30 Nov 2020 Smart Thinking Articles
By Roger Rooney
Suburban shopping is resurgent with fewer people commuting to office jobs and purchase of second hand cars on the rise. Car fleet sales continue to increase, drivers licences for those 40+ are growing, and in at least one Australian city car travel growth has exceeded public transport growth.
All of which is why the pro public transport and active travel cabals call to reduce the ‘parking footprint’ - especially on-street – is so perplexing. Especially so when many of the car critics are now calling on other jurisdictions to follow the ACT Government’s lead and subsidise electric vehicle adoption.
Moreover, academics regularly publish articles on The Conversation about cars dominating cities, the need to design cities around people, reduce the parking footprint, increase funding for public transport, pedestrianise streets and scrap parking minimums for developments to improve affordable housing and reduce driving.
Anti-car virtue signaling is all well and good until you realise driving is what most people want to do. A point summed up by researcher, economist and strategic thinker Dr Cameron Gordon, “Many academics generally don’t consider the added practicality of on-street parking and the empirical fact that most people still want and need to drive to meet the requirements of daily life, at least under current conditions.”
Don’t get me wrong, there are compelling air quality and climate change reasons to lower car vehicles kilometres travelled – due to what comes out the tail pipe of an internal combustion engine – especially over the short to medium term, with car use currently accounting for approximately three quarters of transport emissions. Over the longer term, the electrification of travel and particularly the adoption of electric vehicle cars will drive road and parking bay use.
Not only is seeking to reduce on-street parking and car use out of step with the current pandemic and longer term EV aspirations, it raises the question, “where are all the EVs going to park?”
Governments like options. So why limit them to ‘mode shift’ to public transport and active travel when transport planning?
Dr Gordon takes a realist and broad based approach to delivering the daily transport task in a world getting hit by so many megatrends, “Climate crisis, urban suburban sprawl, public health crisis, the car has been seen as the main cause of these phenomena and its limitation - for some, elimination - has been seen as one important solution to them. The main problem with this view is that active travel and public transport are not going to get there and replace all the passenger kilometres travelled in Australia’s low density cities. We are not Copenhagen.”
“Standard solutions like public transport have their own problems, such as the gentrification of PT corridors driving up housing costs. Then there are the economics of public transport with light rail versus trackless trams for example. Whatever we do the point is to increase capacity and not take it away, like what we did here in Canberra reducing the bus service along the light rail route. The two modes are complementary and should be integrated with each other and the broader transport task that the public needs to get done.”
But’s let’s jump on to the demand side of the equation, design the city for the people and ask the people what they would do if we reduced on-street parking. A survey recently conducted by the city of Wellington (NZ) asked that exact question, and illustrates the three challenges and opportunities facing planners, with respondents providing one of three answers:
As Dr Gordon mentions, we can deploy smart technology to help drivers find on-street parking faster – that’s been proven most recently in Rye, Victoria – where it was estimated that real time parking availability data saved over 1,700 hours of driver time over the busy summer period. That means more time in zone for spending, happier rate payers, visitors and shop owners as they found parking quicker.
The second point is a little harder, as it raises a key question of how we can better direct drivers to the off-street carparks, who controls the parking assets, how can we publish the real time data and how can we persuade people to change behaviour? A parking mode shift of sorts.
Many councils and cities are minority players in the total parking supply - e.g. ACT Government where two thirds of the supply is provided privately or by a federal government authority - or have few off-street options to direct drivers to like in busy seaside town of Cronulla, NSW. Some like Bendigo council are fortunate in that they own close to 90% of the parking and have control over the product and the messaging – ‘park a little later and walk a little further’.
What’s needed here is a massive collaboration piece to bring privately run off-street parking into the smart city transport plan, as the private sector tends not to think at a city level; even if there’s a compelling reason such as reducing congestion and emissions. That’s the job for government – to lead and help set the vision.
Even if the decision has been made to reduce on-street parking, introduce parklets and share spaces to support distancing and retail and help people connect, and promote parking in gold plated off-street parking, planners are likely to face the following:
What we now call the smart city is unerringly similar to what we also called the digital economy, whose two core tenets, at the risk of oversimplification, are using digital to impact a network of economic and social activities to deliver:
Multiple reports show that those businesses and organisations that use digital grow faster, earn more and employ more people, delivering better outcomes. But as Dr Gordon cautions, “Technology can be a good or dirty word, depending on who is using it and how it is being used. But in fact everything depends on the social design and implementation of it. Cars are just another technology that can be used to accomplish both of the goals above – and other desired social ends. One leaves them out of the portfolio at one’s peril.”
Ignoring the ‘last mile’ is akin to the federal government’s suboptimal NBN solution, which failed to apply technology to upgrade the last mile copper connectivity to the household; halving speeds and annoying customers.
And just like the NBN, who has to now ‘mow the lawn’ and go back over the NBN solution to try sort out these issues, our failing to sensor up parkings on and off-street offerings is costing us time and money – millions in the cost of lost driver time, reduced retail revenues, lower financial returns and harm done to the environment through emission reduction forgone.
So to flip the narrative - how do we help solve car travel's last mile?
“What we should be focusing on are a portfolio of options, things like reducing travel times by optimizing the last mile of the trip, such as street signage and apps showing the best place to park and how to avoid the 6 minutes of hunt time wasted looking for a park,” says Dr Gordon.
This is where traffic data and parking as a service provides the sound evidence for policy making and planning. Origin and destination data for road use across Sydney estimates that the last 20% of the trip takes up to 50% of the time; aka the hunt time to find a park. Providers like Intelematics, Live Traffic data, and technology including blue tooth sniffers showing point to point travel times are part of the solution; but it’s the integration of traffic and parking availability and payments data that is key to ensure an end to end data driven solution for planners, retail and drivers:
Which brings us back to EVs.
The UK just banned heavy polluting vehicles car sales by 2030. As Australia is one of the dirtiest car fuel nations on earth, this is not some that is likely to be ushered in here anytime soon. But once it comes, the end of the ‘ICE mobile’ will really just be the beginning of the electric vehicle – with 50% of Australia say they are keen for their next car to be electric (the author one of them).
And like any adoption curve, price points have to come down before you hit the flat line of high growth. The challenge is to be ready when EV growth flat lines so that we can optimise demand – especially at public charging, where the UK already experiencing ‘charge rage’ and charge points being taken out.
If we can bring the car travel and parking back front and centre into the transport discussion then we will stand the best chance of solving the wicked problem of getting from A to B to C and back to A, pandemic or no pandemic; ICE car or EV, working, commuting, shopping or socialising it will mean people have greater choice and real time information and help realise the efficiency and transformative benefits on offer from a democratic and smart city.
Published author Roger Rooney has worked as a technology researcher for the Australian Government and consultant to the Irish Government. He currently consults on parking and mobility to industry and government and is working as Smart City advisor to Smart Parking Limited, as well as Managing Director at BTS Advisory.