Council parking boffins should be made to pay

At last some light at the end of this particular tunnel; some common sense; a relief valve released on the pent-up parking rage attendant upon the Dunedin City Council's new regime. Finally they have done the decent thing: they have listened and acted.

But, you have to wonder, whose idea was it to change the system in the first place? And to what ends? It's difficult, amid the acrimony, to recall what the rationale for the changes was, if indeed one was ever formulated and expounded.

The affair has been a complete disaster, both practically and in terms of city hall's public relations. Either we have a city full of unreasonable, tight-fisted car-park users, or a council completely out of touch with the citizens of Dunedin.

It's hard to gauge what has upset people most: that the changes were made, that they were made without extensive consultation and sufficient warning, or that having been made, the council stuck its head in the sand and refused to budge.

Only as one protest segued into another, and the negative reaction to the new system appeared to be reaching critical mass, did the council seem prepared to acknowledge that it may have got some aspects of the changeover wrong.

The whole affair has been either an inexcusable and amateurish communication breakdown or a wanton display of civil arrogance - or both.

No-one would dispute, nor seriously argue with, the proposition that just as hot air rises, so, very occasionally, must parking tariffs. Well, actually, that's probably untrue - a few people would regardless, but the majority of the city's vehicle owners and retailers would eventually respond to a reasoned explanation.

But to respond in such a manner, first the people most affected by the changes would have to have been presented with the pertinent information, not to say reasoning.

In lieu of explanations, people have come up with theories of their own. One popular explanation, muttered on street corners, has been that the new system was a deliberate attempt to reduce the amount of traffic in and around the central city streets to ease congestion - and possibly to coax greater numbers of citizens to use public transport.

Only, the very week that the parking prices rocketed up, so did the city's bus fares. Commuters must have felt they were being caught in a pincer movement. It's going to cost you a whole lot more to come into the city any way you travel, so you may as well just get used to it. Either that or don't bother coming at all.

Another one mentioned darkly here and there is that - as with anything else involving cost increases - the city's parking tariffs have increased to help pay for the new stadium.

Another is simply incompetence; and another still, bloody-mindedness. The "because we can" theory. One thing is for sure: when there is an information vacuum, foolish ideas will rush in. Communications 101.

Personally, I prefer the cock-up theory of parking anarchy. The strategy simply was not sufficiently communicated, nor was the public consulted widely enough.

If it had been, those responsible for the scheme would surely have got the message that reducing 10-minute free parking slots to five minutes would appear miserly and, for very little advantage, create significant ill-will; 10 minutes is time enough to stand in the queue at the post office to buy stamps, five isn't; 10 minutes is enough to dash across to the library and pay that overdue book fine, five sometimes won't be; prescriptions invariably take 10 minutes to have made up.

Either the parking barons didn't seek this sort of information, or they didn't listen to the answers when they did. It's not rocket science and they should not need consultants to predict the utterly predictable: rebellion among retailers and car owners alike.

Did anyone do a cost-benefit analysis on this project? And even if they did, did they factor in the potential cost to those businesses that thrive on the quick drop-in. City centres are organic beasts; you squeeze them thisaway and they bulge that; they behave in unpredictable ways.

They are delicate and it is easy enough to kill them off if they are not tended to carefully - and that means making them affordably accessible.

If you dissuade people from coming into the centre, what in the long run is that going to cost the city? Look at what happened to Christchurch - with the emptied-out ghost town at its centre having taken years to begin to reverse.

Notwithstanding Monday's 11th-hour U-turn, the new parking system has taken on all the characteristics of an almighty planning pile-up - with several casualties in the offing. High on the list should be the council parking boffins and their communications advisers.

• Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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