Canterbury’s Park & Ride under threat

Sunday 6th March 2022

Following the demise of Maidstone’s Park & Ride last month comes news part of Canterbury’s scheme is under threat. Launched in 1990, the city’s Park & Ride is currently being subsidised by more than £57,000 a month and has seen the number of users halve since the Covid hiatus. There are three car parks – to the south west (Wincheap), south (New Dover Road) and east of the city with the latter, Sturry Road, mothballed for three months between July and September last year and now under threat again.

The council has just launched a consultation for another mothballing of Sturry Road but this time “for a minimum period of two years” with a view to saving £30,000 a month as fewer than 100 motorists a day have used the site on average over the last nine months.

City Council leader Councillor Ben Fitter-Harding was quoted in KentOnLine recently admitting “I’m no fan of park and ride”. He reckons the whole concept is flawed, observing “driving to a car park to board another road vehicle that’s using the same road space is flawed” adding “our Park and Ride buses spend far too much time stuck in traffic”.

Ironically plans to extend the existing short stretches of bus lane in Sturry Road were shelved in 2018 leading to what is quoted as “passengers facing journey times of more than 20 minutes to travel just one-and-a-half miles”.

I wonder if Councillor Fitter-Harding has read the Government’s famed Bus Back Better strategy which explains “the key to making buses more attractive is making them faster and more reliable. In Bus Service Improvement Plans we expect to see plans for a bus lane on any roads where there is a frequent bus service, congestion and physical space to install one”?

Fortunately Kent County Council do see the benefit of bus priority as its Bus Service Improvement Plan identifies seven corridors including two in Canterbury “having the biggest issues” with congestion. The two in Canterbury are between Fordwich and the town centre as well as from Bridge which impact two of the Park & Ride routes (Sturry Road and New Dover Road). However, it’s not clear there are any firm proposals for bus priority and even if there were, whether there’d be funding for their installation.

Councillor Fitter-Harding reckons in the not-too-distant future the “struggling” Park & Ride service could “certainly be gone as it exists now and replaced with something much better”. His preferred model “would be for people to arrive in the city and then be able to walk, cycle, e-scooter, or take a mode of public transport, probably a type of small bus to reach different areas”.

Quite how that solves the congestion issues and where everyone will park in the city centre is not made clear. He reckons the city centre car park at Holmans Meadow “is a good example of a car park that provides a balance for people coming in down Old Dover Road”. This 215 space car park sited on the opposite side of the inner ring road to the bus station charges £1.80 per hour with a £10 charge for 24 hours.

He reckons car parks like this “could well be supplemented by some further-out park and ride services using dedicated bus lanes and, if bypasses were delivered, accessing a traffic free ring road”.

I’m indebted to those who tipped me off about this potential development not least blog reader Andrew Boag who grew up in Canterbury and knows the city well and contacted me last week about the plans. He now lives in Brighton, and runs the local Buswatch organisation, but recently made a return visit to see his city of birth. Andrew became alarmed when seeing the story about the potential demise of Park & Ride in the Kentish Gazette telling me “traffic in and around the city is worse than ever despite P&R and the A2 by-pass but I’m sure it would be even worse without P&R, especially with 17,000 new homes. As you know Stagecoach has done wonders with the local bus services, especially the inter-urban ones, but they won’t be able to achieve much more if their buses become slower and slower.”

Andrew suggested I also pay a visit and see for myself. So I did, last Wednesday morning, unusually taking my car so I could enjoy the full on Park & Ride experience first hand.

Heading down to Canterbury on the A2 I didn’t spot any signs to take me to the Park and Ride site at Wincheap by the junction of the A2 and A28. Instead signs for Canterbury directed me on to the A2050 (the junction before the A28) and before I knew it I was passing the city wall surrounding the city centre. Thanks to satnav I decided to head on to Sturry Road on the east of the city on the A28 and see what the controversy is all about.

It’s quite well signposted when you approach the car park and there are barriers which take a photograph of your registration plate and issue you with a ticket which enables you and six others who might be with you to travel on the bus free of charge.

There’s a pay machine in the waiting room building where the bus departs for you to enter your registration number and pay the £4 daily charge per vehicle. Or it looked like you could pay as you drove out at the exit barrier itself. The waiting area also has a seat, toilets and an umbrella vending machine, but I wondered what the quality is like at just a £1 an umbrella.

Stagecoach run the three Park & Ride bus services on behalf of the city council under a seven year contract which began last November. They’re operated with a mixture of bespoke smartly branded double deck ADL Enviro E400 buses new last year and some branded, but perhaps not quite so smart, single deck eight year old ADL Enviro E300 buses.

