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. Read the rest of this entry »

– Can parking be managed better?

SFpark, San Francisco's experiment with dynamic pricing of parking spaces

I’m disappointed by the discussion of parking in Melbourne City Council’s draft Transport Strategy Update 2011-2030 (note – it’s a big download). There’s an opportunity to improve the efficiency of parking space allocation through using technology and pricing in combination, but Council seems content to pass on it.

The broad thrust of the discussion in the report is that the number of on-street parking spaces will decline over the next 20 years to enable public transport and amenity improvements to be implemented. Council is mindful of the impact this will have on its own revenues and those of local businesses, but is persuaded by the social and environmental benefits.

A key recommendation in relation to on-street parking is that Council “will implement new parking technology systems that allow payment without requiring parking machines or meters (and) will remotely sense and assess parking occupancy”. Surprisingly, this recommendation is entirely unsupported by any explanation or discussion. As far as it goes, it nevertheless sounds good – it’ll lower costs by eliminating the need for parking inspectors and it’ll give drivers more flexible payment options.

What seems to be missing, though, is the opportunity to provide drivers with real-time information about parking availability. More importantly, it squibs the opportunity to improve efficiency in allocating parking spaces by setting a price that’s responsive to demand.

The current pilot project just introduced in San Francisco, SFpark, gives a sense of what can be done. Like Melbourne City Council’s plan, it involves sensors that automatically sense if a parking space is empty. SFpark however will convey that information to drivers electronically via a smartphone app. That should reduce the time drivers spend cruising for parking. According to Donald Shoup, a Professor at UCLA and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, several studies have found that cruising for curb parking generates about 30 percent of the traffic in CBDs in the US. He cites a study he did of a 15 block district in Los Angeles where cruising for on-street parking created 950,000 miles of excess vehicle travel per annum, in the process consuming 47,000 gallons of petrol and producing 730 tons of carbon dioxide.

But the real innovation of SFpark is that prices are adjusted in real time in response to rises and falls in demand. The objective is to ensure that, on average, there is at least one vacant space in each city block:

SFpark will adjust meter prices based on demand to encourage drivers to make trips in off-peak hours and to use parking lots and garages. While high-demand spaces will gradually go up in price, other spaces will decrease in cost……Once a space is found, longer time limits and new meters that accept credit and debit cards will make it easier to avoid parking tickets. Read the rest of this entry »

How can trams be made better?

Why Swanston St is the No. 1 priority for action (tram network city centre, 2011)

As a follow-up to yesterday’s discussion on cars (and trams) in the city centre, I thought it would be useful to look at the Melbourne City Council’s draft Transport Strategy Update 2011-2030, which apparently will be considered by Council tonight. This is a big report so for the moment I’ll only look at the section on trams (you can download the report here, but it’s a big download). The report says the key issues with trams in the city centre are:

  • Slow average running speeds – caused by sharing tramways with other traffic, limited priority at signalised intersections, insufficient distance between stops, and slow boarding and disembarking (excessive dwell time)
  • Network imbalances and gaps – in particular, the network is overly dependent on Swanston Street (see graphic). Even small disturbances can have a major knock-on effect across the network
  • Poorly designed interchanges e.g. at Federation Square and Southern Cross Station

These issues result in poor reliability and overcrowding. The report provides this example:

Tram route 96 is already one of the most successful, and the third most patronised, tram routes in Melbourne. However, current running times between Spencer Street and East Brunswick are 40 per cent slower than in 1950 (28 minutes today compared with 20 minutes in 1950). Route 96 trams spend 33 per cent of their journey time stationary. This is in addition to the 17 per cent of the journey spent loading passengers. This is a poor use of public investment in the tram system.

Council is impressed by the gains in speed made in Munich by a ten year program that separated trams from traffic, gave them priority at signalised intersections and optimised stop spacing. The report says these changes improved average tram speeds from about 16 km/hr to 21 km/hr, leading to greater reliability and punctuality and increased patronage. Read the rest of this entry »

Should the old AMPOL building be demolished?

Elizabeth Tower Motor Lodge, Parkville (formerly AMPOL)

The key issue arising from the Elizabeth Tower Motor Lodge case isn’t that the building can now be demolished, but rather what’s proposed to replace it.

The former AMPOL headquarters building is noted for its dramatic circular staircase, but its claims to historical significance aren’t compelling. According to the National Trust:

Historically, it is of interest as a building that is designed in a style that appears to belong to the early modernist period of twenty years previously, and is by far the last major building designed in this tradition in Victoria. It is also of interest as the headquarters of one of the major petrol companies in Victoria, which were all undergoing great expansion at that time, and for originally incorporating a petrol station at the ground level.

