Can we swerve the carbon risks of depending on Park & Ride as we transform visitor travel?
5th March 2024

There is a lot of talk in relation to rural visitor destinations about pulling visitor traffic back from busy areas, with forms of park & ride (P&R) as part of the solution. The intention is welcome as it shows that the debate of visitor access management has moved on. But might there be a big carbon monster hiding behind park & ride as a component of the solution?

Firstly, let’s look overseas then come back closer to home.

The “traffic free” (= visitor car restricted) destinations in Europe such as Sass Fee, others in the Swiss alps or the car-free Greek islands all hide the inconvenient truth of colossal gateway car parks.

Swiss gateway car parks a. Saas Fee b. Lauterbrunnen (for Murren & Wengen) and c. Tasch (for Zermatt)

These cater for thousands of cars; Lauterbrunnen’s has 974 spaces, Tasch (for Zermatt) as 2,100 spaces and Saas Fee’s car park has 3,000. For context, the places served by these have the following annual numbers of overnight stays: Lauterbrunnen/Wengen/Murren: 807,088, Zermatt/Tasch: 2,634,866, Saas Fee: 1,224,638.

So let’s do some crude converting back to somewhere more familiar. Let’s assume there are about 3.5m overnight visitors per year to the Lake District; shifting to an access system where visitor access to the national park is via P&R sites at gateways, the Swiss examples would suggest the need for the following number of P&R parking bays for the Lake District:

  • c.f. Tasch/Zermatt – which has a very good rail link: 2,790 P&R bays
  • c.f. Lauterbrunnen – which has good rail access but with some local capacity problems: 4,224 bays
  • c.f. Saas Fee – c. 27km bus link to main rail station: 8,574

For comparison, the whole of the central & southern Lake District currently has about 4,300 car park spaces – plus the unregulated parking at accommodation, attractions etc.

The clear implication is that this implies very large new car parks at gateways, the logical locations for which would be within the national park. Is that what we see as success? Would there be any serious countenance of building new car parks on this scale at gateway locations?

Secondly, does park & ride work?

P&R is an instrument used primarily to pull cars out of congested areas to enhance the quality of the core areas, often for the purposes of economic prosperity and improving air quality[1]. It is common for many towns & cities, with long-standing schemes in places such as York or Cambridge. Policy makers like P&R because it shows action and is an acceptable solution in the eyes of the public[2]. In short, the public “get it” – there is a problem with cars, and park and ride is a reasonable way of dealing with it.


There are three inconvenient truths about park and ride.

1. Park & ride leads to an increase in overall miles driven.

Net change in travel inside and outside urban areas per car parked (car equivalent km per intercepted car) (From Parkhurst, 2000)

Graham Parkhurst’s review of data on impacts of various UK urban P&R on car miles[3],[4] is summarised in the chart.

Whilst there are modest decreases in car km within the P&R zone (except Coventry) – the main aim of P&R schemes – there are significant increases in car km on the approaches to park & ride sites. Further work published in 2018[5] supports this “a net increase in passenger car unit (pcu)-kilometres may be observed… due to increased car-kilometres in catchment areas of P&R sites”

2. Park & ride leads to a shift to car from public transport on the approaches to P&R sites

There is evidence that the increase in car km in the approach to P&R sites is at least partly explained by people being shifting from public transport use. “Bus services outside the site may have to compete for some marginal users for whom park and ride makes it easier to travel the long-haul part of the journey by car. This implies less revenue to the public transport operator, reduced bus energy efficiency and in some cases either service cuts or a greater need for public subsidy”[6].

3. Park & ride can attract new traffic

Finally, there is also evidence that the existence of a P&R scheme can have the effect of attracting new traffic – i.e. journeys that would not have been made at all. Whilst this can be seen as a benefit from an economic perspective (if customers and spend in – say – a town centre is a primary outcome), the traffic generation has many disadvantages in terms of the nature and scale of problems that the P&R was designed to tackle.


So what does this mean for park and ride for rural visitor destinations?

The good news? The key benefit of P&R – namely management of access to the core area – would apply similarly in rural visitor destinations as the more normal urban centres. As a policy instrument, there are significant attractions as part of a package of measures to manage visitor access – especially at busy times – so that visitor experience is enhanced, and to enable and trigger other services and possibilities.


If an objective is carbon reduction, overall carbon emissions would almost definitely increase.

This would be because the P&R would lead to both a shift in long approach journeys to car from other modes and is likely to generate new car trips.

Visitor car access in the core area would have to be restricted.

P&R without access restrictions can lead to significantly more overall car use as the P&R adds to the existing (car based) transport system.

Given the high proportion (i.e. volumes) of visitors currently arriving by car (c.90%, translating to millions per year for most national parks), gateway P&R car parks would have to be enormous. Whilst it might be possible to trade this off to an extent by removing car parks from the core area, on balance, it is difficult to see how this approach sits with mid 21st century policy imperatives and social agendas.


So if not park and ride, what is the answer?

Let’s not pretend the solution (to the high carbon and negative impacts of cars on rural destinations) is straightforward, but this blog tries to summarise and expose the risks of seeing P&R as a silver bullet.

The wider Low Carbon Destinations agenda is based on the study Decarbonising the whole visitor journey for rural destinations; it’s the whole visitor journey that is the important part here, hence the 6-component model. This blog leads back to an imperative to focus on enhancing and creating capacity for travel to destinations with the enabling interventions (luggage transfer etc) that make this possible. From a carbon perspective, this needs to be seen as a priority, even if it is hard and falls between the cracks of responsibilities. Put another way, if travel to is prioritised, then the need for park & ride – with its carbon risks – falls away.

Being pragmatic, sorting out approach travel to the scale required is not an easy task, whereas there is impatience – and broad enthusiasm – to tackle in-destination visitor access management. In this respect, P&R in various guises is likely to be a part of packages of place-focussed access management. If this is the case, it just needs to be acknowledged that whilst it might help solve a local problem, any P&R development should be considered as transient as part of a longer term ambition, otherwise it just displaces a problem (congestion) or makes a different problem (carbon emissions) bigger.


[1] https://www.its.leeds.ac.uk/projects/konsult/private/level2/instruments/instrument035/l2_035b.htm

[2] Meek, S., Ison, S., Enoch, M. (2011). Evaluating alternative concepts of bus-based park and ride.

Transport Policy, 18 (2), 456–467.

[3] Parkhurst, G. (2000). Influence of bus-based park and ride facilities on users’ car traffic. Transport Policy, 7 (2) 159-172.

[4] Taken from Parkhurst, G., Meek, S. (2014) The Effectiveness of Park-and-Ride as a Policy Measure for more

Sustainable Mobility. Chapter 9 in Ison, S. & Mulley, C. (Eds) Parking Issues and Policies. 185-211.

[5] Mills, G & White, P. (2018) Evaluating the long-term impacts of bus-based park and ride, Research in Transportation Economics, 69, 536-543

[6] Parkhurst, G. (1995) Park and ride: Could it lead to an increase in car traffic?. Transport Policy, 2 (1) 15-23.


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