Minimum Parking Requirements

If there’s one planning rule that does more damage to public transport than any other, it is minimum parking requirements. These are the District Plan Rules that state something along the lines of “for every residential unit there must be at least two off-street parking spaces provided”, or “for every 40 square metres of office space, there must be at least one parking space provided”. These rules infest our District Plans everywhere, with the one exception being Auckland’s Central Area District Plan, where thankfully common sense has prevailed that the CBD would rather suck if filled up with parking garages. Here’s a classic example, from the Isthmus Section of the Auckland City Council District Plan:mpr Obviously there is a reason why councils have minimum parking requirements in their District Plans, and that is to ensure that the roads don’t get clogged up with people looking for a parking space. However, what minimum parking requirements actually do is provide an enormous hidden subsidy for those who choose to drive, compared to those who choose to use public transport, or walk, or cycle. There are ways in which on-street parking could be controlled – through the use of designating particular areas for short-term parking, or operating residents-only parking permit schemes. I mean, Parnell and Ponsonby seem to get away just fine without enormous amounts of off-street parking. People might even choose to take the bus instead of the hassle of trying to find a parking spot.

But what makes minimum parking requirements really really bad is how they are, effectively, a giant subsidy for car users. Let’s take the example of a shopping centre, say Westfield Albany (as it has acres and acres of parking). All the land which is used for parking is valuable and expensive land, especially in a future town centre like Albany. The cost of providing each parking space varies, but is often considered to be around $30,000 – multiply that by the few thousand spaces that your average mall provides and we start to see some really really big amounts of money being dedicated to the provision of parking. If it wasn’t required to be used for parking, the land could be turned into other buildings – which as well as being more economically productive would also create a place which looked far nicer (I’m yet to come across anyone who likes the look of a parking lot). But anyway, because the land for each carpark is valuable, and generally outside the CBD people don’t pay for their parking directly, the mall owners need to make back that money somehow.

Of course, there’s only one way for Westfield (or any other shop that has to provide parking) to make that money back, and that’s to charge a higher rent than they would otherwise have to. And there’s only one way for the shop owners to make back that money, and that’s to charge higher prices. When you buy your $10 lunch at a mall, perhaps 50c of that’s paying for your parking – whether or not you drove to the mall. While most people currently do drive to malls (well you’re paying for the privilege anyway, public transport to them is often rubbish at weekends, so no surprises there) having specific planning rules that reinforce this auto-dependency and potentially force mall-owners to provide excess parking seems a bit daft, to put it mildly.

What really annoys me though, and it’s the case with a lot of planning rules, is the assumption that the more parking spaces that are provided, the better the outcome is. We have a minimum level of provision, but no maximum – giving off the impression that more is better. Just like other daft planning rules where we have minimum setbacks from the road for dwellings – with the assumption that the further the dwelling is back from the road the better the outcome is (never mind that most European cities build right up to the street creating a vibrant urban environment). Or minimum lot sizes, with the assumption that the lower the density we have, the better it must be (usually at the same time District Plans have great introductions talking about the scourge of urban sprawl – hypocrisy anyone?) Clearly, minimum parking requirements are useful to nobody but traffic engineers.

Here’s an extract from the abstract to a very well put together research paper into the negative effects of minimum parking requirements – the article as a whole makes for quite compelling reading:

District plans continue to mandate the provision of vast amounts of parking for most new developments. Parking standards are based on the demand for free parking at the peak hour of each individual site, which creates an oversupply and fails to recognise the value of land used for car parks. This approach reduces the supply and thus drives up the price of urban land available for economically productive uses (residential, commercial and retail) and distributes the costs throughout the economy. Minimum parking standards undermine sustainable city development by inhibiting compact growth and subsidising single-occupant vehicle trips.

The solution seems obvious – let the developer decide. In some cases a developer may wish to invest in a large parking area, because it’s worthwhile for them to do so. In other cases, they might do the sums and work out it makes more sense for them to promote public transport as a way of getting people to their shop/mall/whatever. If good public transport is already provided why should they be forced to provide unnecessary parking spaces that are expensive and generally pretty ugly? Similarly for residential developments, if a developer is working on a block of apartments that will mainly be aimed towards pensioners, why the heck do they need to provide two spaces per unit? The forced over-provision of parking spaces might add a few thousand to the cost of each apartment, either putting it out of reach of someone looking to buy it, or cutting into the business case of the proposal going ahead in the first place.