It looked to me as though the Sturry Road operation was run with single decks while the Wincheap and New Dover Road services had a mixed allocation.

As expected the Sturry Road car park had lots of empty spaces. I counted just 75 cars when I arrived mid morning and about the same number when I returned around lunch time. It wasn’t exactly busy with plenty of room for all those motorists heading on into the city centre along the A28.

The bus runs every twenty minutes from Sturry Road and I was in luck in that a bus arrived into the lay-by just off the main road as I arrived. A couple of passengers alighted and 14 boarded during the five minute layover and then we were off.

Heading into the city centre there’s a short stretch of bus lane leaving the car park and one a bit further on, but to my surprise we turned off the main road and took some back streets to reach the city’s inner ring road and thereby missing the bus lane further along the A28. I can imagine the A28 gets very busy with traffic as it has huge retail sheds and supermarkets along this stretch and our back street meanderings probably turn out to be the quickest way in. On the return journey we kept to the main A28.

The journey time into the city centre was just ten minutes.

The three Park & Ride services all have their own bus stop in Whitefriars alongside Fenwick’s department store alongside the bus station, so it’s a very handy point for passengers and you don’t get caught up in the melee in the bus station which can get very busy with a huge number of departures each hour.

As an aside I was very pleased to see new signs with an A-Z to show which bus route departs from which stand, which is more informative and helpful than the previous arrangement of just listing departures by bay number.

It’s a shame the Travel Shop is now closed, but that’s the same all over Stagecoach-land.

Back to the Park & Ride experience. Next I headed out to the Wincheap car park on one of the newer double deckers. And very smart it was inside too with the Stagecoach grey and blue interior specification which is so much more sedate than the garish orange and blue.

Both the Wincheap and New Dover Road sites advertise an “about every eight minute frequency” but I think it was a bit more than that during the late morning when I travelled. It was still perceived as frequent though.

We carried four back out to the car park and the journey time was just six minutes.

The Wincheap car park was much busier than Sturry Road. I reckon there were around 250 cars parked. It’s located next to a large Morrisons supermarket and some other retailers.

But there was still plenty of room for more.

There’s another building housing a waiting area, pay machine and toilets and, as with Sturry Road there’s also a covered over tunnel type structure for bicycles.

The Sturry Road one (above) was massive.

I think the idea is you park your car in the car park and then having based your bicycle in the cycle park, you switch from your car to your bike for the remainder of the journey into the city centre.

The Sturry Road one wasn’t exactly proving popular ….

…. but at least the Wincheap one had a bike and two halves.

Perhaps they do get well used and everyone was already in the city centre with their bikes.

Having had a look around I headed back into the city centre on the same bus which had been laying over along with 14 passengers again.

We took a slightly different route away from the car park through an industrial retail warehouse type area along Simmonds Road before rejoining Wincheap Road and had the benefit of the bus lane alongside the city wall but didn’t need it at this quieter time of the day. It took eight minutes.

My next trip was out to the New Dover Road site south of the city centre. I should mention that I discovered you can use a concessionary bus pass on these routes so you don’t need a car park ticket if you’re an oldie. Interestingly at the Sturry Road site one passenger boarded in front of me and asked to pay a fare and was charged £4 for the return journey. I assume she arrived at the car park on foot.

Only three passengers headed out to the New Dover Road site with me, and I noticed that both on that journey and the one to and back from Wincheap that everyone had travelled on the lower deck. With such short journey times I expect they think it’s not worth going upstairs. I can imagine peak time buses need the capacity though.

We took just five minutes to reach the car park and arrived as the bus in front was just leaving.

This car park had around 200 cars parked but still plenty of room for more.

There were also four Ensignbus buses parked up as that company has been undertaking six school contracts for Stagecoach due its shortage of drivers since September. The buses are garaged overnight in Canterbury and Herne Bay with the Ensignbus drivers travelling over from Purfleet each day in a minibus.

My return journey from New Dover Road back to the city centre was on a single deck with 15 on board who were from around six vehicles. While we’d journeyed out along the New Dover Road to the car park, the journey into the city takes the Old Dover Road. Journey time was a very quick five minutes out and nine minutes back. At peak times I can imagine this takes much longer with cars queuing to get into the city centre along both New and Old Dover Roads.

Andrew suggested to me a bus gate at the St Lawrence Road junction would no doubt be controversial but would prevent out-of-town traffic using the old road and encourage more on to Park & Ride. What an excellent idea.

