We have been sent more LRT details from AT. Light Rail is undergoing investigation at this point, but slowly more of their thinking is emerging:
Clearly access to Wynyard is the most difficult part of this route. Queen St is so LRT ready and at last a use for that hitherto hopeless little bypass: Ian Mackinnion Drive. The intersection of New North and Dom Rd will need sorting for this too- Is there nothing that LRT doesn’t fix!
They are planning for big machines, 450 pax is at the top end of LRVs around the world.
At 66m, these are either the biggest ever made, or I guess more likely 2 x 33m units. 33m is a standard dimension, and enables flexibility of vehicle size.
The contested road space of Dominion Rd. Light Rail will create the economic conditions for up-zonning the buildings here; apartments and offices above retail along the strip. But the city will have to make sure that the planning regulations support this. Otherwise it will be difficult to justify the investment. Something for those in the area who reflexively oppose any increase in height limits, reduction of mandated parking, or increases in density and site coverage rules to ponder. If they prefer to keep the current restrictions they need to be aware they are also choosing to reject this upgrade. More buses will be as good as it gets, and AT’s investment will have to go elsewhere. I’m not referring to the the large swathes of houses back from the arterials, no need to change these; it’s the properties along the main routes themselves that need to intensify; anyway these are the places that add the new amenity for those in the houses. And not just shops and cafes, also offices with services and employment for locals, and apartments for a variety of dwelling size and price. Real mixed-use like the world that grew up all along they original tram system city wide, before zoning laws enforced separation of all these aspects of life.
Last week Auckland Transport finalised their region wide parking strategy which they first consulted on a year ago. All up AT received more than 5,500 submissions.
The strategy is potentially one of the most important that AT have as parking has huge impacts across a wide range of areas so managing it right is critically important. It has the ability to impact on how people live, congestion, what mode they use, the provision of bus and cycle infrastructure and even local economies.
One of the things I really like about the strategy is that it fairly clearly sets out what the various parking management options are and also what the trigger points are for changes. The types of parking restriction listed are:
- Loading Zones
- Mobility Parking
- Motorcycle Parking
- Taxi Stands
- Buses and tour coach parking
- Car Share Parking
- Time Restrictions
- Bicycle Parking
For each of these there is a description of what the restriction is for and the policies around it. An example of this is below:
As mentioned there are trigger points as to when parking management might change, the example below is for on-street parking and shows the magic number for change is an occupancy of 85%.
There is additional information for priced parking that addresses issues such as how frequently AT will review parking demand, how it will adjust prices, the times of operation and for off-street parking this includes issues like yield targets and pass options. In addition to managing parking there are policies that cover topics such as the investment in new or divestment of off street parking facilities.
Residential parking schemes have been started to be introduced in some areas and have been proposed in others. In general our view is that residential parking schemes are unwise however they are often popular with locals and AT have created policies to deal with these. Some of the components in the parking schemes include
- Time restrictions for those without a permit.
- A cap on the number of parking permits issued based on a percentage of total car parks available,
- The ability for people to stay longer than the permit by paying a daily charge – residents also get a number of free days per year for visitors.
- Restrictions on permits to only dwellings built before the council’s Unitary Plan was notified.
- Permits that will be issued based on an order of priority which is below.
Arterial roads get special mention and importantly AT say that they will manage parking on arterial roads by potentially removing parking if it:
- Causes significant delays to the speed and reliability of public transport on the FTN, and/or
- Causes safety risks for cyclists or impedes quality improvements on the Auckland Cycle Network
Actually acknowledging that bus and cycle infrastructure is more important than parking is hopefully a significant step in AT being able to stand up to locals who claim the sky will fall if a single carpark is removed.
There are a few other policies covered in the document however the last one I want to address is Park & Ride (P&R). AT say there are currently about 5,500 P&R spaces around Auckland (with about 20% of those at Albany Busway station alone) and 80% are at capacity by 8am. AT want up to an extra 10,000 P&R spaces over the next 30 years. I’m not convinced pursuing lots of P&R is a great strategy as while they get used, they don’t actually contribute that many customers to the network. Even if 10,000 new spaces appeared tomorrow and they were all used by people who don’t currently use PT, that’s only around 2.5 million extra trips per year which is nothing really. If they do get more P&R one thing I like is they talk about opportunities including making better use of locations near stations that have an excess of parking during the week, examples include shopping centres, sports fields and even churches.
