For many years, riders of motorcycles enjoyed free parking throughout the land. Amongst other reasons, the difficulty of actually displaying a paid-for ticket meant that motorcyclists were overlooked as the drive towards parking fees swept the nation.
It was in Westminster that the first UK parking meter was installed and it was in Westminster where the experiment to charge for motorcycle parking began.
At £1 a day, the charge seems quite negligible to the outsider, particularly as it started out at £1.50, before demonstrations and objections resulted in a reduction. This £1 entitles you to park in other motorcycle bays all over Westminster for the entire day. Furthermore, for a week the cost is only £3.50, £13.50 for a month, £33.50 a quarter or just £100 a year. Yet a sizeable group of motorcyclists still object to paying, giving up their own time to protest on the streets of London and donating funds towards the costs of a legal challenge in the High Court. Although it’s logical to assume that this £1 will rapidly become £2 then £3, clearly this is about more than a £1 coin.
This is where the problems start. It’s not a coin at all. The motorcycle parking scheme in Westminster is a pay-by-phone one. So first, you’ll need to setup an account…
You’ll be giving them your mobile and your registration number, together with your debit/ credit card details. Obviously, if you are still one of those people who don’t have a mobile phone, or have one but keep it switched off to save the battery, or you have no credit on your pre-pay mobile, this is going to provide you with a challenge. Equally so for those unfortunates who can’t get their bank to trust them with plastic for one reason or another. For everyone else, it’s an inconvenience. One probably shared by car drivers , certainly in Westminster where parking your car can cost between £1.10 and £4.40 an hour, with planned increases set to raise these further to up to £5 an hour! This will also require you to use plastic, either in the pay-and-display machine or combined with a mobile to use pay-by-phone option.
So, across Westminster, it seems that the Westminster parking schemes discriminate against those who don’t have mobile phones or plastic money, whether they are car drivers or motorcyclists. Car drivers have been prescribed an alternative, in the form of pre-paid parking cards. However, this option is not very practical for motorcycles, with their open design. Car drivers certainly wont have to worry about managing to dial the number and find their plastic whilst keeping hold of a crash helmet and battling numb fingers, with no shelter from the elements. There is another option. Free parking for a limited number of motorcycles in the off-street car parks managed on behalf of Westminster County Council. Which is all well and good if there is one located near enough to your destination to avoid trudging too far in motorcycle gear, carrying all your possessions, with nowhere to lock them up.
All in all, the motorcycle parking scheme looks fairly complicated and frustrating, basically because of the way it has been implemented. Rather than providing something for the money, motorcyclists are still left with a large box in which everyone has to squeeze their bikes into, rather than the individual bays provided for cars. There are still hardly any ground anchors for securing easily-lifted motorcycles. There are no shelters to protect bikes, or places to set down equipment. Essentially, everything is pretty much the same as before the charge was introduced, except lots of revenue has been transferred from motorcyclists to the council and the company managing the parking scheme on their behalf.
This revenue is where the argument lies. Councils are not actually allowed to use parking to generate revenue. So how do they make all this money from car parking? They use a loophole, which is the central aim of parking control. Revenue is allowed to be generated incidentally as a result of using fines and charges to satisfy certain aims. Basically, the charges are only to be used to help keep traffic flowing, not to boost the coffers of the authority concerned. With cars in central London, it’s fairly easy to see how councils such as Westminster justify charging for street parking. By charging for parking, cars are dissuaded from travelling into Westminster, where congestion is a major issue.
But when it comes to charging for motorcycles, the end-result of keeping traffic flowing becomes more difficult to identify. After all, motorcycles are seen by many as congestion busters. By persuading car drivers to change over to motorcycles, through financial penalties such as the congestion charge and high hourly rates for on-street parking, combined with incentives such as low road tax, congestion charge exemption and free parking for motorcycles, councils can improve the flow of traffic in their borough. Indeed, Westminster Council actually state that the initial experiment of charging for motorcycle parking is a consequence of an increase in motorcycles, brought about by the introduction of the congestion charge, demonstrating just how effective charging can be in changing commuting patterns.
Without a clear aim of improving traffic flow, it’s hard to see how Westminster Council can justify charging for motorcycle parking under the law. The increase in motorcycle use clearly requires that more parking is provided. But charging for parking can only discourage motorcycle use, particularly when the council ends up making a healthy profit after deducting the costs of painting white lines, in addition to the costs of managing the parking control measures. Clearly, more motorcycle bays may mean fewer car parking bays from which the council can justify profiteering from. But whether there is a bay with a parking charge, or no bay at all, the end result is the same. Car drivers are discouraged from travelling by car, helping to reduce congestion. The fact that the council suffers a loss in revenue as a result of converting car bays to motorcycle ones does not justify charging for motorcycles under the current legislation.
Whether the charge is 50p or £50 is largely irrelevant. The point is that Westminster Council do not appear to be able to justify the charge under the law. Which is the main thrust of the legal challenge to be heard in the courts on 24th June 2010.
It’s important to realise, that the protests by motorcyclists in Westminster are not just about motorcycles. They deal with the fundamentals of parking charges, which come with restrictions to prevent widespread abuse of the system. The system which was always designed to help control the flow of traffic rather than balance the books of Local Authorities.
The outcome of this court case and the wider protests about the charge will have an effect on car drivers and motorcyclists alike as the courts clarify whether councils can simply use parking charges to raise huge amounts of revenue, without any real regard for the effects on the flow of traffic.