I returned to Sturry Road on an empty single deck bus at 12:05. It took ten minutes and after a ten minute layover the driver headed back to the city centre with two in board.

There’s no denying the Sturry Road site is poorly used. I noticed a sign in the waiting area indicating that on Sundays it costs just £1 to park but there’s “NO BUS SERVICE”. Which sounds odd. I assume it means no bespoke Park & Ride bus service and motorists can use Stagecoach’s ordinary bus routes which pass by.

I’m assuming that unlike in the week where they zoom past without stopping, on Sundays the buses call into and stop in the lay-by. But I wonder how many motorists also make that assumption.

In any event when the Sturry Road site is mothballed as I’m sure it will be even though it’s subject to consultation, I would have thought it would make sense to compromise by allowing motorists to still park there (but for free) and use Stagecoach’s routes 6, 8 and the ‘Triangle’ which pass by nine times each hour thus keeping cars out of the city and give some revenue to help fund the network of bus routes.

Some clear signage would be needed to ensure motorists were aware they needed to return from bays C2 or C4 in the bus station but the upside is they’d have three times the number of buses each hour with almost a regular five minute frequency.

Andrew made the observation that perhaps use of Sturry Road has reduced as more people find Stagecoach’s excellent bus routes between Herne Bay and Canterbury attractive to use for their entire journey instead of driving. It would be nice to think that’s the case.

One other pertinent point is the sheer number of car parks in the city centre itself in addition to the one at Holmans Meadow beloved by Councillor Fitter-Harding.

There’s one just a stone’s throw from the bus station in Watling Street which charges £2.80 per hour – not bad if there’s two or three of you for a three hour shopping trip.

There’s another car park called Queningate alongside the city wall.

Perhaps what the city council should really consider is hiking up those car parking charges and even mothballing one (or more) of these, making the Park & Ride sites free to use as well as installing those enclosed cycle parking tunnels in the freed up parking spaces in the city centre for people to move around on a bike and fulfill Councillor Fritter-Harding’s vision.

The city council’s consultation on the closure of Sturry Road Park & Ride runs until Sunday 3rd April and you can submit a response using this link.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu.

Next blog, Tuesday 8th March 2022: Impenetrable buses in Dublin.

25 thoughts on “Canterbury’s Park & Ride under threat

Add yours

  1. Off-topic for Park & Ride but regarding the where to catch your bus sign at Canterbury Bus Station:

    I hope there was an adjacent sign listing stands by route number. Unfortunately TfL has stopped doing this on their Spider maps and you have to look up a destination location to find the stop even if you know your route number (and I note the sign at Canterbury doesn’t even show the route number, just the stand). It’s easy enough to list stands by destination and by route number – both are needed.

    Good article!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Do Park and Ride services make any real sense. They actually encourage people to travel by car and have a negative impact on normal bus services, The Canterbury P&R services is massively subsidised and charges fares far lower than normal bus fares at £4 for a car and up to 6 passengers
    Usually as well the P&R services are nor properly costed as the cost of the Car Parks and the facilities at them are excluded from the costs. There is also the loss of Parking revenues at these car parks and it can also impact on car parking revenues in the town centre
    In the town Centre car parking is typically about £1.80 an hour

    I think a far better approach is to integrate the P&R services into the normal bus services

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    1. Essex CC have just gone and done the opposite. The covid-reduced “traditional” Chelmsford P&R operated by local monopoly First, is to be imminently replaced by I gather a more frequent minibus operation by their new friend, enthusiastic newbie Vectare. At least it’ll be interesting to see what happens with usage.

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    2. Park & Ride sites are often good at attracting people who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) catch a bus from home. So cities that don’t have a good bus network serving their hinterland, or that draw in visitors from a wider area than is easily served by local buses, can really benefit from P&R. If the P&R site is just served by regular stopping buses only then (1) it probably won’t have the capacity needed, especially at peak times, and (b) it will be too slow to offer an advantage to drivers.

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  3. The Sturry Road Site has actually suffered a lot of antisocial behaviour since reopening (hence why there are only single decks used on the route, and why the terminal building is closed at weekends).

    Also, these E300s are due to be replaced by hybrid 200mmcs in the coming months, which shows that the council must be somewhat still committed to P&R.

    It’s a brilliant scheme imo, as I don’t have a bus service into the city, and don’t want to pay £10 all day for parking! I wouldn’t take the councillor’s opinions very seriously, he’s often in the Kent Online (no doubt on slow news days) spurting a load of codswallop – although I can very much see the Sturry Rd site closed for good.

