Car parking on the doorstep of the MCG in Yarra Park (source: East Melbourne Historical Society)

You might think a renowned sporting country like Australia would’ve nailed the efficient and speedy movement of big crowds in and out of stadiums many decades ago.

We’ve had plenty of experience. Way back in 1965 the Sydney Cricket Ground accommodated 78,000 fans at the rugby league grand final. In 1959 a crowd of 130,000 saw US evangalist Billy Graham at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and in 1970 122,000 fans attended the VFL grand final.

But we still haven’t got it right. In March, a bus I caught on a Friday evening from the inner Brisbane suburb of Paddington to the CBD arrived a half hour late because it’d been held up on the ‘out’ journey by a crowd descending on Suncorp Stadium by car and foot. It lost a further half hour negotiating its way through the throng on the ‘in’ journey.

The biggest mistake we’ve made is permitting large fleets of cars to park in or close to stadiums on game day.

Large parts of Yarra Park in Melbourne, for example, are given over to parking when events are held at the MCG. This is a permanent arrangement; there are even smartphone apps that tell drivers how much parking is still available in the parklands.

Parking generates revenue for the Melbourne Cricket Club. But it compacts the soil; sterilises parkland during events; and causes severe traffic congestion both for MCG patrons who drive and for through traffic using Hoddle St and nearby roads.

Yet there’s plenty of rail-based public transport serving the MCG, both trains and trams. It’s also within walking distance of Federation Square and Flinders St Station.

One estimate I saw puts the mode split for big crowds at the MCG at around 80% public transport and 20% cars. That’s a lot of cars all converging on one small precinct, often at times when other traffic in the area is very busy e.g. see What can we do with Hoddle St? 

Patrons drive to matches because it’s convenient and perhaps because many are in that group who won’t entertain using public transport, ever. Another reason though is parking is very cheap; $10 per vehicle in Yarra Park. In fact parking costs less for a group of two adults than the price of two return train tickets (see also this example).

Drivers can expect a car park snarl after the game, but that’s presumably preferable to crush-crowding on trains and trams, or waiting for a service with room to get on. Metro proudly proclaims it can remove visitors from the MCG within one hour of a match ending but I suspect most patrons think that’s way too long; they expect to board the first train.

Like most stadiums in Australian cities, the MCG is very close to the centre of the city where public transport services are very good and walking is easy. With some exceptions like severely disabled fans or workers who finish well after the game, it’s hard to see why any fans, players or officials need to leave their car at the front door of the MCG.

Yarra Park’s most valuable use is as parkland, not a game day parking lot. Eliminating or drastically reducing parking would make for a healthier park; it would also provide the opportunity to landscape it in interesting ways that can’t be considered at present because they’re inconsistent with the demands of car parking.

There’s plenty of spare capacity in the public transport system at the end of games; the operator needs to run more services to get fans away faster and give them a little space to breathe. Those who insist on arriving by car should accept they can’t park and take a taxi.

For some stadiums like Suncorp that are hard up against main roads, there’s also a need to develop a plan for moving large numbers of pedestrians between the stadium and transport interchanges without bringing traffic (like my bus) to a halt. Making it harder to park cars within the Stadium and nearby will help, but better pedestrian infrastructure is also required.

There would be costs in reducing car use, like provision of more frequent public transport services, construction of pedestrian infrastructure, and foregone parking revenue. But there’s a big pay-off in lower car use e.g. reduced off-peak traffic congestion for all drivers. In the case of the MCG, the city also gets it’s parkland back.

Update: I missed it at the time, but Daniel Bowen wrote on Monday about Handling big events – the real problem is lack of services.