Paying for sex, Seinfeld and the tyranny of … Free Parking

 

Free Parking: sounds like some kind of recreational creative picnic sport

 

He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world?
It is people! It is people! It is people!

In the ‘Good Living’ supplement as part of filthy Christchurch rag The Press the other week was an interesting article on international parking guru Donald Shoup.

Headlined, in one of those sub-editor pun wet dream moments, as ‘Free parking’s true toll’ (I can’t hyperlink to it as it’s pay-to-view only, courtesy of unFairfax so not much point and anyway I’m going to discuss the thing intelligently myself.  And you can visit Mr Shoup’s website above, which is far more useful) the article is reprinted from the Los Angeles Times.  Not sure why I’m telling you that but when I get my serious blog voice on it feels proper to start acknowledging sources.  Actually, one should always acknowledge sources.  Anyway…

Why I’m writing about this is that Donald Shoup struck me as someone who fully grasps the double-edged sword of convenience, right way round of course.  He also gets the counter-intuitive concept of how the most convenient option is often the least helpful.  He’s talking about car parking and the problems it presents to town planning and designing for urban revitalisation.

Now for those of you in danger of nodding off at this stage in a riveting post about parking cars and wondering when the hookers are getting here.  Stay with me.

I’m not sure what I like more about Mr Shoup – being 72 and still riding a bike everywhere or the fact he quotes Seinfeld to illustrate his ideas.  Here’s where we get to paying for sex.  Shoup quotes George Costanza from Seinfeld who likened using a car park building to “going to a prostitute”.

“Why should I pay when, if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?”

This line of thinking, in the context of parking, leads to people driving around the block several times waiting for that magical parking space right outside their destination, expending time and fuel in the process.  “Maybe if I go round once more there’ll be a free one this time!”  Shoup argues that when street parking is free or inexpensive as is the case in many towns and cities, that demand soon outstrips supply and people cruising for parks waste time and fuel polluting the air and congesting the streets.  My pet hate is the slow cruise along the line of parked cars, holding up the flow of traffic while searching for a space, usually without the use of indication.  Oh yeah, baby…

Is that one? No... Oh! There! No...

Efforts to revitalise town centres often focus on parking – more of it and cheaper please.  This is very pertinent in Christchurch, a car-centric city.  The central city is constantly under threat from the proliferation of suburban malls with their thousand free car parks above, below and around their monolithic edifices.  These places are veritable Cathedrals of Convenience.  Central city retailers and the City Council are forever racking their brains about how to stop things falling apart, the centre cannot hold etc. etc.  This inevitably rolls around to the retailers bleating at the Council about cars and parking i.e. more and cheaper please.  They even managed to convince the Council (despite international research and evidence to the contrary) to allow cars through previously pedestrian-only inner city malls.  S’funny really, when what the shops really want is more people inside them not cars cruising past looking for parks.

After ‘The Event’ of September 4th last year, there was a considerable drop in the numbers of people visiting the central city.  Not surprising really, even after the cordoned off ‘exclusion zone’ and curfew was lifted, every available space in the media was taken up with images of the ‘catastrophic destruction’ in the central city.  After all a fallen down old building makes for a better lead image or back-drop when doing a live news report than the 50 other ones and entire suburbs behind it that are untouched.  No wonder people were jittery about going there – everything was apt to fall on their heads.  Except for the 99.9% of buildings that were not.  Leading up to Christmas this had retailers crying into their lattes with expected crashing sales figures.  The City Council responded with making all street parking free for a couple of weeks following the major quake and then over the Christmas build-up giving the first 2 hours free in all buildings and street parking.  To me this didn’t seem to make much difference – I noted a lot less cars around and plenty of parking spaces.  I’d wager it wasn’t the cost of parking keeping people away from town.

Est celui-là là ? Non... Oh! La? Non...

Shoup’s work harmonises with plenty of international research that demonstrates the more spaces you open up to cars (either driving or parking) then cars just fill them up again.  It’s just like those ‘awesome’ tax cuts that bribed a change of government in NZ– how much are you noticing that extra $15 dollars per week even a month after you start getting it?  You simply expand your living to absorb the extra ‘dollarspace’.  Hopeless.  No disrespect to the many economist readers of ToC but tax cuts do NOT improve and enhance our quality of life.  Just as cars do not revitalise cities – people do.  He tangata, he tangata, he tangata!

