Pre-booked parking. Is this the future for tourism hotspots in the UK?

In the summer of 2020, Snowdonia National Park introduced a pre-booked parking system. Could this be part of the solution for managing UK leisure traffic generally? We discuss. By James Hetherington

Why was pre-booked parking introduced at the Snowdonia National Park?

Why did Snowdonia NP need a pre-booked parking system? Between May and July last year lockdown restrictions were gradually lifted. The UK Government then permitted unlimited travel for exercise or sunbathing in May. There were reports of beauty spots becoming overcrowded.

Some authorities took drastic measures to try and combat this problem. By August 2020, people travelling to the Snowdonia National Park on weekends and Bank Holidays were told they must book a parking space in advance. Especially if they intended to park at the Pen-y-Pass car park, a popular starting point for hikers. One morning before 8am, dozens of motorists were turned away because the car park had already reached its capacity!

The new system operated on a ‘first come, first serve basis’.

What if you couldn’t find a space?

You wouldn’t necessarily have to drive home or find an alternative travel destination. People who could not get a parking slot could use the park-and-ride facilities at nearby Llanberis or Nant Peris to gain access to Pen-y-Pass.

Pre-booked parking has also been introduced in other areas of the UK.

West Wittering in West Sussex had a pre-booking parking system in place during a spell of warm weather last year. When parking capacity had been reached, many motorists resorted to parking on narrow, residential streets nearby. This prompted Sussex Police officers to issue fixed penalty notices.

The car park, overlooking the sandy Blue Flag-winning West Wittering Beach, was only operating at 20% of its normal capacity at the time. The West Wittering Estate, which launched the pre-book scheme by JustPark, said parking problems were not as bad as in previous years. 

A spokesperson said that irresponsible parking did cause problems, but did not lead to the ‘long tail backs’ which had been witnessed in previous years. The West Wittering Estate also expressed optimism that, with enough advertising, communication and public uptake, the pre-paid app scheme would deliver ‘long-term benefits’ to the local area.

The airport example

Pre-booked parking is already commonplace at many UK airports. It’s often a lot cheaper than choosing a parking space on the day. Although prices do vary widely between different airports. 

According to research from travel insurer Staysure in 2018, London Luton Airport had the most expensive car park, while Belfast had the cheapest. The difference between the cheapest pre-booked car park and the most expensive car park was an astonishing £141.49.

So pre-booking your airport parking can save you a lot of money

But is this a model for other types of parking?

Yes, but only in the context of reducing congestion for locations and times when demand is high. Also, when it is likely that parking facilities will reach capacity, such as in the Snowdonia and West Wittering examples. 

Pre-booked parking for leisure destinations would involve a strict cap. People would not be able to access the parking facility once capacity has been reached. Understandably, the airport concept of charging more to park on the day (compared to pre-booking) would prove deeply unpopular in places like national parks and beaches, and would likely elicit a myriad of negative stories in the media.

Pre-booked parking would be a big adjustment for many people.

Unless you only ever park with a pre-pay app at an airport, you’re probably not that familiar with pre-pay parking yet. The vast majority of people are used to setting off. Turning up at a car park. Paying for their parking o site. 

Remembering to pre-book a parking space every time we make a journey would take some getting used to! Presumably, many of us would do this on our phones. However, it’s worth noting that most people aged 75 and above had yet to use a smartphone in 2019. Even in 2021 it is highly unlikely that the number of smartphone users in this age group is comparable to the number holding a driver’s licence, judging from Age UK data for similar age groups

But could pre-booking systems be good for parking management overall?

Referring to the pre-bookable parking system at West Wittering, their CEO, James Crespi, said this was the only way to control the number of people at the beach when there is ‘very, very high demand’. The new system was originally intended to prevent overcrowding on the beach.

People who intend to visit West Wittering Beach simply select the day and time of their visit. Book a space, and pay for their parking in advance. When parking capacity is reached, no one else can buy tickets.

So could summer 2021 be similar to last summer in this respect?

Possibly. 2021 could be the second summer of the ‘staycation’, although it is still too early to tell.

The UK Government has advised UK citizens not to book foreign holidays this year. Even though it is anticipated that a significant proportion of the population will have been vaccinated by then. So, if millions of us holiday in the UK instead of abroad, this could have mixed impacts.

More people holidaying in the UK could be good for the economy and our beleaguered hospitality businesses. Money that would otherwise be spent abroad would instead be spent on businesses in the UK.

But leisure traffic was a big concern last year. 2021 may be no different! 

The number of search terms for requests relating to travel abroad fell by 56%. Whilst the number of search terms for travelling in the UK rose by more than 100%

Like Snowdonia, the Lake District also became much busier than normal, recording 40% more visitors compared to normal years. Many local authorities simply weren’t ready for managing this surge in demand. Although a few areas did close a number of roads to visitor traffic when car parks reached capacity.

This exposes a much wider problem of leisure transport management in the UK.

