Free hospital parking: How a good idea can be wrong

hospital parking

On the face of it there is a certain logic in making parking free and perhaps that’s why trade unions, Jeremy Corbyn and now The Daily Mirror are all in favour. After all, it helps make sure that health is free at the point of use. Some consider parking charges to be a tax on the ill.

In 2008, the then health secretary Nicola Sturgeon announced an end to parking fees at the vast majority of hospitals in Scotland. With the exception of three hospital that are tied in to Public Private Initiative (PPI) leasing of their car parks, charges were scrapped at 14 sites where fees had previously applied.

At the time, the ETA predicted free parking would lead to such overcrowding that the sick would no longer be able to get to hospital in the first place.

By 2013, The Sunday Post was reporting on ‘Hospital car parking hell’ in Scotland:

“A Sunday Post probe has revealed there are so few spaces outside some of the country’s biggest infirmaries motorists are resorting to parking in nearby housing estates and shopping centres as they try to seek medical help or visit sick relatives. Others are leaving their cars on double yellow lines, pavements, grass verges, loading bays and even dumping them in disabled spaces. It’s feared the mayhem is costing the NHS millions of pounds to meet the cost of missed appointments.”

The cost of missed appointments to one side, in a report in 2015, the Scottish Government admitted the policy had already cost £25m in lost parking revenue – a substantial subsidy that was not matched for other modes of transport such free bus travel to hospital.

| …there are over 500,000 staff at hospitals in England, and about 40,000 inpatient admissions every day

Clearly, travel to hospitals needs to be actively managed. After all, there are over 500,000 staff at hospitals in England, and about 40,000 inpatient admissions every day. That’s a lot of people for which to provide a free resource. Each mode – be it walking, cycling, bus, train, taxi or car – needs to be considered by the hospital as part of a comprehensive plan. The type of traveller is important too – the needs of the staff, patients, suppliers and visitors are different. Some staff are peripatetic, others remain at the hospital all day.

As a general rule, all-day parkers should park further away from the entrance than short-stay parkers. If the parking spaces closest to the entrance are reserved for the consultants it is not the best of signals to send out to the public.

Active management need not be limited to car park time limits or charges. Hospitals occasionally advertise for staff along the best public transport routes to reduce the demand on the car park. However, it is the location of a hospital which is most important. Following the general rule of location that the more people visiting a site per hectare the closer it should be to the town centre, subject to wider considerations, as hospitals have many visitors, they should be as close to the town centre as possible. In recent decades the health service has done the opposite and built hospitals in out of town sites – this policy should be reversed.

Finally, it’s remiss of those with responsibility for parking at hospitals to ignore the fact car culture contributes significantly to the sedentary lifestyles that are putting so many people in hospital in the first place. Public Health England (PHE) reported this summer that 6 million middle-aged Brits walk less than 10 minutes continuously each month at a brisk pace of at least 3mph. Surely, we should be subsiding active modes of travel rather than subsidising car travel.

Unfortunately, the subject appears too politically toxic for us to see any radical change. Little wonder the former Andrew Gilligan, the former London commissioner for cycling, once described parking as ‘the third rail of politics – if you touch it, you die’.

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  1. Jim Clark


    What about Wales, free parking at hospitals at least in the north for years. Many people in Wales live in remote areas sometimes many miles from a hospital, When I was in hospital, my wife a non driver had to leave our house at 11 am and use two buses for visiting at 1-30 to 2-30.
    I had to travel regularly to Manchester over 100 miles away for checks in the specialist heart department, we drove to Llandudno about 40 miles away then caught a train, when I need an eye check I’m not allowed to drive afterwards so it’s bus again, but a 2-3 hour journey via two buses both ways, likewise I had a minor operation at a hospital 40 miles away, I was not allowed to drive afterwards it was bus again at 05-30 to get there by 09-00 via two buses and I couldn’t be discharged to travel on my own so my wife had to come to escort me afterwards . In some cases transport can be arranged by NHS but not always but a car is still being used or an ambulance. We do have neighbours nearest one about 100 yards away who have helped us in an emergency but it’s still a car and they work most days in the week.
    It’s OK for those who have a variety of public transport options, a service every few minutes and a hospital within easy reach, but us country people have to rely on a car or I could pay £ 30 one way by Taxi as I had to once but that’s a car again

  2. Penny


    We need to be encouraging fit and able patients and visitors to use public transport to get to hospital, there are plenty that fall into this category, going for blood checks check ups etc.
    Many hospitals have a serious parking issue with space being at a premium whether paid for or not.
    Hospitals that give patients good information with the appointment details, about alternative means of transport, bus routes, trains etc may be more successful at easing parking congestion, than hospitals that ignore this.

  3. Anthony


    The whole notion of free parking at hospitals is a nonsense, especially if the policy were to change to build hospitals close to town centres. It would rapidly fill with people just visiting the town centre.

