Free car parking is not a solution for growing Christchurch
Christchurch needs to help itself before the rest of the country will help fund its public transport needs
Transport planner Axel Wilke’s proposal to mitigate the predicted 30% increase in St Albans and inner-city motor vehicle traffic that the Northern Arterial Motorway will generate was recently presented to Christchurch elected members, this resulted in various social media discussions and a radio interview of Axel by Chris Lynch.
On Facebook the full impact of the proposal could not be discussed because so many people ‘hypothesised’ that if car parking was free then access to Christchurch’s CBD would improve. This thinking has a similar appeal as the thought that free food will solve world hunger. It would be true if there weren’t real-world constraints that make increasing food and car parking impossible to provide at a free price.
Logic dictates that free car parking will not increase the amount of car parks on Christchurch’s streets because the amount of on-street parking is spatially fixed. New car parking buildings are incredibly expensive. Providing free car parking is not a costless option. Someone has to pay for it. Unfortunately, social media doesn’t seem to encourage such critical thinking.
The capital costs of car parking buildings is about $million per 20 car parks. Given most cars are single occupancy vehicles a $million car parking building might buy access to that particular part of the city for 30 people at any one point in time i.e less than a full bus and much less than light rail or commuter trains. Car parking is not a scalable solution in a way that public transport is. Car parking is one of the reasons private motor vehicles have less capacity for accessing particular high demand locations compared to public transport and other alternative transport modes like walking, cycling and micro-mobility (Lime scooters currently in Christchurch).
Axel’s proposal acknowledges these real-world constraints and by using trade-offs he proposes a scheme that would have higher overall benefits for the city.
Axel believes Christchurch would benefit from running high frequency buses every 5 minutes at peak and 10 minutes at other times from northern destinations along the Northern Arterial motorway and Cranford Street on dedicated bus lanes to the city. Axel proposes this improved bus service be provided by ECan with some revenue coming from Christchurch City Council increasing the size of its on-street paid car parking area within the Four Avenues and around other high-parking demand areas (e.g. on the streets around the bigger malls and university).
Experience overseas and in New Zealand (Queenstown) shows that expanding paid parking increases Council revenue directly and it encourages a transport mode shift. The mode shift improves fare box revenue. Both factors increase funding for improved bus services. Auckland’s northern motorway bus rapid transit service demonstrates if buses are time-competitive with cars then ridership numbers will increase rapidly, which also increases fare box revenue. The North Shore busway services (NX1 and NX2) grew by a whopping 39.6% in the 12 months from March 2018.
If Christchurch contributes more to public transport, then central government funding from NZTA will increase too. As the above graph shows, Christchurch is underfunded for public transport compared to Wellington and Auckland. The difference in funding is in part explained by both those northern cities having higher fare box revenue ratios.
Hypothesising about free car parking ignores the big picture problem that Greater Christchurch is currenting growing by 90,000 cars and 100,000 people a decade. More people are not in themselves a problem, but more cars are problematic. It is partly an environmental problem because cars cause pollution and partly a spatial problem of how to fit more cars into the same amount of space.
The spatial problem is a problem all cities face. Cities are attractive because they have an absence of space between people, but that attraction needs to be managed in the housing and transport space or the city can undermine itself with congestion, difficulty connecting people and unaffordable housing. The detrimental effects on productivity from inelastic housing I previously examined in a paper titled -The Housing Productivity Story.
Accountancy firm PwC recently published a report Competitive Cities: A Decade of Shifting Fortunes, which compared Australian and New Zealand cities from the perspective of income and cost of living. PwC found New Zealand cities performed poorly mainly due to increasing housing costs reducing disposable income and they should be more competitive to attract the talent they need.
PwC reported that Christchurch had the best New Zealand housing market (of a bad lot), Christchurch being competitive with Australian cities in this aspect, but its rising transport costs were significantly greater than Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.
PwC specific competitiveness challenge to Christchurch is to maintain strong income growth while avoiding rising transport costs. PwC detailed that the median Christchurch household spends $83 more per week now on transport compared to 2008, equal to approximately half of all the real gains in income growth for that period.
Greater Christchurch makes up the bulk of Canterbury’s population (about 75%). Canterbury has an increasing amount of vehicle kilometers traveled per capita. This is a contrast to the decreasing figures for the Auckland and Wellington regions. When Christchurch’s northern and southern motorways (as shown in the first image) are completed over the next few years this will boost vehicle kilometer traveled figures even further. Transport costs for the median household will continue its upward trajectory. Canterbury will be one of the worst regions in New Zealand for transitioning to a zero carbon economy.
Canterbury like Auckland in the next transport capital investment cycle needs to receive more funding per capita for public transport plus walking and cycling improvements. If Christchurch does not receive this investment its growing population will have no choice but to mobilise about the city using 12 square metre steel boxes (cars). This will cause problems. Not all those increasing number of boxes can fit into Christchurch’s existing road spaces. This choice will increasingly add cost and delays as the city grows.
Christchurch itself needs to make the first step to transitioning to a lower cost transport system. Both for the benefit of households and the environment.
If on-street car parking in attractive parts of the city, such as within the Four Aves are free they will be hogged by a few all-day users.
Whereas if car parking is metered to a price so that 20% of parks at any one time are empty, therefore available to be used, then this pricing will give those Christchurch residents who must use a car fairer and faster access to car parking. It is faster because it decreases the search time (and congestion) for drivers looking for car parking.
The increased revenue from car parking can help fund improved bus services as argued by Axel Wilke. This will increase the number of people who can access the parts of the city that the public transport network covers, especially the attractive parts which have limited road and car parking capacity. This is because more people can fit into a bus and buses don’t cause car parking problems.
Public transport can significantly reduce costs for users. Commuting via bus not car from Rangiora to inner-city Christchurch for instance would save a commuter $7500 a year.
Every transport planner looking at growing Christchurch will say the same thing. Christchurch can either adapt or become an unattractive grid-locked mess.