yes, sorry, London-centric again). Last year, I criticised Richard Tracey's paper on switching off traffic signals (I never did get a response). I will now take a look at Andrew Boff's paper on parking at London's hospitals "Pay and Dismay - Parking at London Hospitals". 

Boff is leader of the GLA Conservative Group, deputy chair of the GLA Health Committee and a "Londonwide" member of the assembly. I don't know, but I assume the "hook" for the paper was from the health side of his GLA activities. As ever, please read the paper for yourself as I am an armchair critic and I don't expect agreement with my own personal views - but at least have a think about the issues (experiences may vary outside of big cities).

The paper is relatively short at 4 pages (of actual text), but it goes straight to the point in the introduction;

Many London hospitals now have special parking schemes for Blue Badge holders, patients undergoing cancer treatments, dialysis and other on-going conditions, but for the patient or visitor attending on an irregular basis there are no such concessions. While it is true that because of the lesser number of visits involved, the overall expense is correspondingly less, hospital parking charges, even for occasional visits, can prove onerous particularly for those on limited incomes such as pensioners and the unemployed.

Where hospitals have a pay-and-display car park system, the problem is exacerbated by visitors overpaying because of the fear of overrunning appointments or the unknown waiting times in Accident and Emergency departments. A parking charge of £3 for one to three hours, such as that levied at Barnet Hospital[1], may not seem extortionate but taken in the context of the Basic State Pension of £113.10 per week it amounts to quite a large proportion of the £16.15 per day that the pension provides.[2] 

So, we have the automatic assumption that everyone who goes to hospital drives - although I think the title of the paper rather gives it away. Actually, the paper is not an objective analysis about parking at hospitals, rather it is about the cost of parking at hospitals, the unfairness of pay and display parking and the lack of public parking spaces.

where there is some uncertainty about how long an appointment will last, the safest choice for the patient is to overpay; if the patient has not paid for sufficient parking and their appointment time overruns, they will be unable to top up the payment and may incur penalty charges. This can prove costly and unfair. The situation is the same for patients and those accompanying them to Accident and Emergency departments. where waiting times can be long and impossible to calculate. Pay-and-display systems are inherently unfair as they encourage people to pay more than they need whereas a pay-on-exit system would mean that people will only have to pay for the time that they have actually used.

Actually, for those parking at a hospital (and indeed any off-street location), pay-on-exit is an easy way charging for time (nobody needed to patrol and check tickets) and of course you don't have to guess how long you will be somewhere. Yes, I have some sympathy for the approach in terms of car park management and certainly, that's how my local hospital charges.

In terms of charges, some examples are given;

There are links in the paper to the hospitals quoted, but they all state that parking on their sites is limited and people would be better off using other means. It is always impossible to have a discussion with anyone about hospitals without using anecdotes and I will be no different here. On travel costs, my son had a couple of appointments at Moorfields Eye Hospital last year (nothing serious, thankfully). The hospital is just off City Road, just inside the London Borough of Islington and it is nowhere I would even think of driving to.

His appointments were at 10.30 which gave just enough time to get there using an off-peak railcard (Zones 1 - 6). Last year the railcard was £8.90 for me and £3.60 for him. The same fare is now £12 for me and £6 for him, although I need to get to grips with the capped fare (which is only for adults of course). So last year, a trip to the hospital with my son was £12.50. The same journey will be £18 this year (I think the capped adult Oyster rate is 30p less - £11.70 a day off peak). Already, parking for a hospital appointment starts to look like good value for money.

We did have the option of our local (regional and out-of-town) hospital which is a 4 mile journey, but appointments were months away compared to Moorfields. I would (and have) cycled to our local hospital myself, but not with my son, the roads are too dangerous. Our options would have been to drive, get the bus or walk-train-walk. Driving would have been relatively easy, but unless the appointment was going to be at a weird time of day, then the place would have been full up and we would probably have had to park elsewhere and walk. 

Actually, bus would have been favourite as we have a pretty direct service into the hospital which we can get 3 times an hour with the stop a 2 minute walk from home. My son travels free on the bus with his Zip Card and I would have paid £1.45 each way on Oyster or contactless card (now £1.50). So, a cost of £2.90 by bus compared to £3.60 for 2-3 hours parking at the hospital. Of course, I happen to be able to get a direct bus. 

Being a regional hospital, there are people needing to get 2 or more buses to the hospital which rather racks up the costs (although there is a £5 one day bus and tram pass which you need to go and pre-purchase). If you are elderly (one group Boff is concerned about in his introduction), you get free public transport anyway with a Freedom pass (subject to certain restrictions it must be added).

Car ownership in London varies between inner and outer London, but there are an awful lot of people who will not even consider parking costs because they don't actually have a car (reasons of course vary). TfL suggests that 46% of households don't have a car (2011/12 figure on p2 of the link). Plus, having a car in the household does not necessary mean all people in that household are able to drive it either because of lack of licence or it is used by one member of the household and simply not there for others to use! (actually, read the TfL note, it is interesting).

I did have a couple of exchanges on Twitter about Boff's paper and it was suggested that in the case of an emergency (potentially seriously ill child as an example) that being able to rush someone to the hospital by car is clearly an advantage. Of course, I would be the same if my car and I were available at the time of the emergency (and I know people can be reluctant to call an ambulance), but what if there were no car and driver available?

