The Wrong Side of my Car

A blog about Auckland City, its streets, and culture shock

5 Nov 2015

The Tow-Away sign, the measure of success in Auckland

In Auckland, the way to show you have successfully established your business, is by displaying a Tow-Away sign:

The ultimate Auckland collector’s item

Parking is something most people take for granted, something that is just there. Something that can be used for free. Being charged to park your car somewhere, even a few dollars, will upset a lot of people. Which, if you think about it, is odd. Did parking use to grow on trees? Was formed naturally in our cities millions of years ago? Nope. Car parks have to be built, which costs actual dollars. Lots of them. If you’re parked somewhere in the CBD, building that parking spot you’re using may have cost $30,000.

Think about it, how many people expect their house to come for free?

Let’s imagine some conversation on a nice Sunday morning.

Guess what the council was thinking…

Sounds a bit odd to you? Indeed it does. But what if you replace the carpark with, say, a festival on Albert Park? Shopping on Queen Street? These are reasons why people would come to the city centre. Parking is there to make coming over by car more convenient.

Parking is a bit ironic in that way. While making coming to a place more convenient, it has a way of crowding out the very reasons to come to that place. Both by the sheer amount of space it takes up, and because getting all the cars there requires bigger roads.

For one thing, cramming parking spaces in every nook of a street edge squeezes out all life on that street. With all the space reserved for cars, there’s nowhere left for people to hang out. The edge of the street ends up looking like this:

Off-street parking

Sometimes a significant portion of a block is occupied by parking. Rumour goes that this is simply a form of land banking, and having pay-and-display parking is just a convenient way of making a few extra bucks.

Large surface parking lot mid-town.

Since parking doesn’t bring in a lot of money, those spaces are often messy and run-down. It’s also not an interesting place to visit. So people will be less inclined to come here, making businesses nearby worse off.

There are smarter ways to use all that space. What about giving people some space too?

A little bit of open space

What if we convert this space to parking? I guess that café would lose quite a few customers.

Obsessing about parking is especially pointless here in the city centre. Still, whenever there is some space between buildings, it’s often just parking. Like here, where we have a little bit of space between a few restaurants and a convenience store:

more parking

Parking makes it more convenient for your customers to visit your business. But what if you have customers who don’t come by car? A lot of business owners think that’s a rare thing, even here. But have another look at the nearby buildings.

A couple of buildings nearby

See all those apartment buildings? Do you think the people living there will drive here?

Talking about apartments, if you live in one you usually have only a little bit of private space. You almost certainly don’t have a private backyard. If you’re lucky the apartment has a courtyard where—

A typical courtyard between apartments in the area

—oh never mind. But anyway, if you live in an apartment the city around you becomes part of the space where you live. The lack of backyard is not so bad if you can walk to a park nearby for things like enjoying the fair weather, or playing a game of catch with the kids. Or meeting neighbours. But if most of the open space nearby is just parking, and getting around on foot is not really pleasant, then living in that apartment will become a bit depressing.

Parking at the church

The most visible cost of parking is the opportunity cost. The absence of what that space could have been. For instance, what about some outdoor seating area or a little playground in front of that restaurant? Having a bit of outdoor living area in that courtyard will certainly make living in one of those apartments more pleasant. So if you’re thinking of getting your own Tow-Away sign, you may want to think again about the alternatives.

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