One aspect that will cause some concern is the suggestion that P&R could be charged if occupancy is high to manage demand. Many will complain however experience from Calgary shows it can be done without losing patronage. The map below shows the potential sites to investigate adding & P&R. If these come to pass there will end up a lot of space dedicated to parking and as I mentioned earlier, not that much extra patronage for it. On this AT do mention that P&R is almost a form of land banking.
Overall the document is fairly good and a welcome addition to the landscape.
Stu’s talk at an IPENZ forum the other week put forth a lot of smart critiques of and recommendations for the transport profession. I was particularly taken by this slide:
Stu argues that failing to account for the “opportunity cost” associated with using valuable land for moving cars can lead us to misallocate resources. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s an important one. Here’s what William Vickrey, who received the Nobel memorial prize in economics for his work on congestion pricing and auctions, had to say on the topic in 1963:
“a cost benefit analysis can justify devoting land to transportation only when the savings in transportation costs yield a return considerably greater than the gross rentals, including taxes, that private businesses would be willing to pay for the space. This in turn means that an even greater preference should be given to space economizing modes of transport than would be indicated by rent and tax levels. And our rubber-shod sacred cow is a ravenously space-hungry, shall I say, monster?”
Things have changed quite a bit since Vickrey’s time. For one thing, urban land prices have risen quite a lot in recent decades. For another, the long driving boom seems to have abated in most developed countries. In many cities, this means that the opportunity cost of space-hungry transport modes has increased.
I’ve had a go at putting together some evidence on this for Auckland (or New Zealand cities in general). Unfortunately, long time series on land prices and traffic volumes are not readily available, so I’ve had to use two proxy variables:
- I’ve used RBNZ’s national house price index, which goes back to 1962, as a proxy for land costs. I deflated the index by RBNZ’s long-run consumer price index to net out the impact of inflation. It’s probably reasonable to use this as a proxy for land prices given the fact that land prices have driven most increases in house prices over this period.
- I’ve used NZTA’s annual average daily traffic counts for the Auckland Harbour Bridge, which Matt’s compiled going back to 1961, as a proxy for overall traffic volumes. This is probably reasonable as they’ve followed similar trends – they boomed together in the 1960s and have flattened simultaneously over the last decade.
I’ve graphed the two indices below. Prior to 2000, traffic volumes generally increased faster than house prices. (Although you could argue that house prices started to rise faster in the 1990s.) Since 2000, house prices / land values have generally risen much faster than traffic volumes. (National-level data understates the degree to which land prices have risen in Auckland, in fact, as house prices flattened but never declined after the GFC.)
As an aside, in case anyone says that house prices have never fallen in NZ, take a look at the 1970s. Real house prices dropped by almost 40% from their peak in 1974 to the trough in 1980. In real terms, they didn’t recover for 20 years. However, this was masked by the overall high inflation rates prevailing in the 70s and 80s. If something similar happened today – and it could – it would have a catastrophic effect on household wealth and financial stability.
What can we conclude from this data? Potentially, quite a lot.
First, this data shows that Stu’s observation (and William Vickrey’s) is highly relevant for policymaking. Land prices are going up faster than vehicle demand, meaning that the opportunity cost of a space-hungry, car-based transport system is increasing. If this continues, our best option for achieving a transport system that uses resources productively will be to invest in space-efficient transport modes: rapid transit, cycleways, and the like.
Hooray for rapid transit!
Second, this may help to explain why growth in driving has stalled and growth in public transport demand has accelerated. My hypothesis is that the increasing value of space, rather than increasing fuel prices, is a fundamental driver of the increased viability of PT and non-car modes.
