The solution to practically everything: put parking prices up

In the Netherlands, you have the right to vote, the right to speak, to right to rally… and the right to park for free right outside your front door. But that makes for an ugly city, a housing shortage, environmental pollution and eyesores. Not to mention a lack of playgrounds, cycle paths and greenery. Parking affects everyone, even those without a car.

The solution to practically everything: put parking prices up

We asked Daan Wubben to map out the impact of twelve square metres in the public space. Using a drone and some duct tape, he created the images you see in this article.

I’ve wanted a vegetable garden along the Herengracht canal in Amsterdam for a while now. It would be great – strawberries, spinach, sweet potatoes. It would look fab too, somewhere in the Gouden Bocht area, just a little patch. Doesn’t need to take up much space. Maybe a square metre or twelve. And I’m quite willing to pay for it. EUR 44 a month seems reasonable to me.

You’re probably wondering, ‘who is this hipster nutter who thinks he can take up the most expensive piece of land in the Netherlands to satisfy his gardening needs for just EUR 44 a month?’ A broom cupboard alone in that neck of the woods would cost thousands of euros.

But what if I wanted to put a car there instead of a garden? Then it doesn’t seem such a tall order. In the Netherlands, it is a God-given right to park a stationary piece of metal on the priciest bit of public land in the country for next to nothing.

I’d never thought about this before. Every day, I cycle past all those parked cars without batting an eyelid. Of course, there are cars here; what else would there be?

But only recently did it become clear how absurd parking policy is. A friend of mine told me about his estate agent. Living on the fourth floor isn’t easy if you have a kid, the gentleman explained. You have to lug the pushchair and all those other baby accessories up and down all the time. Fortunately, the estate agent had a solution: get a parking permit, buy an old banger and use it for storage.

Since then, I no longer think that row after row of parked cars should automatically have the right to be there. Nope. They are nothing but ugly, highly-subsidised storage boxes.

Of course there are cars here – what else would there be?

As I delved deeper into the subject, my surprise was overcome by outrage. Give me a social problem and I’ll tell you why cars are behind it.

  • Housing shortage? Fewer homes are being built, because for every new construction, you also need to lay expensive parking places.
  • Inequality? Giving away parking spaces for free has mainly benefited the rich, because if you have money, you drive a car.
  • Inner city congestion? The roads are packed with cars, driving around in circles looking for a parking space.
  • Not enough footpaths, cycle paths, children's play areas and vegetable gardens? Just take a look at all those rows of cars parked in your street.

Drone image: Daan Wubben

Parking affects everyone. Even those without a car.

The most ill-judged mode of transport of all time: the horse

In the beginning, we travelled around by horse. What an absolute disaster that was. In 1608, Amsterdam issued a ban on equestrian transport in the inner city. Local authorities were driven to the edge by horses, especially their by-products. Horses soiled the ground with their lukewarm excrement. When the rain came, the dung would turn gooey and make the roads very slippery indeed.

Other horses slipped on their friends’ waste. That would cause delays, since you then needed someone to help get the 650 kg beast back on its feet. And if a horse was injured beyond repair, it would just be left there in the middle of the road.

So when the car came along, people were particularly pleased. But that initial enthusiasm soon waned. Cars came with their own problems: traffic collisions, environmental pollution, congestion and, not forgetting, a massive hijacking of public space.

Horses took up space on the roads and in squares, but at least they were back in the stable by the end of the day. That was also true for cars at first. Municipalities regulated cars in the same way as they did horses. A carriage couldn’t be left unattended on a public road, so nor could a car. In practice, this meant that a wealthy car owner would pay a poor beggar to keep an eye on the vehicle while he went for a stroll down a shopping street.

A carriage couldn’t be left unattended on a public road, so nor could a car

Gradually, this led to other forms of parking regulation, this time focused on motor vehicles. In the 1930s, you could park on one side of the road in The Hague on even days, and on the other side of the road on odd days. In Amsterdam, traffic wardens walked around public squares, collecting parking fines. And after the war, municipalities all over the country decided to impose a parking charge.

But 1953 saw this early form of parking regulation brought to an end. The Dutch Automobile Association (ANWB) and car-loving lobby knew exactly how to get the Dutch government to stop allowing municipalities to set parking fees. On-street parking was now free, even in the ancient city centres. MPs couldn’t have imagined what this would mean. Squares turned into car parks: the Neude in Utrecht, the Binnenhof in The Hague, the Nieuwmarkt in Amsterdam, the Vrijthof in Maastricht. And more and more often, cars were left parked on the road overnight. Even the pavements were crammed full, as this video about Amsterdam in 1970 shows. In 1948, just 12% of parking spaces in Amsterdam’s inner city was in use for long-term parking. By 1960, that figure had risen to almost 50%. Today, it stands at more than 90%.

