the price is right: market-based parking comes to new zealand (guest post)

This guest post is by my friend and colleague Stuart Donovan, with whom I've worked on a range of excellent transit planning projects over the years.  Stuart is the head of the New Zealand office of MRCagney consultants, a credentialed engineer, and the manager of numerous successful transit and transport policy research projects around New Zealand and beyond.

Parking pricesFor me parking is like sex, money, and
religion – it’s one of those things you avoid bringing up in polite
conversation. The reason is that most cities have an over-supply of
under-priced parking, yet most inhabitants of those cities believe exactly the
opposite; that there is never enough parking.

Changing this belief is tough work. A large
part of it seems to reflect a common assumption that even as cities grow they will
be able to continue to provide similar levels of parking as they have had in
the past. Deeper analysis suggests this assumption is invalid.

It’s invalid because economic and geometric
realities prevent cities from expanding their parking at the same rate as they
grow. In terms of off-street parking, higher land values tend to squeeze out space-intensive
activities. In terms of on-street parking, limited kerb space and a range of
competing uses, such as bus stops, constrains the degree to which more on-street
parking can be provided.

For these two reasons, the supply of off-
and on-street parking will always struggle to keep pace with the rate that cities
grow. And of course combining constrained
with growing demand will
almost inexorably lead to higher prices.
This economic relationship is the main reason why larger cities tend to command
higher parking prices, other factors remaining equal.

During the 1950s many cities tried to subvert
this economic equation. They implemented regulations that required new developments
to provide large amounts of off-street parking. But minimum parking
requirements simply meant that the cost of parking was paid for by developers,
instead of users. The cost of parking was quite simply subsumed elsewhere in
the economy.

Minimum parking requirements had a number
of unintended impacts. Their primary impact was to create an over-supply of
parking and lower the direct cost of parking for drivers. In this way, minimum
parking requirements actually made a difficult problem even more challenging,
because – over several decades – they have reinforced people’s cultural
expectation for cheap parking.

Transport planners recognise that parking
is a key influence on the travel decisions that people make. Aside from access
to a vehicle, the price and availability of parking is probably the single most
important determinant of whether people choose to drive.

So people who are passionate advocates for more
efficient passenger transit, such as most readers of this blog, should also be
passionate about addressing our parking issues. It’s hard to avoid the fact
that abundant parking and efficient passenger transit are mutually exclusive

But what can we do to address parking issues?

The solution to off-street parking supply seems
quite clear: Cities should remove minimum parking requirements and allow developers
to determine how much off-street parking they need for their development. This will
usually be less than what minimum parking requirements currently stipulate.

Progress towards the removal of minimum
parking requirements has already occurred in a number of cities around the
world. My home city of Auckland, New Zealand (population circa 1.5 million)
removed minimum parking requirements in the city centre in 1996 and has not looked
back: More people now use passenger transit to access the city centre in peak
hour than use private vehicles.

Fewer cities have made progress, however, with
the way they manage on-street parking. Most still rely on time-limits (e.g. one
hour) overlaid with paid parking. The combination of time-limits and paid
parking creates an inconvenient situation, e.g. when your visit to the dentist
takes 2 hours instead of 45 minutes you may return to your car to find that in
addition to having holes where you wisdom teeth used to be your wallet has been
further emptied by a parking infringement.

Reforming on-street parking policies often become
bogged down in comments from residents and businesses about parking being “too
expensive.” And when confronted with such questions many parking reform
proposals die an unnatural death. But most discussions of cost focus only on
the hourly rate, rather than the cost of infringements. I would argue that the
latter needs to be included in discussions of cost, because it drastically
changes the nature of the conversation.

Until recently San Francisco was the only city
that had really forged ahead with major on-street parking reforms, under the
measured encouragement of Donald Shoup and aided by a federal transport
research grant. San Francisco’s approach to on-street parking reforms is brilliant
in its simplicity: They recognised that time-limits were a relatively inefficient
way of managing demand, especially in areas where pay parking also applied.