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  4. I agree absolutely that the best solution for the Sturry P&R would be to make the parking free, and point people at the frequent regular services – preferably with good, clear, BIG signs (why do bus companies seem to be wedded to tiny print?). It would be a shame for that nice waiting-area to be wasted; there could be a ticket machine for normal bus tickets (perhaps a ‘Canterbury town day ticket’), to save on the usual boarding-time wait. And a safe road crossing for returning passengers.

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  5. An excellent review Roger, thanks for the mentions (despite the typo on my name!).

    I don’t agree with Bob, a well planned Park & Ride with effective bus priority measures can take hundreds of out of town cars off the roads. I believe the New Dover Road site was opened to coincide with the largest city centre multi-storey car park being demolished to make way for the Whitefriars shopping centre, so I expect a deal was done with the developer to build or fund the P&R.

    The New Dover Road site was originally served by just three passing buses an hour (15,16 & 17) but now has ten buses an hour, all commercial thanks to Stagecoach initiatives. As I mentioned to Roger the Sturry Road site is also well served by passing buses so in Canterbury there’s no evidence P&R is detrimental to local buses. From my observations at peak times most out of town buses leave Canterbury Bus Station full or nearly full so if there wasn’t a dedicated service extra capacity would be needed.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. A lot of Canterbury’s city centre car parks appear to be at street level and quite small, encouraging motorists to drive in and park as close as possible to their intended destination. This doesn’t encourage use of a Park & Ride scheme and increases congestion because car drivers can pretty much go where they want to in the city centre, one way streets aside.

    A number of local authorities have already closed their town/city centres to buses by sending them on circuits avoiding their main thoroughfares to access only the fringes while still giving cars better penetration of their centres in order to access multi-storey car parks built in the 1970s/1980s. Middlesbrough immediately springs to mind as a perfect example.

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  7. It is rare for normal bus service to have more than a dozen passengers om them outside of peak hours

    You cannot justify a subsidy of about £1M a year for a P&R service

    Integrating them into normal services is in my view sensible. The P&R sites can still be served by normal service buses and the frequency of them could probably be increased. It is a Win win situation

    The P&R fare should probably increased ££4 for up to 6 passengers and free parking is too cheap

    With the current losses being made by the service something has to change

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  8. Where are the worst traffic delays and the worst car emissions? In the areas of greatest car concentration, of course; otherwise known as Towns! If cars can be removed from towns, then traffic congestion is eased and emissions can be reduced . . . it’s not difficult, really.

    Park and Ride can very much play its part in reducing emissions; after all, that’s the name of the game now.
    Especially when rural areas are losing (or have lost) their bus links . . . P&R can save the day.
    Your man in Canterbury really does have the wrong idea all round . . . reduce car parking and force car drivers onto P&R (if necessary by cutting fares in the short term (stick and carrot) . . . there seems to be plenty of capacity available on the buses, so the subsidy needed should reduce as well.

    Might he be brave enough? Nah!!

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  9. There are no directional signs to reach the Wincheap site via the A2/A28 junction, as there is no coastbound off slip. It is due to be provided through developer contributions, though the timescale seems hazy at the moment.

    Park & Ride carried quite substantial loads at peak times, but much of the pre-Covid patronage were white collar office workers who now work from home, to varying degrees. The Sturry Road site was also closed for use as a Covid testing centre for many months.

    The bus gate looks superficially good, but would need to be north of Ethelbert Road, as this is one of the only two accesses to the city’s hospital. Rerouting that traffic to travel via Nunnery Fields has many downsides, including for other bus services.

    The council *is* increasing the prices of the very central car parks. Despite many negative comments locally, the fact that queues are commonplace at some of them suggests there is no shortage of demand. As ever in the muddled world of local government, Canterbury is not the Local Transport Authority, but has always had aspirations in that direction (though Kent County Council has long had joint arrangements with district councils and delegates some of its responsibilities to the city).

    However, off street parking *is* one of the city’s responsibilities, and in a cash-strapped world, like many councils is hoping to plug other holes in its budget with revenue from that source. The wider role of Park & Ride, which others have described, no longer counts for as much.

    Finally, there are new single deckers due this spring – or at least there were, the council may well be trying to negotiate a way out from that. The original tender had aspirations for battery or hydrogen buses, with diesel very much a third choice. Unsurprisingly, without any grant funding, only the latter proved affordable.

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    1. Very interesting comments. I take your point about the bus gate position although it would only affect traffic from the south and there is a rear entrance to the hospital in Nackington Road.

