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How cities can make parking easier for drivers


More cars and increased congestion means that it is becoming harder and harder to park. We look at what policymakers and technology firms are doing to make things easier for drivers.

City scenery

It has perhaps never been more difficult for drivers in Britain to find a parking space.

The latest figures from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) show that the number of cars on UK roads rose by more than 650,000 last year to an all-time high of 31.2 million.

Bigger cars mean fewer spaces

Cheaper fuel means that those cars are being used more, the Department for Transport says, with congestion on the rise and greater competition for available parking spaces.

To make matters worse, car-park operator NCP has  revealed that it has been forced to increase the size of its parking bays to cope with the trend for larger vehicles such as SUVs.

As a result, parking spaces are becoming even more scarce.

It is hardly surprising, then, that a great deal of effort is being put in by both public and private-sector organisations to try to solve our parking problems.

In some cases, the approach involves discouraging car use, perhaps with higher charges or improved public transport.

Alternatively, technology is being developed to help make more spaces available to park in, as well as to show drivers where their nearest empty parking spot is.

Parked cars

Current technological solutions

A development that has effectively increased the availability of parking in the UK is the introduction of services such as JustPark and ParkOnMyDrive.

These businesses match households who have space on their drives to motorists who need to park near a town centre, airport, railway station or hospital, for example.

The services use a smartphone app to help drivers locate a space and to take payment.

Local authorities are starting to look at similar technology to help people find empty public parking spaces.

Research has found that, as spaces become more scarce, motorists are spending more time – and consuming more fuel – driving round looking for somewhere to park.

But pilot schemes in London and Milton Keynes aim to put an end to this problem.

This involves councils trialling “smart parking bays”, spaces on the street or at stations that are monitored by a sensor that is connected to the internet: the idea is that drivers can again use a smartphone app to see where the nearest available space is.

JustPark map

Brian Matthews, head of transport at Milton Keynes Council, says that the new technology can play a crucial role in alleviating parking issues in the town.

“If we don’t act soon, parking in Milton Keynes will become a big problem,” Matthews says.

“But we know that around 7,000 existing spaces are empty at any one time and, in some cases, this is because people don’t know where to find them.”

Disincentives to park

A low-tech approach to parking issues can be just as effective, as Nottingham City Council found.

Despite considerable opposition, in 2012 the local authority introduced a workplace parking levy, which meant that businesses in the city had to pay almost £300 a year per space if they had 11 or more.

Despite concerns that this would have a damaging economic impact, the policy appears to have been a success.

Much of the revenue raised has been put into improving the local public transport network and, as Stephen Joseph from the Campaign for Better Transport points out, public transport now accounts for more than 40% of journeys in the city – relative to other areas, a very high proportion.

London city

“The wider economic impacts are perhaps more interesting,” Joseph adds.

“All the predictions of loss of jobs and businesses have proved unfounded, and recent statistics show jobs growth in Nottingham has been faster than other cities while traffic congestion has fallen.”

Autonomous vehicles and the future of parking

The main reason that parking spaces are in such short supply is that cars spend the vast majority of their lives in them. It is hard to argue that this is not an incredibly inefficient use of resources.

But the fact is that, most people are not happy to rely on public transport and hugely value being able to use a car whenever they need it.

Autonomous car parking itself

This is where autonomous vehicles come in: within a few years, rather than people having their own car they might instead simply have access – whenever they need it – to a vehicle that is part of an autonomous fleet.

Politicians and businesses in the UK and the US in particular are putting huge amounts of money into developing self-driving cars.

In the 2016 Autumn Statement, Chancellor Philip Hammond said that an extra £100 million would be spent on developing such vehicles over the next four years.

John Zimmer, co-founder of ride-sharing service Lyft, says: “Next time you walk outside, look at how much land is devoted to cars — and nothing else.

“It becomes obvious, we’ve built our communities entirely around cars. And for the most part, we’ve built them for cars that aren’t even moving.”

Zimmer believes that, in cities at least, private car ownership could become a thing of the past within 10 years.

According to the report, Carless Cities, officials in a number of cities around the world are aiming to drastically reduce or eliminate private-car use over the next two decades.

For example, Hamburg has a target of phasing cars out of its centre by 2034, while Vancouver wants at least half of all journeys to be non-car by the end of this decade.

Carless London

Zimmer says: “When networked autonomous vehicles come onto the scene, below the cost of car ownership, most city-dwellers will stop using a personal car altogether,” he says.

Among many potential benefits, this will bring to an end competition for parking spaces, simply because far fewer self-driving cars will be needed to meet people’s motoring requirements.

In Britain at least, there is public opposition to the idea of autonomous vehicles.

But if congestion and parking issues continue to get worse – and if self-driving cars can deliver the advantages they promise – the pressure to embrace this new technology could become impossible to resist.


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