x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Malls to charge for parking

With the opening of the Metro just weeks away, Dubai malls prepare to limit floods of would-be park and ride motorists.

Payment machines are already in place at the Mall of the Emirates, which will start charging non-customers for parking when Dubai's Metro system opens.
Payment machines are already in place at the Mall of the Emirates, which will start charging non-customers for parking when Dubai's Metro system opens.

DUBAI // It has been one of the worst-kept secrets in town but now, with just 49 days to go before the Metro opens for business, it is official: one of Dubai's major malls will be charging motorists to use its car parks, to prevent them becoming park-and-ride facilities for commuters.

And with machines and barriers sprouting up at malls all along the Red Line, others are sure to follow suit. Until now, despite the evidence of burgeoning equipment, malls have been reluctant to admit that Dubai's days of free parking are numbered. At the end of last month, for example, a spokesman for the Mall of the Emirates would say only: "We do everything to ensure that there are sufficient car park spaces available for our customers. With the Mall of the Emirates Metro station so conveniently situated, we are looking into a number of ways we can manage our parking spaces."

One of those ways may already have been obvious, given the dozens of orange parking meters at the mall mutely flashing the message "Out of order". Shahram Shamsaee, the senior vice president of retail for Majid Al Futtaim Shopping Malls, the owner of the Mall of the Emirates, confirmed the move: "Yes, we have pay parking coming in." The good news for shoppers, he said, was that "it's going to be fantastic because it will be free for customers", although he could not say how much parking would cost, for how long customers would be able to park free or how much they would have to spend to qualify.

These details, he said, would be revealed in a marketing campaign in the next few weeks. "It will be very highly communicated. We will have a very large number of teams for customer service, parking attendants." The Burjuman Shopping Centre already uses a pay-to-park model. A Dh20 (US$5.40) all-day fee was introduced a year ago to stop people from nearby offices using the spaces. Shoppers who spend more than Dh100 pay nothing to park.

The bad news for commuters hoping to park and ride from the Mall of the Emirates is that the cost of all-day parking "will be quite prohibitive for people who want to use the ... shopping centre as parking lot facilities". Mr Shamsaee said commuters might not be the only target of the new regime: "Eventually it will actually free up car parks which we today suspect people are parking to go to surrounding facilities, offices, apartments. So it should actually free up parking for our customers."

For them, he said, it would make "zero difference". "If you're a Mall of the Emirates loyal customer you'll love it because you can actually come here and you'll find car parking. It doesn't cost you anything and you can do your shopping. "The flip side of it is to not have it, and have 4,000 commuters park their cars for 12 hours. And if I am a customer I'll be furious if I go to the shopping centre and there isn't a car park available because it's being used as a park-and-ride facility. So I think I'll take the first option."

At the new Dubai Marina Mall, parking is free but yellow payment machines with instructions in French, English and German stand ready for action. A much smaller venture than the Mall of Emirates, the Marina Mall is slowly adding outlets and building a reputation as a destination for families, but is seldom busy; one entire level of parking remains unopened. But with two Metro stations within a few hundred metres of either side of the entrance, all that could change come September 9.

Nevertheless, Emaar Malls Group, which runs the mall, insisted in a statement that it had no plans to introduce paid parking. According to messages on the screens of the payment machines, however, customers will be charged Dh150 for lost tickets if fees are introduced. Khaled ben Yahia, the Middle East manager at Scheidt & Bachmann, the German company that installed the mall's parking system, said it included "entry gates, barriers, ticket dispenser, pay-on-foot machines for making payments, as well as exit readers" that act as electronic gates.

The nine payment machines were set to accept notes up to Dh100 and to give change as small as 50 fils. "Normally we calculate one machine for around 200 places," he said. However, he could not say when the system might come online, although he did say a ticket validation scheme was in its "testing phase". Other malls with Metro access do not yet appear to be going down the paid-parking route. Across Sheikh Zayed Road at the Ibn Battuta Mall, where the developer Nakheel has neither confirmed nor denied it has plans to introduce paid parking, no gates or payment machines are in evidence.

At the Dubai Mall, all that has been installed is a system to guide vehicles through the facility's 10 levels of parking, according to Mehdi Tazi, the head of Middle East operations for Skidata, the Austrian firm that implemented it. Sharon McIntosh, 40, a Briton and mother of two who regularly meets friends at cafes in the Mall of the Emirates, said she would be put off by paid parking. "It will stop you from coming. I guess I wouldn't come if I had to pay. You just pop in for a coffee, for an hour, to see a friend."

Aisha Leitner, 33, another Briton, said she had stopped going to the Burjuman Shopping Centre because of the parking fees and would do the same elsewhere. "I wouldn't be happy with that at all." But Dodo Costin, a 50-year-old Romanian physical education teacher, said he would be happy if fees kept non-customers out of the car parks. "This is good. Usually some people are leaving their cars in the parking area for days," he said. "They go on holiday and leave them for a long time."

hnaylor@thenational.ae *with additional reporting by Armina Ligaya