    However, the most critical issue hasn’t been mentioned at all… Where does the money for maintaining the car park come from? At the moment (not on all but on many sites) parking fees cover not only that maintenance, but also pay directly into hospital budgets, subsidising other essential services. The whole movement for free parking is poorly thought out, it is another burden on hospital budgets at a time when everything should be done to ease that burden and allow front line services the resources they need.

  4. Mary Fisher


    We should pay for parking, we pay for everything else., We don’t expect free beer, chocolate – anything. Parking is not a tax, wherever it is. It’s a convenience.

  5. Philip Nalpanis


    There are no easy solutions. A high proportion of patients going to hospitals are elderly and/or infirm, as are those who accompany them or visit them when they’re inpatients. For these people, driving may be the only realistic option. Hospitals try to discharge patients who’ve had operations as early as possible – public transport is unlikely to be a viable option for them. And staff may have early starts/late finishes, so even if there is public transport available they may not feel safe using it or else may have a long wait for the bus home, not to mention their reasonable desire to get home as quickly as possible after a long, gruelling day.
    I’m not saying we should give up seeking solutions; simply pointing out situations where reducing dependence on cars isn’t practical.
    As for moving hospitals to city/town centre sites, this sounds a good idea but the sites need to be available and there needs to be a strong case for replacing hospitals that are in good condition and meet local needs (as best they can in the current financial climate).

  6. DougMilly


    I agree that “free” parking at our hospitals is not sustainable. Also, it doesn’t make sense for disabled parking bays to be free. At the hospital where I am a voluntary driver, I see a fair proportion of large expensive (typically German!) cars monopolising the blue badge spaces. It is more important that these spaces should be near to entrances, not free. There are systems in place for the refund of fares for people of limited means, and this could apply to parking costs for disabled drivers.

    Incidentally, I am incredulous at the statement “6 million middle-aged Brits walk less than 10 minutes continuously each month at a brisk pace of at least 3mph”. 3 mph, brisk??? That’s a stroll! In my late seventies, I consider 4 mph to be a fairly brisk walking pace, and can still walk two miles in less than 30 minutes, as long as it isn’t all up hill!

  7. James Russell


    I cycled to my appointment for a blood test. Unfortunately the wind was against me, so my blood pressure was high and my heart rate was 80bpm. Had to return later when I wasn’t out of breath!

  8. Dave H (@BCCletts)


    This would all change if transport consumption was viewed in the same light as energy consumption, and the costs were drilled through between the silos of the hospital budgets (capital, revenue and asset utilisation), local councils (roads provision) and even the transport operators (road & rail) and funders (PFI developers who build a new hospital on cheap, greenfield land, and bag the booty of the city centre development of the old hospital sites).

    For Edinburgh the modal split of the old site was 80-90% on foot or bus with many routes passing within a 5 minute walk, many staff living nearby, or with access to a commercial and frequent bus service in to the city from the ‘schemes’. The new site totally flipped the modal split. Many domestic workers – several living in Craigmillar, had the frustration of being able to see the new hospital, built with a high security fence severing the footpaths which they could have used to walk there. The incompetence went beyond transport though, clinical areas were delivered with FITTED CARPET! which had to be replaced with linoleum or a granolithic screed.Uts taken around 10 years to provide a footway along the fast single carriageway road from Craigmillar and remove the stepped ramp walking & cycling access.

    Glasgow likewise closing a Hospital with a bus every 30 seconds at peak times on the road outside & Rail/Subway stations a moderate but not impossible walk away (with the option of using those buses. Not only that by 67% of the population the new hospital is intended to serve live on the opposite side of the River Clyde, with clearly limited crossing options. Again the staff are using the parking at the nearby retail park (not full on weekdays and overnight) and walking the 1.5-2 Km along some miserable roads past the remaining docks, and former (?) sewage works from which the ‘sludge’ boats used to sail until dumping in the river estuary was banned. Yet there is a live railway passing barely 500 m from the site with a direct access via the disused trackbed and bridges under the M8 and A8 to a potential station site, and a real station around 1.5Km away with just 4 of the 20-21 trains/hr stopping there, and no easy route to navigate on foot or cycle through the cloverleaf junction between the adjoining M8 and road from the Clyde Tunnel.

    By contrast Peter Fuller of Borders Council got their new regional site designed to eliminate the cul-de-sac access for bus services that typically costs 6-12 minutes for every bus that has to come off the main road (A7) and run through the site. Instead a special bus-only road alowed buses to get from and to Melrose THROUGH the hospital, with the main bus stop right outside the main reception, and the WRVS tea room providing a warm and comfortable place to wait and watch for your bus directly, and on the real time display. Additionally the Council devised their supported bus services network to include a Border Harrier service designed to come in from outlying locations, with Council paperwork, medical samples etc in a secure cargo compartment, and the driver taking their statutory break using the hospital staff facilities, perhaps also making a shuttle trip or two into Melrose or Galashiels, before returning to the distant location with shipments for local health centres and Council offices. In theory many patient non emergency ambulance trips from outer areas were then deliverable by bus.

    Put bluntly free parking costs money to provide, and the problem is that this money comes out of budgets which are better used for patient care not patient cars

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