Reclaiming land from vehicles
V Sanjugtha 
File photo of a residential car park in the Klang Valley. It is believed DBKL’s planning requirement for parking provision is among the highest in the world

More than half the world live in urban areas, and as land becomes scarce, housing woes are the bane of society. And a significant part of the problem can be attributed to the ubiquitous motor vehicle.

It’s time to reclaim precious land from vehicles. Currently, automobile-oriented planning requires a significant amount of space to be devoted to roads and parking, translating to more land allocated to each vehicle than housing per capita.

As shared mobility becomes an increasingly preferred transportation option, its environmental impact could see less land being allocated for car parks. This also means less space per vehicle in urban areas, effectively freeing up more land for social development.

A study by Boston Consulting Group, Unlocking Cities: The Impact of Ridesharing in Southeast Asia and Beyond commissioned by Uber found that Kuala Lumpur needs only 60% of the cars that are currently on the road.

This would then free up space equivalent to 140 Lake Garden parks. The report also noted that in order to park the 5.8 million-odd cars in the capital, a building nine times the size of KLCC is required.

The report also found ridesharing could lessen traffic congestion in the city by up to 91%. With all statistics pointing towards a better quality of life via increased use of shared mobility, it remains a question mark how long it will take to persuade people to give up their cars and switch to a ridesharing model.


Get incentives right

This mammoth task involves changing some deep-seated behaviours and industry players say all stakeholders will need to get their incentives right.

Another survey suggests that to keep traffic congestion to the level typical in US cities, inclusive of sufficient parking supply, a city must designate 2,000 to 4,000 sq ft of land to roads and off-street parking per vehicle. Ironically, this exceeds the amount of land devoted to housing per capita for moderate to high population densities.


Ridesharing critical mass

As ridesharing and autonomous vehicles spark a revolution in the auto industry to shift to a higher gear in the more developed nations, Asia – Malaysia included – is slowly playing catch-up.

Ridesharing must achieve critical mass to realise significant benefits. Its adoption in Asia today is low, averaging about 1-6% of km travelled across major cities. A combination of actions by the rideshare ecosystem and the public sector is needed to drive adoption.

Many cities in the US and South Korea, on the other hand, have taken to converting car parks into public parks and housing development as ridesharing dramatically reduces dependence on privately-owned vehicles.

However, we don’t have to wait for high-tech innovations to reach our doorsteps to reclaim our land from vehicles. A concerted effort to promote walking and cycling will inevitably change attitudes towards private car ownership. As will a conscious effort to use public transport and depend less on our own cars.

Parking space allocation at buildings has long been a point of contention, with authorities laying ground rules for mandated minimum requirements. However, as technology progresses, the quantum of space allocated is coming under fire.

Last year, Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) reinforced its idea to do away with parking bays for new buildings in the central business district. According to mayor Datuk Seri Amin Nordin Abd Aziz, with the completion of the MRT lines, there will be “no need for parking bays”.

With the completion of the MRT lines, there will be no need for parking bays, says Amin Nordin

In line with KL’s vision to become a green city, the idea to do away with parking bays at new buildings had been raised several times since 2015 but a directive is yet to be issued. It also plans to open up more pedestrian and bicycle lanes to promote walking and cycling and reduce private cars on the road.

Currently, it is believed DBKL’s planning requirement for parking provision is among the highest in the world. In KL city centre, planning is based on high plot ratio, which means maximum allowable floor area in relation to land area resulting in a lot more basement floors being built to comply with the number of parking bays required, especially in situations where building sites are not big. A Transit Oriented Development, however, is allowed a 30% reduction in number of parking lots required.

Over the past 10 years, the cost of building materials has risen by about 25%, and land prices in the city centre have gone up about 100%, putting considerable pressure on the cost of car parks. At more than RM1,000 per sq m for construction of elevated car parks, this is about 7% of commercial land costs today in the city centre. Basement car parks which could run up to RM1,600 per sq m or more, makes up about 10% of land costs in the city centre.

As a rule of thumb, the cost of constructing a car park should be 15-30% of the building costs. Anything above 30% is not cost efficient as local parking rates are on the lower side.

An architect points out that the high cost of factoring in carpark space indirectly drives up house prices as well. He believes it’s time to do away with the mandated minimum requirement and developers should be allowed to gauge the number of parking lots needed for their development.


Low-tech way of reclaiming vehicle space

GRA Architects Sdn Bhd director Boon Chee Wee, who sits on the Green Building Index (GBI) Accreditation Panel, believes green buildings are on the right path to reducing the need for parking space.

Covered paths to nearby places of convenience such as stores and F&B outlets encourage residents to walk or cycle, says Boon

He points out that in the GBI Non-Residential New Construction assessment criteria, a point is awarded for buildings that do not over-provide parking capacity, which means the number of parking lots is within the mandated requirement.

Similarly, points are also awarded for size of parking capacity that does not exceed the minimum local zoning requirements and for provision of preferred parking for carpools and vanpools of 5% of the total provided parking spaces. Additional points are given for buildings that provide preferred parking for green vehicles.

For residential buildings, the GBI encourages selection of sites close to public transportation stops or interchanges. New residential areas are encouraged to include sites for public transport in the plans to reduce future dependence on private transport.

Commercial and residential buildings are generally required to comply with a mandated minimum requirement for car parks. Sometimes, developers provide additional parking space as it proves an additional benefit and raises the real estate’s value.