When land prices rise faster than car use, it tends to create incentives for the use and development of more space-efficient transport modes. This happens through two channels:
- First, transport agencies, which have constrained budgets for transport investment, find that they can’t build as many space-hungry roads when land prices are high. They face the choice of spending lots of money to acquire land, or spending lots of money to tunnel underneath valuable properties. So while New Zealand has ramped up its spending on roads, it may be getting less bang for buck.
- Second, private individuals and businesses, face higher costs to use or provide parking. In the absence of serious market distortions, this will mean that people provide less parking and/or charge higher prices for it. This in turn encourages people to use alternative modes.
I’d like to close with a comment from another Nobel economics laureate, Paul Krugman: “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.” One key to achieving higher productivity is to change your approach in response to changing prices and changing demands. If space is getting more expensive, it’s imperative to use it more efficiently!
Back in April, I had the opportunity to present a paper on the economics of urban planning at the New Zealand Planning Institute’s annual conference. The paper, which benefited from the support of my employer, MRCagney, and discussions with a menagerie of planners and other economists, is now available online for anyone who’s interested. (As is inevitable, some of the table headings didn’t come out quite right in the online version. Oh well.)
The aim of the paper was to illuminate some of the trade-offs – and unintended consequences – that can occur as a result of urban planning. It presents three short case studies that illustrate different aspects of the choices facing us in urban planning:
- Minimum parking requirements, which were aimed at managing congestion and keeping down parking search costs – but which actually managed to increase congestion, reduce the viability of public transport, walking, and cycling, and require us to use scarce land inefficiently
- Heritage preservation policies, which are attempting to balance the preservation of “aesthetic externalities” from nice old buildings with the process of urban change
- Opportunities for new development – is it possible to build affordable housing in areas where land prices are high? Can we just keep building standalone houses, or are higher density housing choices required?
As it’s a conference paper rather than a research paper, it focuses on pulling together some disparate perspectives on urban planning rather than evaluating policies and recommending specific approaches. If you’re interested in a brief, non-technical overview of the subject, give it a read. Here’s an excerpt:
I’d like to close by discussing one major trade-off we face: the choice between low-density cities and affordable cities. It is simply mathematically impossible to combine high land prices, low densities, and home affordability. In areas with high land prices – which we would expect to see in any economically successful city – we need to ask: would we prefer to have affordable housing or low densities?
We can think of real-world examples of places that conform to each edge of the triangle. It’s easy to find low-density, affordable housing in (say) Pokeno or Huntly, as land values are low enough to sustain it. But in inner-city Auckland, high land prices mean that we must choose between our desire for space and our need for affordable housing. We’ve resolved these trade-offs differently in different areas. In Ponsonby, we’ve preferred to maintain lower-density heritage housing, which has priced many people out of the suburb entirely. By contrast, building many apartments at all price points has allowed the city centre itself to remain affordable.
Some people argue that Auckland should aim to bring land costs down in order to improve housing affordability. In my view, this view ignores the market realities. High land prices are an indicator of urban success – they demonstrate that people and businesses want to be there. We may be able to lower them through, say, a deep and prolonged recession or years of net emigration. But it’s unlikely that the benefits of reduced land prices would justify the economic and social costs of doing so.
Furthermore, greenfield land supply alone won’t solve our problems. While land does tend to be cheaper on the edge of the city, households that locate there tend to incur higher transport costs. Previous empirical work has shown that higher commuting costs entirely offset savings on housing cost in fringe suburbs (Mattingly and Morrissey, 2013; Nunns et al, 2014). As a result, if we want affordable housing we have no choice but to deliver it in places that are accessible to employment, education, and amenities.
Fortunately, we have choices. Technological innovations – steel-framed buildings, indoor plumbing, and elevators – have freed us from the tyranny of horizontally. We have the option to build up, if we are willing to take it.
Finally, while writing this paper, I put a fair bit of thought into how economists, urban planners, and citizens in general talk about urban policy issues. In my view, many of the disagreements that we have when talking about urban policies are best thought of as differences in terminology, not differences in values. At the end of the day, most people would like to live in a city that gives them good choices about how to live, work, and play, and doesn’t waste too much of their time or money. But sometimes we talk about that in different terms.