Drone image: Daan Wubben

Parking subsidy worth thousands of euros

There are now 8.2 million cars in the Netherlands, for which there are around 16 million parking spaces available, taking up approximately 175 km2 of space – a little more than the area occupied by the municipality of Amsterdam. More than two-thirds of these parking spaces are on public land and 92% of them are free of charge.

It was only in the 1970s that the Dutch government allowed parking charges again. But by that time, people already had this idea ingrained that they were entitled to free parking. Touching on parking charges is something most politicians would avoid like the plague.

In Amsterdam, for example, residents pay just 20% of the EUR 200 million collected in annual parking revenue, while taking up more than 80% of the parking space.

Since a car is private property, why shouldn’t the solution to the parking chaos be a private one too? What would car owners have to pay if they were responsible for their own parking space? What if the municipality decided to stop subsidising parking and leave it to the market forces? It’s difficult to say, but economist Jos van Ommeren of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam has a pretty good stab at it in his paper ‘The real price of parking’. He looked at what a buyer is willing to pay for an Amsterdam house with a driveway. If you already have free on-street parking available, as they do in the north part of Amsterdam, the impact that a driveway has on the house price is negligible. But if you live in an area where you need to wait for a parking permit – so everywhere within the ring road – on average, a driveway would add almost EUR 40,000 to the price.

Van Ommeren was then able to work backwards and calculate the market price for a parking space that the municipality gives away for so little. Around EUR 3,600 a year, he concluded. By comparison, a parking permit in the centre of Amsterdam costs EUR 535 per year, or less than EUR 1.50 per day.

What’s more, it is primarily those with higher incomes who benefit from this parking subsidy, Van Ommeren found. People with an annual salary of over EUR 100,000 are five times more likely to have a parking permit than those on the lowest incomes. So, the higher your income, the more your parking is subsidised. Who can afford to live on such prime real estate, next to such a beautiful canal? Nobody on minimum wage, that’s for sure.

And make no mistake, Amsterdam is relatively good at doing this. In other major cities such as The Hague and Rotterdam, a parking permit costs much less.

Cars clogging up the streets

You might be wondering what the problem is. A city that makes it cheap to clog up the streets will do exactly that… clog up the streets. Since the 1980s, fewer and fewer cars are being driven, but there are more and more cars on the streets. In a nutshell, our cars are spending more and more time with the ignition off! This is especially problematic in city centres – where space is at a premium and parking spaces compete with footpaths, cycle paths, children's play areas, terraces and greenery. Although people in the big cities own fewer cars, they live so close together that there are still more cars per square kilometre than anywhere else in the country.

By making parking spaces too cheap, the streets are full, while large multi-story car parks lie empty, encouraging people to buy cars when they don’t need them. In Amsterdam, for example, nearly a fifth of permit holders don’t use their car every week. And research shows that higher parking fees would encourage these residents to park their car in a car park on the outskirts of the city, or to get rid of their car and join a car-sharing scheme.

Subsidised parking means inefficient use of space. Although we often think that there’s a shortage of parking spaces in town, even Amsterdam has almost two parking spaces for every vehicle. And yet Amsterdam motorists still cover 50,000 kilometres every day trying to find a parking space.

Packed streets, empty car parks

In the former working-class neighbourhood of De Pijp – now the cradle of Amsterdam’s gentrification – they could be seen every night circling like vultures, searching for a prized parking space. Statisticians from the city council found to their horror that parking capacity here was above 100%. Cars simply outnumbered spaces. Vehicles were parked on the pavement or simply doubled up.

So, a few years ago, the municipality of Amsterdam decided to pump 72 million litres of water out of a canal and fill it with 7,000 cubic metres of concrete to create the Albert Cuypgarage – the most expensive residents’ car park in the Netherlands. It cost EUR 34.6 million to construct this underground car park, which has 600 parking spaces; this works out at nearly EUR 60,000 per space. And that is just the construction cost. The total project cost was a few tens of thousands of euros higher per space. The municipality gave away spaces to residents for EUR 265 a year, because that’s how much a parking permit costs.

This is certainly not the last car park that Amsterdam will build. In the coming years, the municipality is set to break its own record by pumping more than EUR 100 million into three new car parks – an average investment of EUR 95,000 per space – where residents will be able to park their car for a fraction of the cost. This is absurd. Because at the moment, the Albert Cuypgarage is largely empty in the evenings, with only 200 of the 600 spaces occupied. And this car park is no exception. Data freely available from the municipality shows that there are thousands of empty car park spaces available in the evenings, even in the busy centre of Amsterdam. Packed streets, empty car parks. Something is wrong.

And if people are willing to drive a little further, they would find parking spaces on the outskirts of the city they can use, at the Amsterdam Arena for example. There are thousands of spaces available near this public transport hub.

