Are car parking charges really so vital in attracting shoppers?

High quality parking in Bury St Edmunds helps to attract shoppers.

High quality parking in Bury St Edmunds helps to attract shoppers.

This week’s survey by the Ipswich Society showing that the town’s parking charges offer relatively good value has re-ignited the debate on the importance of offering the right deals to potential shoppers.

But just how important is the price of the parking? Isn’t the quality and convenience even more vital to most visitors.

Frankly I don’t believe that the cost of parking is in any way a determining factor about whether people visit a town or city – certainly not if people are weighing up whether to go shopping in Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds, Norwich, Colchester, or Cambridge.

And the first thing to say is if you’re comparing parking charges, you have to also compare the towns and cities the parks are located in.

It is nonsense to say Hadleigh, Sudbury, or Felixstowe, with their free parking, offer a comparable shopping experience to Ipswich, Colchester or Bury St Edmunds. Yes, they have a selection of stores but they offer nothing like the choice you get in a large centre.

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Most people live nearer one large centre than another. If you live in Ipswich, you might sometimes go elsewhere for a shopping trip, but if you do that will cost you more in fuel or public transport charges. The cost of parking is going to be incidental.

Will you refuse to pay £1 an hour to park in Ipswich because you know of a car park in Bury that is only 80p an hour – if you have to use a couple of gallons of petrol to make the round trip? I think not.

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What is important to visitors is to have easily-accessible, high-quality car parks they are familiar with.

When I go to Bury, I almost always use the Parkway multi-storey. When I go to Norwich I use the park and ride (or take the train to avoid the A140). Cambridge is another park and ride must. Colchester, well I might try the park and ride next time but I’m not really a great fan of that town.

It is the convenience of these options that is most important to me, whether it is £1 or £1.20 an hour is neither here nor there.

And that is clearly true in Ipswich. Why is NCP’s Tower Ramparts car park (£3 an hour) always full when there are sometimes spaces in the borough’s Crown car park (£1 an hour) on the opposite side of Crown Street?

What is far more important is for a town or city to offer high-quality, easily-accessed, and well-signposted car parks (including park and ride). Ipswich currently does have too many temporary car parks marked only by a pay and display machine and poor-quality white lines.

That is what the Ipswich Vision partners are currently looking at, and what Ipswich council is considering as it prepares to publish a report on the future of the Crown Car Park site.

No one wants rip-off parking prices, but the standard of parking is always likely to be more important than the cost in the final analysis.

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