OPINION: How easily you reach your destination - workplace, shop, cafe, restaurant, or entertainment venue - is vital to Christchurch's recovery. A good transportation system underpins the success of any city.
Cathleen McGuigan, editor-in-chief of the prestigious New York-based magazine Architectural Record, described to Christchurch designers last week how American cities previously in decline have been transformed into vibrant, thriving communities. The movement has been dubbed New American Urbanism.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has helped stimulate growth of green spaces, including opening up river frontages and putting in green bike lanes in the city. "They unpaved paradise and took out a parking lot."
Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Oklahoma City have also taken on a far richer urban life. Encouraging people back into the centre and especially mixed use, with apartments, shops, and businesses side by side, have been key to these cities' transformation. Old zoning rules have been discarded.
Getting there makes a difference. Put a big sports stadium in New York City and people can get there because the city has a good transportation system. But put the same stadium in another city that depends on cars and it will be surrounded by acres of parking space, and for the long periods during which there is no game happening, the whole area will remain empty and lifeless: a warning here, surely, for Christchurch.
American cities, it seems, are catching up with Europe, where good public transport, and pedestrian and cycle-friendly cities with lively centres are the norm. These are people-friendly places, not given over to cars.
Other urban planners believe cars take up too much space, through garages, parking lots and more roads, which become more congested. Cars are energy-hungry, relying on dwindling supplies of imported fossil fuels, and they cause pollution.
Australian eco-architect Paul Downton favours developments that minimise cars, or even avoid them altogether. He calls cars "poisonous guided missiles".
Advances in automotive technology have made cars more efficient, cleaner, and safer. Traffic engineering, however, has lagged behind. So while I might enjoy a leisurely road trip taking in the South Island's stunning scenery, I don't enjoy being stuck in city traffic, waiting for six cycles of a red light, or trying to turn right on amber. No matter what vehicle you drive, you won't reach your destination any faster if the traffic is bumper-to-bumper.
Earthquake damage has exacerbated traffic problems in Christchurch. Many workplaces and places of interest have shifted westward. Riccarton residents complain that streets surrounding the mall have become clogged.
That is not surprising. People will choose to go where they want and will use the easiest means to get there, and that is still the car. Parking at suburban malls is free. It's unfair that people should still have to pay for parking meters in the city centre when so much of it remains closed off. And who would want to park in a new multi-storey parking building?
We need alternatives, and Christchurch needs to embrace the international trend towards sustainability.
Earthquake Recovery and Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee says the new Southern Motorway is a great asset for Christchurch, and he's right. But we also need better public transport and safe, off-road cycle lanes - not just lines painted on the road.
McGuigan said that Christchurch seemed ideal for cyclists but she had not seen many. The only cycle lanes she had seen shared the road with cars and looked dangerous.
Whether the Christchurch City Council will build a new cycle network is uncertain. Part of the problem - as with the recovery in general - is the mishmash of different organisations.
Who is responsible for transport: the city council, ECan, the Government? (Cera's Roger Sutton is also an indefatigable supporter of cycling.)
A more efficient bus service makes sense, but will one bus exchange in the city centre be enough? Let's bring back the yellow hybrid-electric shuttle buses. Why not turn the old railway station into a new railway station and transport hub?
Extending the existing rail network would be logical. Trains could connect Ashburton and Rolleston to the south, Darfield to the west, and Rangiora, Woodend, and Pegasus to the north. But it seems too hard. Instead we are building more roads and sprawling subdivisions and watching the roads clog up.
One thing I like about Europe is how easy it is to get around without a car. You can take a train right into the city centre, and then walk or use light rail. Or you could bike. We visited friends in Ulm, biked through the city centre - off-road - then along the riverbank next to the railway, finishing up at a beer garden for lunch. Why not do the same kind of thing in Christchurch and Canterbury? How good would that be?
- © Fairfax NZ News
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