Are we falling down in car park maintenance?

The government recognises the important role parking management plays in keeping our streets safe and free from obstruction, improving road safety and enabling servicing and deliveries to take place in high streets that would become congested if parking wasn’t properly and effectively managed. In a speech made last year at the parking profession’s annual trade show, Parkex, Under Secretary of State for Transport Robert Goodwill said that the BPA and its members were doing an excellent job because effective parking management is essential for businesses to survive and grow and is critical for a growing economy.
Good quality, well designed and properly maintained car parks can also contribute significantly to the prosperity of Britain’s towns and cities. We at the BPA work diligently towards this by sharing best practice, and we support this with schemes like Park Mark and its “Safe and Sound…?” promotions. In another Master Plan objective, we are promoting the fact that: “All car park owners and operators have a responsibility to ensure that their parking facilities are safer, properly serviced and maintained.”

Someone has to pay
All of this costs money and that is why we believe that so called ‘free parking’ is not viable. There’s no such thing as a free parking place – somebody somewhere is paying for it. This is true everywhere: in town centres, at the beach and in the countryside. Some car parks may be free at the point of use but someone is paying for their upkeep and maintenance. If they are patrolled to keep them safe someone is paying for that too.

So-called free parking is subsidised in some way, either by council tax payers, business ratepayers or a combination of both. It’s a bit like the NHS, which, as everyone knows, we all pay taxes and National Insurance contributions, which in turn fund the NHS. So it is the same with parking: somebody has to pay.
Smart owners and operators make conscious decisions about the best funding model for the operation of their parking facilities. If they choose to provide free parking for the users they need to decide how they can afford this. Everyone who provides and operates parking facilities should undertake a proper evaluation to fully appreciate the costs of providing, servicing and maintaining the parking facility and then decide how best to fund it.
It may well be that other income streams provide sufficient funding to enable the parking facility to be properly serviced and maintained and yet free at the point of use. So be it, but at least a conscious business decision has been reached. Alternatively you may decide that people should pay to park, and there are many good reasons to do this, in which case you need to consider your options and with the help of new technologies, your choices are myriad.

Paying for parking
There are broadly three types of arrangements when parking is paid for. Pay on arrival, pay on departure and pay on account. Any or all of these systems are capable of taking payment with a variety of payment methods including cash, payment cards, such as credit and debit cards, and by direct charging to prepaid accounts or emerging payment and cash transfer apps.
Pay on arrival is often used when short‑term time-limited parking is provided. These are typically parking meters, pay‑and-display machines and the like. All very familiar, easy‑to-use and easy to understand, with absolute certainty that the motorist has paid, and knows when they need to return to their car.
In my view, this option may not be entirely suitable for, say, a healthcare environment for example and its suitability is being increasingly questioned in town centres and elsewhere, unless there is a flat fee arrangement and not a fee based upon the length of time you are parked. No one can predict how long they are likely to be in an emergency department and increasingly shoppers and visitors want the flexibility to stay longer or simply change their mind when they meet a friend or decide to extend their stay.
In all of those cases pay on departure is likely to be much more suitable and a variety of options exist to cater for this. Commonly, this will be the familiar so-called pay on foot systems, with a ticket or token collected at the entry point to the parking facility. This requires you to attend the pay point on foot, just prior to your departure, pay for parking, have your ticket or token validated, and then drive to the exit, presenting your ticket or token and lifting the barrier so that you may drive away. These technologies are useful in off-street car parks, with clearly defined entries and exits and which are usually but not always fitted with some kind of barrier system.
Increasingly nowadays barriers are being dispensed with. Instead, automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras are deployed to detect the presence of a vehicle entering or leaving the car park. This allows for better traffic management arrangements with free flow of vehicles. ANPR technologies are connected to the pay point system and payment is commonly made by attending the pay point on foot, keying in or selecting your vehicle registration image from the screen and making an appropriate payment as before. No tickets or tokens are issued in these cases.
One of the real benefits of these ANPR linked systems is the ability to park now and pay later, when later can be anytime up to midnight or sometimes even the next day. ANPR linked to payment systems offers the motorist a wide variety of payment options and allows customers to pay in advance or after the event without penalty, similar to the way that motorists are able to do so for the London congestion charge and Dartford crossing. It is thought that the future of parking lies with advanced technology, allowing motorists to pay for parking and other services seamlessly. In time this will eliminate penalty charges for the majority of motorists.
Pay on account arrangements include season tickets and permits and other prepaid schemes which can be used effectively for regular users of car parks and facilities like resident parking schemes and business permits.

