Tuesday 10 February 2015

The end of free car parking in Assen city centre and how this has caused problems for cyclists

Veemarktterrein a few years ago. Not full, but quite a lot of cars were parked here.
For many years, the Veemarktterrein a few hundred metres east of Assen city centre offered free car parking. Anyone could park their car here for as long as they wanted free of charge. The attraction of free parking wasn't enough to make people drive when they had a better alternative so though it was free of charge, this car park almost always had spaces in it. This area on the edge of the city had a valuable benefit for cyclists because it helped to keep cars out of the city centre streets.
The same car-park this week on market day. The cars haven't disappeared - they are now driven further into the city causing consequences for cyclists.
The policy on car parking changed at the beginning of this year. A charge of €1.30 per hour was imposed for parking in this previously free car park, with a limit of €5 per day. At the same, car parks in the city centre which were already the cheapest in the Netherlands had their maximum charge halved to just €6 per day. The result of this policy is that the out of town centre car park is no longer attractive to drivers so they continue right into the city and use multi-storey car parks which were previously often largely empty.

The result is many more cars are driven into the centre of Assen and this causes more conflict between motorists and cyclists.

The crossing of Het Kanaal at the Venebrug is not signalled and is shared with pedestrians. This is one of the locations where there are now more problems due to more cars

The inner ring road is shown as a red line. The previously
free of charge car park is the green area on the right. Blue
squares show the locations of car parks which have
been made more popular by the change in policy.
Note how these are close to red spots: points identified
as dangerous to cyclists in the Fietsverkeernota 2005.
The Inner Ring Road has been made more dangerous
Because the city centre car parks are reached by driving along the inner ring-road, extra motor traffic is being generated along the streets which make up the ring.

Locations along this route have long been known to be problematic for cyclists. Several of them were pointed out as being dangerous to cyclists and in need of improvement by the Fietsverkeernota of 2005.

Locations where there are now more cars and more danger for cyclists include the following. Where there are links below, further information can be found about problems in those locations:
  1. The Kerkplein Shared Space
  2. Weierstraat outside De Nieuwe Kolk
  3. The difficult left turn from Weierstraat into Minervalaan
  4. The crossing of Nobellaan by Het Kanaal
  5. Crossings of Het Kanaal
  6. Jan Fabriciusstraat
  7. The junction of Stationstraat and Oostersingel
  8. Zuidersingel
"Parking in demand - Gemeente Assen policy bearing fruit"
But also see the next headline on the same topic
Update 2016
The result of encouraging drivers to bring their cars further into Assen is now known. There's been an attempt to spin this as success, but actually it's no such thing. The change in policy is not good for cyclists, drivers, shop owners or the local economy.

Two articles appeared in the same February issue of one of our local newspapers. I've reproduced them both here.

"Income reduced - cars park for less time"
It is true that drivers now use the paid for parking spaces more often than before, but this has actually resulted in a fall in income for these garages because drivers now stay for shorter periods in order to avoid paying.

What is happening is that people drive to the supermarket, pick up a card allowing them to park for free for three quarters of an hour and then they do their best to avoid overstaying such that they have to pay more. Fewer people now drive to Assen, use the free parking, and remain for the entire day.

The result of this is that local shops other than the supermarkets have almost certainly lost customers due to the change in policy.

Overall results:
  1. Local government has lower income than before
  2. Drivers are annoyed because parking is no longer free
  3. Cyclists are annoyed and endangered because more cars come to the central streets.
  4. Local businesses have fewer customer
No-one has actually benefitted.


  1. This would make an excellent case study into how one must make sensible policy decisions as a whole and not just cherry pick a few seemingly good ideas; I have learned from your blog that frequently the whole is greater than the sum of the parts

  2. It seems to me that an equally accurate title for this post might be:

    "Subsidized downtown parking, and how this has caused problem for cyclists"

  3. Jacob: that's almost exactly the opposite of the real situation. This is actually an attempt to make the car parks pay for themselves. Unfortunately, there are unforeseen consequences.

  4. Fascinating post and reading the background on the previous post is interesting as well. It will be interesting to see what the solutions will be. I wonder how the deserted out of town lot will pay for itself with so little use. It seems like a problem of excess parking supply.

  5. Probably best to simply sell off the car parking lots. Let the free market decide the best use for the real estate. Which is probably not car parking.

    Toronto did that. The car parking lots were almost all turned into buildings. Paying free market prices for car parking pushed the downtown car transportation mode share below 25%.



  6. David, your article is misleading. This parking lot near Jumbo supermarket is INSIDE ring road as many other parking places in Assen. It would be very useful if you place a map with exact location of Veemarktterrein parking for others to see.
    As it seems, that people arriving to Assen by don't use bicycles (I don't. see bicycle parking nearby) to get to their final destination, that means, that their destination is reachable by foot, i.e. within 1km radius from Jumbo.
    So I see this process of removing free parking as mobility policy which encourages bicycle use and discourages private car trips.

