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Benjamin Clark

American Taylor Swift fans are flummoxed by the MCG’s lack of parking. But Australia still has way too much of it

Taylor Swift may have now departed Australia in her private jet, but her fans have inadvertently kicked off a debate about a very different kind of transport.

Swift’s record-breaking tour saw social media flooded with videos of the sheer scale of the crowds piling in and out of Melbourne’s MCG and Sydney’s Accor Stadium. But Americans looking at aerial images had one question: where’s all the parking?

American stadiums are typically surrounded by a sea of concrete. Take, for instance, Houston’s NRG Park and Stadium, which is surrounded by 26,000 parking spots (352 acres) plus another 102 acres of overflow. Conversely, the MCG is surrounded by Yarra Park, alongside multiple train stations and tram stops.

Australians online have thus been ridiculing “car-brained” Americans and gloating about our stadiums’ public transport access and urban amenities.

But Aussies shouldn’t get too boastful, and not only because cars are allowed to park in Yarra Park during AFL games. While America is certainly starting from a long way behind, Australians are pretty “car-brained” too. And many American cities are also taking steps away from car-oriented urban planning that put Australian policymakers in the slow lane.

But first, why are car parks so bad?

Aside from the less pleasant aesthetics of American stadiums’ surroundings, car parks are surprisingly costly. “In Australia, each parking space in high-density locations is worth about $100,000”, says urban planner David Mepham, who recently published the book Rethinking Parking. “Yet a lot of that parking is not very well used, if it’s used at all.”

In Melbourne, an estimated 25-41% of parking in apartment blocks in the inner city — which developers are often mandated by law to build — stand vacant. Such unused parking costs Australians more than $6 billion.

For public projects, the cost can be even higher. The Victorian government recently announced a new car park for Frankston station, which will cost approximately $174,000 per space. That money could buy a lot of extra bus services or bike infrastructure, so people wouldn’t need to drive there. But as the Morrison years taught us, politicians still go to great lengths to cut the ribbons on new car parks.

Consider the “opportunity cost” i.e. what else that space could be used for. For stadiums, the trade-off is businesses that could benefit from being within walking distance from the venue. “That’s why the MCG works so well,” says Mepham. “You’ll be spending two hours at the concert but perhaps four hours at dinner, in the park, shopping etc. In Houston, there is no symbiotic access to the building and the place where it sits, because you’re creating a buffer.”

Funnily enough, Taylor Swift herself has articulated this dynamic. When asked about her favourite city, New York, she told reporters: “In other towns or cities or whatever, things feel very spread out. But because of […] everything being on top of each other, the night falls together. I love LA, but you have to plan out exactly what you’re going to do, you have to park your car, tell your friends where to meet you […] There’s a magic about New York where you just end up somewhere else…” This is no accident — New York has fewer parking spaces than homes, and has perhaps the best public transport network in the US.

Elsewhere, the trade-offs are more dire than inconvenient pub crawls. Sprawling car parks around public transport prevent housing from being built nearby. For housing itself, minimum parking requirements increase building costs, which are then passed onto occupants. Planning requirements to add multiple parking spaces add 25% to the cost of affordable units — even if the resident doesn’t need those spaces. “On the one hand we’re talking about affordable housing,” says Mepham. “But on the other hand we’re completely ignoring one of the critical cost drivers of unaffordable housing which is unnecessary parking.”

This also means buildings take up more space, increasing the distance between buildings and making areas less walkable. This, in turn, reinforces residents’ reliance on cars, increasing traffic and pollution, and decreasing the convenience and safety of more active modes of transport. Parking fuels the need for more parking.

Why Aussies need to park our smugness

America is certainly the home of excessive parking. There are approximately 2 billion parking spaces in the US — that’s between three and eight spaces per car. They collectively cover more land than some US states. In one town — Jackson, Wyoming — there are over 27 parking spaces for each car.

Determining the total figure for Australia is more difficult. Mepham guesses that Australia has approximately 3-4 spaces per car, which would equal approximately 45-60 million spaces. This is a lot, but less than the US per capita. Previous data for specific Australian cities showed a significant but not globally aberrant number.

But Australia is heading in the wrong direction. In Melbourne, for instance, the amount of space devoted to private parking has increased by 156% over the last 20 years. The MCG’s green oasis is very much the exception.

Across the country, our car registrations have grown much faster than our population, while the distance each car is driven has dropped. By definition, these cars must now be parked for more of the time.

And, perhaps due to the severity of the problem there, American cities are racing ahead with reforms to curb excessive parking in a way Australian cities are not.

“We tend to criticise America as being completely car-oriented but that’s a generalisation,” says Mepham. “In California and Oregon, for instance, they have produced strong legislation to remove minimum parking in buildings. We’re not yet having a discussion about that here.” Other American cities have followed suit. Last year Infrastructure Victoria recommended copying the idea, and a Victorian government discussion paper endorsed it. Watch this (parking) space.

It’s great that Australians are proud of our (relatively few) walkable areas, green spaces and public transport links to major public buildings. But if we don’t reverse course, we’ll end up more like America than we’d like to think.

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