An interesting New York Times article delves into what I’ve often thought of as the “elephant in the room” when it comes to urban and transport planning: parking. The article begins by highlighting the extremely high number of parking spaces available in many US cities – the fact that we give over so much of our city to the storage of cars (generally for “free”):

There are said to be at least 105 million and maybe as many as 2 billion parking spaces in the United States.

A third of them are in parking lots, those asphalt deserts that we claim to hate but that proliferate for our convenience. One study says we’ve built eight parking spots for every car in the country. Houston is said to have 30 of them per resident. In “Rethinking a Lot,” a new study of parking, due out in March, Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of urban planning at M.I.T., points out that “in some U.S. cities, parking lots cover more than a third of the land area, becoming the single most salient landscape feature of our built environment.”

Absent hard numbers Mr. Ben-Joseph settles on a compromise of 500 million parking spaces in the country, occupying some 3,590 square miles, or an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. If the correct number is 2 billion, we’re talking about four times that: Connecticut and Vermont.

Either way it’s a lot of pavement.

Making comparisons with the size of US states doesn’t typically mean much to me, but I’ve been on a bus through Vermont while travelling between Boston and Montreal. It seemed pretty big and empty (aside from the zillions of trees) so the concept of the USA giving over state sized amounts of space to parking lots is pretty damn scary. The article also quotes an absolutely superb Lewis Mumford quote, which I should print out and stick next to my desk:

As the critic Lewis Mumford wrote half a century ago, “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city.”

Looking at aerial photographs of Manukau City or Botany Town Centre confirm Mumford’s vision was absolutely correct: there’s no city here, just asphalt and cars:

I think the message is slowly filtering through that Botany and Manukau represent terrible urban outcomes and a general failure of planning, because the current planning rules have forced this kind of urban development, not merely enabled or even made an effort to stop it. But how do we turn the oil tanker around and create urban environments not entirely dominated by asphalt and parked cars?

Of course, an essential first step is to do away with the planning rules that require minimum levels of off-street parking to be provided. The New York Times article touches on this matter:

For big cities like New York it is high time to abandon outmoded zoning codes from the auto-boom days requiring specific ratios of parking spaces per housing unit, or per square foot of retail space. These rules about minimum parking spaces have driven up the costs of apartments for developers and residents, damaged the environment, diverted money that could have gone to mass transit and created a government-mandated cityscape that’s largely unused. We keep adding to the glut of parking lots. Crain’s recently reported on the largely empty garages at new buildings like Avalon Fort Greene, a 42-story luxury tower near downtown Brooklyn, and 80 DeKalb Avenue, up the block, both well occupied, both of which built hundreds of parking spaces to woo tenants. Garages near Yankee Stadium, built over the objections of Bronx neighbors appalled at losing parkland for yet more parking lots, turn out never to be more than 60 percent full, even on game days. The city has lost public space, the developers have lost a fortune.

The Pensacola Parking Syndrome is a term of the trade used to describe a city that tears down its old buildings to create parking spaces to entice more people downtown, until people no longer want to go there because it has become an empty lot. Cities should let the free market handle the construction of new parking spaces. People who buy or rent new homes can pay extra if they want someplace to park a car. Municipalities can instead cap the maximum number of lots or the ratio of spaces to dwellings and offices.

You get a feeling that Auckland was going down the “Pensacola Parking Syndrome” path in the 1950s-1970s when the council built all the parking buildings it now owns. Perhaps the saving grace of the Auckland CBD over the past 20 years has been the fact that it’s the only part of the city which does not require a minimum number of parking spaces. In fact, parking levels are restricted to limit the number of cars trying to get to and from the city centre (although this is undermined by the council continuing to provide so many off-street parking spaces and discounting peak time travellers through earlybird specials).

Setting that aside, it’s just bizarre that people wanting to live somewhere like Newton, where it’s possible to walk to the city, are effectively forced to also pay for two parking spaces with their apartment. Or that new retail or office space is likely to need to build (or at least buy) as much floor space for vehicle storage as for their actual business.

The article also discusses ways in which we can improve the visual aesthetics of parking, where it is provided.

