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