Is parking the best use of CBD streets?

Pop-up cafe, Pearl St, Lower Manhattan

Here’s an interesting nugget of information from Melbourne City Council’s new Transport Strategy – there are 4,190 parking spaces in Melbourne’s CBD, of which 3,077 are metered. There are however more than 60,000 off-street parking spaces “in the centre of the city”. That means on-street spaces account for just 6% or so of all city centre parking.

This suggests that in the CBD at least, on-street parking is not that important in the overall scheme of things. It’s currently used solely for short-term parking, but commercial parking stations can also perform that function. Indeed, they’d probably prefer the higher income that comes with rapid turnover. Car storage is a remarkably low value use for such premium land. Even in the case of the metered spaces, the price charged is well below the value the land could theoretically fetch in some alternative use.

According to Greville Pabst, chief executive of valuers WBP Property Group, a “car space in a typical city apartment can add from $40,000 to the purchase price and, in some instances, for upmarket apartments in good locations, it can add more than $100,000 to the price tag”. Even in inner city residential areas, the Mayor of the City of Yarra estimates a parking space adds about $50,000 to the value of an inner-city property. In Sydney’s CBD a garage costs as much as $120,000 to $150,000.

There is an opportunity here to do away with all or most on-street parking in the CBD and instead use the space for something more valuable. It could be used for high capacity vehicular modes like buses, trams and motorcycles; for highly valued sustainable modes like cycling, walking or shared car schemes; or for amenity-enhancing uses that could take advantage of ground level proximity to pedestrian traffic.

Parking spaces could be dedicated permanently to new uses – for example a cafe. Given an unrestricted brief, businesses would come up with innovative ways to use these narrow spaces for other purposes. Manhattan’s “pop-up” restaurants provide an interesting take on possible alternative uses.

Of course Council could simply start charging parking fees that reflect the real value of the land, hopefully with a demand-responsive tariff. Prices would presumably be relatively similar to what commercial parking operators charge – somewhat less because they’re not protected from the weather or supervised, but somewhat more for those that are a bit closer to the action. It would need to be examined closely but my view is the social value of alternative uses would still be higher.

Reducing on-street parking in the city centre would not be a straightforward task. Loss of metered spaces would reduce Council revenue. There would probably be some activities that are reliant on on-street parking because there are currently no off-site parking stations nearby – perhaps a hospital whose numbers swell during visiting hours. Spaces still need to be set aside for services vehicles and taxis. But they’re issues that can be resolved – they’re not deal-breakers. Council can increase revenue from parking stations (probably requires State support) and more can be built.

The city centre is so rich with public transport and so dependent on pedestrian movement that there’s not much of case anymore for subsidising cars when they devalue the centre’s key attribute – it’s amenity.

30 Comments on “Is parking the best use of CBD streets?”

  1. Nathan Alexander says:

    The City of Melbourne has been removing parking spaces for other uses for decades now. I worked there from 1986 to 1996 and we designed out lots of parking spaces for street cafes, trees and other things.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Yes, Council has been active, as have most capital cities. Still, 4,190 spaces @ 13 sq m each is a large area in the context of the CBD i.e. 5.2 hectares. Also, as Daniel Bowen points out, some of these spaces are in inefficient locations.

  2. Oz says:

    Is the retention of on street metered parking also not about providing employment for the revenue collectors and their administrators?

    • Alan Davies says:

      I can’t imagine that was ever a consideration, they were just an unavoidable cost of raising the revenue. The increased economic activity arising from turning parking spaces over to new uses should create new job opportunities for redundant collectors, or Council could transfer them to the task of implementing and managing the new uses.

      • Oz says:

        Some Australian Services Union organizers may have a different view.

        • Alan Davies says:

          Very possibly. Change is seldom easy. As always, any changes would have to be managed carefully and with genuine concern for those affected, although in this case I suspect there would be replacement opportunities (don’t know if they would be covered by the same union though).

  3. RED says:

    Don’t forget that many parking spaces (in central Melbourne anyway) in the middle of the street are interspersed with trees. You could only utilise these spaces for other purposes if you cut down the trees. Lonsdale Street and Exhibition Street are prime examples. I can’t see those avenues of trees being cut down. While they may have no monetary value, they add significant amenity value to the streetscape.
    Where it is parallel parking on the side of the road I say good riddance. Parallel parkers are much more likely to hold everyone else up, and also much more likely to be a hazard to cyclists. If you freed up the sides of those roads there would be much more space for buses and cyclists, and maybe then the riders would stop cutting in front of cars without even looking where they are going.
    Why does everything always have to be about money and revenue raising? Metering on-street parking was originally all about providing as many people as possible with access to a scarce resource, it wasn’t meant to be about money.
    If on-street parking is reduced, there needs to be something done about the extortionate charges for short-term parking in commercial parking garages. I’ve paid over $35.00 for very short stays in some places.

