Saturday, January 21, 2012

Observations on My Vacations 2: The Continuing Dominance of the Automobile

One day when I was down south for the holidays, I drove my rental car from my parents' place in Rolleston to my sister's in Kaiapoi. The plan was to take my nephew and niece for a swim and maybe to a movie.

The pool in Kaiapoi  was closed so we drove out to Rangiora. From there we headed across to the Shirley mall, targeting a showing of Puss in Boots. It turned out the cinema was closed by the earthquakes, so instead we had lunch at the mall, then headed back to Northlands mall to catch The Adventures of Tintin (NB: may be a little scary for some younger children). After that, we drove back to Kaiapoi, and from there I drove the rental back to Rolleston.

The day was a sweeping, somewhat dizzying tour across northern Christchurch and its environs. I sat back while my sister navigated 80km/h ring roads, wide boulevards and spacious, multi-storey car parks. I conclude: the geography of doing things in Christchurch is a series of bubbles linked by automobiles.

It's a contrast to Wellington, where the geography is stacked vertically, and for most of the places I have to go the quickest way to get there is walking, with the bus a fall-back option if I really need to get over the other side of town.

There's some kind of path-dependency going on here, but I'm not sure what it is. Is everything desgned around cars because things are so far apart, or is the other way around? At any rate, there's mutual reinforcement -- and, as the previous post pointed out, the evolution of this urban shape has been cemented by the earthquakes.

I can kind of see how this state of affairs has evolved. A factor in the South Island, even more so than in the north, is that once you have a car there's much else that is opened up: back country, mountains, coastlines, resort towns. As reported in my previous post, I made flying visits to Queenstown and Hanmer Springs, and was able to appreciate that an automobile not only gets you to the main destination, but from there to the remote spot at the start of the track or the climb. It's also an extremely useful mobile storage device once you've checked out of your accommodation. 

I also understand that another fundamental factor that drives the the yearning for a back yard.

Yet, although this may have come about because of choices, the default settings now close them off. An increasing amount of urban planning doesn't even consider the non car-driver. For example, as Riccarton Mall has slowly eaten up the surrounding streets, it's become gradually more impregnable to pedestrians. On foot, you can't really get in from the west, and from the south you have to negotiate a car park with no apparent pedestrian entrance.   The same is true in my home town of Rolleston, which has mushroomed from a tiny village to a bustling district centre of 8,000 in less than 15 years . There's a single new commercial space right at the centre of a very spread-out residential area. It's a given that most people will "drive to the shops". There's no safe and obvious way for a pedestrian to enter some of the spaces there, either.  You don't quite get arrested for walking yet, but in some environments it's not far off

Christchurch apparently used to be known as the "city of cyclists". I remember seeing a photo of from the 1960s or 1970s with a great phalanx of cyclists pushing off from an intersection either in the early morning or late afternoon (I assume they were commuters). The place is still as flat as it's always been, but these days peddling two wheels is a lonely and not particularly safe trade.

Even if this were sustainable, it would be really unfortunate, and it's not even inevitable. You can have the "freeways between suburban pods" urban model and still make the in-between spaces much friendlier. Designate the corridors along which the "inter-hub" traffic can move swiftly; then in the "local" bits, reduce the speed limit, narrow the streets, put in dedicated bus and cycle ways. A classic example is Amsterdam, where you can still drive your car in the city -- you just have to give priority to the cyclists and the trams. But even Brisbane, a truly enormous sprawl that's not known for urban sophistication, has dedicated busways, kilometres of cycleways, and a walking path along much of the length of its river. There are other ways to do things.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Observations on My Vacations, 1: The Transformation of Christchurch

I've just spent approximately three weeks in the South Island, including Christmas, New Year, two weddings and trips to Hanmer Springs and Queenstown. As usual, this has inspired me to have partially-informed opinions on things, about some of which I intend to write a series of posts. The posts will be, probably in this order:
  • The Transformation of Christchurch
  • The Continuing Dominance of the Motor Vehicle
  • The Cafeterisation of Provincial New Zealand
The Transformation of Christchurch

Any discussion of Christchurch these days immediately devolves to the series of earthquakes that have battered the area. This is fair enough, given the human tragedy and unplanned destruction that has occurred. However, in the longer term, I think the earthquake will be seen as accelerating a transformation that was already happening.

I visit Christchurch on average a couple of times every year, and have the opportunity to draw a contrast both with my more youthful memories and with Wellington. Every time, I get something of a shock at the sprawl, the acres of space dedicated to car parks, the aircraft carrier-sized big box retailers, Riccarton Mall slowly consuming the surrounding streets.

The days are long gone when Christchurch was an "English" market town ordered around its central square. Rather, it has become a loosely ordered regional connurbation that links the port and airport with intensifying farming on the plains, giant malls, sprawling suburbs, clusters of services and manufacturing, and the satellite towns to the north, west and south that are gradually merging with the outer suburbs. Its role model is Auckland, and beyond that, the ribboned cities of the American west and south.

Public discussion of the "rebuild" of Christchurch has tended to focus on what might be made of the central city. But I think that's something of a distraction. The earthquakes that have so undermined the swampy centre and east have pushed traffic and activity to the west, onto the gravelly ground of the plains, ensuring that the city's centre of gravity will ultimately settle there.

The string of further sizeable quakes that kicked off on December 23 have solidified this process. Already, ideas about the "rebuild" are being scaled down and there's talk about the temporary "pop-up mall" in shipping containers on Cashel St becoming a semi-permanent feature.

There may well be something attractive to come out of a central city redevelopment If the opportunity is not taken to create a space completely friendly to pedestrians and cyclists, there's truly no hope for humanity. However, this is unlikely to be the city's commercial heart. To obtain any sort of insurance, permanent structures in the area will need to have the highest level of earthquake safety, making them expensive to build, own, and of course rent. The central city will be unlikely to be abuzz with small businesses; nor will it be a bohemian den of students and artists.

I can see it eventually becoming an "old town" of parks and gardens, some government services, boutique retailers, maybe some bars and cafes. It should be friendly to tourists and local visitors alike. Hopefully there'll be ruins that are preserved and turned into museums and memorials and the condemned land in the northeast will be transformed into landscaped recreational space. Meanwhile, the mallification of the city will continue apace, and it's most dynamic activity will be based around distributed centres in Riccarton, Papanui, maybe Sydenham/Addington.

I actually like some of the longer-term changes that are in the works, in that they acknowledge what the city has become and make something coherent out of it. The new express route linking Rolleston with the southern motorway will make sense of the weight of population that's shifted there and end the pretence that a country road gently working its way through the outer suburbs can support the roaring semi-trailers, the tourists and the burgeoning commuter traffic. The four-laning of Russley Rd and the proposed flyover at Memorial Ave will eventually create a genuine north-south bypass. These road systems should produce a better functioning regional hub that links the northern and southern hinterlands.

How sustainable this is going to be as oil gets inexorably more expensive, I don't know. For that reason, but also because I'd just like to see it, I hope there are some plans for the parallel development of alternative transport options. If the satellite towns are going to continue to grow, these could improve the viability of a commuter rail service along the existing lines. As new motorways are developed, this could create the space for protected cycle routes along the older roads. However, given the apparently universal assumption that everyone has a car and drives it everywhere, all the time, I'm not getting my hopes up.