Free Parking is NOT Free Parking

Nothing is for Free (usually)


What do you get when cross a Social Liberal Green MP with a Neo Liberal Think Tank? Usually chaos and a pile of teeth gnashing? Actually no. Social and Neo Lib‘s usually get along pretty well on most aspects. Sure there are always differences on the level of “state intervention” but they wont be at each other throats compared to facing off with Social and Neo Conservatives.

So where am I going with this?

Yesterday in a Stuff business opinion piece, Green MP Julie-Ann Genter and the New Zealand Initiative were pretty much agreeing that we need to allow the freer market to cater for urban marking needs and liberalise our planning laws around parking provisions. Meaning removing parking minimums.

From Stuff

There’s no such thing as free parking 


OPINION: There should be no free parking. The market should decide and it should be user-pays.

These radical ideas were put forth last week at a Law & Economics Association of New Zealand event.

They may seem radical to the general public, but being thinkers at an economic think tank that advocates for market-based solutions, we found them hardly radical or surprising.

What we did find surprising though was who was promoting them: a Green Party MP. It seems that the political spectrum is not so much a straight line but a loop. For some ideas, it’s not a question of right wing or left wing, but a question of right or wrong.

Julie Anne Genter is a proponent of a market-based solution for a problem that is a horribly inefficient waste of valuable land. It is uneconomic, it is anti-environmental, it is free parking.

For the record, Genter isn’t anti-cars per se. She isn’t all about telling people not to drive. She’s more about deregulating so that transport options are economically neutral, and letting the market (ie people) decide.

Right if you have not spilt your coffee or tea yet from that above introduction you will see that it is Green MP Julie-Ann Genter being the one proposing a more liberalised market regime towards parking. Because Ms Genter (and others) believe as I do that our outdated 1950’s planning provisions around parking in urban centres is not only outdated but extremely inefficient in terms of economics and land use, environmentally destructive (social and physical), reinforces auto-dependency and comes with high opportunity cost.

Continuing from Stuff

So what are these regulations? In the 1950s as car ownership sky rocketed, so car owners demanded more parking. City authorities around the world did what they do best: they regulated, mandating a certain number of car parks per development. New Zealand was no exception.

The problem is that while planners are good at working out capacity, they are terrible at managing demand. They based the required number of free car parks on peak demand, effectively assuming that every user, of say a movie theatre, wants to park at the same time. That’s fine for a Saturday evening, but how about 8am on a Monday morning?

As Genter explains “land use is the issue”. Transport systems have three elements – vehicles, rights of way, and terminal capacity. A rail system, for example, has trains (vehicles), tracks (rights of way), and stations (terminal capacity). Car transport has cars, roads, and parking.

Terminal capacity for car transport is land hungry, as Donald Shoup explains in his book The High Cost of Free Parking.

Each car park includes room for manoeuvring the car in and out of the space, bringing the total space requirement for a car to 25 square metres. And here is a staggering fact: the land required to park cars is larger than the land required to transport them.

As a result, in a typical New Zealand city, 25 per cent of urban space is taken up by car parking. That is concrete wasteland that otherwise could be put to more effective economic or social use (or dare I say it, maybe even both)

25% of Urban Space taken up by car parking that is dead for most of the time, most days of the week. If that does not outline inefficient use of our urban land then look no further than Manukau City Centre.

Manukau City Centre Area
Manukau City Centre Area

Click picture for full resolution

Manukau City Centre designed as a CBD for South Auckland in the 1960’s and is morphing into both a Super Metropolitan Centre for wider Auckland and despite what Council things with “official” speak still a CBD for again Southern Auckland. As  Manukau was designed in the 1960’s initially and its legacy continues to live on with past and present planning actions (Unitary Plan and Area Plans are ‘future’ until operative) through the fact car was king above all else. I would gather around 33%-45% of all land in the area is taken up by surface car parking.

The result?

Urban islands, urban fragmentation, and despite a rail link and bus interchange in the area the fact there is so much car parking reinforces the fact car is king.

The consequences of this legacy style of planning illustrates why parking despite being “free” is not actually free. The last part of the Stuff article explains:

It is not so much that high demand for car transportation eats up urban land space for car parks. It is more the other way around. If there are free car parks, it creates a market distortion, skewing the transportation choice towards the gas guzzler.

And the free car parks are not really free at all, because the costs of that land use are hidden and passed on to everyone in one way or another. If you drive to the movie theatre and park for “free” the cost of parking is built into your movie ticket.

Actually, the cost for all those empty car parks at the movie theatre car park at 8am on Monday and most of the rest of the week, are also built into your movie ticket. And if you choose to walk to the movie theatre, you too pay for those parks in your ticket.

The consequence of council mandated minimum parking requirements is that it doesn’t give people the choice to not pay for parking.

As Shoup says “When the cost of parking is hidden in the price of other goods and services, no one can pay less for parking by using less of it”.

The distorted market increases traffic congestion and environmental costs, and few would argue that concrete spaghetti jungles are aesthetically pleasing.

It stifles economic development, raising the cost for developers to provide “free” parks that are eventually passed on to the consumer in one way or another anyway.

Auckland and Wellington have already ended mandatory free parking in the city centres. It’s one of those magic ideas that seems to satisfy developers, economists, environmentalists, and the left and right alike.

Rose Patterson is a research fellow at the New Zealand Initiative.


