$3 per day – Why is parking at the University of Canterbury so cheap, and why should it matter to everyone else?

This is a guest post from Joseph Corbett-Davies and Patrick Kearney.

In July The Spinoff published a piece on parking at the University of Canterbury that caught our attention. The article criticizes the uni’s decision to increase the price of a year-long parking permit to $475 for students and $1000 for staff. This change will mean students pay $3.17 per day to rent a car park during the academic year.

We wanted to know if, as the university claims, this is a fair price to cover the costs of construction, maintenance, and operation of these parks.

It turns out parking isn’t cheap. Reports from the university show that even temporary gravel car parks cost about $2000 per space, while paved parking spaces are typically $3000 each and need replacing every 15 years – so it’s $200 a year just to cover construction. Adding in typical maintenance, enforcement, and administration costs  would easily double that figure.

Given that until as recently as five years ago a student permit cost just $92 – and until 2003 it was free(!) – it’s fair to say that the construction and operating costs of the current parking infrastructure have yet to be recovered by the university, and probably won’t be until well into the future. In the meantime, this funding gap is plugged using tuition fees paid by all students, regardless of whether they park at uni or not.

And all this is ignoring the biggest contributor to parking cost: land. A car park plus access and manoeuvring space takes up about 28 square metres, so a parking space in Ilam covers land worth about $10,000, according to council valuations. It is easy to dismiss this as irrelevant—the university already owns the land, after all—but this is space that could be put to any number of valuable uses: academic buildings, student accommodation, or green space to be enjoyed by everyone.

The article mentions how hard it is to find a park on campus in the middle of the day. It could be a lot worse. Suppose the University went back to 2003 prices of $40 a permit. Two things would happen. There would be an extreme parking shortage—at that price everyone would drive to uni and you would have to arrive hellishly early to actually get a space, making life very difficult for those with childcare responsibilities or long commutes. Then, to cover the shortfall in revenue, the university (read: all students) would be forced to chip in to meet the ongoing costs of supplying parking. This financial burden would fall disproportionately on those who can’t afford a car, or who are otherwise unwilling or unable to drive.

Why is the parking situation at UC important to everyone else? Because this pattern of artificially cheap (to use) parking is repeated throughout our society, with massive hidden costs.

Think about a normal daily routine: dropping kids to school, driving to work, picking up groceries, then going out for dinner. You can go the whole day and not once pay directly for parking -but that doesn’t mean it’s free.

To quote Donald Shoup, a UCLA academic who has studied parking in excruciating detail (his magnum opus on the subject runs past 700 pages):

“We don’t pay for parking in our role as motorists, but in all our other roles—as consumers, investors, workers, residents, and taxpayers—we pay a high price.”

Free (or cheap) parking is a pernicious transfer of resources from everyone in society to drivers. Since cheap parking means motorists don’t pay for the full cost of driving a car, driving is cheaper and more convenient than alternatives, causing a predictable increase in congestion, pollution, and urban sprawl.

Almost everywhere, huge amounts of parking are actually mandated by law, as a result of minimum parking requirements laid out by city councils. These rules are often bizarre and arbitrary. According to the Christchurch District Plan, a swimming pool must have one parking space per 10m2 of pool area, while a bar is required to have a car park roughly three times as large as its floor area (which seems slightly messed up for a number of reasons). Rules like this are enforced by councils across New Zealand, resulting in cities that sprawl outwards until using a car becomes almost essential to get around.

Under the same district plan, UC will have to build over a thousand new car parks by 2023 — a construction project that is likely to cost around $3m and pave over $10m worth of land. It’s not hard to imagine better uses of money and resources for a university that last year faced a $5.7m deficit.

If everyone expects parking to be free or at least cheap, then parking charges can feel like an unfair tax. The reality is the opposite: subsidised parking is a tax on everyone – workers, renters, students, ratepayers – for the sole benefit of private motorists.

The good news is that we are beginning to see the mistakes of the past being undone, as institutions like UC reduce parking subsidies, and urban centres (slowly) dial back or eliminate parking requirements. If this is paired with increased investment in sustainable and equitable transportation alternatives, the result will be cities that are fairer, cheaper, more compact, and quicker to get around. It will probably even be easier to find a park — you just might have to pay for it.

7 thoughts on “$3 per day – Why is parking at the University of Canterbury so cheap, and why should it matter to everyone else?

  1. We should encourage CCC to ditch the minimum parking requirements for the university from the District Plan. This is ridiculous. Studying is too expensive anyway and forcing the university to provide even more parking is hardly going to get us closer to preventing climate change!

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    1. When I was at Canterbury, and involved with the University’s Transport Working Group, the genesis of the group back in around 2000 was because of the likely extra car parking requirements of the projected growth in student numbers. To strictly adhere to the District Plan requirements would have meant even more of the campus asphalted, or some very costly parking buildings. By introducing parking charges and developing a strategy for incentivising other travel modes (bus, bike, walk, carpool), the aim was to demonstrate to Council that we had sufficient travel demand management initiatives in place to not warrant the extra parking.

      Ideally the money earned from parking revenue (once implementation/operation costs of parking were taken out) would be ring-fenced for costs towards these sustainable trpt initiatives (e.g. bus card topups, more bike racks). Unfortunately the uni’s accounting system couldn’t easily do that; essentially it all had to end up in the same general pool of money and then you had to rely on university not spending it on other things… There was also a tricky tension between forcing non-paying car parkers onto the surrounding streets and trying to keep the neighbours happy.

      Nevertheless, the uni did make considerable progress towards encouraging more use of other modes (although the earthquakes did “break” that progress somewhat); external initiatives like the development of the Uni-Cycle route are certainly helping too.

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