Our city centre parking problem

By Tim Burns,
woman cycling in narrow street in Japan

In cities across Japan parking cars on the street is generally illegal

street in japan with shops and people cycling and walking

The road space is this narrow Japanese street is shared by pedestrians and cyclists

many bikes parked outside japanese supermarket

Cycle parking is common outside Japanese supermarkets

Parking removed to make space for bike lane in Oslo, Image Credit: Seth Piper

In Oslo, parking spaces have been removed to make room for a bike lane and extended pavement. Image Credit: Seth Piper

Parking removed to make space for plants in Oslo, Image Credit: Seth Piper

Street parking removed to make space for planters in Oslo. Image Credit: Seth Piper

Former road space is now used for events in Oslo, Image Credit: Seth Piper

Former road space is now used for events in Oslo. Image Credit: Seth Piper

Is street parking in our city centres ever a good use of space, and what are cities doing to remove it?

How do we make the most of the kerbside? 

The side of the road is a contested space most often used for parking of vehicles, or as a drop off space for deliveries and taxis. Sometimes it gets converted into bus lanes, and much more rarely into cycle tracks.

To help cities and towns measure the value of the kerb, Uber recently developed a tool to show how productive a kerb is. For example, if a kerb is used as a bus lane serving 200 people every hour, it is far more productive than as a parking space for ten cars and their owners over the same time frame.

Unsurprisingly the report found in favour of less space for parking and more space for taxi’s to pick-up and drop-off passengers, however at the heart of the report lies the fact that parking for vehicles in city centres is almost always the most inefficient use of valuable street space, especially when this could be used to increase capacity for people walking, cycling or using public transport.

Therefore it’s great to see cities increasingly asking the question ‘is it time to remove city centre street parking?’ and some taking bold steps to do so.

Oslo, the current superstar of parking reduction

In 2015 Oslo announced to the world its intention to ban cars from the city centre in just four years [1]. It subsequently backtracked a little but is on the way to effectively remove all motor vehicles except for those used for deliveries to businesses, people with disabilities, and residents living in the city centre (although 88% of residents living in the area do not own a car).

Ever since Oslo has been transforming its city centre. This was led by the removal of almost all parking spaces and the introduction of tolls to discourage driving. Removing parking has created space for public transport, walking and cycling. This is being carried out at a rate that shows cities can radically transform themselves in a short space of time.

Progress has been good – improvements have been made across buses and trams to improve services and speed up journeys, cycle infrastructure is being installed across Oslo in what was old parking space, and more space for walking and spending time enjoying the city have been created. It is hoped this will improve air quality, reduce carbon emissions and turn Oslo into a more attractive, liveable and importantly a more competitive city. The changes have had many vocal opponents, however, with elections around the corner in 2019, the majority of residents remain in support of the project.

People agree there are too many cars in most UK cities

Back in the UK most large cities are struggling to cope with the impact of too many cars – including congestion, air pollution and climate change. A recent RAC report found 65% of motorists think congestion levels have increased in urban areas due to more vehicles on the road [2].

And every transport planner knows the situation will get worse as the number of people and jobs found in our cities continues to increase. In Bristol just to maintain congestion at the current level, with expected population growth, the percentage of people commuting by car would need to reduce from 53% today to around 43% in 2036 [3].

The only way to reduce congestion in our cities is to make walking, cycling and public transport more attractive to people than getting in a car. Designing out on-street parking in city centres helps to create the space required for cycle tracks, buses and better pedestrian space, whilst reducing the incentive to drive. In England, for example, 50% of trips under two miles were taken by car [4] - many of these journeys could use other modes if they were attractive to people.

Is it possible to remove street parking across the entire city?

Oslo, however, is just removing parking spaces in the city centre. Are there examples of modern developed cities which have banned on-street parking at a citywide level?

In Japan, it is basically illegal to park on the side of the road unless there are signs to say it is allowed (which are about as common as cycling in Los Angeles). In fact in Japan when buying a car the customer will be asked for proof that they have a place to park before purchase.

Given the urban density of Japan most city residents do not bother owning a car and use bicycles and public transport networks to get about. Car parks are generally expensive and with typically few cars on most local roads it is easier and more attractive to walk or cycle for local journeys. In local neighbourhoods, bicycle modal share can be as high as 30% [5].

Walking and cycling in Japan is combined with extensive and efficient public transport systems for longer commutes – one in five of the 20 million rail commuters in Tokyo cycle to and from the station. These figures are impressive considering best practice dedicated cycle infrastructure is largely absent in Japan.

Where next for UK cities?

The UK is unlikely, at least in the short term, to ever become Japan but more and more UK cities are taking notice and enacting policies that make it harder to drive and easier to travel sustainably.

For example, the City of London has just announced plans to give pedestrians priority on half of the roads in the square mile [6]. Nottingham introduced the hugely successful workplace parking levy in 2012 to reduce parking in city centre workplaces and invest in public transport. Edinburgh is currently consulting on a range of measures that would help transform the city centre for people. And Bristol’s draft Transport Strategy is clear about the need to create funding for sustainable transport through the introduction of measures such as workplace parking levies, road user charging, or a clean air zone.

Importantly this isn’t a war on the motorist this is about making the city better for everyone – more attractive streets, places designed to improve our health and the environment, and globally competitive cities where people and business want to relocate to. These policies also benefit the people who drive - the reduction of often short and unnecessary journeys by car and van frees up road space and journey times for the remaining journeys that cannot use other modes.

So if we want to improve our cities both to live in and move around we must make walking, cycling and public transport more attractive than getting in a car. And one of the best approaches to do this is to remove on-street parking and put our kerb space to more productive uses.

Find out more and take part in the Edinburgh: Connecting our city, transforming our places consultation (closes 12 November 2018)

Find out more and take part in the Bristol Transport Strategy consultation (closes 2 November 2018)


[1] The Guardian, 2015. Oslo moves to ban cars from city centre within four years https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/19/oslo-moves-to-ban-cars-from-city-centre-within-four-years

[2] RAC, 2017. RAC Annual Report on Motoring 2017 https://www.rac.co.uk/report-on-motoring

[3] Bristol City Council. Draft Transport Strategy https://bristol.citizenspace.com/growth-regeneration/bristol-transport-strategy/user_uploads/bd10559---bristol-transport-strategy-2018_webv3-2.pdf

[4] DfT, 2018. National Travel Survey 2017. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/national-travel-survey-2017

[5] Copenhaganize, 2017. Copenhaganize Index 2017: Tokyo http://copenhagenizeindex.eu/09_tokyo.html

[6] The Times, 2018. City of London Corporation plans to pedestrianise half of the Square Mile https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/city-of-london-corporation-plans-to-pedestrianise-half-of-the-square-mile-9p79qt3mq