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...


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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Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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