In most locations with pay parking, San
Francisco has sought to remove time-limits. In these areas they now rely almost
solely on prices to manage demand: If demand goes up then hourly rates also go
up, and vice versa. If you’re interested you can (and should!) read more about
San Francisco’s trail-blazing approach to on-street parking policy on the SFpark website. The most interesting result is
that revenue from meters went up, but revenue from infringements went down.

So San Francisco had effectively
substituted meter revenue for infringement revenue; and while many people hate
paying for parking, in my experience they have an even deeper hatred towards
parking tickets, primarily because it makes them feel “unlucky”. Until recently
SFpark was a lone super nova in an otherwise cold and dark parking universe.

Until yesterday when my home city of
Auckland, New Zealand announced
that it was applying to join San Francisco’s elite parking club. Auckland has followed
a similar line to San Francisco, by removing all time-limits from on-street
car-parks the city centre and instead relying on prices to manage demand. They
point to the following advantages of this approach:

  • Easier to understand – so long as you’re
    paid up you’re good to go. No need to search for a car-park that allows you to
    park for as long as you need.
  • Simpler to enforce – parking wardens
    only have to check that the ticket is valid, which greatly expedites the enforcement
  • Reduced street clutter – a consistent
    approach to on-street parking means that only a few “Pay and display” signs are
    required, rather than a forest of confusing restrictions.

One of Auckland’s interesting tweaks is the
implementation of a free 15 minute grace period, which is intended to replace the
need for so many dedicated taxi and loading zones (drop off/pick up).
Basically, with this grace period every space in the city becomes a potential
drop off / pick up space, so long as you don’t park for longer than 15 minutes,
which results in more efficient utilisation.

Overall, Auckland expects that the changes
will be broadly revenue neutral. But this hides a very significant shift in
where revenue comes from. Whereas in the current situation a large proportion
of revenue is derived from those unlucky people visiting the dentist (i.e.
through infringements), in the future revenue from parking infringements is
expect to decline, whereas meter revenue increases.

One of the less obvious benefits of the
approach taken by Auckland and San Francisco, however, is that they’ve set out an
agreed policy process for setting parking prices. That is, they have developed
a transparent formula through which parking prices are adjusted in response to
demand. This greatly reduces opportunities for public/political interference in
the setting of parking prices.

It’s now not so easy for individual residents
or businesses to demand lower prices on their particular street, because the prices
are determined by the policy. While people can seek to change the policy itself
(indeed that is their democratic right) in doing so they are at least required to
engage with broader questions such as: How
would this impact parking across the entire city centre?

The most telling sign of the broad-based
stakeholder support for Auckland’s proposed changes is the comes from the Chief
Executive of Heart of the City (business association) Alex Swney, who said:

“For many years parking has been seen as a major
reason not to come into the city. We see today’s announcement as a significant
change in approach to parking in the city.  It recognises the ‘moving
feast’ of parking demands of our businesses and their customers. It’s a major
step forward and we are sure we will be looking back in a year and see
significant improvement as a result.”

As one of the people that contributed to the
development of this policy I’m quite biased in its favour. I can’t help but
sense that this represents a big step in the direction of more transparent and
sustainable on-street parking policy in Auckland.

As someone who regularly visits cities overseas
it also makes me ask: Which city will be next?

how do you compare to your peers? should you care?

Admit it:  You've always cared, at least in secret, about how you compare to your peers: your friends, your fellow students, your graduating class, your co-workers, your generation.  Well, deep down, transit authorities and city governments care too, which is why comparing a city to other similar cities always gets attention.

