Wellington Scoop

Addicted to cars

The famous dictum of AA (no, not the motoring body, the other one) is that the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. The Wellington City Council clearly needs to take this to heart over the private motor car, the do-we-love-it-or-do-we-hate-it icon of transportation that is still at the heart of the political log-jam that has stymied the capital for decades.

Taking a rational approach to cars would see them immediately chucked off the Golden Mile for good.

Their climate-changing city-polluting space-occupying ways are simply incompatible with civilised urban environments, and as study after study has shown, getting rid of the cars allows pedestrians to return and everything from cafes to conversations to retailers to flourish. But despite a high level of public support for such a plan, the council has persisted in wringing its hands over the issue for decade after decade. Which is quite surprising, given the level of supposedly enlightened left/green sentiment around the council table.

Only, it’s not really that surprising at all, given how financially dependent the council has become on the car and its driver. As the Draft Annual Plan 2020/21 notes, charging people in various ways to park cars is a very significant revenue source, so banishing them altogether would be a potential financial headache for the city.

To give some idea of scale, parking fees and enforcement represent some 20 percent of the council’s total non-rates revenue of $148m. In other words, nearly $30 million is vacuumed out of drivers (well, technically, parkers) by the WCC’s system of parking permits, fees and fines. It’s the largest area of non-rates revenue the council has access to – and if it were cut off tomorrow, we’d probably be staring down the barrel of a 9% rates increase to compensate.

The problem is, there’s a direct conflict between ideology and financial reality when it comes to setting policies about cars.

Is it true that private cars take up public space when we park them on the side of the road? Absolutely! Is it a fact that they privatise their benefits (mobility) and socialise their costs (pollution, noise, road space)? Completely true! And looked at from a whole-of-the-city perspective, do their costs outweigh their benefits? Entirely!

The problem is: so what? Where will the $30 million come from to pay for all those essential council services such as painting rainbow crossings on Dixon Street if we don’t extract it from the wallets of fat-cat car owners? Because if we reduce car parking and make private vehicles increasingly unwelcome in Wellington, then it’s hard to see where the extra money is going to come from.

There’s an argument that we could make up the shortfall by charging more for less. For instance, we could boot cars off the Golden Mile and eliminate hundreds of on-street carparks in the CBD, to the benefit of both people and businesses, and then start charging more for residents’ parking permits – perhaps doubling the price over a couple of years. Simply parking that mostly-unused box of metal on the street outside the front gate could then end up costing many hundreds of dollars a year in a fairly short space of time. And perhaps people would respond by selling the mostly-unused box of metal and taking the bus instead, which would be a win for the environment – although it does assume the bus network has the capacity and competent management to cope.

Of course, that’s going to be a deeply regressive policy for a while. If you’re working in a less-than-well-paid job but you need a car to get to work because your shift hours mean buses don’t even run when you need them, then the expensive parking permit will be punitive. And why should you be expected to pay a whole bunch more so people who can afford a garage to park their car in have a nicer cafe experience on the Golden Mile? Particularly when your flat doesn’t have enough space for a living room let alone a garage, so it’s not like you can avoid the permit fees or the fines. Isn’t it just punishing the poor to benefit the rich once again?

But assuming we get past the first few years and the rate of car ownership in Wellington drops, then the council’s revenue will decline at about the same rate the environmental benefits will increase. Councils aren’t paid for environmental benefits, so this means the revenue will have to come from someplace – likely you and me. Rates will go up, and bearing in mind we already have some of the most expensive rates in the country, that’s not a pleasant thought. It will add to the pressures that are making the coolest capital in the world a place that only the rich can afford to live in.

Logic says: get rid of the cars.

By all means, we should make the argument that cars are not welcome in Wellington, and that we can live without the pollution and the noise and the climate change impacts.

But the question is not actually about cars – it’s about money. If we want to live in a car-free CBD, where will we find the tens of millions of dollars this policy will probably cost us? And in the absence of a good answer to that question, the council’s addiction to the fee-paying car will continue, and public transport advocates and cycling activists and walking enthusiasts will simply be talking to the hand.

The council isn’t spending money on its car addiction – it’s making money from it. So following that famous dictum and admitting there’s a problem is likely to be the most difficult step of all.