Speaking as someone guilty (now reformed) of cruising around looking for free parking, hoping to hit that little jackpot, I get what Donald Shoup is talking about.  He advocates for ‘fair-market’ pricing on street parking and making Park & Ride and various other options cheaper and more attractive.  Then using the revenue from parking directly for enhancing and revitalising the public space of central cities.  Encourage more walking, cycling and other forms of Active Transport.

And I’d throw in to the mix perhaps not allowing any more soul-destroying suburban malls to be built.  The tyranny of convenience eh?  But that’s another post all in itself.

And by the way, there is no such thing as the Free Parking jackpot in Monopoly.  Look it up.

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I Feel Your Pain

Now here’s a thing.

Last week there was a press release and subsequent coverage in NZ newspapers (maybe on tele too but I don’t know cos I don’t have one) about a study and its results.  Named the ‘Commuter Pain Study’ – that in itself should give you an idea of the contents and import of this piece of research – surveying 8,192 motorists in 20 cities on six continents.  Apart from telling us what we probably already knew it has gone a step further and ranked international cities according to an ‘index’.  In NZ the survey covered 937 respondents aged 18-64 years distributed between Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.  The main points for Aotearoa that the study concluded with were:

– Almost three-quarters of NZ commuters use a car alone to get to work

I don't think this is the way to the beach, man.

– Resulting traffic congestion causing significant stress impacting health and productivity

– Increasing public transportation key to reducing stress caused by commuting

When it came to other solutions the study also had some facts:

Those commuters surveyed recognise that there is significant potential to reduce travel stress by improving public transportation (45 per cent), providing accurate and timely road conditions information (28 per cent) and introducing greater flexibility to work from home (29 per cent).

Now, the study which was commissioned by IBM and is more properly known as the IBM Global Commuter Pain Study also went as far as to say in the media release:

across all New Zealand cities drivers felt that much of this stress could be reduced by the greater use of technology in the management of traffic flows, sophisticated analytics of transport systems…

They don’t offer any actual data on how many or how they reached this conclusion and it didn’t seem to be in the survey index but I wonder if IBM have one or two ideas that might help?  But that’s another story…

Do NOT miss your exit...

Vested interests aside, it seems that the survey revealed some telling information about NZers dependence on private cars for commuting.  According to the study, 80 percent of drivers find aspects of their commute frustrating.  At least a quarter of respondents believe that traffic has negatively affected their health although this number varied regionally.

In the article based on this media release published by The Press (Christchurch) they immediately went out to get some vox pops on the findings.  Even though Christchurch has a public transport system that I would rate as very good several ‘people on the street’ described the buses as ‘just gross’ or unsatisfactory in a number of ways, therefore they continued to use their car to commute.  Apparently sitting in traffic literally idling money away, pumping poisonous gases into the air, and ‘negatively affecting their health’ by being a solo occupant of a motor car is preferable.

I feel like pointing out to those ‘buses are gross’ people that by commuting on the bus I not only save money, but I don’t have to find parking, I get to read or talk to friends, or do this, or experience this.

The study pointed out that only 10 per cent of NZers car-pool regularly.  Bizarre – if we doubled that we’d significantly reduce the cars on the road during the commute rush hours as well as halve (or better) our individual fuel and parking costs.  Auckland’s traffic problems would be majorly improved overnight.  And almost everyone’s wellbeing could be improved.

 

Among those who believe that traffic has negatively affected their health, increased stress (77 per cent) and anger (41 per cent) are the primary symptoms.  As many as 28 per cent of drivers believe that traffic has negatively affected their performance at work, university or school.

Many commuters feel that if their daily commute was reduced there are many other things they would do with their time including exercise (51 per cent), spend time with family (48 per cent) or sleep (30 per cent).

All that stress and anger and lost productivity – when you’d rather be exercising (playing), spending time with family & whanau (playing) or ‘sleeping’ (playing).  And it’s self-inflicted.