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      1. The Nackington Road entrance was for years barriered off and only accessible to authorised users with a key/card to operate the barrier. That was removed when parking arrangements changed around five years ago, and is currently marked “permit holders and deliveries only”. However, I do not know what kind of enforcement of that restriction is in place, but it is rather narrow and no longer suitable for general traffic, notwithstanding that it once carried a bus service.

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      2. Thanks for the clarification, I checked it on Google street view and I must admit I was surprised to be able to follow the road through. I remember it well from a few days I spent in K&C Hospital around 1968 when the highlight for me was watching the hourly 28 bus reversing!

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  10. I like a good bus gate but I think an Old Dover Road gate would cause trouble elsewhere by forcing more people coming up Stone St to bypass the city on the lanes through Thanington or Hollow Lane – none of which are suitable for that sort of use and indeed already get overused thanks to SatNav. Canterbury’s big issue is that a further ring road is a nonstarter (whatever Cllr Fitter-Harding says) and there will always be through traffic clogging it up.
    What the council can do is try and minimise the traffic heading in to the City as its final destination by closing city centre parking and offering better alternatives. Why they just opened a new multi story right in the middle by an actual railway station I think we should draw a veil over…

    Liked by 1 person

  11. A very interesting article and it does focus on a quandary that local authorities have – they are somewhat beholden to the revenue that their own car parks bring in, and are loathe to bring in any measures that may disadvantage car drivers unduly. I don’t think Canterbury has too much on street parking other than genuinely for residents (but local folks will know better than I) but any hope that some pruning of parking capacity might help shape demand and pricing?

    Also, a few people have mentioned the pros and cons of having non-dedicated services servicing the sites. It would be interesting to understand how that impacted things in Salisbury where they did just that before Covid struck and whether losing that marketing advantage had a demonstrable negative impact?

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  12. Your first reference to a journey time (directly above the photo of the E1 bus stop plate) omits the number of minutes for the journey:-

    “The journey time into the city centre was just minutes.”

    Councillor Fitter-Harding’s logic is a little difficult to follow in some respects. I am struggling to understand the sense of a “…traffic free ring road” – I had always believed that roads were designed to be used by traffic (of some form or another).

    The first part of that quotation from the Councillor – where Roger says the he reckons car parks like the smaller ones in the city centre “could well be supplemented by some further-out park and ride services using dedicated bus lanes….” – would seem to me to be more or less a description of the current park and ride operation.

    Surely the sensible way forward is to build houses and flats on the smaller city centre car parks – and the residents of those properties would no doubt be happy to walk, cycle, hover-board or whatever into the city centre. The car traffic that would then be displaced from those car parks could then use existing P&R parks, which would help to bring the use back up to an economic level.

    It would be interesting to know exactly how the P&R scheme is financed. I would suggest that it would make sense to combine the costs and revenue of both the car park and the P&R bus service into one “pot” – but it is not clear if that is actually the case. Of course, if the car parks are consistently under-used, then the overall finances of the scheme will inevitably not look good, so that some reduction may be inevitable. Or perhaps, build a few more houses on part of the car parks.

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  13. Many councillors think park and ride subsidy is public transport spend, rather than environmental. Does the council want cars circling car parks waiting for spaces?

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  14. Stagecoach West drivers to strike during Cheltenham races

    The strike will impact a number of P&R services

    Unite the Union has announced that over 380 bus drivers employed by Stagecoach West and based throughout Gloucestershire and Wiltshire will take part in a month long strike in a dispute over low pay.

    Strike action, which Unite said was backed overwhelmingly by the drivers who are members, will begin on Thursday 10 March and continue until Saturday 9 April, coinciding with the Cheltenham Festival. Unite said the strike is set to cause considerable disruption to the event as Stagecoach has the contract to take festival goers to and from the racecourse.

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  15. I have found Canterbury so car hostile that I have not shopped there for many years (I love in Herne Bay). I know people who only go there because of the Park and Ride. There will be no good option for these people once the Park and Ride is gone.

    Canterbury is riddled with chain stores and twee, expensive tourist shops. There is little reason to go there.

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  16. 84 St Albans to Potters Bar

    Sullivan’s have now posted the Mon to Sat Timetable. It looks as if the Sunday service is going out to tender so who will operate that is unknown at present. I would assume an hourly service on the Sunday. What might be sensible on Sundays is to extend the 84 through to Waltham Cross. That would mean though presumably the current Sunday 242 extension from Potters bar to WGC would ned to be replaced

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