Simon Wilson: Time to eliminate company car parks

OPINION:

Some people need a car park at work. This column is not about them. But most people who have a company car park don’t need one.

Eliminating those car parks in the central city is possibly the single biggest thing we could do in isthmus Auckland to reduce carbon emissions. It would also hasten the provision of more public transport and safe cycle lanes, and provide an enormous breath of life for the struggling inner city.

Before you blow a proverbial gasket, check this out, from the annual report of a large company that recently moved to a new building:

“As part of the move we no longer provided staff car parks, removed company cars from salary packages and replaced our corporate car fleet with an EV car-sharing start-up. In their place we provided a 25 per cent subsidy for public transport, car-pool hubs and a free shuttle service, and with top-end changing facilities to encourage staff to ride, run or walk to work. Our people loved it.”

Denmark? Somewhere Dutch, perhaps? People keep telling me this sort of thing only works when the city is flat and there’s “excellent public transport”, or it doesn’t rain, or something. Some place where it’s not considered necessary to wear a car as a raincoat.

Actually, it’s Auckland. The company is Genesis Energy, whose 485 head office staff have moved to a new Green Star 6 building in the Wynyard Quarter.

Genesis says it has seen “a 50 per cent increase in people taking public transport or using EVs, a 102 per cent increase in biking, running, walking or e-scootering to work, 81 per cent of staff have signed up to the public transport subsidy and there are 984 less carbon contributing trips each week (petrol, diesel, motorbike), a reduction of 71 per cent”.

The public transport subsidy is a subsidised HOP card; the bike lock-up includes charging stations for e-bikes. CEO Marc England leads from the front: he rides to work or catches the bus.

You know who else has done this? Auckland Transport (AT), with 2000 staff located just a couple of blocks away from Genesis and in a few small hubs around the larger city.

“There is no staff parking at any of the locations,” says AT spokesman Mark Hannan. It does have fleet parking because some AT staff need to drive, and there is “a handful” of guest parks. Shane Ellison, AT’s chief executive, either walks to work or catches a bus.

Meanwhile, outside Grey Lynn School, AT has painted designs on the road and put out plastic markers to slow the traffic. Some parking spots that were right outside the school gates have been removed. And some parents are upset.

The school has had walking buses for a long time and many of the families totally understand the need for less driving. But others don’t.

They drive the kids to school because it’s conveniently on the way to work. And they drive to work because it’s a convenient way of getting the kids to school.

Can we snap that?

It’s not just a Grey Lynn issue. A third of all car trips in New Zealand, according to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, are less than 2km long. Just 15 years ago, it was a sixth.

We’ve started using our cars for journeys we used to do in other ways. To the dairy and the local shops. To visit mates nearby. To the playground or the local beach. To the school. It’s called car dependency.

Over half of all trips are less than 5km. A lot of that is people driving from the inner suburbs: Parnell, Remuera, Epsom, Mt Eden, Balmoral, Sandringham, Mt Albert, Pt Chev, Herne Bay, Ponsonby. People driving to work and to university.

Those suburbs have the best public transport in the city. But people drive because it’s easier. Why is it easier? Because they have somewhere to park.

The question isn’t “why don’t we get rid of central-city company car parks?” In Auckland, 40 per cent of emissions are from transport and pretty soon we’ll have to take all sorts of steps to reduce that.

The question is: Why don’t we do it now? It’s a better option for reducing car use than congestion charging, because it’s not regressive and it’s more likely to change behaviour.

But what about the people who need a company parking spot? Easy: Let them have one. Women who work at night. Shift workers with no other option but to drive. People with mobility issues. Also, people who really do need their own car during work hours.

Although, as the Genesis example suggests, that doesn’t have to include people who could use a pool car (EV, please), ride an e-bike or e-scooter, catch a bus or walk. The number of people who need their own place to park in town is far smaller than you might think.

So why don’t we stop companies from providing all but the necessary few? Bad policy is designed around the needs of the exceptions. Good policy is made for the general good – no “free” parking – with exceptions worked out as needed.

And just imagine: with much greater demand for public transport and safe cycling, we’d get a lot more of those things.

How do we do this? Get your own company to be like Genesis? A straight-out ban? What about a rates differential? What’s the best way to penalise companies that cost the city and its citizens, because they won’t do their bit to help reduce transport emissions and congestion?

It’s about dislocating our car dependency. It’s about making it a better choice to leave the car at home.

Also in the mix are a bunch of other popular favourites: more expensive public car parking, more traffic-calming measures, more priority for pedestrians at the lights, more streets where cars aren’t allowed at all.

Fewer car parks right outside where you want to go, because those spots make you think driving is the best way to go there.

Here’s something else that’s happened recently: Karangahape Rd has recorded a 25.9 per cent growth in consumer spending. The highest of any of the 66 business districts in the city.

Michael Richardson, manager of the local business association, puts that down to the newly remade streetscape, featuring dedicated bike lanes and less on-street parking, along with some strong promotional work.

Covid aside, K Rd is thriving, with an explosion of new shops, cafes and restaurants. Richardson expects it to bounce back quickly when the current Covid restrictions end.

Are the property owners of the central city paying attention to any of this?

When Genesis moved from its old headquarters on Great South Rd it did not choose the middle of town. Why would it, when few Queen St landlords seem committed to the kind of environment corporates are now seeking? In particular, that’s green buildings and pedestrian-focused public space.

The Queen St precinct south of Customs St is losing office workers because corporates have better places to go. Those office workers are the most viable source of customers still available to retailers.

And it is not attracting vibrant new retailers, because the retailers also have better places to go.

Yet the landlords of Queen St and their lobbyists keep complaining about roadworks and the loss of car parks. Will they ever understand the potential of a city centre that is full of people who don’t drive to work? Will they ever accept that they should be helping to make that happen?

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