Shared road-footpath parking spaces on Yarra st Abbotsford, Melbourne
Yarra St Abbotsford, where parked cars and pedestrians share the footpath

The exhibit shows the lengths we’ll go to in order to accommodate our cars. In the inner city Melbourne suburb of Abbotsford, parking spaces are painted partly on the road in Yarra St and partly on the footpath. It’s the place, according to The Age, where pedestrians make way for cars.

It’s a telling symbol but is it a practical problem?

The report in The Age indicates clearly that residents agreed to this arrangement; in fact I expect they demanded it. They want parking on both sides of the street but that leaves so little room parked cars were getting side-swiped.

If it’s what residents decide they want I reckon that has to count for a lot. They’re the ones after all who live with the trade-off between walking space and parking space. It’s been like this for five years; it seems they like it.

It’s a localised issue; it’s just one end of Yarra St. There’s very little through traffic and there’s a footpath on both sides. Narrowing the street probably has a calming effect on traffic too.

What’s more important is the illustration of just how important car ownership remains even to inner city residents. Yarra St certainly isn’t as good as an ideal “walkable” location can get, but it has many of the elements planners often contend make driving substantially less attractive.

It’s only 3 km as-the-crow flies from Melbourne Town Hall. It’s close enough to the CBD that residents could walk to work (I commuted on foot at least the same distance for years from Nth Fitzroy to Spring St).

Dwellings are either houses on very small lots (circa 200 – 250 sq m) or apartments. Both Victoria Park and Collingwood railway stations are within a convenient walk, as are the attractions of Nicholson St, Victoria St, Hoddle St, Johnson St, Abbotsford Convent, Collingwood Childrens Farm, Yarra trail and Yarra Bend Park.

And yet 38% of journeys to work by residents of the suburb of Abbotsford are made by car, compared to 27% by public transport and 18% by walking and cycling. That’s much better than the national average of 60% of commutes by car but this is the inner city where driving might be expected to be a minority mode.

In fact 80% of dwellings in the suburb have at least one car and 31% have two; that’s not a lot better than the national average of 88% and 36% respectively. The journey to work is circa one fifth of all trips so it seems many Abbotsford residents who commute by train, tram, foot or bicycle still like to have a car available for the majority of their trip purposes.

So despite all the issues with parking and traffic congestion in the inner city, households in Abbotsford still find there’s utility in owning a car (or two). They don’t use it as much as the average Melburnian, but they obviously still use it; they’re not bearing the costs of rego, insurance and depreciation for nothing.

The message is a familiar one: density, good public transport and proximity to activities don’t necessarily – or even usually – obviate the usefulness of driving and hence the demand for parking.

Driving is only seriously uncompetitive in very dense and very congested places such as the Manhattan-like Sydney suburb of Potts Point. Just 17% of journeys to work by residents are taken by car, compared to 31% by public transport and 31% on foot.

However even then, 44% of dwellings in Potts Point have at least one car. In the near-CBD suburb of Southbank in Melbourne, an astonishing 70% of dwellings have at least one car. Residents live in new apartment towers – provide mandatory parking spaces in developments and residents will fill them!

If a key objective of policy is to substantially reduce car ownership and/or driving, the solution lies in reducing the utility of cars relative to other modes. That includes managing the supply and price of on-street and off-street parking spaces but it must be approached on an area-wide basis e.g. on a whole of district, municipality or region basis.

So far as Yarra St is concerned, it might be a prospective candidate for what the British call a “home zone” and the Dutch a “Woonerf” i.e. a shared space where the entire street is treated as a pedestrian zone and motorists must drive at walking speed. That would make room for car parking, walking, playing and maybe even socialising.