Why Free Hospital Parking is a Nice Idea but Bad Policy

Free hospital parking – pesonally, I’m all for it, as long as we can tick all the following boxes:

  1. Supply exceeds demand at all times.
  2. There’s no pressing case to build more parking spaces, especially if that means building new parking decks.
  3. The hospital already has excellent public transport.
  4. All bus routes to and from the hospital are free for staff and carera. Patients are given a voucher code for a free return trip to the hospital to match each appointment, and family / friends / carers get a 50% discount code.
  5. Walking and cycling routes around the hospital are top notch.
  6. Staff are given grants covering 75% of the cost of a new bike, whereas patients and carers get a 50p per mile rebate for cycling.
  7. It’s free for those who need it most – ie all A&E patients, outpatients attendees and visitors on lower income, and staff who are unable to walk, cycle or use public transport.
  8. Air quality in and around the hospital is already high, and the majority of cars being parked would meet ULEZ criteria.
  9. There aren’t any traffic problems around the hospital.
  10. The NHS is otherwise fully funded, and has no other pressing clinical needs.
  11. There’s no need for the land to be used for any other clinical services.
  12. There is no station, university, town centre, stadium or other major generator of parking need nearby.
  13. A similar rebate or discount exists for taxi trips to and from the hospital – perhaps with  discount of 25% for all such trips?
  14. Free is a better way to go than a variable charging scheme which could, for example, give discounts in the afternoons if the car park is less busy, and during evening visiting times when there is nearly always less pressue on spaces.

So there it is. A shortlist of reasons why free hospital parking might not quite be the good idea it looks. But do please keep asking for it. It draws attention to the other problems the NHS has. It is now starting to spark a debate when none previously existed. I remember even just a few years ago being asked to sign a petition for free parking. It was in a busy city centre location, ironically also right opposite the bus station. I politely refused and was met with scoffs that I must be “tory” this and that, except of course I was arguing for the retention of a charge for motorists. I think they were just genuinely bemused.

Now we can at least have a few reasons why free parking isn’t such a good idea.

The Exceptionalism Problem

Yes, I’m often told that there might be good reasons why hospital parking can’t be free, and there are always reasons to promote less car usage, but this is a hospital, isn’t it different?

True – hospitals are different. So are stations and town centres and everywhere else where the argument is used that free parking should be provided.

This is why hospitals are different:

  1. Hospitals tend to have an even bigger mismatch between supply and demand than anywhere else – and that’s why they have to charge for parking.
  2. The NHS is already the largest single generator of traffic in the UK. We need to be promoting a culture of wlaking and cycling first, then public transport, then cars.
  3. Not everyone can walk or cycle, but enabling those who can to do so means there is more parking space for those who cannot.

But this is mean, isn’t it?

Sure, I’m being mean. I’m being harsh on all the hard working NHS staff who need a pay rise, and harsh on everyone who needs to get to hospital for treatment. Hospital parking charges are just a tax on the sick, are they not?

No – cars are a tax on and a creator of sickness. We need to treat our car addiction first. Hospitals can and already do offer parking rebates based on need. We can (and in some cases do) rebate the entire cost of the trip to the hospital, based on greatest need. Not everyone can use public transport. We know this. But free for everyone means free for the wealthiest as well as the neediest.

Isn’t it all just about getting rid of PFI contracts?

No. I have PFI and non-PFI hospitals within my local area, and the difference between parking charges really isn’t that great. Parking charges are also comparable at nearby railway stations that have large car parks.

A PFI contract does mean that the operator is looking to make a return, but even if the car park is wholly owned by the NHS, charges still have to be made in order to fund any future development. At the busiest hospitals, car parks need to be built upwards, not outwards. This has to be paid for regardless of who owns the site. Concerns over PFI are perfectly valid in respect of the NHS as a whole, but they are over-stated in terms of car parking.

So if we can’t have free hospital parking, what can we have?

Free hospital car parking is a huge distraction from the much bigger issues relating to poor public transport provision and the generally terrible environment for walking and cycling around the vast majority of UK hospital sites. This needs to be sorted because at the moment, we aren’t even giving people an option to make better transport choices. We don’t need everyone to be capable of using a cyling route either, but we do need everyone to have the option.

NHS staff have done an amazing job to get through this terrible pandemic. They deserve to be suitably rewarded for this with an adequate pay deal. Claps, and well intentioned but ultimately naive calls for free parking, are not the answer.

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