So, it is the last building designed in a style that was already passé when it was constructed in 1958. And the fact that it was occupied by a major corporation – even a petrol company – shouldn’t be surprising for a building located in the city centre. That’s possibly fascinating, but it’s not the sort of history that justifies preservation when there are alternative uses for the site.

Appearance is always a very subjective topic, but to my eye and, it seems, many others, the staircase is interesting. It’s a sort of melange of Russian Constructivism meets Disney Tomorrowland. Some have labelled it (wrongly) as ‘iconic’. But as visually arresting as it is to the citizens of 2011, it’s neither architecturally nor historically an especially significant staircase.

In fact I suspect it’s much more attractive to contemporary sensibilities that it ever was in its day (would Robin Boyd have labelled the staircase Austerican featurism?). That however is not a compelling reason for preservation because ‘interesting’ looking buildings needn’t be in short supply – we can always build new ones, maybe even more interesting ones.

Stripped of the bunkum about ‘significance’, the streetscape would be no worse off if Elizabeth Tower were replaced by a building that is at least as visually interesting. And that brings us to the core issue – judging by the only picture I could find of it (see picture under fold), the appearance of the proposed replacement building is, to put it nicely, a little bland compared to that dramatic staircase. I’ve no reason to doubt the new building is a tour de force in all other respects and a credit to its designers, but it will inevitably be compared to its predecessor and on that score it appears somewhat underwhelming.

Read the rest of this entry »

What’s the angle with Fishermans Bend?

LA Live entertainment complex

The Minister for Planning, Matthew Guy, is reported as saying that rather than “sprinkle high density housing across Melbourne”, the new Government will give priority to strategic developments on specific sites close to the CBD.

Mr Guy has already moved to water down the former government’s planning laws encouraging higher density residential developments (i.e. over three storeys) along public transport corridors.

He says the focus of urban renewal in future will be on locations like Fishermans Bend, the 20 hectare E-Gate site just off Footscray Road, and the area around Richmond station.

This is surprisingly reminiscent of Kenneth Davidson’s prescription for Melbourne. However unlike the Minister, who is moving to increase land supply in the Growth Areas as well, Mr Davidson sees major urban renewal projects as providing enough land to obviate the need for further fringe development.

Facilitating urban renewal in areas close to the city centre is a good thing. But it’s a big call to put all your higher density eggs in one basket when Melbourne’s population is projected to grow by 1.8 million between 2006 and 2036. According to The Age, Mr Guy doesn’t want higher density development in that part of the city that lies beyond the city centre i.e. virtually all of Melbourne*.

I’m not sure the potential of the brownfields basket is as great as Messrs Guy and Davidson imagine. Here are some constraints that individually might be a mere difficulty but collectively amount to a major impediment. Read the rest of this entry »

Is medium density housing on tram routes sustainable?

I like Melbourne City Council’s proposal for higher dwelling densities along tram lines but I think the claim that it would increase sustainability is exaggerated. There’s a whole ‘second half’ missing from this proposal.

The idea, which seems to be largely the brainchild of Council’s Rob Adams, is essentially that multi unit developments of up to 8 storeys should be encouraged along tram routes, leaving the suburban “hinterland” undeveloped (Rob refers to it as a new green wedge). This would reduce the need for fringe development and increase the mode share of public transport.

Nicholson Street - before

The major opportunities appear to be on tram routes in the inner suburbs, around 5-10 km from the CBD. While I think the assertion that 4-8 storey buildings can substitute for fringe development is fanciful and is based on a misinterpretation of other research, I accept that the proposal has the potential to increase the supply of dwellings of the type that are sought after by smaller households, especially those without dependents.

The key problem however is that nothing has been proposed to deal with car use by households occupying these new apartments. Without that, it won’t deliver. It just assumes that if households live cheek by jowl with good public transport they will necessarily use it. Read the rest of this entry »

Did good design make Federation Square a success?

Melbourne has had a long and sorry history in its search for a successful city square, but it eventually all came good when Federation Square was opened to instant acclaim and popularity in 2002.

So why do some places like Fed Square have “buzz” but others, like the previous attempt at a city square, seem lacklustre? And why is Docklands, for example, unable to attract visitors in large numbers or create a sense of excitement and vibrancy like Fed Square?

A common explanation is design and Fed Square is indeed a wonderful building with a grand sense of occasion. Good design can certainly make things work better and poor design can subvert the best of intentions. But design rarely “makes” a project successful. Buildings like Bilbao and the Sydney Opera House are the exception rather than the rule.

Let me advance a handful of alternative hypotheses for why Fed Square has been so successful in attracting users and establishing itself as an iconic Melbourne landmark. None of these by themselves is sufficient but combined they provide a compelling explanation. Read the rest of this entry »