It is now quite well-accepted that the demand for vehicle parking in Dhaka City exceeds the existing capacity. Common sense suggests that the solution is to increase the supply, and the government's new draft parking policy seeks to do so. The policy mandates that various businesses, recreational areas, cultural sites, and other places set aside car parking. It also requires that car parking be allocated on various streets.
But how likely is the draft parking policy to resolve the problem it addresses? Might it simply aggravate the problem by allocating ever more urban space to motorised vehicles, thereby increasing their use and further aggravating existing traffic congestion and parking demand?
In city after city around the world, local officials have responded to the demand for more car parking by designating more areas of it. In no city has demand ever been satisfied by the increase in capacity. Car owners continue to complain of insufficient (or, in their minds, overly expensive) car parking, no matter how much is allocated to them; after all, everyone wants to park private transports as close as possible to their destinations, as quickly and conveniently as possible. Local officials race to keep up, demand continues to increase, and nobody is satisfied. Meanwhile, enormous sums of money are spent building parking structures, vast swathes of urban space are given over to motorized vehicles, and quality of life declines for everyone.
What has worked universally to address the insatiable demand for car parking is to address the situation from the opposite angle. Rather than increasing supply to try, quixotically, to meet demand, planners seek to shrink demand to meet existing supply. The most successful cities take a further step by gradually reducing the number of parking spaces available and this has led to cities such as Copenhagen consistently being rated as among the most livable cities in the world.
How does one decrease demand for parking? There are two main approaches. One is to charge sufficiently high fees, per time and space used, to provide a disincentive to those who would otherwise store their private vehicles in public space for hours at a time. If they are forced to pay something approaching market rates for the space, by increments of time (per hour in less busy areas; per fifteen minutes in crowded places), car owners will think twice before using the streets as their personal vehicle storage areas. If people switch from leaving their car for eight hours to leaving it for just one, then that single parking space can satisfy eight times the number of cars as it did previously. One can exponentially increase parking supply without adding a single space.
The other important approach is to reduce travel by private motorised vehicle through a number of measures that both creates disincentives for their use and creates incentives for the use of more space efficient means that do not have such a high demand for terminal (parking) space. Such policies could include congestion charging, where drivers must pay to enter congested areas. They could include limits or bans on new licenses for cars and motorbikes until the problems they cause – crashes, air pollution, noise pollution, and waste of space, to name a few – decline. It is important to choose measures that have proven effective in other cities, not useless measures such as banning some cars some days depending on the license number.
Incentives for walking, cycling, taking rickshaws, and using public transport would include rewarding rather than punishing those who use such means of transport: providing zebra crossings rather than forcing people to use bridges to cross streets; designating some streets as exclusively pedestrian, and others exclusively for non-motorised transport; giving buses priority on different streets; and providing civic amenities such as trees, water fountains, benches, public toilets and so on that would be easier to provide both in terms of space and budgeting when no longer seeking to prioritise the use of the space-wasting, money-burning private car.
According to a recent study done by Work for a Better Bangladesh Trust, at the moment there are 3,30,968 registered private cars in Dhaka. Each car requires 120 square feet for parking (including access lanes). The study assumes a bare minimum of two parking spaces per car (one at home, the other at work/businesses, etc.). The number of cars times 120 square feet per car times two parking spaces yields 8 crore square feet of parking space. This does not include road space for driving. The study states that with 8 crore square feet of space, we could provide 26 lakh people with workspace; 53 lakh people with a modest home; 91 lakh people with access to a community center; or 5 crore people with access to a playing field or other public space. In other words, in order to accommodate the roughly 5% of the population that owns a car, we are depriving 95% of the population of access to more space in the city. The solution to the space demands of cars, according to the study, is not to continue giving them more and more space, but rather to institute car control measures and incentivise more efficient (and safe) modes of transport.
The draft parking policy should be completely reworked in order to aim at reducing demand for car parking, rather than seeking to increase supply. Only then do we have a hope of beginning the long and direly needed process of helping Dhaka become a livable city.
THE WRITER IS THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE INSTITUTE OF WELLBEING AND HAS WORKED ON TRANSPORT POLICY SINCE 2004.