  7. Kevin: The idea that a parking space can be "worth" $100000 a year is purely a human invention. There's nothing inherent about a patch of land so large as a car which gives it that value. The free market in Assen has already determined the worth of a secure parking space in the centre. That value is €28 per month. Why ? Because cycling remains a success story and the centre of Assen isn't really all that attractive to drive to.

    Edas: You've misunderstood. Others might do the same so I've amended the map to show the locations of the car parks clearly and to emphasize how drivers coming to the in-town multi-storeys present more danger to cyclists and pedestrians than they did before.

    Both the Veemarktterrein and Jumbo (which uses the same parking) are outside the inner ring. The outer ring-road has few consequences for cycling because cyclists are completely segregated from motor vehicles on the outer ring.

    This is a story of unintended consequences. It's extremely naive to assume that the blunt instrument of increasing parking charges will automatically encourage people to cycle. In Assen that is not likely at all. The city already had plenty of free parking, but people cycle more in this city than almost anywhere else in the world because cycling is more attractive for reasons other than cost.

    Removing free parking in this case has not made cycling more attractive, but made it less attractive because it has resulted in increased conflicts with motor vehicles on the routes taken by cyclists.

    As a result, it is highly likely that removing free car parking on the Veemarktterrein will have a negative effect on cycling in the city.

  8. I agree with you and I disagree with you. You seem to think that this is essentially a design issue, not a market issue. Due to the rate change, there is now more mixing of cars and bikes in the center, to a degree which is unpleasant for cyclists. The design principle is to unravel routes where they're not compatible.

    I think that's an insightful point, and that's a consideration that is unlikely to be optimized in a pure free market scenario.

    However, a city-center parking garage charging €6 per space per day has almost no chance of paying off its construction costs. The subsidy that I referred to off-hand earlier is the choice to build thousands of structured parking spaces that could not hope to pay for themselves.

    It may still be sensible to tear a couple down, and replace them with something that pays for itself -- more housing or offices, perhaps -- though the demo costs may make that infeasible. You're probably also correct that the decision to change the parking charges was bad on net, due to the negative externalities of increased city center driving.

    But the general logic holds: subsidize the things you want, and tax or limit the things you don't want.

    ps: are you being glib in your response to Kevin, or is that genuinely a "free market" rate? The signage indicates to me that it's municipal parking. And no developer would build a structured parking garage that was going to make €28/month per space. The economics just don't work at all -- they're off by an order of magnitude.

  9. Jacob, it's not that long ago that someone from the US was trying to convince me in comments under a blog post that Assen has too little car parking and that this forces people to cycle. They were wrong of course. While compared with a US city of a similar population, ours has relatively few car parking spaces, this does not represent a shortage of car parking spaces. Actually there is clearly too much car parking in Assen relative to the number of cars needing to be parked.

    It's that last point which is really the issue here. Assen has successfully convinced people to cycle rather than to drive. More people cycle to the city centre than drive there. The result is that fewer car parking spaces are required and that those which have been built have gone largely unused.

    When the city centre parking cost €12 per day and there was €0 competition a few hundred metres away, the council calculated that they could make it pay if they could convince those people who drive to use these car parking spaces at a rate of €6 per day. This is on record, I included a link a few replies back.

    Now how you think you can tell from the style of a sign that the parking in Assen which costs €28 per month is "municipal" is quite beyond me. It actually belongs to a housing association as it's part of a block of inner city housing which has more parking than it requires (notice the pattern). If they could charge more than this then they would certainly do so as this would subsidise residents' costs. That they've been trying to charge €28 per month for a couple of years now and have not filled their garage suggests to me that if anything their rate is not attractive enough. Their competition comes from the municipal parking where the cost is a little above €30 per month. i.e. the same municipal parking as has now had the price halved in order to try to fill it up charges a cut price for people who drive every day in order to try to persuade them to use their car parks.

    That is the free market. It cuts both ways.

    If you think you can let out car parking spaces in Assen for several times this cost then please go ahead and try. I wouldn't personally recommend it as quite clearly there is no money to be made from parking in Assen.

    This strange situation has arisen as a result of a phenomenally successful cycling policy. Unfortunately, in an attempt to turn around the bad economics of the car parking, the council has done something which could have a negative effect on that cycling policy. That is what is this blog post is about - the unintended consequence of the end of free parking in Assen.

  10. From what I can see, it was a bad decision for the city centre car park to reduce its day rate from €12 to €6; if it had kept it at €12 then the out of centre car parks may still have been attractive and hence traffic lower in the city centre but I sure hope Assen's council (David please correct me if I am wrong!!) sorts out cycling infrastructure sharpish to prevent declines due to reduced safety, especially as TfL wants to bring in more protected cycle lanes/paths on various London main roads. Yes, certain implementations are flawed but I have told TfL where they could use better approaches such as simultaneous green signals and why. As David always says: don't praise what is not proven to work as yet!