  1. Alex Dyer, 20. May 2020, 11:42

    Bravo. Reinforces my conviction of a conflict of interest problem for councils. I had worried about this on an individual level, but it’s clear it is much more of a structural conflict.

  2. PCGM, 20. May 2020, 12:00

    WCC’s revenue from parking and fines has been more than $290,000 since charges were turned back on last week – about half in parking fees and about half in fines. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t seem to be making people happy. It’s reasonable to assume that a fairly big proportion of the money will have come from the central city, which is the reason cars will be welcome in the CBD for quite some time to come, and all the talk of pedestrianisation is just that – talk.

  3. greenwelly, 20. May 2020, 14:40

    …”bearing in mind we already have some of the most expensive rates in the country.” Do you have any data to support that? Residential rates in Wellington on a valuation basis are well below those of Porirua and other cities in the region.
    A $960K house in Porirua pays $5200 in PCC rates, (+$1100 in WRC rates) = $6300.
    A similar $950K house in Wellington pays $3400 in WCC rates and $700 in WRC rates) = $4100.

  4. Ben Schrader, 20. May 2020, 16:19

    Many of us will recall feelings of liberation and security in being able to walk along Wellington’s streets without fear of being hit by a car during the Level 4 lockdown. At Level 2 this is no longer possible and we now recognise these feelings were all but fleeting. Pedestrians are once again confined to narrow footpaths while cars enjoy the full breadth of the carriageway.

    I accept PCGM’s analysis that the WCC’s perennial reluctance to pedestrianise city streets is based on its (over) reliance on car parking income. Perhaps it’s time for central government to step up and fund more urban infrastructure and amenity to make the Council less reliant on car parking revenue. Reducing cars in the city would certainly reduce emissions and help the government fulfil its climate change commitments. We could then close more streets to traffic and the feelings of liberation and security we felt during Level 4 could become permanent in these spaces at least.

  5. Ross Clark, 21. May 2020, 2:15

    I also think that WCC would be on a hiding to nothing if it tried to seriously clamp down on car use. Yes, one appreciated the empty streets of Level 3 and Level 4, but now that people can travel, they will travel.

  6. Kerry, 21. May 2020, 10:58

    Alex Thanks for the ‘structural conflict’ link: only too true. There is plenty of experience to show that fewer cars bring big improvements. Parking lanes converted to safe cycleways — with kerbs on both sides — can carry more people than a bus lane, and five times more people than a motor vehicle lane. Shopkeepers will complain about losing business, but that myth has been around for years. No examples are ever given.
    A standard objection to cycleways is that they are near-empty, or that access to them is unsafe. Drivers seem incapable of behaving safely around either pedestrians or cyclists, and much-improved standards are needed.
    WCC is a member of the Global Designing Cities Initiative, with access to the Global Street Design Guide. One street-design example is increasing the capacity of a street from 12,300 to 30,100 people an hour.
    Auckland is planning to divide the city centre into a dozen or so zones, arranged for safe and easy access between zones by walking or cycling. However, motor vehicles will have to leave a zone the way they came in, and drive around to the entrance to another zone. Car numbers can be expected to fall, perhaps dramatically, because walking or cycling will be quicker. LGWM is considering similar arrangements for Wellington. Planning like this will be far cheaper than a second Mt Victoria tunnel.
    Addiction to cars has clearly failed, and we can look forward to rapid change.

  7. Rich, 21. May 2020, 10:59

    It’s a bit of a stalemate eh!? Some of us know we need to lose our reliance on cars and we need brave councillors/politicians to stand for that. But if they do, they know they will lose a large part of their support from their car obsessed base. Nothing in NZ gets people as riled up as transport (besides house prices of course!).

    The Netherlands was in this situation in the 60s. Car was king. It took some very brave politicians to go against the flow and change that, there was an outcry. Yet now no one wants to go back to that place. City centres are not for cars (try parking in Amsterdam CBD, you can’t!). Safe cycling. Pedestrianised shopping districts. It’s very pleasant. Yet here we don’t seem to get further than 50 rounds of consultation and then some more and then there is a backlash by those who don’t want to change and we end up with either another half a*se solution or status quo.