As noted by both Rose Patterson and Julie-Ann Genter the market has been distorted heavily in regards to our parking regulations from last century. In fact you could say heavy authoritative intervention via the planning regulations is in play.

Also mentioned in the opinion piece and by me in the beginning of this post there is opportunity costs to large amounts surface parking. The opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the best alternative forgone. So if we look at Manukau City Centre the opportunity cost of all that parking is either more open spaces or more retail, office and apartment buildings. And yes someone like Westfield, its retailers and the theatres in the mall have taken into account that opportunity cost from all that surface parking and would have it built into their prices of their goods and services – that we consumers pay for!

Furthermore parking minimums do come at a cost to developers which they pass in the end back to the consumer. Rather than say 100 apartments and 50 retail outlets if there were no parking minimums, the developer due to parking minimums might be forces to reduce that development by half so they can provide the minimum amount of car parks (which will always be under utilised) due to planning rules.

At the end of the day if the public and active transport provisions are good in the said urban area then parking minimums are not needed at all. Let the developer and the free market decide what they think is best. They want best returns possible at the end of the day and that can mean they might want more building and less surface parking on their piece of land for the best return. And that in the grand scheme of things can be beneficial towards the consumer with what would be otherwise high-end opportunity costs is not passed back to the consumer – so lower prices.

Back to Manukau City Centre

As seen in the picture above Manukau City Centre is fragmented from a 1960’s obsolete pro-car planning policy that has led to an inefficient use of land through all that surface parking. All that free surface parking comes with a high opportunity cost of developers and owners not able to better utilise the land for something more economic. This high opportunity cost from all this free parking is eventually passed onto the consumer through the end price of goods and services.

The situation on redeveloping Manukau out of its 1960’s auto-dependent path is mixed depending which way you look.

If we look towards the Auckland Council Southern Initiative lauded much by Mayor Len Brown then either you are looking at an information black hole (no website, no information beyond what was written in 2010 on the Council website, no Facebook page and no Twitter handle. But there was an office opened for the Southern Initiative yesterday in Manukau by the mayor in front of “representatives” and delegates. Sure – can’t find the press release or a news article on it so was any media present and if not then sorry but expect hostilities towards the Southern Initiative) or really not much happening apart from office openings and elected Councillors and Local Board members not showing up to S.I meeting (rant over)s.  

If we take a look at some concept work I drew up for Manukau then there might just be that ray of sunshine to bring the place forward. Tomorrow (Thursday) I give a presentation that will cover looking at bring Manukau into the 21st Century.

You can see the presentation booklet in the embed below:

Improving public and active transport links into and within Manukau City Centre (a Metropolitan Centre) have to be factored in if we don’t want to flood the place (as it is) with a sea of cars and surface car parks.

Already Auckland Transport are improving the bus routes and frequencies in South Auckland which will go some way in relieving the roads of traffic congestion. Rail wise we have a bit of work to do with continued pressure being applied to Auckland Transport to build the Manukau Rail South Link. This link would allow direct services from Pukekohe, (Paerata, Drury) Papakura, (Glenora Road), Takanini, Manurewa and Homai into Manukau City Centre rather than having to transfer at Puhinui and backtrack heading south from the north into Manukau.

Frequencies suggested were 20 minutes all day, seven days week using a EMU-3 car set (375 passenger capacity). Potentially that means moving 1,125 people per hour to and from Manukau Station. Double it if EMU-6 cars are needed. I would say that is taking off anywhere from 288 cars (288 cars per full EMU-3 car holding 375 passengers) off the roads and car parks from people coming in from the south into Manukau. Of course you have people coming in from the north and even the east like Botany. Speaking of Botany the sky-train proposal from Manukau to Botany could shuttle another 2,250 people an hour potentially between the two shopping sites.

Overall  Sky Train idea
Overall Sky Train idea

Having fast, efficient and accessible public transportation (and active as well) does allow car parks to be freed up for those who might need it still. It also allows when coupled with better liberalised planning regulations allow owners and developers to redevelop the area into more economically productive uses (which includes open plazas and parks).

Using the concept drawing and a 3D mock up below

Manukau Mall Redevelopment Context MK1
Manukau Mall Redevelopment Context MK1

The first concept drawing of the mall area in Manukau. With public transportation links improved and the stitching up of the urban fabric in the wider Manukau area, the potential in redeveloping the land consumed by surface car parking increases.

Thus things like a town centre, open park, commercial and residential complexes are built surrounding the focal point – the mall. What happens to all the car parks? They go underground with the new developments and parks built over the top. Win-win-win for all. Win for the developer/owner as they get to redevelop the land to maximise the best returns possible. Win for developer and the consumer as there are still car parks available following the liberal choice model (no one said anything about banning the car). Win for the consumer not only as the opportunity cost has been lowered (so lower end prices) through the developer/owner being able to get the most of their land but also expanded opportunities through more commercial and residential complexes coupled with amenities like parks  .

The Manukau Interchange Development MK3 is a more refined version of turning a surface car park into a more usable mixed use space.

Top View of Manukau MK3
Top View of Manukau MK3

Parking Minimums; they need to get off our planning books and the market to be allowed to decide. It also means we need to be on the ball with the full suite of transport options whether that be the car, bicycle, train, walking or bus.

Nice opinion piece on the Stuff site and something I agree with full heartedly