Sometimes peer comparisons cause complacency, especially if you choose the wrong peers.  Wellington has the highest transit mode share in New Zealand, but in a country with only one other big, dense city, that obviously shouldn't imply that it's reached nirvana.  Working in greater Vancouver I always have to emphasize that they are doing so well by North American standards that they have to start comparing themselves to European port cities in their size class (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Marseilles).  My general advice: If your peer comparison says you're wonderful, throw a party and revel in this for 48 hours, then look for a more motivating group of peers. 

At the other extreme, nothing is more motivating than being told that you're dead last among your peers.  Earlier this year I worked (through my Australian employer MRCagney under the leadership of Ian Wallis Associates) on a peer comparison study for Auckland, New Zealand, which compared Auckland's transit performance with all the five biggest Australian cities plus a selection of North American ones.  Download the full report here.  Remember, if you're in any of the peer cities that it uses (Wellington, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Edmonton, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Honolulu, Portland, Seattle) this is your peer study too!  Just keep the tables and refocus the text (citing the source of course!).

More generally, the report is a good illustration of how peer comparison can work at its best, and also of the cautions that must be shouted from the sidelines once the conclusions take fire in the media, as they certainly have in Auckland.  From yesterday's New Zealand Herald:

Consultants have ranked Auckland last out of 14 cities – in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States – included in a benchmark study for the average number of public transport trips taken annually by its residents.

Aucklanders also pay the highest fares of any of the cities, amounting to 24c for every kilometre travelled on the average 44 public transport trips they take each year, compared with 17c in Wellington.

The rest of the article is further grim statistics, plus quotations from political leaders demanding that something be done. 

I'm  sympathetic to Auckland Transport in this case.  Remember, a city's transit performance is mostly about the physical layout of the city and the constraints on other modes; the quality of the transit system by itself can't overcome problems in those areas.  The nature of the economy also matters.  Wellington is much smaller but it has much more severe chokepoints in its urban structure.  In fact, all travel between the northern and southern parts of the city must go through a single chokepoint less than 1 km wide, which is also the (very dense) downtown.  Wellington's economy is dominated by government, which is generally a sector disposed to use transit heavily. All of these features are hugely important in driving Wellington's mode share above Auckland's, and yet they don't include anything about the respective quality of the transit systems. 

Peer comparisons also carry the false assumption that everyone wants to be the same kind of city, and is therefore working to the same kind of goals.  (This attitude, taken to extreme, produces the absurdity of top ten "best cities for transit" lists.)  Low mode share for transit may mean your transit system is failing, but it may mean that it's not trying for mode share, or at least that it has other objectives or constraints that prevent it from focusing on that goal.  It may just mean that your city has different values.  It may mean the city stikes a different balance between cycling, transit, and walking based on its own geography.

Still, service quality matters, and there's a lot that Auckland can do.  I hope the city's opinion leaders are listening to Auckland Transport as well as berating it, so that they understand the real choices that must be made to move Auckland forward.  If there's a real conversation, great things can be accomplished. 

watching our words: congestion charge or price or (shudder) tax

There seems to be a flurry of new interest in congestion pricing, partly under the pressure of tight budgets almost everywhere.  But journalists can muddy the waters by describing congestion pricing as either exploitative or punitive.

Last month, I was invited to contribute to a Sydney Morning Herald thinkpiece on the subject.  My contribution, the second of four pieces here, emphasises that congestion pricing is not about paying for congestion, it's about paying to avoid congestion.  The core point:

Suppose you announce that you'll give away free concert tickets to the first 500 people in a queue. You'll get a queue of 500 people. These people are paying time to save money.

Other people will just buy a ticket and avoid the queue. They're choosing to pay money to save time.

Today, we require all motorists to wait in the queue. When stuck in congestion, we are paying for the road space in time rather than in money.

Shouldn't we have a choice about this? Why are we required to save money, a renewable resource, by spending time, the least renewable resource of all?