Increasingly motorists are now able to take advantage of registering with a service provider who enables payment to be taken using mobile and smart phone technologies, either via apps or dedicated call centres. This type of service is in routine use in central London, and the option is available in most local authority areas and at many train station car parks. This enables commuters to park the car, jump on a train, and pay for their parking whilst on the journey. The system also sends out reminders when paid for parking is due to expire, giving the motorist the opportunity to top up payment if necessary.

Ensuring effectiveness
Innovation and new technology, utilising CCTV, ANPR, smart phone apps and the like is transforming the way in which parking is managed and paid for. People who provide parking facilities need to use modern technology to manage parking effectively. But, of course, when these systems are used for enforcement purposes it should be done fairly and responsibly.
Few things are certain in life, and finding somewhere to park is a question on the minds of many people on most days. Those providing or operating parking facilities for clients, customers or the public in general, be it in town centres, business districts, healthcare or education facilities or at a transport hub such as a train station or an airport, have a responsibility to ensure that their parking facilities are safer, properly serviced and maintained. It’s a valuable asset that should be taken care of.

So just how do we ensure Britain’s car parks are prevented from falling down? Having a considered approach towards maintaining a car park structure is of course of paramount importance. The BPA facilitates a special interest group on the subject of structures and asset management (SAMSIG). The group is tasked with developing best practice, promoting life care planning and answering questions fielded by the Association’s extensive membership.
So why is maintaining a car park structure so important? SAMSIG chair and director of structural engineering practice at Pyle Car Park Consultants, Russell Simmons, suggests it should be common sense: “Car park structures are similar to any structural asset in that they will degrade over time and need to be maintained. Car Parks are under attack constantly from the elements, perhaps intense heat in the summer, snow and ice in the winter, airborne contaminants and pollution; not to mention cars driving all over them. Once degradation starts it will only get harder to fix and more expensive to arrest the longer it is left, which is why the professionals will always advise you to adopt a life-care plan approach to maintaining the asset.”

Life-care plans
Life-care plans are documents or systems which set out a plan to encourage the regular inspection of the structure and continued dialogue between the owner/operator and their engineers (in house or via consultants). The correct administration of a life-care plan (in line with ICE, ISTructE and BPA guidelines) will ensure that the correct proactive and reactive actions are taken at the appropriate time. There is an old adage which says that ‘a stitch in time saves nine.’ Nothing could be closer to the truth when maintaining a parking facility. Take good care of it, look after it, and it will serve you well for a very long time. Ignore it, hope for the best, starve it of investment and TLC and it will quickly deteriorate and degenerate, becoming a drain on resources and, potentially subject to structural failure, lead to early closure.
Having a proactive approach not only means that the car park looks its best, but will ensure that the structure remains safe for use (a legal obligation) and will remain serviceable for an extended period of time.

Neglecting the structure can, (and does in many cases) create risks, reduces quality, increases reactive spend and reduces the number of years that the car park can remain in service.
Local authorities have an obligation to ensure that the car park is being managed safely and cost effectively, and life‑care plans are the way forward. The BPA wants to see more emphasis on life‑care planning for all car parks and appropriate funds set aside to ensure that they are properly serviced and maintained.

Premature or unplanned closure of multi-storey car parks has a detrimental effect on the communities the car parks serve and works against the regeneration of town centres.

Further information