It’s a no-brainer to argue that lots should be greener. The biggest advancements in lot designs have involved porous surfaces, more trees for shade and storm-water collection facilities. In Turin, Italy, Renzo Piano transformed part of the area around Fiat’s Lingotto factory by extending a grid of trees from the parking lot into the building’s formerly barren courtyards, creating a canopy of soft shade and a ready metaphor: nature reclaiming the postindustrial landscape. At Dia:Beacon, the Minimalist museum up the Hudson River, the parking lot designed by the artist Robert Irwin in collaboration with the firm OpenOffice is one with the art inside, trees in rigorous ranks rising subtly toward the front door. It’s an example not only of green design but also of treating parking lots the way people actually experience them: as the real entrance to a building.

In an urban environment, I don’t always think the answer to solving every aesthetics issue is “add trees” (and it’s a pity that so many landscape architects seem to think this is the case). One of the best things we could do to improve the aesthetics of places like Botany and Manukau is to “sleeve” the parking lots, either with shops that front the street (shops on the street, in a town centre, what a revolutionary concept!) or with terraced housing.

The idea of “sleeving” parking lots is being advanced as part of the proposed plan change at Milford Shopping Centre – softening the existing parking lot that surround the shopping mall by building a row of terraced houses around the edge of the site. Up close the result looks pretty good too, especially when compared to the current carpark that residents in the area look across at. Proposals like this one give me a bit of hope that our thinking on parking is evolving. Of course the Draft Auckland Plan also gave some hope, by highlighting the need for a different approach to parking, in that too much is probably an even bigger problem than not enough spaces. I suppose the real challenge will be to find ways to convince shopping mall owners and retail developers that they don’t need to provide as much parking as they have previously planned for. To give them the confidence to make these changes to the way they do business it will be essential for transport alternatives to be provided for to a very high standard.

New York could easily do away with parking regulations tomorrow and the benefits would be wholly positive – because such high quality transport alternatives exist. In Auckland, while I think we should still do away with minimum parking requirements as soon as possible, the real benefits of doing away with such controls are likely to mainly occur when high quality alternatives to driving exist, so people really don’t think it’s necessary for them to provide so much parking. This situation already exists in parts of the city, like Newton, Newmarket, Ponsonby, Parnell and other inner suburbs – but will take time to develop elsewhere. In the meanwhile though, even if we continue to dedicate far too much of our city to parking, we could at least start to hide it behind sleeves of shops or terraced houses.

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  1. To translate those state sizes into something kiwis can grasp, the bottom end (Delaware plus Rhode Island) is bigger than Auckland (including the Gulf islands), Hamilton, Wellington, Tauranga, Christchurch, Dunedin and Lake Taupo combined. Their combined land area, according to Wikipedia, is over 10,000km^2. Auckland is a bit over 1,000, Lake Taupo a shade under 700.
    The top end is just staggering, coming in at about 10% of NZ’s total area. It’s like paving the entirety of the Greater Wellington Council area, roughly.

  2. A problem I see with “sleeving” is that unless there’s a change to the planning rules you’re just adding to the number of required parking spaces. Those new shops at Botany would be more retail floor space, meaning more parking space needed. Likewise the terraced housing proposed at Milford. The rules must change, and until they do there’s no easy way to make those existing monstrosities “pretty” because the process of doing so taps right back into the primary problem: dumb-arse planning requirements.

    Relatedly, I was dismayed to see how much of the new Apex centre at Sylvia Park is given over the parking. I realise it’s a big-box complex, but just driving through it feels like there’re hectares of asphalt, never mind what it’d be like to be a pedestrian (I went through on New Year’s Day, foolishly thinking that retailers there would be open because Sylvia Park was).

    1. A more useful planning rule that I have been thinking about for a while could be to limit the percentage of a site that can be dedicated to parking. A 20% limit would have interesting results for example.

      1. I would take that further and say that where any boundary of a site is within 400m of a rapid transport network station or interchange, parking may be no more than 15% of the site, or possibly even less. However, where the parking is entirely beneath or above revenue-generating floorspace I would allow a 1:1 ratio of parking to floor space. That encourages building to the periphery of a site while minimising internal space dedicated to cars, and allows for large complexes to have quite a lot of parking space without it becoming the eyesore that is Botany or Albany.