Unfortunately, the Sydney Morning Herald framed the whole piece with the question, "Should motorists pay for the congestion they cause?"    The implication is that congestion pricing is punitive, that some citizens believe that other citizens should be punished for their behavior.  The question seems designed to sow misunderstanding and inflame rage.  To their credit, none of the four expert responses — even the one from the auto club opposing the congestion charge — really took this bait.

So there's a problem with the terms congestion charge and congestion price.  The terms sound like "paying for congestion," when the truth is the opposite, we're being invited to choose whether to spend money to avoid congestion.  A more accurate term would be congestion avoidance price or even better, congestion avoidance option.  But those are too many words. 

Should we call it a decongestion price

Real congestion pricing is about giving free and responsible adults a set of options that reflect the real-world geometry of cities.  The core geometry problem is this:

  • Cities are, by definition, places where lots of people are close together.
  • Cities are therefore, by defintion, places with relatively little space per person.
  • Your car takes 50-100 times as much space as your body does.
  • Therefore, people in cars consume vastly more of the scarce resource, urban space, than the same people without their cars — for example, as pedestrians or public transit riders. 
  • When people choose whether to drive, they're choosing how much scarce urban space to consume.
  • If urban space is to be used like any other scarce resource, its price needs to be deregulated so that it is used efficiently. 

Congestion pricing is a form of deregulation.  It is the most libertarian concept imaginable.

There's another way to mess this up, and that's the term "congestion tax."  Here's the New Zealand Herald

Aucklanders may be levied to drive through increasingly congested streets in the absence of Government funding of the region's "strategic aspirations".

A paper released by Local Government Minister Rodney Hide before Auckland's first spatial plan due out in 11 days suggests raising revenue by charging motorists to drive around the Super City at peak times.

Hide makes clear that this isn't a congestion price intended to reduce congestion.  It's just another tax, intended to raise revenue.  So just to be clear: If it's congestion pricing, there are public transit (and bike-ped, and casual carpool) alternatives that enable people to get where they're going.  The congestion price cordons on the CBDs of London and Singapore work because there's abundant public transit to those places, so relatively few people absolutely have to drive into them.  The San Francisco Bay Bridge tolls have a congestion-pricing value because there's both abundant transit and casual carpool options for avoiding them. 

If, on the other hand, you're in a place where there's no reasonable alternative to driving — such as large parts of Auckland — then anything  that suppresses driving will suppress travel, and that means it will suppress economic activity.  And if you're just taxing economic activity, then this is really no different from sales taxes, Goods and Services Taxes (GST), or income taxes. By taxing economic activity, you're suppressing something that government and society should be encouraging.  That's not a libertarian idea; quite the opposite.

tadpoles of new zealand: an auckland transit animation

There's a lot of potential for animation of Google Transit data, and we're just starting to see it explored.  Some results will be rich with information, differentiating various kinds of service so that you can see how they dance together.  Chris McDowall's animation of a day's transit in Auckland is less informative but correspondingly more meditative.  Buses, trains and ferries are all rendered as earnest little tadpoles (or comets, or sperm, or viruses, depending on your sense of scale).

(An animated map of Auckland's public transport network from Chris McDowall on Vimeo.)

It nicely illustrates the point that frequency is what makes a route into a line.  The line that goes really solid during the peak is the Northern Busway, which is far more frequent than any of Auckland's rail lines. 

UPDATE:  Commenter "numbat" points out that on the island at the east edge of the image (Waiheke Island) you can see local island buses pulsing with ferries that link the island to Auckland's CBD.

Postcard: Auckland

DSCF2918 Greetings from New Zealand’s largest city, the focal point of an agrarian nation’s ambivalence about urban life.  If you’re a young North American who wonders what Seattle was like 40 years ago when I was a tyke — before Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks — Auckland’s your answer.   To a visitor accustomed to North American or European levels of civic vanity, it often seems that Auckland still doesn’t know how beautiful it is.  That’s always an attractive feature, in cities as in people, even though (or perhaps because) it can’t possibly last. Continue Reading →