Parking: costs

Wellington inner city residents are objecting to increasing cost of their residents’ parking permits. And a councillor is encouraging people to object. A recap on some of the home truths about city parking

Stuff reports on the proposed rise, and some residents’ opposition.

First up, props to anyone who’s engaging their neighbours and getting petitions. More people involved with how their place works is, generally, better! The essential complement to citizen action like this is councillor leadership. Because what we want for ourselves isn’t always what’s best for the town, so someone’s got to have the public good in mind.

So, we’ve had a proposal from officers weighing the pros and cons, and an opposed petition and some medis: so far, so predictable. But then it gets weird. Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons says the increase isn’t “fair or reasonable” (more on that below). Then uses an excuse that – to the layperson – sounds really sensible and responsible. Spoiler: it ain’t.

“As a lawyer”, Fitzsimons backs up her position opposing the cost rise by pointing to council officers’ observations that the Land Transport Management Act constrains councils’ ability to charge for residents’ parking.

“We can’t possibly, because legislation”

This is quite correct; section 22AB(1)(o)(iii)(B) says so.

But let’s be real here. Amongst the mass of bits of NZ legislation governing councils’ exercise of power, there’s lots of wording in corners of various acts that seems to require councils to do daft stuff and elsewhere to prevent them from doing sensible stuff. “How is that possible?! It’s the law!” Well, legislative manufacture is both art and science and encodes the strengths and weaknesses of the humans and human institutions involved in it. Just ask anyone at the Parliamentary Counsel Office (who are generally in charge of writing legislation).

But especially, laws’ wording is a product of its time. Sometimes, wording is spot on, operating well for decades. Sometimes it’s revealed to be weird, wrong or just inappropriate for modern times.

That bit of the Land Transport Act is a good example: it seems to have been drafted by people who had no conception of the economics of public space and transport. (see below for the ins and outs).

Why can’t we just update the Act?

Even a few words here and there in legislation typically take ages to change, because there’s so much (important) process involved. Really, ages.

And while the process for fixing the bugs in national-level legislation catches up, councils have to take a pragmatic approach. They balance the public good, balance their other obligations under other legislation, and make a call. As far as parking is concerned, nationwide councils are doing just this: using their discretion to do the sensible thing. To stand on “we can’t do the right thing because it’s not technically within our power according to this ” is to deny councils using their sensible discretion in all those of other circumstances where the empowering Act has a bug.

City space and what we do with it

The language of these articles (including the direct quotes) shows us that live and well, and sadly in some high places, are some weird ideas about rights to parking. And while the Land Transport Act’s articulation of these weird ideas will take some fixing, we can at least apply sensible thinking in decisions which are the council’s to take, right now. Like exercising their perfectly normal discretion on parking charges.

Let’s say it again all together … there’s no fundamental right to store your car on the public road.

Publicly-owned space in cities is valuable. There’s not much of it and the point of cities is lots of people being able to do stuff close together – you don’t want to waste space. So activity that takes up street space – and stops you using that space for movement, or making the place nicer – needs to be costed properly. This opportunity cost of town centre street space is huge and needs to be reflected in proper price signals otherwise we’ll just use it frivolously. This is basic urban economics. (And, in case you think NZ’s Land Transport Act creates a right to park, nope it doesn’t.)

So from an economics perspective you should expect to be charged if you’re using street space exclusively – i.e. no-one can get any benefit from it because of your use. And especially if the costs and benefits to everyone else of your use (and street parking does have both) come out in the red.

Ultimately, as Councillor Brian Dawson is making quite clear, 50c for 24 hours to park your car within walking distance of the CBD ($4.50 per hour and still uneconomically low) is actually fine, and yes “fair and reasonable” by anyone’s estimation who’s not vote-hunting. These are minuscule charges considering what’s involved for the city, and until this proposal the prices haven’t even kept up with inflation according to the council.

(Another aspect of urban economics is that resident street-parking charges “penalis[ing] us because we haven’t got a garage” is … just crazy. A house with a garage has amenity that others don’t, so you can absolutely rely on the market pricing presence or absence of garage into your rent. Every time. Landlords ain’t stupid.)