    • The middle of the road parking is horrendously unsafe due to the poor sightlines as cars exit spaces, so that should be the first to go. There’s no reason replacing those spaces would have to be at the expense of trees, either: landscaping could be one of the things the spaces could be replaced with.

      • RED says:

        You’re right, but the original comment was that the space could then be used for higher value purposes. While Alan does include amenity purposes in the list, most of his suggestions are economic. And I can’t imagine MCC getting rid of parking spaces and replacing them with linear parks – in other words turning a revenue raising space into one that costs them money. It’s a shame really, because those streets would be lovely boulevards if they had a central median that was grassed and landscaped. Mildura’s main drag is a good example of what can be done in that direction.

        • Alan Davies says:

          I would most certainly include landscaping in my list — you could only ever have so many restaurants, retail outlets, etc. I see amenity-enhancing uses as economic use — their value isn’t determined by a market but we can use something like CBA to estimate what they’re worth. I expect they would certainly come out well ahead of parking at current rates. I only emphasised market uses in the post to make the point that there are higher uses for roadspace than storing cars.

  4. At the very least market pricing would be a start. I’m sure you’ve mentioned Donald Shoup in these pages before, and he makes that case pretty compellingly. But yes, there should be other uses the land could be put to. Better yet, use market priced spaces for a proportion of spaces as the revenue source for street improvement works to gradually convert the balance of the parking spaces to more beneficial public uses.

    I’m not sure this is true though:

    “It’s currently used solely for short-term parking, but commercial parking stations can also perform that function. Indeed, they’d probably prefer the higher income that comes with rapid turnover.”

    I worked at City of Melbourne and I know they had to struggle to get parking stations to offer short term spaces (their preferred policy outcome) over the certain income stream of commuter parking. Of course, it didn’t help that they had all those subsidised on-street spaces out there undercutting the market, but that wasn’t the whole problem. As you say, the on-street supply is a small proportion of the whole supply.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I’d say they weren’t interested at that time because of competition from the subsidised on-street spaces (which might also have led to some “sticker shock” from punters). If most of them are removed then the operators should be able to charge a premium price for short-term stays. Of course it will be expensive, but the prices might drive construction of more parking stations. In any event, the CBD has excellent public transport services for those who don’t want to pay.

  5. Tom D says:

    Making way too much sense Alan! Such a change would open up many wonderful possibilities and help transform the city

  6. Dave says:

    I was involved in a study about ten years ago, for an inner-city location, in which we proposed removing kerbside parking for other uses. The then panel of expert urban designers the planning organisation had review our work did not support the recommendation. Their primary reason that I recall was that kerbside parking provided a buffer to moving traffic, separating the pedestrian environment and footpath activities from moving vehicles. This increased amenity for pedestrians and footpath ‘diners’.

    I can understand their logic, and there are examples with and without kerbside parking that support respective arguments.

    From a driving perspective, I can think of a location where the absence of kerbside parking has ‘stopped’ me from frequenting certain businesses. In Geelong, when I periodically pass through I’d love to get a coffee on a particular street that has a few cafes. However the parking restrictions mean that I would run the risk of a fine for the sake of a coffee, so I don’t stop at all. This is the difficulty of the kerbside parking issue – some business models are based upon exposure to passing traffic (foot, bicycle, vehicle) for frequent, low value, purchases. Does the kerbside parking argument result in the loss of these businesses for all?

    • Simon says:

      A lane of parked cars is not the only way to buffer pedestrians from the danger and sense of unease from being close to car traffic. A bike lane works well, as does a combination of landscaping and wider footpaths.

    • Dave says:

      A lot of businesses overestimate the percentage of clients that come from driving. Infrequent coffee stops from passing drivers may not be a signficant component of those cafes’ trade. As with all things, if it is likely to be a serous issue, an analysis of how significant the street parking -right outside- the shop should be done first. Chances are the shop staff might be using that high-value space and feeding the meter, too…

  7. Robert B says:

    A reduction of on-street parking in the CBD to free up road space is a worthwhile objective but as Dave quite astutely pointed out, consideration needs to be paid to businesses reliant on passing trade. Any reduction in on-street parking needs to be preceded by ensuring adequate, convenient & reasonably priced off-street parking in the immediate vicinity, otherwise the adverse impact on business will be untenable. Short stay off street parking is in many cases very expensive. I should add, on-street parking is not cheap either – upwards of $3 an hour. Of course public transport usage is to be encouraged, however, there are a number of occasions when car usage is necessary – for example when a trip involves multiple destinations not conveniently accessible by public transport (or under a strict time budget).

    Another pressing issue is improving traffic flow on arterials outside the CBD, especially those with tramlines. On-street parking effectively reduces four lane arterials to two lanes. Trams are frequently impeded & their travel time performance adversely impacted, reducing their appeal as a travel mode. Let’s lose daytime on-street parking on arterials with trams (outside shopping strips) unless they have adequate width for at lease one clear lane of traffic in either direction (not including on the tram track).

