Wednesday 16 August 2017

How do you solve a problem like parking?

From the beginning, the car-free lane has been a central (literally and figuratively) focus of the cohousing community. Physically, it runs across the development, and provides a space that encourages neighbours to interact, and a space for children to play without the noise and danger of motor vehicles. However, it is also a statement: that space for people is more important than space for cars; and part of our ethos to ‘live lightly’ and reduce the environmental impact of our travel.

However, as things stand, the planning process has resulted in car parking in The Lane, and more of our communal garden space is given over to parking to meet the local authority requirements. Parking in Orchard Park is already strained, and there was concern that K1 should not make the existing situation worse.

Well, we thought, surely we do not intend to use the parking which has been forced up on us? We had already discussed the possibility of car pools. We are ideally situated for travel by foot, cycle, bus and train.

So we surveyed the existing membership about their intentions with respect to bringing cars to K1. The results were not encouraging: only 3 car-free households at the point of moving in, not even enough to keep The Lane clear of vehicles, let alone reclaim garden space. A problem.

However, one of the benefits of Cohousing is not just that we are a community of neighbours, but that we are also part of a network of Cohousing communities. Why reinvent the wheel? There are other people who have solved the problems we are facing.

So last weekend we were visited by Fiona Frank from Lancaster Cohousing. Their community, Forgebank, is in a village 3 miles from central Lancaster. The rural setting does not have the same advantages as K1 in terms of transport location, but they have found a way to live with one parking space per three households, compared with K1’s one per household. Fiona was on hand to explain.

Their travel plan was very similar to ours in terms of the principles: encouraging walking and cycling, providing information on public transport, car pooling. What was new to me, listening to Fiona, was the next-level sharing. I know that Cohousing is a great way to share resources, but I wouldn’t have come up with the idea of cross-community subsidisation of trips for the benefit of all.

For example, Lancaster communally buy a monthly megarider for use on local buses and pay a lower price per use of the shared ticket. This in itself doesn’t surprise me: it means that everyone can share in cheaper bus travel if it is sufficiently well-used. But what if two people want the ticket at once? People might resent paying into a pot for a benefit they can’t use when they need it, and then the arrangement falls apart without support. Their solution is that if the ticket is already in use, the second person pays full fare for their journey, but is reimbursed for the difference between what they paid and what it would have cost using the megarider. This doesn’t happen very often, so the overall cost to the community is low. In busy months for bus use, they sometimes get a second ticket. It’s not a perfect system: there is an organisational overhead for this, and there will be winners and losers in paying for bus use, but as a group it encourages use of public transport by making the per-trip cost seem more attractive and always available as a benefit.

We were particularly interested in the car pool system in use at Forgebank, as although we were keen on the idea we had very few details on how it might work in practice. Over the years the number of pool cars has grown as they were bought or people sold their own cars to the community (for car use credit) so that they now have access to six cars. Included in the pool is a range of vehicles including electric models, and going up to 7-seaters. Fiona provided testimonials from the other residents, and one of the benefits cited was that it meant there was a car for every occasion: small cars for short distance and city parking spaces, larger ones for cargo and family events.

The overhead, both financial and in time and organisation, of running and maintaining the cars is one of the tasks shared by the community. Each use of a pool car is charged by time and mileage, so although it is not necessarily more expensive to the individual across a year to use a car, each journey needs to justify the cost. The sunk costs of individual car ownership does not encourage thinking about car travel on a per-trip basis, unlike the car club.

As with the megarider, if at any point a car is not available when it is needed, the group pays for the shortest journey which needs to be made to go by taxi, to free up a pool car. It is rarely necessary, and their custom-developed booking site for the cars makes it easy to see which cars are available and when, or which of your neighbours to ask if you want to switch bookings.

Residents regularly invite other people to share in their journeys, both to reduce costs and to have company.

There are residents who still own private cars, because the nature or frequency of their journeys makes use of the car club untenable. Even within the car club, if someone has a temporary change of circumstance and needs access to a pool car for a longer period of time, this has been arranged.

K1 may or may not go down the full car club route: sharing vehicles between fewer households has some benefits in ease of setup, but whatever we choose, we will be better informed of what can be achieved and how by the example of our friends at Lancaster Cohousing. I’ve certainly been inspired by the co-operation and organisation demonstrated within their community. Thanks to Fiona and Forgebank for their insight!

Written by Hester.