The Federal Auditor General released its report into the Commuter Car Parking Fund, and found it totally flawed, with the selection of sites done on the basis of politics, not merit.
You can read the full ANAO report here, but I wanted to highlight the myriad of problems with the scheme.
1. The politics
The projects were mostly targeted into Coalition seats, seemingly to try and shore up votes, particularly in Victoria (this was in the wake of the 2018 state election), but the report also notes the procedural failures – in getting projects approved for funding without them meeting the approval criteria, and in pushing funding through before the government entered caretaker mode, but claiming they were election commitments.
All this has been the main focus of the Federal Opposition and most of the media. But it’s missing half the story.
2. The locations
Station car parks have their place – particularly on the urban fringe and in regional areas where land is cheap, local demand genuinely can’t support better buses, and many passengers are travelling long distances to get on a train that make walking and cycling difficult.
The big caveat is that any suburb that has chronic traffic congestion every peak hour can support better buses, and walking, and cycling options.
There were widespread concerns about the suitability of the inner-suburban locations chosen for this program. For instance Glenferrie, Balaclava and Camberwell are very dense inner suburbs with existing good station access including by tram, where adding extra commuter traffic doesn’t make sense, and in fact would cause more congestion problems in the shopping strips.
And at Bentleigh and Elsternwick, the proposed car parks aren’t actually at the station – they’re 300-500 metres away! In fact the ANAO report found that no less than 10 of the 33 projects were not attached to stations.
If the car spaces wouldn’t benefit train commuters, this of course underscores that it was never really about improving public transport.
3. The cost
Section 4 of the report talks about typical construction costs per space.
The department used the consultant’s report to brief the Minister on a benchmark cost range and average cost per space (in June 2020 dollars) for three typical scenarios (see Table 4.2). The department advised the Minister that the variability in the cost ranges for car park projects is driven by a range of site specific factors.
Factors include: design considerations, fire regulations and security requirements, construction methodologies, and external site factors (including demolition and site clearances, service and utility diversions, ground contamination and conditions, public realm works, site constraints, road works to access car parking facilities and traffic management).ANAO report, page 73. Text on factors taken from footnote.
I’ve reproduced the cost table below, with an additional column: the average cost divided by a Melbourne daily fare, so we can calculate how many days of travel it would take for the cost of the parking space to be recouped.
|Cost range per space
|Average cost per space
|Daily $9 fares per average cost
|$11,900 – $40,120
|Multi-storey standard (Brownfield)
|$18,400 – $44,500
|Multi-storey adjacent to rail line (Brownfield)
|$26,800 – $45,800
- each car space gets an additional person onto a train (which is a generous assumption; in many cases it may siphon existing train passengers from walking/cycling/catching a bus to the station)
- they’re paying a peak hour fare of $9 (some car park users get Concession fares or use the Earlybird fare and pay half that, though extra spaces are more likely to be filled at the end of peak)
- 250 days per year of use (eg every weekday, so not taking into account quiet times during the summer holidays)
- the station car park remains free to use – which is the case throughout Victoria (but not in some other places, such as Perth)
Taking all that into account, the new car spaces take between 11 and 17.6 years to recoup their costs.
And that’s assuming that the extra passengers don’t actually contribute to the cost of the train service they’re using – which is clearly ridiculous – and that there are zero costs additional for running and maintenance of the car park.
No wonder the Benefit Cost Ratio of the projects were largely ignored.
The default feeder solution is wrong
The real problem is that the car has become the default Go To rail feeder mode for many politicians – on both sides, and at both State and Federal levels.
This is perhaps in part because cars are so inefficient. Car parks take up so much space for so few people that they’re very visible around railway stations, and people assume they’re the majority access mode. (They’re not.)
Car is inherently self-limiting as a rail access mode. To be able to use it, you have to get to the station early (which plays against flexible hours and some types of shift working), you have to spend thousands every year on owning and running a vehicle, making it very challenging for anybody on a low income.
And you have to be someone who is actually able to drive. Plenty of people can’t drive – in Victoria, more than 20% of people in the 18-28 and 65+ age groups don’t have licences.
Even the biggest station car parks fill up, and they cause local traffic congestion at peak times.
Walking and cycling need more attention as rail feeders. And the State Government’s new Bus Plan is encouraging – though it’s more of an overarching strategy at this stage than a firm detailed plan for upgrades.
If car parks are the best option in some locations, and it’s possible they might be, what the ANAO report is saying is that they need to be chosen genuinely on merit, not because of politics.
But more broadly, politicians need to remember that the actual goal is getting people onto public transport, not getting cars into car parks.
Note: I can’t claim credit for the phrase “Pork and Ride” – it’s been in use since at least Feb 2020.