True value of Park and Ride in Chester

This case study explores park and ride and its contribution to decarbonising transport in Chester.

This case study is a part of the LGA's Decarbonising Transport Action Learning Sets (ALS) programme


What is the true value of park and ride (P&R) service in Chester?  How can the required procurement process for a revised P&R services grow the market and broaden the appeal and viability of P&R services for the future, whilst at the same time demonstrate the hidden social and environmental values it inherently holds to meet the climate agenda. What information and evidence is required to inform the procurement process and operational model, identify service needs, target audience and acceptance of the mode. How did participation in the Action Learning set change or challenge the original approach. This case study explores park and ride and its contribution to decarbonising transport in Chester.

What is the challenge? 

In Cheshire West and Chester transport is the second-highest Carbon emitting sector locally, with most emissions from transport relating to on-road transport equating to 19 per cent of total emissions (Source Climate Emergency Response Plan). The plan further states: where travel is required, there is a substantial carbon benefit derived from using public transport. The modal share of public transport would need to increase from less than 10 per cent, to 18 per cent by 2025, increasing to 29 per cent by 2050. The P&R service is part of the solution, but cannot currently integrate well with the local bus network due to competition and potential passenger extraction from the local bus network. However, from a resident’s point of view they are seeing high frequency quality services running along key corridors with spare capacity on board, which they cannot access, at a time when local bus contracts are facing pressures leading to service reductions and cancellations.  

The current P&R contract is coming to the end of its term and there is a need to procure a more cost-effective solution which meets these competing aims, whilst seeking to reduce contract costs.

P&R services are cited within various council documents as being key to providing solutions to the Climate Emergency Declaration and air quality issues in the city, yet, in reality they are expensive to run, and run at a deficit; pre pandemic patronage has not fully recovered standing around 63 per cent, and as such their value and existence is called in to question by some quarters. This questions whether the audience has been gauged correctly or has changed naturally or more markedly by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The procurement exercise is an opportunity to address these questions. The current council contract is one whereby the council takes all the risk, sets the service frequency, vehicle specification and takes fare box revenue (to fund the service). Within this context we know that bus and P&R use has reduced since the pandemic and private car as a mode has increased, as people’s travel habits have re-established, post pandemic. This presents both an opportunity and a threat to the new P&R contract procurement. Bus remains the only mode for those with no alternative and yet the P&R is predicated on getting people out of their cars part journey and on to bus, with no meaningful bus priority and little in the way of incentive. Do we have sufficient insight and tools at our disposal to make this mode a reality?

As a result of the action learning set programme what actions will you now take to address the challenge? 

An obvious suggestion from the group session, but one which can be easily overlooked during budgetary pressures is setting out what good looks like in terms of P&R provision, customer proposition, potential to enhance and integrate the struggling local bus network and ability to make meaningful contributions to the council’s objectives and targets. Particularly, when scanning the horizon to the forthcoming Local Transport Plan 4 for the borough, and linking this key document to our carbon reduction, poverty and health and wellbeing strategies and targets.  A set of core principles to guide the procurement exercise will be established. Testing the market to understand what innovation can be brought to the process by potential operators. Taking informed views by undertaking focus groups with users and non users of the P&R service and also those of car drivers using city centre car parks. What facilities do we need on site to attract new audiences and encourage multi-modal interchange.

Car park capacity studies at city centre car parks and P&R sites, together with understanding the car park tariffs and the current parking offer and availability, will need to be undertaken. Does the parking offer in the city offer any incentive to P&R usage or conversely does the P&R ticketing offer need more flexibility and incentives to compete with the private car?

If we move from purely addressing the contract types, would what we want to achieve result in a different approach? One which offers more attractiveness, flexibility and integration with other modes for the passenger. What are the barriers to the success of P&R? Do we fully understand these. Focus groups should assist. Could understanding these obstacles present further hurdles in the form of policy reform, such as demand management or higher parking charges and/or reduced capacity in the city core or improved bus priority measures on key corridors. The information gathering may sequence the order of events required for this to happen.  

Another angle established from Action Learning Set was to present a case centered around parking availability in the city core. If the P&R capacity was not there and the service discontinued, could the volume of passengers able to be carried in one day, be met by city centre car parking? Does the city centre have an additional 2400 spaces and network capacity to accommodate these trips. Or even, is the current public transport network able to support this demand. What is the corresponding impact on air quality and carbon emissions?  How long are car parking at both city centre and P&R occupied? Are there complimentary uses at Park and Ride sites for any surplus capacity that may be identified. Can these raise further revenue for the service?

Another point raised was how we understand and disaggregate the noise around the service. What is real and what baggage it carries with it? This can be overcome with the right evidence and data, which must be collected as part of the procurement journey.

Would customer profiling help in raising patronage of the new services, and/ or is it a consideration for the marketing of a new service?

What will be the impact? 

A cabinet decision is awaited in March 2023 to extend the current P&R contract for a further year, whilst further evidence gathering takes place to inform the future provision and procurement of P&R services in Chester.

Measuring the true value of P&R and the contribution to the Climate emergency will involve a variety of means. It is important to understanding passenger travel habits prior to using the P&R through focus groups and surveys of passengers and car park users, understanding which factors tip the balance from private car for audiences. Which part of audiences are receptive to change that should be targeted? The true value can be further enhanced by understanding the role P&R plays in the city’s economy. Knowing the capacity of the P&R service provision and number of the buses together with engine size and standard, distance travelled and patronage allows a rudimentary carbon saving to be approximated. This could also be promoted on a personal basis for marketing P&R to receptive audiences.

It is clear the local bus market is experiencing difficult times, any ways to ensure that the P&R service complements the bus network need to be investigated. Avenues to explore include our ‘Enhanced Partnership Steering Group’ and our ‘Travel Demand Management Group’. The latter is made up of major employers and trip attractors.

How will you look to sustain the approach in the long term? 

The P&R forms part of the fabric of transport provision in Chester, monitoring carbon from the service will inform to what degree the service meets the climate emergency declaration and at what point future investment in electric or alternative technology vehicles will be required to further that aim. The P&R service revision will be reflected in future bus service Improvement Plan Revisions, which will be a daughter document to our forthcoming Local Transport Plan.

Lessons learned  

In busy working environments it is can be easy to neglect the time to speak to peers and to learn from and share information with like-minded professionals with range of experiences in a range of subject matters. Investing in such experience is not only right it is an essential learning process. Considering how we ask questions in the first place really does reflect the quality of the response received and setting out what good looks like is key to any service provision. These have all been valid reminders in the Action Learning process. 

Cheshire West and Chester Climate Emergency Response Plan