Should we pay for every car park?

Posted on February 20, 2012 by

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Recent posts and comments have made me wonder how we might further encourage people to move from using their cars to using public transport. Sure, we can improve the quality of the public transport system, as that certainly has a bearing on patronage. Focusing on improving core services, introducing a rapid transit network, and other innovative ideas are all great, and we should push for them big time. However, what about the other end of things? We know it is “so easy” to simply drive everywhere (my experiences suggest otherwise, but I will leave that argument for another day) so maybe we should look at what changes can be made at that end? What can we do not just to make public transport better, more efficient, and easier to use, but to make using your car an option you might like to avoid.

Undoubtedly, this is a very controversial issue. I know that not everyone is going to agree with me, even if I am just spit-balling. However, the fact of the matter is that we simply can’t keep developing the city around cars. The capacity of our roads, and proposed roads, over the next 20-30 years is simply going to be used up, and worsening congestion will ensue – we are already seeing it happen. If the only answer is more roads, and higher capacity roads, then we simply go through the cycle again and again, while eroding the quality of the city on multiple levels. In short, it doesn’t work and it leads to the kind of city that no one wants (as indicated in the share an idea exercise). Perhaps we need to start thinking about how many cars we want in the city, rather than how many we can cram in.

Both the Central City Plan and the 2012-42 RLTS point out that use of public transport in Greater Christchurch is going to have to increase over the next 30 years if we want to avoid the kind of congestion that other cities are infamous for. The Plan provided the following table to explain the need to increase the proportion of people who use public transport. It shows the mode split of two-way trips through the Central City.

Even going by the business as usual model, a doubling in public transport, walking, and cycling is still required to avoid the sort of congestion that is detrimental to many other cities. Is it really desirable to increase substantially the number of people using cars to access the city? The share an idea exercise suggests that is not what people want, and that catering for more and more cars is not the kind of city they want to live in.

Looking at ways to make car travel less attractive and encourage further use of alternative transport modes, I note the following are measures that appear to be on the agenda to ensure that there is a substantial uptake in public transport use:

  • removal of minimum parking rules
  • increased investment in public transport, walking, cycling
  • development of rapid transit/light rail network
  • “slow core” in CBD

There are possibly others I have missed, but they appear to be the main ones. I have been thinking recently about what other measures we might look at to encourage people to shift away from using cars for the majority of their trips.

The original draft of the Central City Plan proposed not only doing away with minimum parking rules, but also implementing a maximum parking rule. This proved to be too daunting a prospect for many business owners, so a compromise was made in that no maximum parking rule was put in place, but harmful minimum parking rules were still abolished (harmful, in that miniimum parking rules encourage/subsidise car use and perpetuate auto-dependency). So we know that introducing a maximum parking rule is not on the agenda, at least for now. So what else can we do?

What about charging for all car parks on commercial properties? We have to pay for most on-street parking in commercial areas, and when we don’t we are faced with time restrictions and fines. Parking buildings also charge you for using them, as we all know. What kind of scope is there for levies on car parks on commercial properties? At the end of the day, each car park encourages a car onto the road, which contributes to congestion, maintenance, environmental degradation, automobile-dependency and so on. Should it really be uncharged? It has never seemed right to me, and even more so now given the objectives we are striving to achieve.

Such a levy could include shopping centres as well, which have had a massive effect on car use and on the decline of the CBD’s retail sector. Now I know that plenty of people in the business community might say that it wouldn’t work, but if everyone is in the same boat across the city, I don’t see how it wouldn’t. Further, as changes outlined in the City Plan come online, and a high-quality alternative transport system is developed, there is even less need to provide what is in effect a subsidy for car users.

There are a number of issues I can immediately think of in regard to this concept. Should it be a blanket rule or should it only apply to certain areas? If the latter, how do you avoid businesses finding loopholes? Also, what would come first? Do you introduce such a levy before you develop better public transport services, or the other way around. My way of thinking suggests it needs to be something we build in early, but perhaps is introduced incrementally as other transport options are improved. There is also the issue of getting everyone on board. Not only do you have the Christchurch City Council, but you also have the Selwyn and Waimakariri District Council’s to consider. If they don’t agree, it won’t be as effective as it could be. In many ways, this would probably work best under a unitary authority, although I have an inkling the government may be cautious about such a prospect given what has happened in Auckland (i.e. Len Brown).

Something else I have thought about is the idea of ensuring that some of the key ideas for the CBD are implemented in the suburban centres. Things like a slow core, no minimum parking rules, improved bus priority etc. Indications are that this could well be the case anyway, but I think a lot of these ideas need to be consistently applied across the urban area for full effectiveness (it is also something I feel would aid the recovery and rebuild of the CBD).

We could also get more robust about on street parking. Limit parking times more, so that the people who really need them get to use them, and increase fines for staying over time. Increased parking meter and parking building user costs, not only might encourage greater public transport uptake, as well as cycling and walking, but may also provide a greater funding stream for transport projects. Another option would be to limit the number of car parks available in the CBD and in suburban centres, both on street and in public car park buildings. Now is the time to do it, although I feel the politicians lack the guts to make such a move. In fact, I know they do because the City Plan and suburban centre programmes make ensuring a ready supply of car parking a top priority – even though they also want increased public and active transport uptake and acknowledge current transport policy as being unsustainable. Two steps forward, one step back (if your lucky).

However, none of this, I feel, would be possible without some sort of levy on car parking on commercial properties. Increase costs and limit car parking on streets, and the mall owners, with their abundance of free car parks, will be rubbing their hands. It all needs to go hand in hand.

To sum up, I feel we have to get tough on the “easy to drive” situation if we want to increase the use of alternative transport modes, as is desired. In addition to other policy out there, limitations on car parking need to be imposed, both public and private. It needs to come as a package for it to work though, and I do think that solid plans and progress on alternative transport modes need to be made first. People will be far more accepting of parking restrictions if it means more people will use that flash light rail system, or whatever, everyone is forking billions for, and in turn they too can now use. I certainly don’t expect this view to be popular, not at all, but I think we need to start talking tough if we want to achieve what we have set out to achieve. If we need to get some major mode shift happening, and indications are that we really do, then we have got to pull out all the stops to do it, and start thinking outside the box.

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