Render of 250 space multi level car park at Syndal Station, Melbourne, currently under construction at est cost of $10.8 million (source: PTV)

The Age reported yesterday that Melbourne’s private rail operator, Metro, “wants to build multi-storey car parks at some of Melbourne’s busiest railway stations, and potentially charge commuters to park there”.

Metro says more parking would encourage commuters to take the train instead of driving and thereby increase public transport revenue. The RACV endorses the idea, arguing that more parking “is an absolute key to increasing patronage”.

However Public Transport Victoria, who would very likely be footing most of the bill, was less than enthusiastic:

Car park construction is expensive and we want to find the most cost-effective solutions using existing land. This would include drop-off zones, connecting buses and secure bicycle parking.

This is an interesting issue. At first glance, the idea that more commuter parking at existing stations would increase train patronage sounds plausible but it’s actually pretty doubtful.

For one thing, multi-level carparks are expensive to build, especially in constrained locations around long-established rail stations. They cost around $25,000 per space on average exclusive of land but there’s a lot of variability.

For example, the new 250 space car park currently under construction at Melbourne’s Syndal station is costing $10.8 million i.e. $43,000 per space. It’ll be free because train travelers demand free parking and Governments are timid.

Another reason to doubt the wisdom of building multi-storey car parks is they’re unlikely to attract new patrons to trains in significant numbers.

Most peak hour train travelers are heading to and from the inner city, especially the CBD. The small minority who currently drive to work in the centre of big cities like Sydney or Melbourne isn’t going to abandon cars simply because there’s more parking at the local station.

They’re mostly die-hard drivers who have a particular reason for enduring the severe congestion and high parking costs of the CBD. It might be they have free parking; use their car for work regularly during the day; or feel their status demands they drive. They also include the group that refuses to ever use public transport.

A more likely outcome is the additional parking spaces would be taken by travelers who currently use public transport or walk to the station. A quarter of train users in Melbourne get to and from the station by tram or bus but more than half walk. In Sydney almost 80% walk (see Is walking the only way to get to the station?).

Providing more parking, even if it’s charged, will inevitably encourage some of these travelers to drive to the station instead. That’s a (private) benefit for them but there’s no social benefit. Indeed, it might help undermine the viability of local feeder bus services.

Driving can never be a serious mode for accessing stations in established suburbs. Train travelers simply aren’t prepared to pay what would be required to justify redeveloping extensive areas of extraordinarily expensive land around stations for construction of costly multi-level parking facilities. (1)

Another issue is that notwithstanding the fine efforts of talented designers (see exhibit) multi-level car parks aren’t easy structures to integrate successfully into suburban neighbourhoods. (2)

One thing Metro’s proposal highlights is that train travel is a very local activity; residents sort by “walk rail” with consequent increases in property values around stations. In Sydney, 76% of current train users live within one kilometre of a rail station (and 98% of this group walk there).

Those who live beyond walking distance of a station – the great majority of Australians living in capital cities – can’t drive there and they can’t rely on adequate feeder services, even in the peak.

Extending the catchment of stations would greatly enhance the housing options of those who can’t afford to live close to a station but rely on rail e.g. city centre workers.

There’s a case for more at-grade parking to be part of the package at outer suburban rail stations, but the solution for the great majority of stations is better feeder (usually bus) services and better conditions for two wheeled transport. (3)

Update: 25/08/15 The Age: Can’t find a car park at the train station? Here’s 500 reasons why.

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  1. I think there’s a case for providing parking for off-peak train travel though. That’s in part because these are trips that can more plausibly be taken by car compared to work journeys; and in part because feeder services aren’t as good as they are in the peak. At-grade parking is adequate and many suburban stations, at least in Melbourne, already have adequate capacity.
  2. The kinetic facade of this multi-level carpark at Brisbane Airport is pretty interesting but it wouldn’t work anywhere near as well in a local neighbourhood centre
  3. New rail lines like WA’s Mandurah line also have stations at a considerable distance apart and are supported by large car parks and feeder bus services. Aside: it’s evident from this picture that one reason the cost of this line was relatively low is it doesn’t go into the centre of Mandurah and Rockingham; it stops in the suburbs.