Why other cities should copy Nottingham's revolutionary parking levy

Nottingham Express Transit: the workplace parking levy has helped fund extensions to the network. Image: Elliott Brown/Flickr/creative commons.

Since the 1980s, there has been a dispiriting narrative in transport in some UK cities. Bus deregulation in 1986, and the loosening of planning controls permitting new out of town shopping developments, was followed by significant growth in car ownership and use.

Since then, there has been a tendency in many cities to equate development and progress to increased car use, roads and car-based development. Cuts in government spending have been a further disincentive to promoting or funding public transport projects or other alternatives to car use.

Plenty of cities are doing good things on transport, however. The new Urban Transport Group, which brings together the urban transport authorities in London and other cities, is helping showcase what is happening on the ground and lobbying for the powers and funding to improve things.

But one city stands out as having achieved huge amount in this area. Nottingham is a medium-sized city of some 300,000 people (though the wider urban area is over 700,000).Yet it has some of the highest levels of public transport use outside London.

Nottingham City Council has developed a reputation for innovation and achievement in transport policy. It’s retained its ownership of the local bus company, Nottingham City Transport. It has also implemented a tram network – and it has implemented a levy on workplace parking spaces, the money from which goes towards transport projects in the city.

To say that this levy, more or less the first of its kind in the world, has been controversial is to understate things. It took the city council nearly 10 years to get this through, following the Transport Act 2000 promoted by John Prescott which authorised such levies in principle. Nottingham ended up having to employ lawyers to write the secondary legislation themselves.

It faced constant battles with the city’s biggest employers and the chamber of commerce, and constant lobbying from national business groups like the CBI, who tried to persuade ministers to set aside any localist tendencies they might have and veto the plans as a terrible business-bashing precedent. There were forecasts of business es deserting Nottingham for other cities nearby, tumbleweed through the streets and so forth.

Despite all this, the levy went live in 2012, after a period requiring employees to license their parking spaces. All employers with 11 or more spaces had to pay £288 per year per space; it has since risen to £375 a year, although there are various exemptions. The revenue from this scheme has contributed towards two further tram lines, the upgrade of the main railway station, support for the “Linkbus” network of non-commercial bus services, and a business support package of travel planning and parking management.

A map of the Nottingham Express Transit tram network. Click to expand. Image: NET.

The results are becoming clear to see. Public transport use, already high, has now nudged above 40 per cent of journeys in the city, a very high percentage for the UK.

The wider economic impacts are perhaps more interesting: all the predictions of loss of jobs and businesses have proved unfounded. (In fact, the genesis of this piece was a comment on these pages that Nottingham had grown when many similar cities had shrunk.) Recent statistics show jobs growth in Nottingham has been faster than other cities, while traffic congestion has fallen. The levy, with the other measures, has also helped Nottingham reach its carbon reduction target a few years early.

Although every city is different, there might be some wider lessons here. One, for the transport economist geeks, might be to stop obsessing with congestion charging. Efficient in economic theory though this might be, Nottingham looked at it and decided that it would be very costly – all those cameras and enforcement – and would not target peak hour traffic jams and single-occupancy car commuting as effectively as the levy would.

The wider lesson from this is that the politics of a levy are different, too. With congestion charging you have to get support from the whole city and potentially its hinterland; and referenda in Manchester and Edinburgh show how difficult that is. With a workplace parking levy, there is a narrower and potentially more politically winnable discussion with businesses and commuters about what a levy could pay for – things that might make journeys to work easier and cut peak hour jams and pollution.


Another lesson is that, in cash-strapped times, this levy might be something for other cities to follow. In Nottingham, it is now generating around £9m a year, a reasonable sum for a city that size. There is interest in other cities: Oxford is actively pursuing such a policy, and other places are eyeing it up, too. Cambridge recently announced a radical city deal which includes a workplace parking levy (there is of course a strong argument for giving local authorities a range of revenue raising powers, as the rest of the world does; but let’s not get carried away).

And the final lesson is that cities can, in fact, grow their economy without increased traffic and congestion, and while reducing carbon emissions. This might be something for the candidates for mayors in the city regions to take on board as they start to construct their manifestos.

Stephen Joseph is chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport. A briefing on the Nottingham workplace parking levy is available on the website of the Campaign’s new thought leadership programme, Tracks.

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Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.