Rebuild Christchurch for people not cars

People, not cars, dominate the streetscape in Freiburg, south-west Germany.
David Killick

People, not cars, dominate the streetscape in Freiburg, south-west Germany.

OPINION: 

It is Saturday afternoon and the city is packed. Throngs of people of all ages saunter through the streets. Some go shopping; some sprawl out in the sunshine around fountains or in the squares; some savour an ice cream; many relax around cafe tables to eat, drink, and chat. Both young children and older adults pack the beer gardens; nobody is drunk or quarrelsome.

There are few cars in the city centre. Well-laden modern trams ferry people to their destinations. And there are bikes, hundreds of them, both on the road and on separate off-road cycle lanes.

This is Freiburg, a medium-sized city in south-west Germany, fringed by the Black Forest. The city has a well-deserved reputation as an eco-city. In truth, though, for accessibility most European cities are not dissimilar.

I am just back from three and a half weeks visiting Italy, Switzerland, and Germany – catching up with friends and their families, revisiting familiar places and discovering new ones.

Europe is so easy to get around. You don't even need a car, although if you want you can take advantage of multi-lane autobahns or autostrada. We got nearly everywhere we wanted by train, tram, or subway.

Thanks to well-designed mass transit systems, even large cities like Milan, Frankfurt, and Berlin, are much easier to get around than Christchurch. Drivers tend to go faster than they do here, but they give way to other vehicles and pedestrians. We never felt unsafe crossing the road or walking around.

There is also something about the streetscape that encourages people to go there. Instead of a rigid grid layout, inner-city streets tend to meander, perhaps surprising you by opening onto a square or rewarding you with a vista of a church or distant mountain.

Although the big cities offer plenty to see and do, I also really enjoy the relaxed, less-crowded feel of smaller and medium-sized European cities. Green spaces and countryside are never far away.

What a contrast coming back to Christchurch. Cars everywhere. Large SUVs and older poorly maintained vehicles, compared with newer, compact vehicles.

Hardly a bus in sight. A largely empty city centre.

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Another surprise was the level of hostility and aggression. On my first day back I was amazed to watch a driver lean out of his vehicle and swear his head off at another driver. Why? Was he being delayed by a second or two? I made a mental note to avoid the company whose name was emblazoned on his vehicle.

There is no doubt that Christchurch remains a city deeply scarred by the trauma of the earthquakes. Many people remain angry or unhappy and some take it out on others. Christchurch needs to become a gentler, kinder, friendlier place. People need to relax and have more fun.

Making the city more accessible can help. Our obsession with driving everywhere heightens people's sense of isolation, and inevitable delays and congestion lead only to stress and frustration.

Businesses call for more car parks for the city to thrive. I agree that paying to park on wasteland is a rip-off, but what the city really needs is a more efficient way of moving people and goods around.

The best thing authorities could have done after the quakes would have been to flood the streets with low-cost buses to connect the city. Instead, the previous council got rid of the free yellow hybrid diesel-electric buses.

Now the new bus exchange has opened. People need encouragement to use buses. They could certainly be more efficient.

Light rail would be brilliant. Our gleaming vintage tourist trams look attractive in postcards but are absolutely useless for commuters. It would make sense to extend the rails around Hagley Park so that at least some local people could use them.

It is also ridiculous that in a flat landscape with existing rail lines Canterbury does not have commuter rail.

Changing the streetscape also helps. I would favour getting rid of grid layouts where possible and creating more laneways or market spaces. Design­ in curves, not straight lines. The Avon riverbank, to be redeveloped, and Victoria Square (which doesn't need it) are among the city's most delightful spaces.

Fortunately, some positive change is happening, thanks to a $75 million "Accessible City" project, being brought in by Cera and the Christchurch City Council. The plan, not expected to be complete until 2035, envisages an Avon Promenade along Oxford Terrace from Antigua St to Manchester St. Cyclists and pedestrians will take precedence over cars.

It is a great scheme, and essential if central Christchurch is truly to become a people-friendly, vibrant city.

But more action is needed. It's time to challenge the 20th century dominance of the car and look at more environmental, future-focused alternatives.

 - The Press

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