You poor things.

The Long, Hard Goodbye – Part II

… So now there is an empty space outside our house where the car used to be.

No, the earth hasn’t opened up and swallowed it as has happened elsewhere in Christchurch.

We’ve finally done it.  The last apron string has been cut and the temptation removed.  The Peej is gone.

I hadn’t actually driven her since that fateful day of cheating that seems so long ago.  It has actually been quite easy not to just jump in the car and head off for Indian takeaways these past few months.  Maybe because I forgot to regularly start her and the battery has died.  Oh well.  Just goes to show I’m telling the truth.

Since then we have used a car on a couple of occasions – once when one of our lovely friends went away for a week (most of the time it sat outside our house) and the other day when the gas bottles finally ran out.  At night. As we were cooking.  As they do.  And a lesson for our future selves – hardly anywhere refills gas bottles at night.

But sometime, a little over a week ago, a neigbour from round the corner asked about the car.  A couple more conversations and the next thing I was filling out change of ownership papers and taking my thirty pieces of silver (and some wild pork).  Someone who could do the repair work themselves was going to get a great little car.  She was the Bobbin’s first car and she had the rusks and flapjack crumbs to prove it.  We’ll miss her.

Oh well, we’re up to 4 months of living car free and she’s off to a new life with 14 pig dogs and a hunter.  She should probably start a blog of her own.

Mmmm, wild pork…

Falling back on the wagon or Backsliding or I only smoke when I drink

Dirty rotten cheating and my just desserts.

Go on, one last hit.

One last run in the car to do a few errands across town.  And it was raining too.  Hmmm, excuses are easy to come up with and no-one’s gonna quibble over needing to travel to various distant destinations around the city before starting work  in order to make enough money to house, feed and clothe my young family.  Are they?

So, that settled, I headed off in the Peej to perform said errands.  Namely returning the hired baby car seat to Plunket – shan’t be needing that anymore – and dropping off some of Elizabeth’s famous home-baked chocolate brownie to our amazing and dedicated travel agent John who got us through our volcanic blues.

This required driving through the rain around the city all the while acutely aware that this could be the last time I drive Peej.  I really enjoyed it.  I love driving, dammit and there’s nothing so satisfying as driving in a warm, dry car while the rain lashes down outside, elbowed aside by the Peej’s wipers.  I’ll give this to her, she doesn’t leak.

Arriving at work I realised I needed to park Peej off the road as the last thing we need is a parting gift from the parking wardens to the tune of $200 for not displaying a current WOF sticker.  I snaffled one of the last two parks in the $6 all-day park near my office (another expense we can kiss goodbye to along with the car seat!)

All day sitting at my desk looking out at the wild weather in the beautiful autumnal park I work next to, I was warmed subtly by the secret knowledge that I was going to be driving home – alone, warm and dry – master of my own destiny, captain of the ship.  No walk to and from buses, no waiting in the cold at the bus stop.  A guilty little pleasure.

That night we were having a rare night out in Christchurch, a sort of late anniversary drink at some good friends’ Irish session night.  Of the hand-countable nights out we’ve had since Seraphine was born none of them have been into the ‘bright lights’ of Christchurch, choosing instead to walk down the hill into the fabulousness that is Lyttelton.  This was to be the second of our back-slides today – our wonderful babysitter Fairy Godmother Kate was lending us her car as we weren’t going out for long and she needed to be relieved by 10pm.  The bus ride is 30-40 minutes each way which would take an hour out of our night out (although depends on your perception of what is important – like Elizabeth’s walk to and from pre-school – a subject we’ll be returning to).

I was thinking about all this as I trudged up the hill to home after work through the pouring rain with my umbrella, marvelling at the storm water rushing downhill through the gutters – you never really get the same sense of the sheer volume of water from rain in the flat city next door, there’s not many slopes to see the run-off really get going.  Lyttelton is all slope.  Stevenson’s Steep was literally a waterfall and there was what looked like a miniature standing wave being created by an obstruction in the gutter.  Cool, I thought, another good reason for not having a car, you never get to see this stuff when you’re-

Wait a minute.

