How can city car parks help solve the housing crisis?

You too could live in the supermarket car park of your dreams! Terms and conditions apply. Image: BRE Group

There’s an SNL skit I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s called Target Commercial, and part of it is about a woman who drives to a large supermarket car park to sit there in her car and just have a bit of a… moment.

It’s obviously part of SNL’s post-election content – the litany of oh-dear-he’s-actually-going-to-be-president-what-do-we-joke-about-now sketches – but it says something more profound about car parks as spaces. They’re wastelands – barren places functioning as empty hollows into which you can offload worries, emotions, tantrums, rages, or...

Houses.

There’s no particular need to talk about the housing crisis in detail at this point. There is one. If you’ve read anything on this site before, you’ll know about it. If not, have a Google – it’s a real treat. There’s a reason this publication’s unofficial motto is build more bloody houses.

But the problem is there are all sorts of logistical barriers stopping more housing being built in cities. For one, the dastardly evil green belt stops the city spreading its tendrils into England’s green and pleasant land profoundly average patches of nothing that have been unduly blessed. Brownfill sites get snapped up by developers with their eyes on a sole prize – large pots of cash – and with affordable housing quotas so low (and the classification of affordable so high), these developments often just turn into havens for the wealthy; money-banks for investors.

Which is where car parks come in.

Look at that sweet, sweet car park and tell me you're not excited. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Tom Forth runs software company imactivate, and is an Associate at ODI Leeds. One of his many handy data-visualisation projects looks at the space taken up by car parks in some of Britain’s biggest cities – Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, and Birmingham.

Within the bounds of Manchester’s inner ring road, 9 per cent of the total space is taken by parking – 357,000 square meters. By Forth’s calculations, thats enough space to build 3,570 homes at a density similar to London’s, 10,710 at a Paris-style density, or 17,850 if you want to bring a touch of Barcelona to the Northern Powerhouse.

Do the same thing with the space inside central Birmingham’s ring road, and you can build 3,440 London-esque homes. Sheffield’s equivalent gives you 1,640 homes; Leeds offers 3,540. Cover over all the car parks identified in Ford’s research, and boom – you could have as many as 1.2m homes built. Job done. Everyone can go home.

Only problem, of course, is that it’s not that simple. As much as most people hate car parks, we can’t just do away with them entirely. While it’s true that reducing the infrastructure for cars can, conversely, decrease congestion on the roads, and in cities like Cambridge – where parking is so impossible and/or expensive that it’s not even worth bothering – cycling and public transport become more popular, you can’t just get rid of them all.

For a start, the elderly and disabled are much better off in a world where you can get in a car, park it in a place, and then cover the short distance between the car park and your final destination yourself. Abolishing all car parks would be rather cruel to those people.

Not to mention that covering car parks over entirely would probably bring you back to square one as regards developers screwing everyone over for the sake of some shiny penthouses for nobody to live in.

Mmmm... shiny expensive things. Image: Jim Lindwood / Flickr. 

So, as Boris Johnson taught us, the trick is to have one’s cake and eat it.

With a typically gimmicky name, ZEDpods aim to be the solution. Erected on piles above car parks, they preserve both the original parking space whilst offering cheap and quick-to-build housing above. The dead air space above a parking bay becomes a home for someone to live in.

Cute (aka small), but affordable. Image: BRE Group.

An open-plan kitchen and living room (with an adjoining bathroom and balcony) takes up the space directly above the car parking space, whilst a mezzanine floor above provides a reasonable double bedroom.

Click to expand. Image: BRE Group.

They can be built in a single terrace above one line of parking spaces, or in two facing lines with a communal space in the middle if the car park is bigger.

Click to expand. Image: BRE Group.

There are double pods, too – with space for two bedrooms, a larger open-plan dining-living area, and a separate kitchen.

Click to expand. Image: BRE Group.

And for the more ambitious-minded car-park owner, the homes can be stacked in two stories, though the construction of these involves resurfacing the car park.

Click to expand. Image: BRE Group.

Hypothetically speaking, a developer or – more preferably, a local council or housing authority – could pay a nominal fee to the owner of the car park space (with appropriate legal wranglings), or rent the air space on an annual basis, and built atop the car parks of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and so on.

And there’s no shortage of prime spots that could benefit from such a construction. My local large supermarket has a gargantuan car park just metres away from a prime zone two tube station with interchange – which is currently space going completely underused.

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

North Greenwich – another zone two station with great connections via the Jubilee Line – has all sorts of underused parking space.

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

There’s a splurge near Neasden.  

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

A muddle at Blackhorse Road.

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

And that's just in London. There are many national rail stations up and down the country that have wasted car park space that (fairly obviously) sits right next to prime transport connectivity.

Obviously, there are caveats. There are always caveats. They are a plague on both our housing developments.

For one – who wants to live over a car park? It’s often noisy, highly likely to be smelly, and if it’s a supermarket car park then there’s the profoundly mundane rattle of shopping trolleys for most hours of the day.

The plans that BRE Group have offered for the ZEDpods have no clear disabled access either, and there is still the issue of dead space. Just as nobody wants to be alone in a dark car park at night – who wants to walk through dark covered car park at night to get to their front door? The potential of these spaces to become macabre crime hotspots is very real, and apparently ignored in BRE Group’s plans.


It’s clear the plans need a final finesse before they become the grand design to alleviate the housing crisis.

But for too long our car parks have gone unchallenged – leviathan wastelands obstructing the long arc of progress in our cities towards that utopian dream of, you know, people having somewhere to live that they can actually afford.

Even if the steps we can take towards remedying that are mere baby steps – it’s probably better than the nothing we’ve been doing for nigh-on a century.

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.