We talk a lot about improving air quality. Indeed, Canterbury City Council is currently consulting on the new Air Quality Action Plan, and takes the issue of clean air extremely seriously.
It may seem odd, then, that the council is building a new multi-storey car park (MSCP) at Station Road West, increasing parking capacity at the district’s high-speed rail gateway to London.
Traditional thinking is that city centre parking should gradually be reduced in order to encourage “modal shift”. If you’re not familiar with the term, we’re talking about more people walking, cycling and getting the bus.
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Anything but getting in a car. That’s why, in some cities, you’ll find only a handful of car parks, usually operated by private companies that charge exorbitant rates well beyond our tariffs here.
Cars, despite their historically poor environmental performance, have their upsides. How much shopping can you buy and take home on your bike? How late can you stay out for dinner if you’re relying on the bus to get home?
Clearly our economy relies on a broad mix of modes of transport being available, and the success of a city like Canterbury hinges on us keeping the friction of all of those modes as low as possible.
If you increase friction for car users then a small amount of modal shift may result, but there’s also likely to be a shift from people consuming goods and services in the city to consuming them in other places where the friction is less.
It’s fortunate, then, that “more cars means poorer air quality” is becoming a thing of the past.
After years of wishing and hoping for a significant change in personal combustion engine transportation, cars, most of us can now recognise that a transformation is underway.
Sales of diesel cars are plummeting and plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles are on a skyward trajectory, albeit starting from a very low base.
Likewise, electric vehicle charging is becoming widely available, and this year the council will install no fewer than nine new points on-street with more in its off-street car parks.
The new MSCP will have capacity for charging a whopping 40 vehicles at the same time from day one, with preparation baked in to expand that number as soon as demand dictates.
It will also be fitted with the most state of the art Automatic Number Plate Recognition technology available.
This will allow far more granular pricing than we’ve ever seen in council car parks, with rates tailored to residents, visitors and commuters.
But more crucially when we come on to air quality, the technology can be aware of the type of vehicle parking, and the emissions profile of that vehicle too.
This will present us with an opportunity. Rather than try to drive all cars out of the city and suffer the resulting loss of commerce, we could instead look to implement tariffs in areas of poorer air quality that encourage the use of zero-emissions vehicles.
We could make it cheaper, or even free, to park an electric car, sending a clear signal of our eco-credentials and our vision for an electric Canterbury.
If we consider that the council is rolling out this technology to some 16 car parks across the district over the course of the next year we can quickly see how it could be used to positively affect air quality, even if parking capacity is being increased.
Longer term even this becomes less relevant as the proportion of electric vehicles in active use increases. Longer term still, and this is important because a MSCP like Station Road West is expected to have a lifespan in the region of fifty years, we’re already seeing major vehicle producers gearing up for fully automated driving.
It’s incredibly likely that during the course of the next decade car ownership will start to be replaced by automated car pools: a bit like Uber but without the driver.
Passengers will summon an electric vehicle perfect for their requirements via an app and use it for as long as they need it, after which it will return to the pool ready for use by someone else.
It’s estimated that cars today spend some 95% of their life parked up. We’re on the cusp of that figure completely inverting.
Of course, these vehicles can’t circulate indefinitely until someone requests them. They’ll need places to wait, to charge, and these places need to be near the areas where they’ll be needed quickly and in good supply at peak times.
Places like Station Road West. In as little as half of the MSCPs life, significant numbers of spaces could be taken up by automated electric vehicles, charging and waiting for the next high speed train to arrive from London so that they can stream out and start taking people on to their next destination.
It’ll work like a big transportation battery, powering the Canterbury commuter machine.
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Circling back to now, and the council is already experimenting with a car club at Station Road West, dedicating a parking space to a vehicle that can be used by anyone. But it’s clear for me to see that this is just the start of a transport revolution, and that our investment in the MSCP is well placed for facilitating it.
Building a car park may seem like an outdated idea recycled from the 80s. I was born in the 80s.
I can assure you, when I talk about building a MSCP it’s an idea rooted only in the future: a future of better transport, better air quality and an even stronger economy for our unique and beautiful city, and everyone who lives and works within it.
Ben Fitter-Harding has been a Conservative councillor for Blean Forest since 2012 and chairs Canterbury City Council’s property and regeneration committee. A former student of the University of Kent, he has a background in technology and design.