In the third of his five-part series on planning, David Killick writes that building better transport links is vital for the region's future.
Traffic. It can be diabolical. Drive on any of the major arterial routes around Christchurch - Riccarton Rd, Papanui Rd - and traffic often grinds to a snail's pace. At peak times many roads are tailed back from roundabout to roundabout, red light to red light.
Other main routes are clogged with heavy trucks, some carrying two containers that would surely go better by train.
Want to turn right? Wait till the light turns red and the opposing traffic finally stops then dash across, one car a time. A visitor from Wellington couldn't believe how few turning arrows there are at Christchurch intersections.
With its grid pattern and traffic lights at most intersections, you might drive 50 metres, reach 30kmh, wait for the red lights, drive another 50 metres, and so on. Try to turn out of a small suburban street? Road narrowing has made it harder, thus making main roads busier (although even once-quiet streets are now far more crowded).
At least there seem to be fewer boy racers. Another positive change has been getting rid of the ridiculous give way to the right rule: the new rules are simply more logical and help traffic flow more smoothly.
Smooth isn't the word for roads out east or indeed many of the city's earthquake- battered, scarred, potholed, and bumpy carriageways. Christchurch is perhaps the only city where SUV drivers actually get to experience off- road conditions every day.
All this is not surprising, you might conclude. The quakes have displaced traffic, along with many businesses, westward. You would be right, up to a point: but the snarl-ups are only partly due to the earthquakes, as are other problems besetting the city.
Traffic was already getting worse before the quakes struck, and what we are now seeing is the legacy of 20 or more years of a failure to plan for growth in Christchurch and its surrounds.
No, of course it isn't as bad as big cities overseas. Nor should it be. But for a city of just 367,000 - tiny in world terms - traffic problems seem preposterous. Even Auckland, with its population of just over a million, should be able to avoid them. Traffic flows more smoothly in many European cities with far larger populations. The reason is straightforward: better design and planning.
Designing and implementing a comprehensive transportation strategy including fixing roads is not nearly so sexy sounding as the mayor's and city council's grandiose wish list for more glitzy buildings like a Convention Centre and rugby stadium (which should, surely, have been covered by insurance anyway). But such a strategy is vital.
Part of the reason for the city's resilience is because it is so spread out. Everything is not concentrated in the centre and businesses have been able to relocate to hubs. Without them, many more businesses would have collapsed. As Sir Robert Jones has suggested, perhaps we don't need a CBD in the same sense any more. For cultural activities, concerts, restaurants, some businesses and shopping, the heart will be revived, but the suburbs are Christchurch, too.
Part of the problem is that Christchurch is bigger than a provincial town with just one centre, but not as densely packed as a big city. We need to rethink.
What matters is not so much is where things are but how easy it is to get to them. Imagine a series of villages linked by train or better roads. As these centres develop, more people choose to live and work there. Outlying towns in Canterbury become better connected. The linked village-hub model offers practical advantages in terms of creating new communities and neighbourhoods that are environmentally friendly and attractive places to live and work. Transportation fuels growth.
The alternative is to go on as we are: creating random new subdivisions on the fringe, with no thought given to how people who live there will get to and from work or other amenities.
Rail, buses, cars, and other modes of transportation are all needed.
Yes, we need better roads. Yes to more lanes, turning lanes, through routes, perhaps a ring road, yes to improving intersections and traffic lights, yes to making roads smoother. Christchurch's one-way system may need modifying. I don't think we need to get rid of it. But building roads alone is not the answer. As American Tom Vanderbilt writes in his bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us (Knopf, 2008), the more roads we build, the more they fill with traffic.
The New Zealand Institute of Architects proposed an excellent solution: use the mainline rail lines for commuting. They do in Wellington and even Auckland, so why not here?
Older readers tell me a railcar used to run from Rangiora to Christchurch. Commuter trains could connect points north, south, and west, and east from Lyttelton. (A line also used to run from Little River, now a rail trail). Imagine a fast express from Ashburton via Rolleston, reaching the city in less than half an hour.
The ideal place for a main railway station or a transportation hub would be the old railway station, not the present one, off on a limb at Tower Junction. But a hub is not part of the council's grand plan.
The mayor's proposal for a light rail system connecting the University of Canterbury and the city centre is limited. A highly detailed 2007 study by Jim Pickles, Light Rail as a Solution to Christchurch's Traffic Problems, proposes "metrotrams" similar to those used in many overseas cities. Pickles cites all kinds of advantages, and he may well be right. Light rail would be nice, but it would also be inflexible and super- expensive.
Thankfully, the city council voted not to spend millions of dollars - for now - on reviving the tourist tram by Christmas. Who would use it? And what would they see? A demolition zone. The tourist tram makes a pretty picture but has never been part of a practical transportation system for local people. Surely, it should be run entirely by private enterprise.
Improving and expanding the bus service would make a lot more sense. More buses, more frequently and reliably (and they are already not too bad), bus lanes, a simpler network linking main hubs, and onboard automatic ticketing would make a difference. (A Christchurch company, Connexionz, won a million-dollar contract to supply visual display systems in buses in California. Why not here?) More electric buses, like the yellow inner- city shuttles: modern purpose-built environmentally friendly vehicles. Japan is at the forefront of this technology and increasing its electric bus network.
One correspondent suggested simply building more bus shelters. Many stops don't have them. His efforts to get a response from councils came to nought.
In Wellington and indeed many cities everyone uses buses, so why not here? Better public transportation, buses or trains, and park and ride facilities would reduce the need for more car parking.
ECan launches its regional public transport plan this week. It would be worth studying.
Survey after survey has shown that everyone wants more cycle lanes. The best and safest, common in German cities, are off-road. As Danish architect Jan Gehl said, cycling shouldn't have to be a combat experience. (I do wish all cyclists would stop for red lights though, or light up at night.)
Pedestrians matter, too. We need proper pedestrian crossings to make Christchurch more people- friendly. I shudder when I see women with babies or toddlers in pushchairs, dog- walkers, or elderly people battle their way across the road, having to take refuge in the middle of the road while trucks and cars roar past a metre away.
Critics might say commuter rail or off-road cycle tracks are too expensive and Christchurch is too small. Yet smaller cities have them. The benefits are multiple and incontestable: reduced congestion, reduced fuel bills, reduced pollution, and reduced funding needed for continuing road maintenance. A proper public transportation policy would send a message that Christchurch and Canterbury care about the environment.
The real question is not whether we can afford to have such a strategy, but whether we can afford not to.
Without a well-designed plan, sadly, the best road in Christchurch will be the one out of town.
David Killick edits the monthly At Home supplement for The Press. He has a strong interest in design and has lived previously in Britain and Germany. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week: Architecture: the good, the bad, and the ugly, including the cathedral debate.
- © Fairfax NZ News