While in Christchurch last week, I realised that parking is still an ongoing and contentious debate in the rebuild. Christchurch developer Stephen Collins was quoted in The Press recently saying “the reason the malls are so successful and the central city was in decline is because you can go to a shopping centre, park right outside, you don’t have to pay and it’s easy.”
Really? How many thriving, successful city centres can you think of that have acres of cheap or free parking? Vancouver? Melbourne? Sydney?
In fact, New Zealand cities have some of the cheapest all day parking in the world – and with it high rates of private car use and traffic congestion. Too much parking is not good for economic development, and all the “free” parking in the world isn’t going to lead us to the thriving city centre that Cantabrians want.
Let’s unpack this parking issue a bit. Firstly, there is no such thing as free parking. If the person using the parking isn’t paying directly for it, who is? All of us. We all pay for parking whether we use it or not. And the cost is huge.
For every carpark being used in New Zealand at the moment, there are 3-4 sitting empty. The reason we’ve ended up with so much parking isn’t, as often assumed, because business want to provide it to attract people. It’s been mandated by district plans.
While well-meaning, planners and engineers specified the provisions of ‘minimum parking requirements’ to cater for peak times. For example, one of the district plans I’ve seen specifies that at a squash facility must provide seven car parks per squash court. The problem with this is, an over-supply of car parking under values the land, and inflates the cost of all other goods services. So if you run or cycle to the squash court, your membership still costs more because of all those car parks they had to put in.
In Christchurch City Centre, pre earthquakes, we had 28,000 car parks, which is 17% of the land area in the central city. But mean utilisation of those was only slightly more than 50%. So a lot of land that could have been used for dwellings, businesses, green space, was tied up in car parking that wasn’t even being used.
What is good for the economy is what people do – exchange services and goods. And if you fill up the space with parking you don’t have as much space for dwellings, businesses, green space: the places where people actually engage in economic (as well as social and cultural) exchange.
Christchurch has a great opportunity for a better future, but first we need to define transport problems differently. Christchurch wasn’t dying because of a lack of car parks. There is no economically successful city centre in the world that is filled with car parks, they are successful because they use the land for people. They have streets and public spaces for people. We shouldn’t assume the only or best way to provide access to the city centre is through free car parks.
The value of Christchurch central city car parks is about $1.5b, and with only 56% of that actually utilised, we could reduce the amount of car parks by a third, still meet the total demand, and save $0.5b.
What if we invested in improved public transport, shared existing resources, and used performance priced parking in areas of high demand? This ends up better for local business, as revenue raised by performance priced parking can be used to increase the amenity of the area, shuttle buses, car-pooling lanes, cycle lanes and pedestrian infrastructure.
You could reduce demand with this, and only use 8% of city centre instead of 17% for car parking, which means valuable central city land could be used in more productive ways.
Christchurch is starting over; it can become a more people oriented city, just like citizens asked for in the ‘share an idea’ project. Let’s start integrating land use planning and transport planning, not treating them as silos, but explore and lead the way in demonstrating what a great city can really look like when you design for people.