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Mon 22 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Parking puzzles

The debate on public versus private transport usage continues to heat up. Urban planning expert Erik Ferguson tells Michele Howe where parking design fits into the picture.

The debate on public versus private transport usage continues to heat up. Urban planning expert Erik Ferguson tells Michele Howe where parking design fits into the picture.

It was somewhat ironic that my efforts to attend last month's Middle East Parking Symposium in Abu Dhabi, the first such event in the region, were thwarted by transport problems although not as is often the case directly related to difficulties finding a parking space.

With the population in the UAE expected to significantly increase over the next few years, parking is a huge issue.

I think no matter what [developers] do they are going to wind up making it more expensive to drive cars.

Assuming they get cars, as many people settling in the region do, how will there be space for these new arrivals on roads already severely congested at peak hours? Once they get to their destination, where are all these people going to park? How much parking is being built in anticipation of these extra entrants in new residential and commercial developments and will it be enough? Or is the hope that within a few years the congestion will be alleviated by the fact that many people will have switched to using public transport methods?

Fortunately, I managed to catch up after the symposium with Erik Ferguson, master of the urban planning programme at the School of Architecture and Design at the American University of Sharjah, and a speaker at the event, to discuss his views on these issues and on how parking design fits into the bigger picture.

One of the key issues, he believes, will be how actual usage of the public transport system corresponds to predicted usage of the system.

At present, only 6% of people in Dubai use public transport, according to figures from Dubai's Road and Transport Authority (RTA) cited earlier this year in local newspaper Gulf News.

"This is going to be the issue - how deep can the market penetration go on public transportation in the UAE?," Ferguson asks rhetorically.

"[Authorities] are looking at very ambitious goals for public transportation in this region, but in order to achieve them they are going to have to provide a quality of service that is competitive with the car."The RTA is offering various incentives to encourage use of public transport including the installation of air conditioned bus shelters, but what will also be needed are counter measures to discourage vehicle use, he says.

"Part of making a level playing field for cars versus transit is they are going to have to make cars pay the full cost because right now gasoline is subsidised and parking is still free in most parts of the UAE," he says.

"Free parking is going to have to be replaced by paid parking but if you are going to have paid parking then you have to give people value for what they are paying, meaning well-lit, well-designed parking."

There are arguments for and against both on-street and off-street parking, he says, with engineers traditionally pushing for off-street parking on the basis that on-street parking takes up space and causes accidents, while urban designers tend to favour on-street parking on the grounds that it slows cars down and makes space more pedestrian friendly.

For his part, Ferguson says that he used to support off-street parking, but has gradually leaned in the other direction.

"The more I thought about [on-street parking], the more I realised there was something to it since parking already distorts space because it takes up so much of it. In many cases in the US, the parking facility will take up more space in terms of building area than the building itself," he says.

In the US, one thing that happened as the country grew was retrofitting where built areas in some central business districts were redesigned to accommodate additional parking space.

"The same thing could happen in the UAE but what [authorities] have decided to do in support of the transit systems that are being developed in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is reduce the amount of parking required to below the levels they know will be necessary even once the transit system operates," in anticipation that people will use public transport, says Ferguson.

One parking design system that could take off in the region is mechanical or automated parking, he opines. According to media reports, an official from Abu Dhabi municipality has said that robotised car parks are under consideration in the capital.In areas that have very high densities and very little parking, mechanised parking could prove to be an effective solution, according to Ferguson.

In such cases, on-street parking will be limited because of the high density, while off-street parking is too expensive because of the high land value making mechanical parking a viable alternative, he explains. The benefits of automated parking are countered however by the high costs involved in building and operating it, which will then be passed down to the car user, he cautions.

"I think no matter what [developers] do they are going to wind up making it more expensive to drive cars and more convenient to use public transportation," notes Ferguson.

At a certain stage in a city's development, a shift away from a car oriented society towards one designed around transit is inevitable, he adds.

The car, originally designed for rural and small town environments, has become the dominant form of transportation around the world but is ill suited to high density urban areas of a certain size, he explains.

"Once you reach a population of one million, several things happen, one of which is you can economically justify building rail public transport. It is very hard to justify rail transit in cities with less than one million unless they are very high density," he says.

What is unique about the UAE, of course, is the speed of development. In the space of  the past decade, the UAE has grown by an estimated 70% to its current figure of circa five million, and that growth is nowhere near over. Such rapid growth does create problems, says Ferguson.

"In the US, rapid growth for cities means 3%-4% a year. In Abu Dhabi, and Dubai where annual growth is between 10%-20% a year, maybe even 25% some years, this is an unprecedented rate of growth which makes it even more difficult to properly plan."

The next few years will be crucial in the development of Dubai and the rest of the UAE. Usage of public transport in Dubai is estimated to rise to 30% over the next few years with the start of metro and the expansion of the marine and bus networks, according to the RTA. Will this be enough to alleviate congestion? Only time will tell.

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