Lure of cheap CBD parking sends “mixed messages”

By David Schout

Cheap parking deals to entice motorists back into central Melbourne were sending “mixed messages” according to one City of Melbourne councillor.

In a move to “bring back the buzz and support jobs”, the council has announced that $5 parking deals would be available on weekends and after 4pm on weekdays across 33 private car parks until August 22.

The decision was driven by consumer surveys that indicated people were hesitant to return to the CBD on public transport.

However, the move to encourage motorists into the city represented a stark departure from one of the council’s key transport goals; that is, to discourage car trips into the state’s busiest area.

The council’s 10-year transport strategy, released in 2019, sought to “remove non-essential vehicle trips from the city’s streets” to free up space for pedestrians and cyclists. 

It argued that as motor vehicles accounted for just 22 per cent of all trips to, from and within the Hoddle Grid, trips that weren’t emergency vehicles, on-road public transport, deliveries and servicing, or for people with a disability, should be discouraged from the CBD.

Cr Rohan Leppert said the cheap parking move was worrying.

“This exercise is driven by consumer sentiment surveys, not transport economics, and I do worry about the mixed messages council is sending,” he told CBD News.

“Melbourne is a metropolis of over five million people and road space is finite. Government’s role here should be to build confidence in public and active transport options so that the greatest number of people can be moved as efficiently as possible, not to advertise incentives for only the least efficient mode of transport.”

Cr Leppert was similarly resistant to the council’s December incentive to offer free on-street parking vouchers to lure Christmas shoppers into the city.

He said at the time it was “hard not to feel like years of hard-won policy is unravelling”.

“I am very concerned that the COVID-induced recession is being used as an argument that the economics of the city have fundamentally changed since the adoption of the Transport Strategy 2030, and that new times call for a temporary car-led recovery.”

However, the cheap parking move has been promoted as a way to support city businesses that have struggled throughout the pandemic.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the council simply wanted to ensure the maximum number of visitors to local retail and hospitality venues.

“Every extra person that comes into the city provides an opportunity for local traders who have just been through the toughest trading period in decades,” she said. 

“We want to bring back the buzz to Melbourne because a vibrant and busy city means more customers for businesses and more Melburnians in jobs. With so much happening, it’s the perfect time to come in and enjoy everything our city has to offer.”

A recent NAB Consumer Insight report found that seven in 10 people had either stopped visiting central Melbourne or were visiting less, and one in four said this was because parking was either too expensive or they did not want to use public transport.

The council’s city activation chair Cr Roshena Campbell said cheap parking would be an important boost for city businesses after five lockdowns. 

“We know some visitors, especially now, prefer to drive into the city. Creating transport options that are easy and affordable provides support to our retailers and restaurants,” Cr Campbell said.

A clear split had emerged at Town Hall between councillors who believed the transport strategy should remain a close guiding document going forward, and those who believed COVID-19 should force a readjusted outlook.

Cr Campbell, who was not on council when it endorsed the 10-year strategy in 2019, said in June that planned transport shifts may need to be halted in the name of economic recovery.

“While I accept a lot of work has been done by this council on its transport strategy, in my view it may be the case that some of that work will be found to be inconsistent with what is necessary to support our city’s recovery and at that point, if it is the case, decisions will need to be made,” Cr Campbell said. 

The council has commissioned an independent review into post-pandemic transport trends in the city, after COVID-19 forced a change in everyday activity.

A number of new trends — for example the “skyrocketing” number of gig economy delivery riders — had emerged, and the council said it was important city-shaping policies now reflected that •

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