Meanwhile, the municipality is looking for cumbersome ways to get cars into car parks. Amsterdam now pays permit holders EUR 7 a day to park in a car park. Yes, you read that right. The municipality pays car owners for being so kind as to own a car and not park it on the street. And they hire these parking spaces for the market rate, plus the approximately EUR 7 a day! Now you’re wondering where cyclists, who store their bikes properly on their own property, can go to collect their payment.

Which brings us back to the price of parking, which is too low. People prefer parking right outside their front door, so they wonder why should they park somewhere else if it costs the same? And they’re quite right.

Parking deserts… all thanks to the municipality

It’s not just the municipalities that continue to invest in excessive quantities of parking spaces. Project developers need to comply with municipal parking specifications when constructing offices, social housing, shops and so on. Essentially, you need to provide parking spaces. How many exactly is up to the municipality. In theory, at least. What often happens is that municipalities treat the advisory guidelines from the not-for-profit CROW association as hard and fast parking provision rules.

Parking specifications often pose an insurmountable financial hurdle when it comes to building new homes

Only those figures sometimes make completely no sense. Here is one example of how they have created one of the most bizarre parking deserts. In 2013, a housing association built two towers in The Hague containing 270 student flats, with no fewer than 149 parking spaces. Spaces which are hardly used. It’s little wonder why, because students are poor. They have a free student travel card and they live right next to the city’s bustling Holland Spoor train station. And if they ever need a parking space, they need only head over to the shopping centre on the opposite side. In the evening, there are approximately 2,000 parking spaces there. You can just imagine those poor estate agents. ‘To your left you will see a bleak car park, then right in front of you is a garish shopping centre with yet another car park on top, then to your right a… wait… do you even have a driving licence?’

Aerial view of the towers in The Hague

These ugly towers have at least been built now. But the parking specifications often pose an insurmountable financial hurdle when it comes to building new homes. The cost of constructing parking spaces is disproportionately high especially for more affordable housing, which we are crying out for. A survey carried out in the province of South Holland showed that in 20% of the locations studied, fewer homes were built because of the high parking specifications.

Banishing the car from De Pijp

By now, you’re probably thinking, ‘what a hopeless waste of space, money and beauty’. But that would be unfair. There is reason for optimism when it comes to parking.

Let’s go back to that car park built under the canal in De Pijp. After it had been built, the municipality wanted to take away only 300 on-street parking spaces in the area, much to the huge frustration of residents. If you build 600 car park spaces, you need to take away 600 on-street parking spaces, they thought.

And so the local residents decided to claim the three hundred parking spaces as public space. They put a few benches here, a few tables there and some bike racks where the parking spaces once stood. The local branch of the centre-right VVD party threatened to clear the parking spaces and charge residents for the damage. This year, the city council decided that 600 on-street parking spaces would still be removed. Empty streets, packed car parks, just as it should be.

These local skirmishes signal a major revolution. We are now seeing a shift in parking policy all over the country. Amsterdam wants to remove 10,000 parking spaces from the city centre. In Utrecht, the municipality is building new housing estates with little parking provision, but with a lot of shared cars. Even in the car-loving city of Rotterdam, parking rates for residents are rising.

The goal in many municipalities is clear: we want more public space and fewer cars clogging up the street. The question is how we achieve that. By building more car parks? Or are there better alternatives?

Parking madness (1896-?)

I think there are. In the city, car ownership is stagnating. It is even declining among young people. It is a crying shame to see enormous concrete boxes fall into disuse over a few years. Not to mention, it is a terribly expensive solution.

The first thing we need to do is increase the price of parking for residents quickly and substantially. Only by charging properly for parking will people be able to make a conscious choice about whether to own a car or not. Anyone who really needs a car every day will find a space. Those who only need one now and again will need to have a rethink.

Fortunately, the municipality is making it easier and more interesting to transition to parking-free streets.

These days, with all the options at our disposal, there is no reason to waste so much public space.

Clearly, the municipality of Amsterdam is prepared to pay EUR 60,000 to remove on-street parking in De Pijp and put the spaces underground. So why not experiment, and give half of that amount to a neighbourhood or street and see what they can do with it? Try and find a solution! Share cars, use a bike, take public transport. Use empty parking space in the neighbourhood, use a Park+Ride on the outskirts of the city. It doesn’t matter, as long as the on-street parking spaces disappear.

Another advantage of car sharing is that you don't have just one car at your disposal, but ten; a minibus for moving house, an estate for taking the kids, or a more sophisticated vehicle for yourself!

As far as I am concerned, it is only a matter of time until I can harvest the first spinach from my little garden beside the Herengracht. These days, with all the options at our disposal, there is no reason to waste so much public space.

The stationary car slowly invaded our cities, but is unlikely to disappear without a fuss.

With thanks to Jasper Du Pont (view his Twitter profile here), who assisted me in collecting the data on car parks.

Duct tape and drone photos. Click here to view more of Daan Wubben’s work.