Boff goes on to look at parking for staff at London's hospitals, suggesting that many workers get subsidised parking. He alludes that spaces reserved for staff is a subsidy (yes, it can be) and that as the parking is cheaper for staff than punters, then it is subsidised (which it is based purely on the difference between what staff and punters pay). He doesn't actually suggest how much a car park space "costs" and whether staff use covers the costs (if they are charged). Of course a tarmac square is cheaper to maintain than a multi-storey car park. He essentially suggests that staff parking should be reduced in favour of providing more and cheaper parking for patients and visitors.

It is a loaded point of course, taken as land costs, each space could be "worth" thousands on the open market (if sold as part of a developable lump of land). It could be that a hospital sells off a car park for a one-off income hit, although at the prices charged (if going back to the hospital and not a company), the income should more than cover the cost of maintaining and "replacing" the space. It could be that the land is better used for more services on the site, rather than parking. There is an argument, the, that all those not driving to hospitals are subsiding those that do (in addition to the external costs of motoring).

Of course, there will be staff who work unsocial hours and live where they cannot get to work by alternatives (no/ poor public transport, dangerous roads for cycling, long distance from work) and I don't mean to wish further problems for people who may not be well paid or have personal circumstances which lock them into their travel patterns.

For those visiting people in hospital it can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive, no matter how they travel (plus the worry about the person they are visiting of course). If it is to visit people in inner-London hospitals, they will be saddled with the high cost of public transport, especially if they are coming in from outside London. In outer-London they may be able to find a parking space at a hospital.

So, what are the recommendations of the paper?

1. London hospitals that use a pay-and-display system in car parks should move to a pay-on exit system. This would avoid overpayment by car owners unable to calculate exactly how long their visit will last and also reduce the stress associated with delays to out-patient appointments. In the case of parking payment machines malfunctioning, this would decrease stress for those fearing missed appointments as a consequence of delays while finding alternative machines or other payment methods. Pay-on-exit systems would also be fairer, as people would only pay for the time that they have actually used.

2. London hospitals should examine the possibility of siting some car park payment machines inside adjacent buildings in order to reduce the possibility of vandalism and to serve as a back-up for payment when machines inside the car parks are broken.

3. London hospitals should look to increase the proportion of car parking spaces that are available to patients and visitors, and pass on any reductions that they are able to make as a result of the increased supply of available public parking spaces.

4. London hospitals should work with Transport for London to produce robust staff travel plans to reduce car usage, including measures to promote public transport, car sharing and other alternatives. These travel plans should include measurable targets and be regularly monitored, with the results published on the hospital’s website. Hospitals and Transport for London should also examine where it would be possible to provide additional public transport links to hospitals in order to reduce car journeys by patients and staff.

Groundbreaking be sure. Central London is well served (possibly overserved in some locations) by public transport and so the only recommendation which even sniffs at the answer is (part) of the fourth one. Travel plans are all well and good, but unless, cost-effective, safe and reliable alternatives to the car are provided, then how will people make the switch? This applies to any workplace. Those on the highest salaries will continue to pay for parking and those who cannot afford (and have no alternatives) can be damned - not the way to run staff relations.

Hospitals and Transport for London should also examine where it would be possible to provide additional public transport links to hospitals in order to reduce car journeys by patients and staff.

Well yes, good point. Except this is exactly what happens now (did he speak to TfL?). The provision of "additional public transport links" is a proxy for buses (nobody is planning railway stations at hospitals) and a great deal of work is put in to get bus routes into or near hospitals. As with any planning, this takes time and often has to align with operator contract renewals. Diverting buses into hospitals is an issue for those going on somewhere else and so route terminations in hospitals might be the answer, although this needs space for bus stops and stands - repurposing of car parks anyone?

No, what we have here is a narrow issue paper coming at a much wider problem with no sophistication. The solutions are, as ever business as usual, and this means thinking about and providing for those with access to cars, rather than providing for mass transport. When people such as Boff start campaigning for free Oyster credit for those with long-term medical needs (rather than free parking); for protected, direct, pedestrian and cycle routes serving hospitals so those who are able travel under their own power can and perhaps a stop to NHS closures and sell-offs (and out of town hospitals) so more services can be provided close to where people live and where they can get to; then I might start taking papers as this more seriously.

As ever, the right of (polite) reply is available and I will be tweeting the link to this post to the GLA Conservatives in case they would like to add more - and I mean something of substance, rather than this being an issue raised by constituents, I want facts and figures. If you have any other current transport thinking from other GLA groups, I should only be too happy to give my opinions ;)

Update 9/1/15
Thanks to Robbob for clarification on the Oyster costs - it is clearly too complicated for idiots like me. Looks like a little cheaper:

Just a couple of corrections to the public transport costs. Capping is available on child zip oystercards (£1.50 for a daily cap). It is also impossible to hit the £11.70 cap for a single off-peak return journey (£10.40 is the maximum possible off-peak fare for a combined national rail/tube journey from zone 6), so the fare would be considerably less than £18.00. Also a 1 day adult bus cap is £4.40 (available on oyster or contactless cards) so there is no need to pre-purchase a £5.00 bus pass.


  1. Just a couple of corrections to the public transport costs. Capping is available on child zip oystercards (£1.50 for a daily cap). It is also impossible to hit the £11.70 cap for a single off-peak return journey (£10.40 is the maximum possible off-peak fare for a combined national rail/tube journey from zone 6), so the fare would be considerably less than £18.00. Also a 1 day adult bus cap is £4.40 (available on oyster or contactless cards) so there is no need to pre-purchase a £5.00 bus pass.

    1. Thanks for the information, I have added it at the end of the post!