  8. K, 21. May 2020, 11:53

    Need to separate the environmental effects (pollution/noise) from the issue of cars, as the environmental impact is quickly going to disappear as cars transition to all-electric and on demand shared usage models (thereby eliminating pollution and most noise). We can’t make roading/tunnelling decisionS that will impact Wellington transport for the next 100 years based on the internal combustion engine which will disappear entirely within 10-20 years. Instead focus needs to be on congestion reduction and making city more enjoyable/liveable/safer for pedestrians and cyclists/scooters etc. That indeed involves removing on street parking, electrified public transit (be it buses or mass transit), a pedestrianised golden mile & much more cycle/scooter lanes. But it’s primarily for a better designed city, not for pollution reasons.

  9. Amacf, 21. May 2020, 12:56

    In a pedestrianised Golden Mile, with or without scooters and bicycles, where do the buses, taxis and Ubers go, how are businesses and people in the buildings along the Golden Mile serviced by delivery vehicles and how are building renovations, demolitions and rebuilding to be carried out? We have the examples of Cuba Mall, the shared traffic zone of lower Cuba Street and the short experience of Manners Mall to inform our thinking. For example, if public transport is permitted, does the Golden Mile become like Manners Street between Cuba and Victoria Streets?

  10. Mike Mellor, 21. May 2020, 15:46

    K: I agree with you overall, but:

    * pollution and noise won’t disappear with the internal combustion engine (whenever that might be) – tyres are a source of both. The environmental impact will still be there, albeit reduced.

    * we haven’t seen effective on-demand shared transport yet (Uber etc. are just taxis, and add to congestion): this will need to wait for driverless cars (whenever that might be!). And when that happens, under the current way roads are organised it’ll be cheaper for them to drive around between jobs rather than parking, which will add to congestion. A congestion charge will be needed to fix that, potentially giving the ability to remove the structural conflict identified above.

  11. PCGM, 21. May 2020, 16:35

    Greenwelly – Every year the Taxpayer’s Union does a comprehensive rates review, the better to make their particular political points about local government. Irrespective of whether you agree with their view of the desirability of rates, the methodology they use is consistent across councils and across years, so it does allow an apples-with-apples comparison. And Wellington doesn’t look that flash – it’s routinely in the top 10 most expensive councils in the country.

    According to their numbers, Auckland has the highest rates burden – but maybe that’s got something to do with the amount of money they spend on infrastructure (e.g. City Rail Link) and a growing population. In percentage terms, Wellington is about 20% cheaper on the rates bill, but we neither have the large scale infrastructure investments nor the population pressures that Auckland does.

    And you’re right about Porirua – their rates costs are higher than ours by about 5%. Look further afield, however, and things are less rosy. Post-earthquake Christchurch, pre-COVID Queenstown and growth-pressured Tauranga all have lower average rates than Wellington.

    Christchurch is an interesting comparison. Their rates manage to be about 10% cheaper than ours, despite the city having to rebuild after the earthquakes. Granted, the government poured billions of dollars into the city – but ratepayers have also had to stump up big dollars in borrowings to fund essential infrastructure and projects, which has resulted in dramatic increases in rates. The effect, however, is that all their pipes are new and they have a truly beautiful public library in the centre of the city. Despite the capital being hit with bigger rates bills over a longer period of time, we have broken pipes, sewerage in the harbour and a shuttered library with no date for when or even if it will reopen.

    Councils need to have the resources they require to do the work of local government, so this isn’t one of those anti-rates arguments. But the challenge for Wellington is that we seem to be spending a lot of money on rates and not getting terribly much for it. This would not seem to be a successful way of operating.

  12. Martin Sharp, 21. May 2020, 16:55

    The comment “we can live without the pollution and the noise and the climate change impacts” is really applicable to petrol cars only. Electric vehicles do not pollute, are quiet and are having a positive impact on climate change so I want to keep my car thanks!

  13. Ross Clark, 21. May 2020, 21:26

    With cycling: it helps that both Amsterdam and Copenhagen are dead flat. The other lesson they teach: you will only get a significant uptake of cycling if it can be completely segregated from cars. Examples:

    * London has areas for cyclists which are kerbed off from the main traffic flows, and they get priority at the lights as well.

    * Where I live, a lot of old railway formation has been converted into cycleways (walkways). They are completely segregated from the roads, and cyclists use them a lot as a result.