  11. Thanks for the clarification. My confusion was that the logo on the sign pictured in your blog post is the same as the logo on the municipal signage. This would be illegal in most U.S. cities, and certainly very unusual.

    Nevertheless, my point holds. The market has been massively distorted by the thousands of subsidized city-center parking spaces that the city has built. We seem to agree on this.

    (By "make it pay," I assume the city is speaking in terms of operating costs. Because they will certainly not make back construction costs at those rates.)

  12. Jacob: I think you still don't understand the scale of this. What you refer to as "thousands of subsidized city-centre parking spaces" are in fact a total of 2500 car parking spaces in total within the inner ring.

    This is a relatively small number compared to what would be required and filled all the time in any British or American city of the same size. It was on the basis of this total number that I was accused by another American last year of hiding what he thought was the reason why people had to cycle in Assen: that Assen's "under-supply" of parking had somehow forced everyone to cycle because there was nowhere to park their cars.

    If Assen had continued on the path which it was on in the 1970s then it would be exactly like a US or British now with regard to parking requirements. Luckily, that didn't happen.

    There is a problem now that developers insist on building overly large car parks (large for Assen - they'd still be small by US standards). This is in part what has led to there being so many free spaces. The danger is that by doing this they may turn the clock back 40 years.

    See my latest blog post for an example of the sort of car oriented development which developers think this country needs. That one added 600 places for cars.

  13. I do understand the scale. 2500 is perfectly consistent with what I said.

    I may not understand the ownership/operating structure of the garages. You say:

    "There is a problem now that developers insist on building overly large car parks [...]"

    Are you saying that the five parking garages in question are not in fact municipal? I've been working off that assumption because of the facts that the city council (1) controls their rates, (2) has to pay to maintain them, and (3) gets the revenue from them. Sounds pretty municipal to me.

  14. David,

    The market value of anything is a purely human invention. And real estate gets much more expensive than car parking!

    I note that New York's Fifth Avenue currently has retail rents at $3,500 per square foot. Meaning the 270 square feet required for a car parking space would cost almost a million dollar per year.



  15. Jacob: The way in which this works is complicated and I deliberately left out every detail from the original post because trying to put everything in would have made it too long.

    The process goes (more or less) like this:

    1. Either the local council asks for a new development or developers show an interest in building a new development (entertainment, shopping centre etc.)
    2. A process of negotiation takes place where the developer and council come to an understanding over such things as how many car parking spaces will be included. Developers of shopping centres tend to want lots of car parking spaces. The negotiation also concerns surrounding infrastructure.
    3. The building is constructed
    4. The parking is handed over to the council.

    What may "sound municipal" to you is actually the result of a process like this.

    Kevin: Countries with vastly inflated real-estate prices are usually the countries in which that has been the only real growth in the economy. It makes people feel rich while actually the country runs at a loss. Compare the comparative positions of Germany and the Netherlands (two successful European countries without rampant house price inflation) with the UK and USA on this list.

  16. Ok, thanks for the clarification. I've never heard of that being done in the US but I can definitely see the upside of a centrally-managed parking district compared to a bunch of lots and garages associated with individual businesses.

    You seem to be correct that a more free market approach would not solve this particular problem, if developers truly believe they need to overbuild parking to ensure their investment.

  17. I would not call that "unforeseeable consequence" but a foreseeable consequence of stupidity.
    I've witnessed in W├╝rzburg how the discussion about parking is very ideological in a pro-car way: They paid Experts what the problems are, they mentioned many, one beeing prices not beeing raised for 10 years while bus tickets increased 60%, and all they could agree on was to reduce the price premium for parking lots to onstreet parking (leading to lots of cars looking for the cheaper parking) by rising onstreet parking 50% prices.

    As far as I understand the changes, it's not mainly the end of free parking at the ring that is to blame, but the introduction of free parking (for limited time) in the city center.
    A reasonable way to structure prices with the idea of increasing income without hurting business could be:
    2,5€/h for the first hour, 1,5 €/h after, with the cap remaining at 12€/day in the city
    0,5€/h and max 5€/day at the ring.
    Businesses could hand out price reductions worth ~1€ as before, but they should be valid in the city as well as at the ring, and extended to be valid for public transit or bicyle repair as well. So shopping people could pay the same price as before (or where there any vouchers already?) or have two hours of free parking at inner ring.

    To reduce the oversupply of car parking in the city, minimal parking restrictions (if any) should be lowered to zero and onstreet parking (if any) should be reduced to disabled parking. Additionally Assen needs to look into what to do with the parking houses - there might be options that don't require to demolish them, I know of a parking house top floor that got quiet popular for it's view. Trying out some gastronomie in such a place wouldn't require much - a food truck (or whatever), some chairs, done.