Queensland is researching the complexities of car parking and our transition away from the dominance of the car.
Most Australian councils now know that car parks, especially onstreet, are not the best use of valuable land. This is especially true when on street car parking turns into additional storage space for boats, caravans and jet skis and when we know that for 95 per cent of the time, cars remain parked, unused.
Planning professor Neil Sipe from the University of Queensland is undergoing research funded by the Queensland government into the tensions and complexities of car parking supply.
He says most local governments in the country are working to gradually transition on street parking into bike lanes, pocket parks, community gardens, housing and other creative uses that activate the streetscape.
“Most cities understand that maybe cars are the dominant thing in the landscape, but in the future, they are not going to be as prominent.”
But it’s not easy to break free from car dependency. Access to parking is something that’s top of mind for many Australians, and as the experience of Brisbane City Council shows, cannot be changed overnight.
Brisbane City Council caught between a rock and a hard place
Around 15 years ago the Brisbane City Council sought to maximise parking spaces in inner urban areas. This subverted the traditional paradigm that emerged with the rise of private car use that there should be a minimum requirement on parking spaces.
At the time, it was considered forward thinking to put caps on the amount of on street parking to be provided.
But when the council tried to expand the zone for parking caps, it was met with a lot of complaints. Residents and developers were concerned that onsite car parking for townhouse developments in the inner and middle ring suburbs had decreased, which meant households with multiple cars ended up parking on the street.
In a suburb like Carina, seven kilometres from the Brisbane CBD, most people commuted to work by public transport, leaving cars on the street during the day.
When people came home from work congestion started to worsen, and it became hard for visitors or those who drive to work to find a spot to park.
Professor Sipe says the council essentially found itself in a “no-win situation” despite trying to do “the right thing” by limiting the parking ratios.
That’s led the council to consider bumping up the requirements for all new apartment buildings to have two car park spaces for all two-bedroom apartments, instead of just one.
Greens councillor Jonathan Sri is against the amendment and says it didn’t reflect the needs of the city, and could prompt developers spending a lot on more on building car parks when there’s not enough demand coming from the market and the residents.
“Rather than forcing developers to build more private car parks maybe we should force them to contribute more to public transport,” he told the Brisbane Times back in June.
There’s a transition period with parking
Sipe sees this on street parking conundrum as symptomatic of the city’s “transition period”.
“The government and general population would like urban environments that are less dominated by cars, but we are currently in the interim phase where if you are living in the inner and outer ring suburbs, it’s difficult to get around without a car, and sometimes multiple cars.”
So, is it just a matter of better public transport?
The professor’s understanding is that in Brisbane and many other Australian cities, the journey to work is well serviced by public transport. But beyond that, to get to the shops and to run errands, it’s more difficult to manage without a car.
“And again, if you look at these places in the suburbs where you are getting a lot of the infill development, the services are not really there.”
This is different to the urban lifestyle, where people can walk to the shops.
He says even if we improve public transport “we’re not really at the point” where we can get people to live without of car. For that, cities need to be more mixed use to allow for higher walkability.
Another key problem is that local traders believe that the removal of car parking will be the demise of their businesses.
But according to Sipe, the evidence is almost conclusive that if you replace street carp arking with a bike lane then local business revenue tends to go up rather than down.
Solutions to the parking problems
Some developers are looking to mitigate the problem by offering unbundled options where the car park is sold as an add-on to the apartment rather than as a package deal.
“The benefit of that from the developer standpoint is less parking they have to provide.”
On the flip side, people might exploit the system and not pay for an onsite car park and instead park on the street.
There’s also moves to squeeze more out of existing parking spots in cities. There’s a number of new apps that allow people to book a park before they leave the house and allow people to rent out their driveways when they rent using them.
Breaking up with cars will be hard
Although many in the community are realising that there are better uses for public land than car parking, the logic of building more car parks remains fairly ingrained in the Australian psyche.
For example, the federal government announced a $500 million, 10-year package predominantly for building car parks near train stations in the most recent budget.
Sipe agrees that the industrialised world’s relationship with parking is a “strong one and it won’t be easily broken down.”
The outrage that ensues when people are asked to pay for parking that used to be free is evidence of this relationship.
Parking is never really free
But as the professor points out, parking is never really free. Free parking at a shopping centre means the cost is embedded into the business model and paid for through the goods and services purchased.
He says that when things such as insurance and lighting are factored in, the average cost of a park is around $30,000 a space to build.
“It’s not a free commodity… we have to pay for it one way or another.”
Sipe says the shift in perspective “won’t happen all at once.”
“It will happen neighbourhood by neighbourhood.”
For example, it’s already commonly accepted in most Australian cities that driving a car into the city is a no-go.
Sipe, a resident of Brisbane, hasn’t driven into the city centre for over a decade.
At least, Australia is less addicted to parking than in parts of the US, where he suspects there would “probably be riots” if parking was taken away from sports stadiums.