‘Great equaliser’: fears higher parking costs may limit access to iconic Sydney beaches

A trip to the beach is about to get more expensive as parking rates rise in some parts of Sydney, causing concerns they will put some of city’s best natural wonders out of reach for lower-income families already facing increasing cost-of-living pressures.

Mosman council said it will increase parking rates by up to 75% at popular spots, including Balmoral Beach.

From 1 July, a spot in Balmoral for the day will set beachgoers back $40 – or $8 an hour – during peak season from October to April. The price will be set at $35 a day between May and September – up from $20.

In the nearby Northern Beaches council area, off-peak parking in the cooler months costs $8 an hour or $35 a day, climbing to $10 an hour and $40 a day from October to April.

The New South Wales’ Council of Social Services’ chief executive, Joanna Quilty, described beaches as the “great equaliser” and warned councils against making them out of limits for lower-income people.

“The councils, who are their custodians, should ensure that they remain accessible to everyone, not just those who can afford it,” Quilty said. “Transport costs are skyrocketing and it’s hitting people who are the poorest, the hardest.

“If you’re driving from Blacktown to Bondi, the petrol, tolls and parking are all more expensive now than they were six months ago. Who knows how bad this will be by the time next summer rolls around.”

The associate director of the city futures research centre at the University of NSW, Prof Susan Thompson, said planners and councils have a complex task when trying to negotiate parking and access – balancing access with environmental pressures and health and business interests.

“It’s perhaps ideal to say, ‘oh, we’d like to get rid of all cars’, but that’s then going to make our society quite iniquitous,” she said.

“In pricing it very highly the parking you probably reduce the number of people wanting to use that parking, but it will then become only accessible to those with adequate resources.”

Thompson said access to green space (parks) and blue space (the beach and harbour) was important for health and needed to be prioritised by councils while they continued to discourage car use.

As well as increases around beaches, Mosman council will also make parking near Taronga zoo more expensive, with prices along Bradleys Head Road increasing to a top of $7.50 an hour or $22 a day.

“This is the first increase to parking fees since 2014 and simply regains parity with existing 2021/22 fees already charged in Sydney’s other comparable beaches in the Northern Beaches,” a council spokesperson said.

“Fee income goes into general revenue, which is used for a wide range of purposes, including continuing to maintain our beaches, roads and reserves for our residents and visitors.”

The spokesperson said the charges helped “cover the cost of the impact of the significant number of visitors” to the area’s parks and beaches and encouraged visitors to use public transport where possible.

The public policy adviser at Committee for Sydney, Harri Bancroft, said “parking problems are actually a sign of success” because it showed an urban area was popular.

“The point of charging for parking is to encourage public transport use and a higher turnover of parking spaces, which means more people can get in and out of the area and its limited parking spaces through the day,” she said.

Not every Sydney beach has expensive parking. A host of the eastern suburb’s most picturesque spots, including Clovelly, Coogee and Maroubra in the Randwick council area were free from beachside ticketing.

Snagging a park in nearby Bondi is a different story – with spots along parts of the beach setting drivers back $9.30 an hour, all year round.

“On-street parking is in high demand across our local government area due to the sheer number of people who live, work and visit our area,” a Waverley council spokesperson said.

“We are one of the most densely populated areas in Australia, and our beaches attract millions of visitors each year.”

Rebecca Clements, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney who studies parking, said charging more for parking could be beneficial if it was done well.

“Parking takes up a huge amount of land, and it’s often in places where that land can be much better used for better public facilities,” she said.

“Pricing parking well as part of rethinking and transforming our urban places is a really critical part of creating more equitable and sustainable cities.”

She said as long as there were alternative forms of transport and the infrastructure to support them, policies like these could lead to easier access to parking for those who needed it and reductions in traffic.

“The long-term emphasis needs to be on reducing unnecessary driving to important areas like beaches, and improving the sustainable mobility options there.”

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