    * If and when traffic volumes pick up, cyclists will be left feeling unsafe, and will revert to driving or buses, or not travelling at all.

  14. Conor, 22. May 2020, 11:48

    Bustastrophe actually made bussing around the city off peak much better. So that argument might not hold. In general i say all off street parking throughout the entire city should come with a charge. Parking is a private not public good.

  15. PCGM, 22. May 2020, 15:47

    Conor – I suspect anyone who (say) lives in Karori and (say) works a shift at the hospital that starts at midnight would disagree with the idea that off-peak services were better. Simply put, there’s no way for them to get to work on public transport. So are you suggesting that they be financially punished for owning a car merely to make the philosophical point that parking is not a public good?

  16. Casey, 22. May 2020, 17:20

    Conor: You really ought to get out more and talk with those who ride the routes most impacted by bustastrophe. Karori and Northland users for a start, now with fewer bus services, horrendously over-crowded buses (pre COVID) and with no end in sight to their plight. No 2 route buses going hell for leather in order to keep to their schedules are downright dangerous.

    Bustastrophe had the opposite effect of getting more to use public transport rather than private cars. Two years on little has improved for a vast number of bus users, but the drivers have smart uniforms so that’s apparently the offset.

  17. Jeremy, 22. May 2020, 20:19

    One way to get the cars out of the CBD is to reduce public transport fares by increasing the subsidy. Ive always thought it would be good to make PT free (ie 100% subsidy) for a trial period and see what happens. Hopefuly that would get people out of their cars and onto the buses and change the culture so eventualy the fares could be reintroduced (hopefuly at a lower level than they are now) and people would continue using them Hold on … thats whats happening now, effectively. We have free public transport, for a period, induced by Covid-19. Surprisingly however, people arent taking up the offer – presumably worried about catching it. If free public transport combined with parking charges isn’t enough to get people to leave their cars at home I don’t know what is.

  18. Mike Mellor, 24. May 2020, 9:45

    K: “Need to separate the environmental effects (pollution/noise) from the issue of cars”– sorry, but they’re inseparable, whatever the means of propulsion.

    “the environmental impact is quickly going to disappear as cars transition to all-electric and on demand shared usage models (thereby eliminating pollution and most noise)” – there’ll still be the pollution and noise from tyres; the large environmental effects of the amount of road space and hard surfacing that cars (the most inefficient form of land transport) require; and full electrification and on-demand shared usage (the latter still a pipedream) are a long way away.

    “Instead focus needs to be on congestion reduction and making city more enjoyable/liveable/safer for pedestrians and cyclists/scooters etc” – absolutely correct!

  19. D'Esterre, 24. May 2020, 16:45

    Conor: “…all off street parking throughout the entire city should come with a charge.” What does this mean? Are you suggesting that everybody anywhere in the city who has a parking space – garage, carport, driveway or car-pad – be charged for the privilege, over and above the rates we all pay? Good luck getting said ratepayers to agree to THAT.

    To those of you determined to rid the CBD of cars: not so fast, not so fast! Many of us who are older cannot walk long distances, and therefore struggle with such public transport as there is. Whether or not you like it, we are obliged to use cars to get around and through the city. That includes the CBD. In any event, economic activity will depend for the foreseeable future on vehicles of one sort or another. The tradies and service workers who visit your property will never come by public transport, you can be sure of that.

    Those of you who are middle-aged, or younger, no doubt firmly believe that when you’re old, you’ll be as physically spry as you now are, but with grey hair and wrinkles. I used to think that too. Until I got here. Believe me: it ain’t necessarily so. Those of us who are older and not able to walk like we used to, are still citizens and ratepayers. We’re entitled to some consideration in this regard. And no: we can’t necessarily use bikes, either. As everyone commenting here knows full well, if ever a city were not suited to biking, it’s Wellington. CBD aside, much of it is vertiginous, with steep, narrow and winding roads. And the weather… Really not suitable biking conditions for anyone, let alone many older people.

    We live in the hill suburbs. Any walking around here over the period of quarantine has frequently been downright dangerous. Stepping out onto a steep, winding road to avoid other people has entailed the risk of being hit by traffic that one cannot see or hear coming. Very unpleasant.