And as for “a tax on the poor” – let’s be really clear here folks. Transport and housing are both too expensive and single-carer households have a tougher row to hoe than most. And hell yes it’s hard to do without a car for far too many of us – and that’s frustrating the hell out of people region-wide.

But it doesn’t leave the best impression to claim transport poverty living in an inner city suburb of Wellington, without even a hat tip to people living in Eastern Porirua, Stokes Valley, Wainuiomata (where you’re forced to run a car because of crappy public transport thanks to (crappy service approach and) sprawling urban form). Or without a hat tip to working poor households where your four precarious low-paid shift-work jobs mean you simply can’t afford not to drive – both in terms of time or money. (Perhaps the folks interviewed did hat tip, and the reporter decided not to report it because it was too complicated.)

So it’s not a right then?!

Ultimately street parking means storing your private car, 95% of its time, exclusively taking up precious public resource of inner city street space. It’s not actually something that’s needed, for the vast majority of us, in compact cities like Wellington. They (we!) should not be subsidising this and that’s what’s happening when inner city street parking is too cheap.

All together now: “Give us better alternatives!”

One of the grumpy residents is absolutely right that Wellington doesn’t have nearly enough good transport options to make it easy not to own a car. Inner city car ownership is dropping but school and preschool travel is a particularly iniquitous situation, and should be a focus for things like Let’s Get Wellington Moving. Things like carshare and kid-friendly streets are a really good interim or transition option while we build the expensive stuff like mass transit.

We hope the people putting their energy into opposing this have also been submitting hard on LGWM, calling strongly for better options. Because it shouldn’t be that you have to own (and run and keep up and store) a car in order to have a good life in Wellington.

Money money money

The last thing to consider is the mixed-up goals, highlighted in the Stuff piece “she believes the proposal is “ridiculous” and “just another way of making money.“”
Street parking does bring in lots of money. And councils always want more money because we, ratepayers, don’t want to pay more in rates.
But parking charges – like congestion charges – are a behaviour-shaping incentive, first and foremost, to encourage everyone overall to use a scarce resource (road space) in the best way for society. They’re not supposed to be first and foremost a revenue-raiser. So you actually want to set your parking charges at the “Goldilocks” level where you can find a spot if you really want to park in the city, as we explained here.

Unfortunately because this “behaviour shaping incentive” involves money coming in to a council it’s really easy to say “they’re just making money off us!” (Especially when people who know better use “plunder” and “robbery” framing to discuss legitimate and important city functions). If your standpoint’s “parking management is robbery” then it does make sense to limit charging to something around cost recovery only. But as we know, that’s simply not right because of city physics and urban economics.

And the other unhelpful element of money being the behaviour-shaping incentive is that council are also motivated not to get rid of any on-street parking – especially short-stay street parking – not just because people wail about it, but also precisely because it’s a source of income. Councils are always short of cash, not least because we ratepayers are always calling for lower rates. So if you want to do something better than short-stay parking with that 3.5m lemgth of street, but which means council would get less revenue from it, you better prepare for a long battle.

What should I do then?

So what with some unhelpful media framing, and some generally level-headed councillors deciding to take some really odd positions here, it’s worth popping in a submission. And as you do, definitely worth remembering this eternal truth from a transport economist writing for Greater Auckland:

“Transport economists will obsess endlessly over different pricing possibilities to best utilise parking spaces, ignorant to the fact that most people would rather have a root canal than shell out a single cent [more] for parking.”

So if you’re inclined to our way of thinking, pop in a supportive submission for the proposed increase in parking charges by 8th May. And in one of those “any comments” boxes, add some strong calls for better options than driving, for cross-city travel. Walkable bikeable scootable wheelchair-friendly streets (a 30km central city and rori iti), better carshare support, all the good stuff handily packaged for you! Especially with kids, Wellington central shouldn’t be a place one is forced to own a car. And apparently some of our leaders need to hear that loud and clear.


More great reading: Stephen Davis’ excellent piece The Low Cost of Ending the High Cost of Free Parking

For your nerdy fix: Household travel in NZ

  • Image credits:
  • Monopoly by pond5
  • Parking machine – Rob Kitchin – Stuff

One comment on “Parking: costs”

  • luke says:

    Pet peeve of mine is ‘free’ parking at the supermarket. I either walk or cycle so im subsidizing motorists parking in my grocery prices.

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