One morning, I was lucky enough to run across a scene that illustrates how good urban policies can enable outcomes that different people may find pleasing in different ways. I took this picture on the Fort Street shared space, where a loading dock has been converted into a container cafe. They’ve slapped up a mural on the wall, put out a few chairs, and gone into business:
Now, as a dour, fun-averse economist I find this scene beautiful because it shows underutilised resources being put to higher and better uses. Multifactor productivity in action! An urban designer or architect may find it beautiful for the way it’s “activated” a blank loading bay as a people space. A passer-by may simply enjoy the way it looks, or be enticed to go in to try their coffee. Others may appreciate the employment opportunities it makes available.
All of which demonstrates one of the wonderful traits of cities: how their diversity and vitality can satisfy the needs and desires of many different people.
During the Unitary Plan submissions process, a number of retailers and shopping centre owners took a pretty conservative stance on transport. They argued for maintaining parking minimums, replacing maximums with minimums in some areas, and so on. Some argued that cars would always be the main way of getting to shops, and this should be written into the Unitary Plan. I’ll tackle that in another post, but for now, let’s talk about parking minimums and competition.
Raising the barriers to entry?
Among their other faults, parking minimums can actually be quite anti-competitive. Looking at supermarkets, for example, reviews both here and in Australia have shown that the biggest “barrier to entry” for new competitors is the difficulty in acquiring suitable sites.
Parking minimums make it even harder to get sites which are large enough. If you want a 3,000 square metre supermarket, say, and the rules say you need to have 1 carpark per 25 square metres of space, then that’s 120 carparks you’ll need. Those will take up about 3,600 square metres, so overall you need to find a site which is 6,600 square metres in size and meets your other location criteria. Not an easy task. If not for the parking minimums, you might decide you’re happy with 60 parks instead, for example. That’d shave 1,800 square metres off the size of the site you’d need. That’s a hypothetical example, and you could make the same argument for department stores, hardware stores, shopping centres, or really any kind of retail development, large or small.
Botany Downs: a popular retail node, but very car-centric
The extra competition from removing parking minimums can mean lower prices at the shops, but it’s not just about that. It also means lower time and travel costs for consumers. If you live 10 km from the nearest supermarket, but then one opens up just 5 km away, you’re better off, even if the prices are the same.
Or making it easier for freeloaders?
Most of these submitters were concerned about freeloading, and they argued for minimums to remain to prevent this. The argument is that another developer could come along, build a store or shopping centre, and not provide enough carparks. Their shoppers would then overflow into other areas, parking in existing carparks on the street or (more relevantly) by existing stores. Those carparks would then become unavailable to the existing stores’ customers.
This is a “negative externality” in economics jargon, and it’s legitimate for retailers to be concerned about it. We’ve probably all been guilty of using one of those carparks when dashing to another store, the post office etc. But the argument is also one which can restrict competition. Parking minimums are often arbitrary – quite ridiculously so for taverns – and different retailers will have very different requirements based on their business model, location, availability of driving alternatives and so on. Generally, those retailers or shopping centres have a good idea of how many parks they will need, and should be free to provide as many or as few as they like, with the costs internalised (more jargon).
What’s the way forward?
The Unitary Plan has to find a balance between two sides. On the one hand, you have retailers who don’t want their carparks being used by freeloaders, with new competitors having an unfair advantage if they don’t have the same requirement to provide parking. On the other hand, parking minimums have their own problems – they can encourage undue reliance on cars, a larger-than-optimal amount of parking, more pressure on the road network, and so on. These are externalities too. Plus, as I’ve argued above, there’s the externality of reducing competition.
We need to be careful with whether we let the car-dependent business models of today to be enshrined into the future; retail should be free to adapt and change. It’s the nature of the beast. The Unitary Plan will last for ten years. A decade is a long time in retail, and the new shops that we build in the Unitary Plan’s lifetime will be around for much longer.
A neat little video from Mexico explaining simply connection between housing and transport – in particular the cost that minimum parking requirements have on the city. It comes from Mexico branch of the The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).
With housing such a hot topic right now this article in the Herald on Sunday highlights a situation of the council removing houses for that most Auckland of things, a carpark.