So there you go, that’s what I deserve for falling off/on the wagon.  Funny thing is it’s only been two weeks and already I’m used to not taking the car.  And how about this rain?

Epilogue

Wanted: a good home for abandoned 1983 Toyota Sprinter

OK.  So he leaves me in this all day car park.  It’s outdoors but at least it shows he cares.  Plenty of other cars to talk to.

But it’s dark now.  And cold, and all the other cars have gone home.  There’s some drunk people cutting through the car park over there.  Did I mention it’s dark?

I’d like to go home now.  It’s getting late and the clampers come out after dark…

Although I am an ignoramus

… who knows nothing about cars, when I read the slip from the mechanic, listing the things that needed to be fixed for the car to pass her WOF, even I could tell that we were looking at a Significant Amount of Money.

Now our car is an old bird, but when we bought her four years ago, she was the mythical unicorn of the used car trade, one careful lady owner, garaged for years, impeccably cared for with an up to date maintenance log, under 100,000 kms on her clock, putty coloured, hand-knitted blanket on the back seat, all that and the seller only wanted $600 for her. She was the most bargain-like of bargains. I’ve never admitted this to Ciaran, but my winter boots that year cost more than the car did. Still, in all fairness, the boots are still going and the car is not.

So she’s been a sweetheart, comfortable and economical to run, and reasonable to maintain, until now. I believe the old dear has caught a bad case of crap-out-itis, an inevitable condition of her advanced years. Ciaran is an optimistic soul; I tend more towards the negative interpretation of the facts, so holding the WOF slip in my hand I was thinking, “this is the beginning of the end for the old girl, even if we fix up these things and keep her legal, who’s to say that six months later, there won’t be a whole other raft of problems to contend with?” Sure enough, when Ciaran called the mechanic the next day to ask for his advice, he concurred that he didn’t think it was worth doing the work on the car.

It was time for a new car. We gritted our teeth, leapt on our trusty steed Trade Me (think eBay if you’re outside of NZ) and galloped off into the murky depths of the used car section. We’d talked about buying a Toyota Prius for our next car, but we’d talked about this in a nebulous, four or five years down the track kinda way, and hadn’t yet started saving for it. It quickly became apparent that even the cheaper, older models of Prius were beyond our current resources.

So then we asked ourselves how much we wanted to spend. We counted our pennies. Just a week ago, we got back from a five week trip to Scotland. We are officially not very solvent. We did some sums. The results were depressing. It wasn’t going to buy us a lot of car. Maybe half a 1970s Toyota Starlet.

We considered loans, both from established financial institutions, which makes no sense financially, as any fool knows, and from the Imperial Bank of Kind Relations, which we are both a bit uncomfortable with, even though we are blessed to be surrounded by these kind and generous folk.

Eventually, we came to the conclusion that through a combination of the paltry funds we did have, a small, short term loan from Nice People and a bit of nefarious black market activity, we could probably scrape together $2,000. Back to Trade Me. It was about this point in the evening’s proceedings that I lost the will to live, got grumpy and went off to eat chocolate cake.

I can’t actually remember which of us came up with the truly radical idea that maybe we could consider living without a car for a while.

A quick note here; obviously we are both well aware that living without a car is not actually a fate worse than death, that several squillion of the world’s inhabitants do not have a 4WD parked in their garage, and that it’s only spoilt bastards like us in the decadent West that get so dependent on the automobile that the prospects of living without one causes us to gasp, and pale and beat our breasts. This, when you think about it, is as good a reason as any of the other many good reasons to get rid of your wheels.

But to put this tale briefly in its local context, we live in New Zealand, which has a population of just over 4.3 million people* and over 4 million vehicles registered for use on New Zealand roads**. Recent statistical studies quibble over whether NZ has the 2nd or 3rd highest per capita car ownership figures in the world. Either way, those figures paint a picture of a country that is deeply reliant on the car. We plan to explore the reasons for this here over the next months, so I won’t expand on this point here and now, other than to note that we’re planning to do something which is culturally unusual here.

*Statistics New Zealand, Tatauranga Aotearoa

**NZ Transport Agency, Waka Kotahi. This includes all types of vehicles registered for use on the roads in NZ.