To end, here’s an excellent video put together on the issue.

Let’s hope that when the future Super City formulates its new District Plan, that common sense prevails and we give minimum parking requirements the boot.

Government ruining electrification

There has been a flurry of activity since a post I made last week called for information on why the heck it’s taking so long to find out how the electric trains for Auckland’s rail system will be funded. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that the ARC finally got around to making a press release on the matter the day after I made that post, or perhaps after reading my post they went “crikey we’d almost forgotten about that!” In some ways, I do hope it was a coincidence.

In response to this long-overdue questioning of Steven Joyce about when we’re going to finally get the electric train funding announced, we’re starting to hear some rather worrying stories emerging through the various channels that news reporters go to for information on such matters. Firstly, a Herald article on Friday stated the following response from a spokeswoman for Mr Joyce:

But a spokeswoman for Mr Joyce said: “There is a process going on with officials that Mr Lee is well aware of.

“It involves finalising the governance of metro rail, including in Auckland, finalising the scope of the project, and funding.

“Recommendations on all those issues are expected shortly.”

Finalising the scope of the project? Surely that had already been finalised in terms of the whole system between Swanson and Papakura being electrified? Or are we talking about the scope of the electric trains purchase – in terms of the number of trains being purchased and how the purchase will be structured?

Another article today, by Brian Rudman, indicates that the answer to the question above might well be “both”, and that it all looks like pretty bad news. Some exerpts:

Reports now leaking out of Wellington paint a dispiriting picture of the alternatives being considered.

They suggest that far from being driven by a desire to create a first-world rapid-rail system such as any other city city of a similar size enjoys, the major driving force for this minister is a desire to meet the deadline as cheaply and Third Worldly as he can get away with…

…Industry sources suggest the Government now wants to almost halve the size of the new rail fleet to 75 and to make up the difference by collecting up all the second-hand electric locomotives that can be found around the country, giving them a lick of paint and an oil change, and pressing them into service dragging Auckland’s existing fleet of tarted-up old carriages.

Apparently a stockpile of retired electric locomotives in Palmerston North is being eyed up.

As well, some main trunk freight locomotives will become surplus to requirements, once the recently ordered fleet of 20 new freight locomotives arrives from China.

One report suggests more carriages may have to be bought.

Instead of the trains being short and swift and new, they will, because of the heavy freight locomotives pulling them, be long and slow to accelerate.

Another worry is the possibility that to save more money, the resurrected Onehunga branch line will not be electrified – a diesel shuttle will run back and forth instead – and the planned Parnell station will be shelved.

This really is depressing news. The point of electrification is to bring Auckland’s rail system into the 21st century, to provide new trains that will be able to operate on the system for the next 30-40 years without the enormous maintenance bill that currently cripples the system’s viability, to offer users something of a high enough quality to truly attract people out of their cars and onto public transport. The point was not to find the cheapest possible option, because (of course) that wouldn’t actually result in the aforementioned goals being achieved.

So, I guess the question is ‘why are we being screwed over here?’ Apart from the obvious reason that the government doesn’t see any value in rail and only perceives it as a blackhole for funding, I actually think there’s a worry within government that if a good rail system was provided, people would actually use it. And they’re quite aware of the capacity constraints of Britomart, and don’t want to have to stump up $1.5 billion for the CBD Rail Tunnel any time soon. So it makes sense to do a “bare minimum” upgrade, to keep people from shifting to public transport “too fast” (the concept of having a mode-shift to public transport too quickly is specifically mentioned in the government policy statement on transport as being a negative). I guess if people shifted to using the rail system in their droves it would also make it harder to justify spending billions upon billions of dollars on new state highways. David Bennett, National MP for Hamilton, recently opposed the proposed Waikato Rail Service on the ground that it might divert attention away from the Waikato Expressway – basically saying he was worried it might be a success and reduce the need for his pet project.

There are plenty of reasons why the government would want to ruin electrification. However, they’re all unacceptable and it’s time they were called on it.