About 40 residents of Auckland’s council-owned properties face being kicked out of their homes to make way for 44 carparks.
Residents of a quiet Royal Oak cul de sac in Auckland have been told their council-owned flats and houses backing Monte Cecilia Park could go, possibly by December.
Eight properties – including blocks of flats – will be cleared to make way for 44 carparks to access a new playground, shown on plans for the reserve. Currently park users have to rely on streetside parks.
Letters have been sent to residents in homes and flats in Korma Rd telling them their properties will feature on park maps.
“Inclusion of this property on the map does not imply the public has access to your property but as the land has been purchased by Auckland Council and will become part of the park in the future it has been included in the map,” said the letter.
“We don’t have a firm date for the house removals but it is likely to be at the end of 2015 or during 2016.”
Auckland Council sports and parks manager Mark Bowater said the council had bought homes in Korma Rd between 2006 and 2011 under a strategic plan to develop the park. He said it could be some of the properties would be needed for carparking and a new playground. All residents would receive formal notification from the council to move out either later this year or next year.
It baffles the mind that the council would even consider doing this and given the size of the park at over 11 hectares even a playground should easily be able to fit within the existing footprint without anyone feeling like space is being taken away.
I suspect there’s much more to this than the Herald have just said in their article however I did want to point out a couple of specific aspects that caught my attention.
If parking is such an issue then instead of demolishing homes then why not come to an agreement with the church across the road to use their car parking when it’s not being needed. That would help get better utilisation out of that space. Of course there’s the issue of the church wanting their own parking but I’m sure arrangements can be made (also even if the council did build a carpark what’s the chance they too would they be used up by church goers?)
On the other side of the park, car parking was added a few years ago. How much parking does this park need?
I understand some consultation about the park has only just closed – and unfortunately the council have taken the documents down already so it’s hard to see just what they are proposing for the site but at a first look it seems crazy to even think of demolishing those houses for a (presumably free) carpark.
I’ve always loved a working port, growing up on Tintin, where intrigue and big issues always led our hero to docks, and [sadly] being old enough to just remember Auckland’s finger wharves busy with cranes and the last of the goods trains still running on Quay St, I’m a sucker for the romance and tough rough-neck image of it all. Which of course has always been grounded in the realities of the physical movement of goods, and at ports these realities seem more laid bare than most anywhere else; an example of the laws of physics meeting human desire = economics.
So what’s going on down on the wharves? For quite a long time it’s felt very unsatisfactory. The Council, who in our stead owns 100% of the port company, is of course also the regulatory authority over its operations as it is over all businesses and residents in the Auckland Region. Unfortunately this combination doesn’t seem to be working at all well.
It seems clear that the current management of the port company has little interest in any responsibilities beyond direct port operations despite that these being very real; they seem to treat the city’s desire meaningful cohabition with the working port as something to be gamed. This narrow idea of social and environmental responsibility is unlike many privately owned companies, let alone publicly owned ones. But there also appears to have been an almost total abrogation of governance by the Council over port decisions. Sometimes it seems more like the port company is playing both the people and Council and other times it looks more like collusion between parts of the Council ad the company. I, like almost everyone else in the city has no idea what is really going on. This is my biggest complaint here, there is little daylight or transparency about what is going on down on the waterfront, and a huge amount of spin coming from PoAL.
The latest is the sneaky slip of a resource consent through the Council on December 23rd for two extensions to Bledisloe Wharf without any public discussion initiated by either party. It is clear that the port intends these extensions as a prelude to filing in the resultant space between the piers at a later date, but even without this it’s worth seeing what they are doing to our harbour. Specifically I am interested in the outcome for Queens Wharf. The space that we [Council and government] bought for $40million from ourselves [Port Company] in 2009 specifically as a public space, the ‘people’s wharf’. Here’s how Waterfront Auckland describe it, in the first words on their dedicated Queens Wharf page:
Queens Wharf lies at the foot of the Auckland CBD and offers a unique vantage point overlooking the sparkling Waitemata Harbour… Queens Wharf has been transformed from a private working wharf to a public waterfront space for all to enjoy.
