In Victoria’s local government elections, from the CBD to Darebin, Geelong to Warrnambool, candidates are promising COVID-recovery through free on-street car parking. This is also true of City of Melbourne election campaigns – with candidates proposing various forms of free parking to lure shoppers back to the CBD.
These proposals are in some ways a return to the Melbourne of the 1950s – the hollowed-out “doughnut city” of 6pm closing, when planners reshaped the city in attempts to attract cars through more parking – directly inspired by Los Angeles and the principle that “no matter how attractive a shop or a shopping centre may be, it will not attract the customer … unless adequate parking facilities are provided”.
While all politicians like to promise free parking – and a revitalised city – what is also at stake is public street space. With street space finite and parking taking up a surprising large proportion of it, the capacity to accommodate more cars (for workers or visitors, let alone both) is usually illusionary.
So is “free” parking – car spaces cost around $60,000 in construction and land costs alone, spread across nearly everyone but the driver. There are also indirect costs – subsidies to car use, traffic, congestion, noise and air pollution, health impacts, emissions and constraints on liveability, including children’s mobility.
In the City of Melbourne, there are 24,754 on-street spaces – space which would struggle to accommodate those 90,000 additional cars, let alone also-promised expansions of on-street retailing, green space and hospitality.
In Warrnambool, free parking was bought in to stimulate business. Shortly afterwards, the ABC reported the plan had backfired with traders and employees reportedly hogging spaces all day. Parking research sees this pattern repeatedly – public debate quickly forgets.
The City of Melbourne does have nearly 200,000 off-street spaces – so any increased car travel would need to be targeted at commercial and off-street spaces.
These are often less popular than imagined spaces “out the front” and require motorists or employers to pay – which many Melburnians are loathe to do. State and federal governments have signalled measures to address that by reducing the congestion levy; and fringe benefits tax on employee parking.
Even with a reimagined approach to managing car parking, anticipated increases in traffic will do little to revitalise retailing or other city metrics.
Melbourne’s planners have worked for decades on reinventing the CBD: adding residents and green space and creating the pre-COVID Melbourne we knew, for better and worse. Throwing this out as knee-jerk reaction to the sense COVID makes more cars safer and inevitable seems, at the least, a bit rash.
It promises a return to the car-crazed 1950s or to the traffic-laden, hollowed-out doughnut of the 1980s: fewer residents, businesses and visitors; and more cars vying for space. There are long-term costs and it is hard to reconcile with the need, particularly of inner Melburnians, for open public green space. Look at the way Darebin residents have reclaimed the golf course. Given the chance, people value open space and parks as much as – sometimes more – than car parks.
Worldwide, Paris is removing cars from city streets in favour of pedestrian and bike space. Vienna, Melbourne’s rival for “Most Liveable City” and recently crowned the “World’s Greenest City”, is increasing pedestrian zones and safeguarding public transport. The more pressure there is to store cars, the less space there is for other envisioned ideas for Melbourne – outdoor dining, increased green space.
Melbourne should not just be asking – what might happen to transport after COVID-19? But also, is that a good thing, and what should be done about it? In 2020 all levels of government envision are chasing growth and hope to return people to a Melbourne whose blank streets resemble the “ghost town” used as the set for post-apocalyptic 1959 film On the Beach.
Decision makers are desperate for something to work – but free parking usually backfires and more parking rarely creates liveable cities.
Outdoor dining and green space and walkable communities are not easily reconciled with cars zipping (or idling and parking) past every second. Using cities for car storage is not the inevitable result of the virus but is something to be traded off against other versions of Melbourne and its transport. Post-COVID Melbourne has a choice: liveable spaces, or World’s Most Liveable Car Park.
Dr Elizabeth Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning and Design at Monash University.