Providing linkages

Green buildings, however, are encouraged to provide more linkages to any other modes of transportation, apart from privately-owned cars.

This comprises the provision of storage facilities for bicycles and in the case of commercial buildings, changing rooms and showers designated for cyclists.

“The GBI awards eight points for public transportation access and two points for dedicated cycling networks,” Boon tells FocusM.

He elaborates that six points are also awarded for residential buildings with linkages and interchanges to more than one mode of public transportation such as LRT, MRT, monorail and train stations.

Similarly, buildings that encourage the use of public transport by ensuring sheltered walk paths to link building users to public transport hubs and those with bus stand facilities gain substantial points.

Boon notes that within certain residential developments, efforts have been taken to ensure sufficient covered walk paths to connect the buildings, while sheltered paths to nearby places of convenience such as stores and F&B outlets are being put in place to encourage residents to walk or cycle.

“Buildings within the urban area are moving towards encouraging the use of public transportation or reducing reliance on private cars. We see a lot of assets being put into encouraging mobility via public transportation,” he points out.


Aligning transport and land-use policies

Since the transportation system affects a city’s development, its policies must be evaluated alongside land-use policies.

The path toward sustainable transport should consider a change in the mode of travel, the spatial pattern of travel as well as the need to travel. A study on sustainable urban transport system in the Klang Valley, by university lecturers Raja Noriza Raja Ariffin and Rustam Khairi Zahari, found that in car-oriented cities such as those in the Klang Valley, activities tend to spread out. This forces people to travel farther and farther for the same level of accessibility as before.

The duo found it is vital to consider a spatial layout that can help support more environmentally friendly transport choice. Often, it is the location of new housing, commercial area and other related development that will decide future levels of travel and car dependence.

As such, in the Klang Valley, land-use measures independently are insufficient to promote sustainable transport since people would still likely prefer the individuality of a car due to the high preference for more spacious living. 

By combining ridesharing and mass transit options, less street parking would be required

Dispersion of townships leads to car ownership

Local property developers prefer to build new townships on greenfield sites around large urban centres to meet the needs of the rapidly growing population. This leads to urban sprawl, which is the spread of urban developments on undeveloped land near a city.

In the absence of a highway network, these developers sometimes build their own highways to cater for prospective buyers.

The dispersion of these locations translates to low densities averaging 30-45 persons per hectare. Urban density as experienced in the Klang Valley is about 58 persons per hectare.

Low density cannot efficiently support public transport thus encouraging the use of private vehicles. Private vehicles, especially the car, take up huge space for both their movement and parking.

The mass motorisation in Malaysia, particularly in the Klang Valley, contributes toward creating an unfairly structured city. The dispersal of activities reduces the opportunities for non-motorised travel.

Land-use patterns are arranged to suit the convenience of car drivers and wide roads make walking and cycling difficult and dangerous. 

A city’s plan to reduce private car ownership

Studies indicate many downtowns in developed nations devote 50-60% of scarce real estate to vehicles, which seems rather inefficient and wasteful. If cities could reclaim even a fraction of this land from vehicles, it could free up more space for housing, parks and stores.

This is especially crucial for cities struggling with housing shortages and soaring rents such as San Francisco and New York City in the US.

The US Department of Transportation held a contest recently asking local governments to submit visions for a “city of the future” incorporating elements like autonomous cars with the intent to manage congestion and climate change issues.

San Francisco’s submission explored how cities might use new tech and business models to take back scarce land from cars. The submission outlines the aim to convert some of the city’s 440,000 on-street parking spaces into affordable housing, small parks and pedestrian amenities.

The first step, according to the plan, was to increase the accessibility of ridesharing services to residents. Combining this with mass transit options, less street parking would be required.

In phase one, San Francisco plans to shift 10% of single-occupancy vehicle trips to transit and ride-hailing. To do so, the city proposed partnering with the University of California, Berkeley and various tech companies to work out ways to provide incentives to shift people from their own cars into carsharing. A proposed method is to designate certain road lanes as only available for ridesharing, making them the faster option.

It also proposed to make ridesharing services more affordable by finding ways to lower the price of carsharing, for example by deploying larger six-person passenger vans to cut costs.

The city also outlined an intent to eventually move to automated electric vehicles which could be connected into a centralised network. Over time, the amount of land required for parking shrinks as people move from a vehicle ownership model to a transportation service model that encompasses everything from cars to buses to delivery vans.

However, the city’s council does acknowledge it’s not an easy task to persuade people to give up their privately-owned cars. For this plan to succeed, the council believes the policymakers and companies need to get their incentives right. 

The future is electrified, autonomous and shared

The world of Sally, Isaac Asimov’s science-fiction book where the only cars allowed on the road are autonomous, may soon become a reality. As research into autonomous and electrified vehicles comes to the fore, how will this affect the future landscape of cities?

Many research companies studying vehicle trends have predicted that the era of private car ownership may peak within the decade, as new networks of shared, electric and possibly autonomous vehicles become more accessible.

Therefore, instead of buying a car, you simply buy a ride whenever you need one. This shift will change the way cities are planned as less space needs to be allocated for vehicles.

Two British engineering firms, Farrells and WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, studied the effects of autonomous vehicles (AV) on London’s streets. It found that AVs would need less space so city planners could reduce the width of streets or even cut back on the number of lanes without greatly affecting travel times.

A city like London could gain another 15-20% of developable area primarily from the reduction of parking space and road space simplification.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 277.