Has the pandemic pushed greener initiatives to the back of the queue?

Have councils had to postpone or abandon their sustainability goals for parking?

Since March, the world has been turned upside down.

The coronavirus – believed to have originated in Wuhan in late 2019 – led to a surge in hospitalisations and excess deaths in Western Europe and North America by late March. Many countries implemented strict lockdowns in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, protect those most vulnerable to severe infection, and prevent healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed. 

The impact on parking revenues for local authorities

Unsurprisingly, the lockdown led to a dramatic fall in the demand for parking – with local authorities in the UK suffering heavy losses in revenue. If you were to type in the key phrases ‘parking revenue’ and ‘uk pandemic’ into Google, you would find endless links to articles about the financial impact this has had on councils up and down the country.

Why greener parking initiatives have never been more important 

While the pandemic is still an acute threat in the UK and the rest of the world – the good news is that it will eventually come to an end. 

The threat of climate change, however, is not coming to an end anytime soon.

It has never been more important for governments – both local and national – to deliver on their environmental goals and empower communities to minimise their carbon footprints.

But can councils still achieve their long-term environmental goals now?

Despite the financial shock of the pandemic, many local authorities are still determined to deliver on their sustainability plans.

With a ban on fossil-fuelled vehicles due to take effect in the UK by 2040 – and a rapidly growing domestic EV (electric vehicle) market – there are strong incentives for them to do so, too. This, combined with ample enthusiasm for EV both from the national government and the private sector – means sustainability can stay right at the heart of councils’ agendas.

Net Carbon Zero plans still full steam ahead for liverpool

In July 2019, Liverpool City Council launched an ambitious ‘climate change emergency’ plan to make the city net carbon zero by 2030. Sadly, the financial hit from the pandemic means that the council will probably have to reset its budget altogether – although councillors have stressed that they are still determined to become carbon neutral in 10 years. In July, Liverpool-based firm Franklin Energy also announced plans to install 500 new car-charging points by 2023 to help boost the demand for EV in the city.

A new Clean Air Zone for Birmingham

Earlier this month, it was confirmed that a Clean Air Zone – in which drivers of older vehicles would incur daily fees – will come into force in Birmingham next June. The charges were originally intended to be introduced this year but were delayed due to the pandemic and a software error.

A Clean Air Zone was also proposed for Leeds, but thanks to a significant shift towards cleaner vehicles, this plan has been abandoned. Over 90% of buses in the city now use Euro VI engines – which have a much lower carbon footprint than older models. Thanks to this trend, pollution levels on Leeds’ key routes have fallen below the legal limits – and it is anticipated that they will remain below these limits even if traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels.

But what about reducing congestion?

A key challenge for local and national government is reducing congestion in our towns and cities. One of the (very) few positive side effects of the pandemic was the remarkable absence of congestion and traffic on many of our streets during the spring lockdown. However, as businesses gradually reopened and people started to make more journeys, much of that traffic returned – although this would have led to an improvement in parking revenues at least!

Vehicle traffic was close to normal by mid September 

Data from the Office for National Statistics found that vehicle traffic on Britain’s roads was only 3 percent lower than normal by Monday, September 14th – although the number of bus journeys outside London was still over 40% down around the same time.

Now, under normal circumstances, local authorities have strong incentives to discourage private car use during busy periods – such as school runs – and to encourage public transport use where feasible to help minimise congestion. However, during this acute public health crisis, councils’ priority is to reduce the spread of the virus within their communities, which is why residents in areas with high transmission rates are being asked to avoid public transport where possible.

Tackling congestion in the post-Covid world

With varying degrees of lockdown restrictions taking effect across the UK, congestion probably isn’t going to be at the top of councils’ agenda at the moment.

However, once those restrictions are eased and the pandemic has ended, councils may need to do more than just encourage people to use public transport more.

Can reallocating parking spaces save our cities from congestion?

A recent report from the Centre for London thinktank just before the pandemic called for a new ‘hierarchical’ approach to car parking in London in order to tackle congestion – rather than just focusing on promoting public transport use. Despite a congestion charge being in operation since 2003, London still ranks among the most congested cities in the world. INRIX put it in 6th position in 2019 -with the cost of congestion estimated to be about £1,680 for each driver. Interestingly, the report found that on-street parking in London takes up enough space to cover Hyde Park ten times! 

How would this approach work?

By reallocating a percentage of parking space each year to other high-priority uses such as EV charging, cycling, and disabled bays, overall traffic in London could be reduced. The Centre for London has used Copenhagen as a successful example of this approach. There, 80% of journeys are now made on foot, and the trend towards pedestrianisation and reduced parking spaces to make way for bus and cycle lanes has proved ‘extremely popular’. 

Making space for EV

Reallocating some parking spaces to EV charging points makes sense when you consider that only about two thirds of new cars sold today are petrol or diesel. This compares to 98% in 2015 – which shows just how radically the market has changed in a few years.

Why is this change happening so quickly?

Because Sales of EVs have risen 664 percent in the last four years.

Despite the economic downturn and the overall fall in car sales during the pandemic, the EV market is thriving – although you wouldn’t think so if you only looked at the overall picture.

On Twitter, Dr Simon Evans, Deputy Editor of CarbonBrief, explained that while overall UK car sales are 40% lower than when they peaked in 2017, EV sales this year are about three times higher than last year – with 21,903 sold in September alone.

Public attitudes are also moving in the right direction

A survey recently conducted by cashless parking provider RingGo has found that almost four out of five (76%) of UK drivers said they were aware of the impact driving has on the environment.

However, the same survey also showed that the vast majority of drivers have yet to consider buying an electric car as their next vehicle. The high cost, insufficient knowledge of EV, and a lack of charging points are some of the key factors for this reluctance.

Fortunately, some of these concerns are beginning to be addressed. For example, in September 2020, a report by the Department for Transport suggested that electric cars should be eligible for free parking and reduced VAT in order to encourage more people to buy them. In the meantime, local authorities need all the support they can get to promote EV, expand charging points, and incentivise more motorists to take up this much greener alternative.

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