I noted a few posts back that I’m reading the book “Edge Cities: life on the new frontier” by Joel Garreau, at the moment. The book is broken up into chapters that focus on a particular place, although within each chapter is a wide variety of information about how edge cities function, why they exist and details on particular examples of them.

Of particular interest in the chapter on Detroit is an explanation of how key a role parking plays in the structure and shape of edge cities. In fact, parking seems to be the driver for pretty much everything about how the Edge City is shaped and how it functions – interesting to note when you consider how planning generally ignores parking to a large degree (aside from making stupid rules that are backed by little logic).

The developer’s rule of thumb is that in Edge City, there must be one parking space per every worker. Because one employee uses about 250 square feet of work space and each car requires four hundred square feet to be parked, there has to be about one and a half times as much space to park the cars as there is to nurture the drivers.

If the developer does not provide that much parking, he will have grave difficulty getting bank financing. His project will not be judged commercially viable. In fact, in many Edge City jurisdictions, the developer is required by law to provide that much parking. The lawmakers don’t’ want people to park on streets and lawns, either. Their experience, too, has led them to believe that one worker will equal one parking space.

Essentially, with the ‘everyone will drive to work and therefore everyone needs a parking space’ motto that defines the Edge City (and Auckland’s parking policies) we find ourselves in the rather bizarre situation of providing 50% more space to the storage of vehicles than we provide for the actual undertaking of economic activity which occurs within these places. The ratios seem to hold true in recently developed commercial centres in Auckland, like Manukau, Botany Town Centre and Albany. In these places, parking is the dominant urban feature – presumably because both our planning rules have required it to be and there is the feeling that each worker must be provided with a parking space (for retail areas, I’m guessing this is translated into each shopper).

Given the assumptions above, if we provide parking through multi-level structures or underground, we can increase our densities – but this comes at a pretty high cost. Auckland Transport is effectively trying out this approach in Manukau, by building parking structures to encourage the freeing up of surface parking for development – at an enormous cost.

The book continues:

…the cheapest option a developer has is this. Build a one-story building. Let it cover 40 percent of the ground. That leaves 60 percent of the land to be covered with a simple parking lot. No grass or trees or sidewalks. But the right ratios at the least expense. Which explains why an awful lot of cheap development looks the way it does.

This kind of construction guarantees that all buildings and people will be about as far away from each other as physically possible, surrounded by fields of asphalt. This in turn guarantees that the area so built will be an aesthetic and functional sump.

Places like Westgate, Smales Farm, Apollo Drive (near Constellation Drive) as well as the usual suspects listed above come to mind when you read out this description. The developers have simply followed the parking requirements and created what makes most financial sense. All other planning rules have become effectively irrelevant and you end up with this:

But not every Edge City follows this simple formula – cheapest isn’t always best:

That level of development is only the cheapest kind, not necessarily the most profitable. Buildings laid out like that do not command much rent. If the land in that Edge City is expensive, and the developer puts a small, cheap building on it, he will go bankrupt.

So he may decide he needs to bring in more revenue. To do that, he would want to build more office space on the land. This would require him to make his building wider or taller or both.

This sounds easy, but it present a serious problem. More building kicks all his cost calculations into a new orbit. He needs more parking to match the increased amount of office space. But he has run out of land. Therefore, he must build a multilevel parking “structure”. That will cost more than twice as much per parking space as his initial calculations. That levitates his cost, which requires that he build his building larger still – in order to break even. This, in turn, requires more parking, and so the spiral goes.

What all of this means is that to get a floor-area-ratio (FAR) of more than 0.4 (which, in urban areas and particularly town centres, is very low) life gets really tricky for developers if they are reliant on providing every single person who travels to the area with a dedicated parking space. Look at most of the new retail and office areas of Auckland and you can see the effect of this: more space dedicated to storing cars than to actual buildings. Relatively low employment densities. Poor agglomeration economics. And so forth.

The book doesn’t make this conclusion, but I think that the numbers above highlight the importance of improving public transport – so we can grow our employment numbers and density without ending up in the ugly spiral of parking costs and building size. If we can get more and more people to town centres via ways other than driving, perhaps the biggest benefit we create is through the freeing up of land for more productive uses than car storage. Of course our parking rules need to change as well, because even now we generally force an over-provision of parking (partly by requiring each individual use to provide for its own parking requirement and not allowing the sharing of facilities).

I wonder if the economic benefit of reduced land requirement for parking is measured in the cost-benefit analysis of public transport projects? Similarly, one wonders whether the economic disbenefit of roading projects which encourage more people to drive to an area and park in it, are captured. With parking at the crossroads between land-use and transport policies, it seems to be utterly critical in shaping our urban form.

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  1. I think AT’s intention with the Manukau Car park as well as the New Lynn to free up land for development one is logical but I suspect it will only actually work if at the same time that they open that the parking on the land that they are meant to free up is closed off. Otherwise all that would happen is that over time both the new carparking building and the existing ground level carparks will just fill up making it almost impossible to ever remove

    1. If you read through Auckland Transport’s media release about the Manukau carpark it says this:

      “The lack of parking for businesses has been a problem for many years and is constraining development in the city centre. The vast majority of parking in Manukau city centre is short term for the Westfield shopping centre.

