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.

No comments: