A Remedy for Hospitals?

A Remedy for Hospitals?

January 2016

The House of Commons has recently blocked legislation to provide free hospital parking for carers. Being able to access free parking is an important issue; but another significant problem has been overlooked from the debate: parking capacity.

In 2015, The Department of Health published the Health Technical Memorandum 07-03: NHS car-parking management, aimed at improving car parking management for patients, visitors and staff. In the feedback undertaken in preparation for this report, 88% of respondents said that “finding a space” was a problem, and 44% said that the situation was chronic.

If applied correctly, parking performance pricing could be a solution to address the capacity challenge. Straight from the US, this solution has been developed to tackle excess demand for on-street parking.

Cities set the lowest parking prices possible, and raise and lower the price of metered street parking to ensure that there’s always at least one available parking space on every block. It provides a balance between making sure a parking space is readily available, and that the parking facility, or street, accommodates as many people as possible.

San Francisco is the most famous adopter of performance pricing. The city uses historical parking occupancy data to establish whether the parking block is above or below the target occupancy for set periods during the day.

Where occupancy was above 80%, and thus empty parking bays limited, the hourly parking tariff was adjusted up by 25cents. If the average occupancy was lower than 60% the tariff was reduced by 25c or if lower than 30%, by 50cents. For blocks with an average occupancy between 60-80%, no change has been made. Since the pilot started in 2011, the city has changed the tariffs on 16 occasions. 

If applied to local hospitals in the UK, this would mean that pricing across a hospital parking estate would be based on the demand at that time of day in the previous months. At 11am on a weekday you would expect prices to be higher from higher demand; but, if you park in a more distant car park or at a different time of day, then the demand and charge would be lower.

The government have stated in their NHS patient, visitor and staff car parking principles, that people frequently visiting hospital for instance, would have a local arrangement that will mean their parking bill remains reasonable. Performance pricing wouldn’t change the safeguard.

What would change with performance pricing is that there would be parking availability at all times. If you arrive early at the hospital, you might decide to park further as it’s cheaper. However, if you arrived later for a specialist appointment that had taken many months to organise, no more would you need circle the site with many others looking for someone to vacate a spot. There would be spots available close to the entrance; more expensive…but compared to missing an important specialist appointment it could be a worthwhile trade off.

Furthermore, any surplus revenue earned from this technique can be ring-fenced; for those that continue to drive to the hospital it would provide funds to create more parking capacity or to subsidise other methods of getting to the site. It may be that a park and ride could be offered at no cost to the user. Those on a tighter budget go early and use the park and ride making a parking spot available for someone with a greater willingness to pay.

The government has been very clear that parking charges should be reasonable. However, at the moment the problem is that at some sites it is accepted that there is a 30 minutes queue for somewhere to park. There’s no mechanism in place to fund good alternatives.

Good value doesn’t necessarily mean that a parking charge is the same as a neighbouring hospital or town. When people have to queue for a long time, stress, waste fuel, and then still be charged for it, that isn’t good value. It may be that if we are to address the capacity challenge we need to think again what we mean when we say reasonable. Who better than the users to set this?