Lancaster's first Park & Ride scheme is due to open later this month (or early next?), being required as a planning condition of the construction of the Heysham Link Road. The service will link a dedicated car park site adjacent the remodelled Junction 34 of the M6 with the City Centre, although full details have not yet been made public. Even the offical Cabinet Member Report that authorises the service is short on detail but from what little information has been provided it appears that the service is, perhaps intentionally, perhaps through lack of expertise, being set up to fail.
Park & Ride is a long-established concept in the UK with many cities and large towns running successful schemes taking traffic out of central areas. As one would expect a great deal of research has been done into what makes schemes successful, but one such report - from the prestigious Chartered Institute of Highways & Transportation. (CIHT) on what constitues best practice suggests that Lancashire County Council, for whatever reason, hasn't got it right.
So how does the Lancaster Scheme compare with "best practice"?
CIHT's Report suggests that:
Park and ride facilities should be sited at convenient locations, intercepting the main radial routes of the conurbation it services, preferably with a dedicated high quality bus service. The sites need to have prominent advanced signage with good accessibility whilst providing attractive and secure parking facilities including adequate lighting incorporating CCTV coverage. Toilets and real time information are "desireable" though not "essential"
A 650-car site, incliuding 60 disabled spaces,lighting and CCTV columns, fencing and landscaping, road markings and traffic signs as well as (unspecified) "bus shelters".
Comment: The site meets the "convenience" requirement being at the junction of M6 and Caton Road and it appears that lighting and traffic signage (of whatever quality) are to be provided. Note, however, the curious reference to CCTV "columns" and the inference that cameras and, importantly, camera monitoring are not automatically included! Toilets and Real Time Information will not be provided.
As for the "High Quality Bus Service" CIHT suggests:
The sites should be welcoming and provide high quality waiting areas, toilets and information points (real time information and toilets were considered to be desirable but not essential). In addition, waiting times should be no more than 8 to 10 minutes (10-15 minutes maximum off peak) and the number of dedicated buses used should ideally be sufficient to ensure that one is waiting at each park and ride site. Route lengths need to be carefully co-ordinated and designed, incorporating a limited number of intermediate stops conveniently located at popular locations.
Park and ride services are generally being provided from 07.00 until 19.00 with varying arrangements at weekends. Weekend provision depends largely on the activity and demand in the town centre together with the associated on and off-street parking charge policy. Clearly, free or low parking charges in the town centre will reduce the demand for services and fewer services are provided on Sundays, except on special occasions.
In place of "high-quality waiting areas", Lancashire is proposing an unspecified number of bus shelters, which may or may not be fully enclosed and contain seating and lighting.
Instead of "waiting times being no more than 8 to 10 minutes" Lancashire proposes a bus every 30 minutes, which means that someone arriving at the site just after a bus has left will have to wait half-an-hour for the next one. Neither is there anything in the Cabinet Report to suggest that enough huses will be used so that there is "always one waiting" leaving the would-be user to wait for up to 30 minutes in what may, or may not, be a "high-quality waiting area". The Report does not specify routes or city centre stopping places, but a reference to the provision of facilities for bus crews being available at the Bus Station - at the bottom of the hill on which the city centre lies - suggests that this might be one of them.
The Report does not contain details of days or times of operation.
Concerning charges CIHT recommends:
Charging policies are primarily designed to encourage longer stay visitors to use park and ride, such as commuters and shoppers together with tourists where appropriate. However, park and ride fares will normally also compare favourably with shorter stay parking charges making the service attractive for shorter visits. Using park and ride removes the need to search for parking places and direct access is provided to the town centre which is particularly attractive for infrequent visitors who are unfamiliar with the local geography.
Almost all services (in a survey referred to in the report) charge for the bus element of park and ride combined with free parking. The average return fare for an adult is £2.25 with most charging between £2 and £3. Several discounts are offered for children (mostly free with adults), offpeak travel, groups sharing a car and concessions. Some permit unlimited trips per day for one ticket
Lancashire proposes a more complex and less user-friendly charging system. All users of the car park will be required at purchase and display a £1 parking ticket. Those proposing to use the bus service will then pay a further £1.50 return fare (75p for children) Group and Regular User Discounts will be provided but are not specified in the Report.
According to the County Council All-Day Parking in Lancaster city centre costs £6.50 and therefore for a car containing up to three adults the Park and Ride will offer a (small) saving.
In the case of Off-Peak travellers, such as shoppers or tourists the position is less attractive. For two adults travelling together the cost of using Park & Ride will be £4 ( 2 x bus fare + £1 parking charge). If two children are included this rises to £5.50. Short Term parking in the city costs:
Up to 1 hour £1.40
Up to 2 hours £2.40
Up to 3 hours £2.80
Up to 4 hours £3.50
meaning that it will always be more expensive to use Park & Ride if there is more than one person in a car and even a single person would need to be staying for over 2 hours to make a (small) saving, although as Concessionary Bus Passes will be accepted the situation will vary depending on how many people in a car have such a pass.
So How Does it Compare?
It appears that the Lancaster Park & Ride Scheme meets the requirement of a convenient location and will meet some (but by no means all) of the high-quality waiting environment requirements,
The proposed payment system is hardly user-friendly, requiring users to park, find a ticket machine and buy a ticket, return to the car to display it and then find the bus stop where they can wait up to 30 minutes for a bus! Whether the cost is attractive depends very much on the length of time users will be spending in town and the number of concessionary pass holders in the car. For comparison, the return fare on the regular bus service 81 from Caton Road Business Park into the City is £3.20 so the service may prove attractive to some local residents who can "park" at home.
Where the service falls down badly is the proposed frequency of one bus every 30 minutes. Whereas regular bus users can cope with this and can adjust their lives around the bus timetable, this service is supposed to attract car drivers who are used to the freedom of setting off when they please. Nor, unlike regular bus passengers, are they used to hanging around - even in a "high-quality waiting environment" - for up to half-an-hour, especially for a bus journey that "should" only take a fraction of that time.
It appears that the service has been designed around what the county can afford, rather than what is needed to make it a success and that were it not a requirement of the planning consent it might not be provided at all. Lancashire proposes that the service will run for at least 18 months to get it established after which it is hoped that a bus operator might take it on commercially. The Bus Users' Group will be surprised to see it last that long unless drastic improvements to the offer take place as, at present, potential users are being expected to negotiate a fiddly payment system, which may or may not save them money, then wait a long time for a bus that will then take them into town through the same congested roads that they could drive along themselves.