    In the longer run, it would be adantageous to have the tram lines run along the side rather than the centre of the road. This would ensure that pedestrians can step straight from the kerb onto the tram, rather than in front of traffic, improving traffic flow. Such an arrangement would assume the loss of on-street parking.

    • Simon says:

      Passing trade in the CBD is mostly pedestrians. The car parking (and associated noise and danger from traffic) is as likely to drive them away as encourage them.

  8. Sam says:

    Great post Alan. I’m sure you and readers know about this study:

    Two car parks converted to bike parking in Lygon Street, Carlton. Very successful project, based on space efficiency of bikes relative to cars, and how much $$ drivers and riders spend. Council’s draft transport strategy suggests 20 similar ‘corrals’ will be built by 2016. Interested in your thoughts..

    • Natronomonas says:

      Moreland City Council is doing the same think, I think outside some cafes on Brunswick St. Interesting to see if it works, but I think it quite likely. I don’t think the stats around $/space would translate if you converted a whole street, but I’m sure you could quickly find the right balance. I suspect in conjunction with other pedestrian and bike improvements it could be quite an effective way to increase the ease of ingress to congested areas vs cars.

  9. In principal I agree with the argument but –

    What about the need for the disabled to park close to the facility they need to use? To take the State Library or the Wheeler Centre as examples – the nearest commercial parking is either QV or the carpark just east of Russell street. I am not sure whether parking spaces for the disabled currently attract a parking fee but a substantial price rise to equate to the cost of commercial parking and/or the disadvantage of parking further from the facility should be considered.
    what compromise can you suggest?

    • Alan Davies says:

      Agree. On-street parking would still be required in cases where there is no practical alternative for disabled travellers, delivery of stock to retailers, etc. There might be other alternatives like taxis (AIUI some disabled people get taxi subsidies, some don’t) and cargo bikes.

      • RED says:

        Please don’t suggest any option which would increase dependence on taxis for people with disabilities. You’ve no idea what a nightmare it is for a wheelchair driver to rely on taxis to get around. Waiting for hours for taxis that never come, or taxis that turn up but then the driver refuses to pack up the wheelchair and put it in the cab. In the end people with disabilities end up being reliant on family and friends to get around, or simply are house bound and isolated. These people need their accessibility increased, not decreased (maybe you could think about that for a future post topic).

    • Natronomonas says:

      I think in New York they’re trialling night-time loading zones in some spaces that are re-tasked during the day (eg, the pop-up cafes).
      Commerical parking garages typically have disabled spaces available right near the street exit, which will often provide reasonable access to nearby destinations. Disabled parking is a separate issue that does need to be considered in the overall picture, relating as much to overall mobility as to parking. From what I can gather the disabled parking rules seem to vary (ie sometimes you pay, but get double the time; sometimes free, etc). Improved public transport accessibility (ie low-floor tram stops are getting more common) and so forth may even reduce the demand for disabled carparking spots.

      • suze says:

        Encouraging deliveries to happen at night sounds like a wonderful idea. Until you consider all those trucks and the noise that they make reversing and also crashing and banging opening doors, obtaining goods, obtaining entry to the shop/cafe etc. Reverse alarms are the worst idea anyone ever had. If you’ve ever had to live next to, or work next to, or sleep next to (as I do night shift) a building site, you’ll know how quickly tolerance turns to rage as their bobcats and the like are reversing back and forth. And I understand the safety argument, but I’d be surprised if the workers on-site actually noticed the alarms after a couple of days. Or just idling trucks are disturbing enough.

        Placing all these noises next to the city apartments you are trying to encourage people to move into seems to me to be a serious hindrance to their amenity.

  10. Natronomonas says:

    I re-read the linked Fairfax article, and it does kind of drive home the question of what a fair cost for parking is. Yarra City Council estimates that a single off-street parking space adds around $50,000 to the property value. Assuming on-street is slightly less valuable (more exposed) but also more convenient (no laneway to negotiate), say 75% of the value of an off-street ($37,500). The Council is giving away the right to park on-street for a paltry $27.50 for 1st permit, or in other words, getting around a 0.0007% return on leasing that public space for private use. Has anyone told the Council CFO?!

    One question for alternative uses (eg cafes) is whether we expect them to pay real money for the use of the land (rather than providing non-monetary value). I guess some of both – improved amenity does have a value, but where there is a capacity to pay (ie the cafe may well find it worth having the extra table space – or a newcomer might find value in setting up a cart in one or two spaces!) I think it reasonable that the ‘rent’ be at least what a car user would have paid for the same space. That would quickly find the true market value of street parking… you mightn’t be able to park, but you could find a coffee to keep you going until you found an off-street garage!

  11. AliLee says:

    I think City of Melbourne should be congratulated for starting to question the value of curbside space for other uses. They replaced car parking with bike parking in Lygon Street when presented with an economic case for doing so- unfortunately this is just the reality of doing such projects in commercial areas.
    Here’s the case study:

  12. Anon says:

    We need to use our car in the city on a regular basis. To suggest we get rid of limited parking is just stupid.

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