London’s on-street parking takes up as much space as 10 Hyde Parks

A car park on the South Bank, London, c1970. Image: Getty.

Parking is in the interesting position of being at once entirely mundane and uninteresting to many, but fiercely emotive and controversial at the same time. Local authorities which manage on-street parking spend a lot of time and political capital on issues related to parking controls. Bringing in changes can inspire some passionate responses. 

But parking doesn’t just affect drivers. And only 56 per cent of Londoners actually own a car. The kerbside is as much a part of the urban landscape as anything else, and how we use this space impacts our quality of life in a number of profound ways. 

The sight of cars parked at the kerbside is so humdrum that many of us don’t stop to consider what that means at the city scale. The Centre for London has carried out some calculations to see how much of London is actually taken up by parked cars. We found that on-street parking takes up over 14km2, equivalent to 10 Hyde Parks completely covered by cars. 

Given that the average car is parked 95 per cent of the time, this is a hugely inefficient use of land. Kerb space given over to parking can’t be used for other things with a greater social benefit. For example, tackling climate change and poor air quality will require a large-scale shift from private cars to public transport, walking and cycling. Enabling people to make this shift ultimately requires increasing the capacity of the public transport system, including the speed and reliability of buses – which in turn, means more priority bus lanes. However, dedicating significant amounts of the kerbside to allow for free-flowing buses is much more difficult when there are long stretches of parked cars in the way. 

The same principle applies for cycling. Getting more people on their bikes, means more segregated lanes so that less confident cyclists can get involved, and this requires allocating finite road and street space. And options to walk also suffer when too much space is dedicated to cars. Being able to provide safe, pleasant environments which encourage people to walk demands sufficiently wide pavements, well-designed crossing points and even trees, bushes and places to rest along the way. Again, this involves choices about what we should prioritise in finite space. 

This begs the question – what do Londoners actually prioritise? Are car-dominated streets a reflection of what overall public opinion wants, or the preferences of a vocal minority? To that end, we asked Londoners what their priorities are for streets in their local area. We found that on-street parking comes only fifth, after trees and green space, clutter-free pavements, children’s play space and community and recreation space. So this need to start moving away from car-dominated streets seems to be matched by a public desire to see it happen.

What are some things policymakers should be doing to enable this shift? We’ve outlined a number of recommendations that would help reduce reliance on cars in London. One of those concerns how we decide toallocate kerbside space to different uses. All too often, decisions around the uses and users of the kerb are taken on a piecemeal basis, and you end up with a mishmash of different priorities, designs and outcomes, without putting the wider social good first. We’re calling for transport planners, local authorities and developers to go back to first principles, and consider the kerbside and all of its different uses holistically, and allocate space according to agreed-upon prioritised uses.

These uses could be prioritised according to their wider social benefit, creating a kerbside hierarchy. These hierarchies might differ depending on location, as different uses need to be prioritised on a high street or a residential road, whether it’s visitor or residential parking, or space for deliveries during the day. Kerbside hierarchies would then inform the way we design our streets and neighbourhoods, and will enable us to start reclaiming precious public space from socially harmful uses like excess car journeys in favour of things that will benefit us all.

Joe Wills is a senior researcher at the Centre for London.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.