This is a big investment in an important idea: allowing people to bust through the red fence enabling the north south axis of Queen St to continue out into our wonderful harbour forming an intersection with this eastern city edge, and penetrating into the harbour to reconnect this harbourside city with its deep water. Expressly in fact to cement Queens Wharf as a ceremonial space of symbolic arrival and departure. After all, we or our ancestors have all come to this city from over the sea. Here’s how WA put it:
The wharf has social significance for its central role on the Auckland waterfront; for its function as a major place of arrival to, and departure from New Zealand; and as a place of formal welcome and farewell.
Here then is an introduction to PoAL’s plans [and style; a very don’t worry nothing to see here kind of document]:
This shows a plan to extend Bledisloe Wharf [on the left],
So what does it matter what happens east of Queens Wharf in the operational zone of the port? We want to have a successful port don’t we, and that’s going to take space, right? Agreed. Which is why we have invested in Fergusson Wharf, the big and modern container wharf at the eastern edge of the ports operations area. But since the decline of New Zealand’s vehicle assembly industry and the rise of car imports PoAL have used the old finger wharves for temporary car storage. A very Auckland and very space hungry activity. But would we allow Wilsons, say, to use this land for car parking? We need to have an honest and open discussion about the trade-offs involved in this use, as there are other options like [but not limited to]:
- not importing so many vehicles through Auckland [some through Tauranga- an actual national ports strategy]
- incentivising shippers to space out deliveries so the peak arrivals are smoothed
- storing them more space-efficiently on the existing land [a parking building rather than reclaimation]
A key thing that is very easy to miss in the image above is the two light grey fingers either side of the dark grey pointed out ‘Proposed reclamation’ that we don’t ‘need to decide on right now’. This is what that December consent about is and is to begin construction next month. What do these two extension mean for Queens Wharf? Here’s a schematic of the sightline from the end of Queens Wharf:
The new wharves will clearly cut Queens Wharf off from any view of the Harbour entrance, that point of ‘arrival to and departure from’. Queens Wharf will no longer be out in the harbour but just in a contained little ferry basin. Just a big concrete deck leading nowhere. Below is its current state. As I took this picture a car carrier was docked at the existing Bledisloe wharf disgorging its contents:
Working from the visual above, and doing a bit of very quick photoshop here’s what I reckon, roughly, will happen to the experience on the end of the People’s Wharf’ when a ship is docked at the new western pier extension on Bledisloe. Forgive my crude Photoshopery, it’s intended to be approximate rather than perfect, I did adjust the ship extension for perspective, making the stern smaller and have invented a new shipping line with an appropriate name…
Is this really the outcome we want in order to accommodate the peak flow of car imports through one port? Currently 90% of the entire county’s car imports arrive through Auckland. If this is the cost of that continuing, is it one are prepared to pay?
A further example of the lack of any coordination between the ambitions for our city and the plans of the frankly visionless port company or it’s governors is shown by the contradictions between the plans for a major artwork based on the idea of arrival and departure at the end of Queens Wharf as described here in the Herald by Brian Rudman:
In the furore over Port of Auckland’s plans to extend Bledisloe Wharf nearly 100m out into the harbour, one of Mayor Len Brown’s pet projects was overlooked.In more ways than one. The controversial Barfoot & Thompson state house lighthouse at the end of Queens Wharf will be blinkered.
In persuading councillors of the need to commandeer the tip of Queens Wharf for the lighthouse, the mayor and council arts panel argued the site was “a key portal into New Zealand for international visitors arriving via vessel” and was “visible from multiple vantage points”.
Mr Parekowhai explained that his work would be “a lighthouse that signals safe harbour and welcome”.
It seems to me that a very Auckland kind of tragedy is unfolding down
So many things to say about what can be seen in this shot.
Clearly another glass clad tower will not be out of place here.
Also won’t it be great to get rid of that cacophany of steel and glass that is the rain shelters opposite, and the blank walled box of the dreary Downtown Centre.
But in particular look at the number of people standing on that one corner versus the likely number in those two cars [and you can’t count the taxi driver, he’s part of the machine, in fact he’s about to be replaced by the machine].