    2. You are right there Matt, Sleeved Parking would have issues unless our Planning Rules Changed. Sleeved Parking would work so well for Manukau City Centre and if redevelopment occured in such a way, MCC would be an attractive secondary core with beautiful urban form and space rather then the blight it is now.

      Will comment on MCC when I get to it at View of Auckland (after covering Tamaki next)

  3. This is a great article, and one that is at the heart of our car dependence.

    There’s a good article for free-market proponents from a Los Angeles-based planner and economist, which uses economic logic to show that we’re not using a market-based solution to the problem by mandating large amounts of free parking in order to get development approval. The result is increased costs per square metre of retail or office space, which may be unnecessary in poor areas or areas well serviced by PT where car use is lower. The cost of providing a “free” parking space is greater than the cost of a new car (and this doesn’t even include the cost of providing additional road lanes).

    In Melbourne the cost of developing new parking areas at railway stations, where the land is already owned by the government, is budgetted at $20,000 per parking space. It would be more at shopping centres where the cost of land has to be included.

    “Peak bitumen” will also increase the costs of building and maintaining parking lots in a way that probably hasn’t yet sunk into the developer community. As the price of oil increases, the price of bitumen increases more rapidly because refineries are set to produce more petrol and diesel relative to bitumen.

    What would happen to the owners of parking stations in central Auckland if PT usage increased to the point where it affected their occupancy levels ? This has happened in CBD of Melbourne, which has about the same number of parking spaces as Auckland (60,000), but the majority of commuters get there by PT. There is now an oversupply of off-street parking in Melbourne, but it still hasn’t caused any retirement of parking capacity. Here is a view from the parking industry:

    1. Thanks Malcolm, I dunno why I bothered to read that Secure Parking council submission for Melbourne City Council, but it was hilarious. Self interest was the centrepiece of it big time. A parking levy to reduce congestion – aaah we don’t want to pay it. The levy’s not working, yet we have an oversupply of parking in the CBD – hey that’s not proof that the levy is working. Those damned potential customers are catching PT instead of braving the horrible traffic and being hostage to our high parking prices.

      I hope the Melbourne City councillors laughed their guts out.

      I hope an increase in PT usage, leading to the marginalising of the parking business case happens in Auckland too.

      1. Bad form to reply to one’s own post, but it’s not some weird kind of schadenfreude that wants me to see businesses fail where I can get out my gloating trumpet, but the wider economic costs of too much parking, and the spatial pollution of yet more motorway lanes being built (very timely today hey?), plus the reduction of utility of overtrafficed city streets, etc, etc, etc, sees me think it is really bad policy to encourage driving to the city.

        But then again its always fantastic to see a boarded up tobacconists, and I can tootle-oo til the cows come home (with live cattle exports they of course never do, but that’s another story).

        Just when I thought I had seen peak-peaks (i.e. the peak of all the peak-whatever declarations) I see peak-bitumen and it’s given two meanings (one peak-parking, and two the cost of bitumen). Very entertaining.

  4. Here’s a view from LA…. Ak is likely to get stupid additional amounts of parking under the new NatPat sanctioned next Sky City violation… this has to be fought where possible. I really hope the council toughens up with this company. Their existing building annexed the surrounding streets then presents a blank wall back. Read below about how these vast underground carparks suck the life out of block after block of the city…

  5. I spent my whole summer holidays going to small NZ towns (e.g., Whakatane, Gisborne) and just marveling at how incredibly huge the carparks outside their supermarkets and malls were. They were never full (even at Christmas) and I spent a lot of time wandering along these big, asphalted landscapes trying to locate the toilet/supermarket/decent cafe. It literally sometimes took several minutes just to walk across the carpark (not a big deal, I know, but people are very sensitive to these things when they’re making sub-conscious decisions about how to travel). The sad thing is that in these small towns there is much less pressure on land and so nobody will ever reflect: “Hey, maybe the fact this carpark never gets full – even on Xmas Eve – means we don’t need to make it so big.” instead they will just sit around grumbling about the fact that this younger generation never walks anywhere – instead they drive to every shop.

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