Perhaps the primary reason why I am interested in improving public transport is because I think it’s the main way we can manage to both shift a lot of people around a city while at the same time not destroying that city. Urban planning and transport planning is always a balance between the “through” and the “in”. Generally, the more you cater for the through (an extreme example being a motorway) the more you degrade the “in” – the quality of the space. Conversely, it seems that typically you can improve the “in” by reducing the “through” function of a place. Elliott Street, Fort Street and the other shared spaces are hugely nicer places to be now than they were before – because their “through” function has been lowered.
The problem with traditional transport planning is that, since World War II at least, we have sacrificed the quality of our urban environments in the name of making it easier to get around. Where there has been congestion, we have widened roads or built new ones, ignoring to a large extent what the effect of the widening or the new road might be on the quality of our urban environment. Our cost-benefit methodology for assessing transport projects still reinforces this approach: saving a few seconds off a trip counts, degrading the property values of adjacent sites does not.
But it’s not only the impact of wider and new roads on the quality of our urban environments which so strongly connects auto-dependency with poor urban outcomes. We also need to consider the impact of where we store all these cars the 95% of the time we’re not actually in them. By that, I of course mean parking. The excellent Old Urbanist blog has a recent post analysing the proportion of many US downtowns which have been given over to parking – typically mandated by planning rules that require a certain number of parking spaces per area of development. Some of the results are truly scary:
Surface parking (red): 21.3%
Garage parking (yellow): 3.7%
Street area (including sidewalks): 39.7%
Total area for rights-of-way plus off-street parking: 64.7%
Park space: 2.6% (1.1% exluding Discovery Green)
So basically two-thirds of downtown Houston is set aside for either shifting or storing cars. In a large city, the value of this land must be utterly immense – surely it could be put to a more economic use than this?
We find a similar situation when you look at Little Rock, Arkansas – admittedly a much smaller city: Surface parking: 26.5%
Garage parking: 2.7%
Street area (including sidewalks): 32.0%
Total area for rights-of-way plus off-street parking: 61.2%
Park space: 0.0%
For some contrast, let’s look at Washington DC – which has a very well developed Metro system allowing people the choice of not driving into the CBD for work:Surface parking: 1.1%*
Garage parking: 0.0%
Street area (including sidewalks): 43.3%
Total area for rights-of-way plus off-street parking: 44.4%
Park space: 2.53% (5.00% including Ellipse)
While Washington DC has a very low level of parking, it does contain a large number of rather wide streets, which means that we still see almost half its land dedicated to roadspace. The Old Urbanist post offers some further insight on this matter:
Although these numbers are interesting enough on their own, I bring them up to emphasize the importance of the street grid in determining the balance of buildable to non-buildable land. Even the difference in unbuilt area between the downtowns most dominated by surface lots, and those most built out, as is the case for Houston and Washington, is no greater than the difference between Washington and the European cities with the most generous street allotments – the Paris of Haussmann, with its broad boulevards, imperial Vienna of the 19th century, and Barcelona’s Eixample, all of which devote around 25 percent of their area to streets.
It is difficult to imagine a justification for much exceeding the 25 percent figure. Many cities of similar size and far larger than those just mentioned make do with less, including Tokyo, Mexico City and Buenos Aires, while accommodating extensive mass transit systems. The traditional city of narrow streets and small squares, typified by towns of medieval plan, find ten or fifteen percent perfectly adequate.
In addition to their transportation function, streets can also be understood as a means of extracting value from underserved parcels of land. The street removes a certain amount of property from tax rolls in exchange for plugging the adjacent land in to the citywide transportation network. Access to the network, in turn, increases the value of the land for almost all uses. For the process to satisfy a cost/benefit analysis, the value added should exceed that lost to the area of the streets plus the cost of maintenance. (This implies rapidly diminishing returns for increasingly wide streets, and helps explain why, in the absence of mandated minimum widths, most streets are made to be fairly narrow.) For many of the gridded American cities of the 19th century, as I’ve written about before, planners failed to meet these objectives, although these decisions have long since been overshadowed by those of their 20th century successors.
I am yet to conduct a similar exercise for Auckland’s CBD, but I imagine we have much more space set aside for parking garages and much less for surface parking than Houston and Little Rock, and more garages yet narrower streets than Washington DC. But I imagine we are still using a lot of the city’s most precious real estate for little more than shifting and storing cars. Perhaps the most under-rated benefit of public transport projects like the City Rail Link is our ability to reverse this trend: to be able to reclaim significant chunks of the city for more productive uses.
However, while things in the city centre aren’t as horrific as many of these US cities, if you head to many of the more recently built “town centres” you can see some pretty similar diagrams. In the map below of Botany Town Centre we can see the vast majority of space is set aside for shifting and storing cars (red for buildings, green for open space, grey for roads and parking lots):Manukau City Centre is very similar:Not only are these places incredibly unattractive parts of the city to be “in” or to walk around, they are also incredibly, and stupidly, wasteful of one of our most precious resources: land. They are trapped in a cycle of “to grow we need to provide more parking, but the more parking we provide the less usable space there is to build on” which inevitably leads to illogical things like Auckland Transport spending tens of millions on multi-level parking buildings – which will of course further reinforce these areas’ dependency on cars and over time require even wider roads and more parking spaces.
It is in places like Botany, Manukau, Albany, Westgate and (in the future) Flat Bush where we must somehow break this cycle – most probably through providing vastly better public transport options so that people feel more and more comfortable about leaving their car at home. Compared to the opportunity cost of all this wasted land that’s required to support an auto-dependent model of land development, the public transport projects should be dirt cheap.