Here they are in motion. This is not rush hour either, it is 11:19am on a Thursday in fact [ahhh, metadata]. These things, these carbon based life forms, with hopes, dreams, desires and wallets, are what the development coming to that site in the background is all about. And it matters enormously that they are on foot. People driving by are of no consequence to the businesses on that block. The people delivered by the 200-300 carparks to built under it are also of little consequence to the retail part of the development. They’ll mostly arrive in the morning with one person in them for the towers above, and stay all day. No the economics of the millions being spent on the purchase and redevelopment here entirely depend on the people who arrive by Transit. Bus, Train, and Ferry.
Like the Britomart development, what is pretty and successful above ground there is only so because of what we the city built under ground first. The ever increasing numbers of people arriving on all modes in the City Centre and at this intersection of Transit services in particular is the foundation of this upgrade. It is also important to add to this the ever increasing numbers now living in the city and those walking or riding there too. This is a virtuous circle at work.
It’s simple; more humans, fewer cars = successful city.
In urban policy circles, Houston, Texas is best known for its laissez-faire approach to planning regulations. Some people go as far as saying that it has no planning rules at all, and attribute the city’s low housing costs to this fact.
This certainly has a grain of truth to it. As I wrote after visiting my brother in Houston last year:
It’s easy to see the results of Houston’s lack of zoning laws while driving around the city – or walking, in the unlikely event that you can find a footpath. There is a remarkable, eclectic mix of housing types – old shotgun shacks on grassy lots sit next to aluminium-sided townhouses and apartment blocks.
There are advantages to this policy. Because local governments in Houston allow people to build almost anything on their land, redevelopment and intensification can happen quite flexibly. (Unless it’s constrained by covenants established by developers or residents’ associations.) Here, for example, is a neighbourhood near Houston’s Medical Center (from Google Maps). There are a number of detached houses in the area – predominantly in the lower left hand corner. However, there are also many midrise apartments, flats, and attached houses to be seen near the top and right edges of the picture:
But, as with any good myth, there is also an element of fantasy to Houston’s laissez-faire reputation. You see, the city of Houston is actually extraordinarily prescriptive about the amount of parking that developers, businesses, and households must provide. A recent post from Hamilton Urban Blog pointed me back towards Houston’s parking code.
It’s a wonderfully absurd document. By my count, Houston has developed minimum parking rules for at least 75 separate activities. It sets separate minimum parking rules for activities as diverse as:
- miniature golf: 1 parking space per hole
- elementary schools: 1 parking space per 12 students – I’m not sure if Houston’s got ludicrously low class sizes or if it expects some primary schoolers to drive themselves?
- apartments: 1.666 parking spaces per two-bedroom apartment – are demonic forces at work?
This raises a number of questions. First, why are those freedom-loving Texans willing to tolerate this level of regulatory overreach? Surely they don’t think that planning bureaucrats could accurately predict the needs of their businesses and families?
Second, are Houston’s parking rules leading to perverse outcomes? For example, could a regulated oversupply of parking have contributed to the city’s demand for more roads, which has helped put the state road fund in deficit to a tune of up to $5 billion per annum and forced it to stop repaving some roads?
Forget about the cost of roads, though: could Houston’s parking rules be pushing people directly towards dangerous activities like drinking and driving? Here’s the section of the zoning code that covers restaurants and bars. As you can see, Houston’s code requires bars to provide more parking than similarly-sized restaurants.
Abundant, low-priced parking tends to encourage people to drive more, rather than taking public transport, walking, or catching a cab. Are Houston’s parking rules encouraging people to drink and drive? Has the city government actually studied the effects of this policy? And, if not, why on earth would you assume it would be a good idea to require bars to have loads of parking?
Lastly, while it’s easy to mock Houston’s absurdities from a distance, can we be sure that we’re not doing similarly absurd things? Planning regulations, like any regulations, can lead to perverse consequences. It’s important to keep an eye on them – and be willing to get rid of them if they aren’t working out.
Do you think we’re experiencing any perverse consequences from our planning regulations?