Leppington
Leppington railway station, south west Sydney

It only opened in February 2015, but parking is proving to be a problem at Sydney’s Leppington railway station on the new South West Rail Link. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the station’s 850 parking spots “are often full by 10am, leaving motorists who arrive later to circle repeatedly to find a park”.

This is a familiar problem at outer suburban railway stations across Australia like Melbourne’s South Morang station which opened in 2012. Peak-hour commuters elect to drive to them rather than take feeder buses. The choice is facilitated by under-priced parking – it’s usually free – and by uncompetitive feeder bus services.

What to do? Here are four possibilities.

Provide more parking

This approach recognises that driving is a very attractive choice for commuters in outer suburbs where traffic congestion is relatively low. While governments are reluctant to charge, it’s usually reasonably cheap to expand at-grade parking at outer suburban stations – circa $10,000 per space – because there’s often little development nearby.

Demand for commuter parking will increase over time but it isn’t infinite because only a small proportion of outer suburban workers have jobs that can be accessed quicker by rail than by road e.g. jobs in the city centre.

The cost of existing and additional spaces could be fully recovered by charging. However although parking meters are ubiquitous in Australian cities, governments and commuters seem to think the virtue of taking the train provides moral justification for driving to the station and parking at taxpayers’ expense.

Improve feeder bus services

Like providing free parking, this approach is costly too because the scope for cost recovery is limited. The catchments of outer suburban stations are often radial, requiring an effective feeder bus service to have multiple routes operating at high frequencies e.g. coordinated with train departures in the AM and arrivals in the PM.

Moreover, the potential market is small. For example, there were a total of 1,562 boardings in the weekday morning peak in 2013-14 at Melbourne’s outer suburban South Morang station. The relatively small pool of bus users increases the cost per passenger and reduces the environmental benefit per passenger.

Buses generally aren’t attractive to outer suburban commuters who already have a car because in most cases they’re slower and less convenient. Only those who don’t secure one of the existing stock of free parking spaces – or who can’t kiss-and-ride – are likely to be candidates for using feeder buses.

Provide safe bicycle routes

Bicycles and scooters offer many of the benefits of driving, especially with power assistance. Their weakness though is exposure to weather and, especially, concerns about safety. There’s no scope for directly recovering the cost of building a feeder network of safe (mostly segregated) routes, but the ongoing costs to both taxpayers and travellers would be very low.

Promote vehicle-sharing

It’s tentative at this stage, but there might be more scope to apply the idea of car-pooling to short feeder services – which have a common destination – than to the full commute, perhaps based on something like the Uber model.

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What’s missing in the evaluation of these sorts of policy choices is reliable data on the relative financial and economic costs of the various options to both travellers and government. What can be said though is that a large part of the financial cost of using cars for feeder transport is carried privately i.e. by owners. The exception is under-priced government-provided parking.

Most of the cost of feeder buses, on the other hand, is borne by taxpayers since fares cover only a small proportion of capital and operating costs. A key consideration though is that governments must provide some level of public transport anyway to meet the needs of non-motorists.

The usual advantage of public transport over cars – i.e. externalities – isn’t large in this situation and might even be negative. Congestion is commonly the largest negative externality but it’s usually low around outer suburban stations. Moreover, the sorts of frequencies required to operate an effective feeder bus service, combined with the relatively low potential pool of bus users, means the environmental footprint per passenger is likely to be large.

The first step must be to charge for commuter parking at railway stations. That should recover the full cost of providing parking (up to circa $45,000 per space for multi-story parking); lower the demand for driving; and make the other options relatively more attractive. I suspect charging for at-grade parking is actually more politically plausible than timid politicians are prepared to allow (Transperth charges $2 per day).

Won’t charging for parking discourage use of rail for the journey to work? Yes, but I expect the shift wouldn’t be large. Most outer suburban workers who use the train – and they’re only a small proportion of all commuters living in the outer suburbs – do so because it offers a very big advantage over driving all the way.

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