Data from the National Travel Survey showed that leisure trips accounted for 63% of all personal miles. These included day excursions, visiting family and friends and holidays. Yet, Alastair Kirkbride, a Foundation for Integrated Transport Fellow, specialising in transport and tourism, states that leisure travel policies ‘tend to sit at the intersection’ of other policies. This creates a ‘governance gap’ in which leisure access and transport access to rural destinations have no coherent policies or interventions.

But pre-bookable parking and car traffic restrictions could gain public acceptance.

For tourism destinations in rural areas, Kirkbride says pre-bookable parking and car traffic restrictions, combined with other onward access solutions, would be comparable to the pedestrianisation in place in many town centres across the UK. Kirkbride argues that, in the medium term, this would gain public acceptance and improve the public’s experience (for the most part), while also reducing the environmental impact of cars and helping to solve peak-season congestion.

National parks also need to’ take on an active role’ in their transport management.

Kirkbride referred to the 2019 Glover review, which proposed that the Lake District National Park become a pilot for a scheme that would give national parks more power over their transport. The Glover review also said car dependency and public transport pressures are ‘huge challenges for our national landscapes’ – and this is compounded by the fact that 72% of large attractions are more than a mile from a train station. 

Writing about the report’s recommendations in 2020, during the easing of the first lockdown, Kirkbride said the report was ‘absolutely right’ in its observation that national park authorities can ‘take on an active role’ to coordinate and promote transport. 

But he was concerned that the government initiatives for managing walking and cycling during the pandemic involve fast-tracking traffic regulation, which is largely irrelevant to national parks because:

  • Officer capacity at transport authorities is strained.
  • Transport authorities primarily serve residents, as opposed to visitors, but transport in national parks is heavily influenced by visitors.
  • The Government has focused on functional (utility) travel as opposed to leisure travel, the latter of which is most applicable to national parks. 
Or should National Parks be traffic free instead?

In 2018, Kirkbride discussed whether it is time to consider traffic-free national parks, suggesting that empty car parks could be converted into outdoor cinemas or food events. 

How might that work?

Instead of travelling by car, many people could use shuttles and point-to-point bike hire services. Those who live and work within a national park would be able to travel without the congestion that plagues many national park routes during peak times. 

Kirkbride stresses that this kind of transformation need not happen all at once. Neither would it need to occur everywhere or permanently. For example, restricting access to dead-end valleys, and creating designated traffic-free weekends, could be a good start, he adds.

This could also boost local business activity.

Kirkbride argues that creating new transport related services – or expanded current transport provisions – could ‘open a whole set of new opportunities’. Especially how businesses can market themselves, and trigger ‘new components of the local economy’. 

In another article, Kirkbride wrote that the Lake District National Park Authority has also recognised that MaaS (Mobility as a Service) might help ‘unblock progress in changing travel behaviour’. This could reduce the impact of transport on the environment, improve the visitor experience, and boost local enterprise.

Clearly, boosting local enterprise could help finance these new schemes. More business activity would translate to more revenue for councils from Business Rates. We see this as a far more preferential alternative than financing via national park charges. Which the Glover report did not advocate. The report’s authors said ‘we would never want to discourage anyone from visiting’, adding that ‘our national landscapes do not have entry fees and nor should they’. 

But sharp cuts to public transport services do present a big challenge for local authorities.

The Campaign for Better Transport says bus services in national parks have been reduced by a third during the austerity regime, with funding in Derbyshire reduced by up to 55%.

Alison Kohler, the Director of Conservation and Communities at Dartmoor National Park, says her authority is expecting a 12% increase in visitors in the next 25 years, when a new development will be built on the edge of the park. 

She asks the question: ‘Do we start building lots more car parks?’

Well, the alternative, and one of Kohler’s ideas, is to introduce a car-free day so that people can ‘re-experience the peace of that first spring lockdown’ and ‘connect with nature’. But she also says that older people – in their 70s and 80s – will be most reluctant to part with their cars – whereas younger people are much less likely to drive compared to 25 years ago.

Ruth Bradshaw, Policy and Research Manager for the Campaign for National Parks, says the pandemic has created a new kind of disruption which can provoke real change. She says the current situation is an opportunity to reorganise public transport across the country.

Making our beauty spots accessible to all is the ultimate goal

Everyone has the right to enjoy the countryside. But no one wants our national parks to be congested with cars either. After the current lockdown, people will be eager to get out again and share experiences with their loved ones.

From the ancient stone circles of Dartmoor to the mighty wilderness of the Cairngorms. The UK has no shortage of beautiful scenery. But it needs to be accessible to all if it can be enjoyed by all. 

Getting ready for life after the pandemic

Until the pandemic ends, many of us may be reluctant to travel on public transport instead of the car. But when it does end, social distancing and other restrictions will no longer need to be enforced. Authorities will have to be ready for this. 

A rural transport infrastructure that emphasises mobility and accessibility – keeping roads free of congestion, and delivering efficient and affordable public transport as an attractive alternative – must be the way forward.

Car travel can – and should – remain viable, as long as it is well managed. But promoting active travel where possible can also play a big role in reducing road traffic.

Keep an eye on our musings. Part 2 of our Parking Perceptions piece is coming soon!

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