      “The car park is in a strategic location and future development of the site will attract a mixed use of commercial and retail business to the area.

      Not sure about you Matt, but that doesn’t fill me with much hope.

      1. No I don’t have much hope either, if there were plans to consolidate the parking I feel we would have heard about it already.

      2. Oodles of car-parking enables a lovely blend of muffler shops and panelbeating workshops. That’s the type of mixed-use development that Manukau aims to attract.

      3. One wonders why they couldn’t sit on this for a year or three until the new train station and bus interchange is opened and all the bus routes of that quarter of Auckland are redirected there. We have AT claiming (quite rightly I suppose) that Manukau station will be second only to Britomart in passenger numbers, and the same thing could probably be said for the new bus interchange.

        Once that is complete they might find that ‘lack of parking’ is no longer synonymous with ‘lack of transport accessibility’, and the carpark site might be better used for an office tower, apartment block or some other higher value use.

  2. Yup. You got it. Except for one possible thing. The way the conversation now works is this. Plan A is to accommodate 20th-century individual transportation — the automobile. People like that because they put an extremely high value on individual freedom — being able to live in one place, work in another place, and play in a third place, in unlimited combination. (Remember, this exercise is all about understanding the culture and values reflected in what we build. It is only marginally about concrete and asphalt.) Those who hate Plan A default to Plan B — 19th-century mass transportation — because they see it as the only alternative. Of course, that’s a hard sell because by definition, it’s “mass.” It takes you where somebody else wants to take you, when somebody else wants to take you, and how somebody else wants to take you. Only under very special circumstances (San Francisco cable cars, e.g.) will people love that.

    Here’s what you need to think about. If both Plans A and B obviously suck, what does Plan C look like? There has to be a Plan C. I suspect, this being the 21st century, it involves software. If you could easily and quickly whistle up a shared ride using your smart phone, the world would move. If we could just fill 10 percent of all the passenger seats in every automobile, we’d never have a traffic jam again. That’s how much infrastructure oversupply we’ve already built.

    1. Thanks for coming back and commenting again Joel.

      I think you’re lumping together all public transport (transit) options together a bit too much here – and I note the book is fairly dismissive of transit generally, which I feel is disappointing (not surprisingly on a blog like this).

      It’s a bit of a stretch to call systems like Vancouver’s skytrain, Hong Kong’s MTR or Washington DC’s Metro “19th century mass transportation”. All (and many many many other systems around the world) have been exceedingly successful, and cities in most parts of the world are now investing more heavily in this “19th century mass transportation” than they have for… well probably since the 19th century. Even that poster-child Edge City, Tysons Corner, is being linked into the DC Metro system.

      There are a lot of posts in places like this blog, and at http://www.humantransit.org (and many many other blogs) which describe how you can make public transit work in a vast variety of urban environments. And, just like car-pooling (which unlike transit has been in decline for a the past few decades) you don’t need everyone to shift to catching the bus or train to make a real difference.

    2. Hi Joel, I think to say public transport takes you where when and how someone else wants to take you is simply wrong. I choose to take a bus to my destination and then walk my way to work. If the frequency is high enough ( <10 or so minutes ) I can choose when I want to make that trip (and I do since I live on Dominion Road). As for how I make the trip, this can be provided for my bike lanes, footpaths and general traffic lanes. All being perfect, I would like to drive right to my desk on the fifth floor of the building I work in, with a car park right next to my workspace. It is impossible to extend this luxury to all members of the population (especially if they work in high-rises). Therefore, even if I drove, I would have to park at the building down the street and walk a distance to my desk. It's a variety of options with the costs being adequately charged that makes transport work well in a city, whether that involves '19th Century transportation' or '20th Century transportation' or even the transportation of our ancestors, walking. Categorising different modes into centuries will only lead to unfair dismissal of different options.

      It is perhaps useful to think of public transport as a moving pavement which allows you to 'walk' around a city faster rather than picturing it as a system that forces you to do things that you don't want to do, when you don't want to do it.

  3. To be fair to Smales Farm, a lot of current parking (notably the gravel areas next to TelstraClear and Air New Zealand) is temporary and will eventually have office buildings on it. When I worked at TelstraClear there was consternation when the plans were circulated – “But where will we park?”. The official response seemed to be “Not our problem”. Seemed fair enough, given that the busway station was just about to open at the time.

  4. One point that seems to have been missed is that the councils are building these carparks for the benefit of businesses. Do the councils actually own these areas and therefore are investing as property developers or is this a ratepayer subsidy to commercial developers?

    Innovative public transport is as much about innovative services as it is about innovative technology. A huge proportion of Christchurch’s bus passenger growth over the last dozen years was due to the innovative Orbiter service meets the needs of high school students and thus reduced their dependence on the family taxi. That service connected the university and the biggest high schools with most of the council recreation and aquatic centres and with the biggest shopping malls.

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