The $6.4 billion Let’s Get Wellington Moving package of transport initiatives is great for Wellington, but it also highlights how thoroughly, and embarrassingly, behind Christchurch is in making progress with developing a fit-for-purpose, sustainable transport system of its own. The stark truth is that Christchurch puts very little money into public transport, and the government returns the sentiment.
Christchurch’s per-capita bus patronage is actually in decline, which means that increases in annual bus trips are not meeting population growth. This is a problem, because every year greater Christchurch adds more than 10,000 people to its population. This means that it is likely that over the next decade it will add a city almost the size of Dunedin to itself.
Don’t be like 20th Century Auckland
Auckland learned its lessons the hard way, neglecting its public transport network and concentrating on building large roads. Effectively, the policy position was to cater to increasing numbers of cars, not people. The short answer to a long saga is that it didn’t work, so why will it work for Christchurch? Because that is exactly the approach the city is taking, following almost $1 billion of investment in motorways that will come to completion in 2020 without any investment in mitigation to avoid chronic congestion. The new northern and southern motorway extensions are set to create a series of problems from the get go as traffic is dumped into inner suburban streets that are already choked with traffic. Factor in the population growth and lack of investment in public transport, and the long-term prospects look more than problematic. Auckland changed this approach over a decade ago, and now the city is experiencing a public transport renaissance of epic proportions, ditching its old tag of being a car-addicted hell hole (2019 should see the barrier of 100 million trips on public transport in a year broken – Christchurch doesn’t even get 15 million, well behind per capita).
But wait! It gets worse…
Not only does Christchurch have poor public transport and no one using it, but a recent report released by PWC titled “Competitive Cities: A Decade of Shifting Fortunes“, which investigates the economic competitiveness of cities, outlined a number of positive things about Christchurch, including recent increases in income, and affordable house prices. The one thing holding the city back? Transport. In fact, the high costs of transport in the city (due to poor public transport and car dependency) are impacting on the advantages the city offers. Is it a coincidence that Christchurch is the largest in Australasia without rapid transit? Is it also a coincidence that Christchurch spends, in total, less than a third of what Wellington does on public transport, or less than a third per capita than Auckland? No. The answer is, no.
“An Accessible City” was a missed opportunity
After the 2011 earthquake a rebuild blueprint was developed to help the city recover, and part of this was “An Accessible City”, the transport component of this package. Initially, the Christchurch City Council developed a “City Plan” which included funding for rapid transit and substantial inner city bus improvements, but these aspects were dumped when the government of the day took the councils City Plan and mashed it up into their own version. This is a shame, because it could have helped foment greater expenditure on public transport from local and central government, filling the gap that was missing from Christchurch’s transport planning, and paving the way for mode shift, although there is a caveat in that they had to get it right, which isn’t necessarily guaranteed. Nevertheless, it never happened, and since then no other major investments have occurred, the two major public transport initiatives being the new hub-and-spoke model network (which was literally just shifting the deck chairs around rather then new investment), and a bus interchange in the city that replaced the one that was demolished. No increases in bus priority (except a little on Manchester Street), no money for more frequent bus services, no rapid transit, nothing.
So shouldn’t the government commit more money to spending on public transport in Christchurch? Surely the city deserves its fair share?
I agree that the government should be tipping just as much money into Christchurch to make public transport more effective and user friendly so that more people will use it. It’s simply not really even an option, not with the city adding 100,000 people over the next decade. It’s at this point that I need to illustrate that the responsibility doesn’t just sit with central government; both Auckland and Wellington councils have tipped in vast sums of money into their respective packages (well, Wellington still needs to decide on that, but the various councils seem to agree on things there). Basically, the government is willing to get on board if local councils are willing to up there spend. In fact, the government offered $100 million to get commuter rail going between Rolleston and Christchurch, but local councils haven’t been enthusiastic. Yes, that’s right. The funding is basically just sitting there until Christchurch (essentially ECan) submit a proposal for it, which they haven’t done. In the meantime, councils in Waikato have got their act together and now have a Hamilton to Auckland trains service on the way. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so to speak.
An Accessible City 2.0?
Greater Christchurch’s Joint Public Transport Committee recently approved the new Canterbury Regional Public Transport Plan, which outlined a vastly improved bus network, with more frequent routes and cross-town services, as well as the first moves towards a rapid transit network. This is great, but it requires a lot more funding than present to become a reality, and that is not guaranteed because greater Christchurch’s councils don’t have a great history of getting there act together on transport. Once they even agree to that, which might require some cuts from the sharp “knife of fiscal concern”, only then can the government consider its support for the increased costs. It’s not just more money that is needed here, though. A wholesale rethink of how people 10 to 30 years from now will get around greater Christchurch is needed.
Transport is not yet a major political issue in Christchurch, although it is an emerging one, and is a ticking time bomb of sorts with forecast population and car growth. The problem is that local politicians don’t really seem to see it as a thing to be proactive about, and instead deal with issues as they emerge (i.e. act re-actively), and do so on the fly with as little money as possible, which means the changes that really need to happen don’t end up happening (as we see with the motorways, which actually help embed car dependency without mitigation, and make traffic worse).
Christchurch had a really good chance after 2011 to reinvent itself, do what Auckland has done in a shorter space of time, and more definitive put together a balanced, strategic approach to transport in the city that was sustainable. An Accessible City had some good aspects, but was overall a strategic failure, in my view. There is a huge gap in the city’s transport strategy, and more investment will be needed to solve the problems that are being created through a lack of a holistic, strategic approach. An Accessible City 2.0, or Let’s Get Chch Going, or whatever you want to call it, would be a great idea to get ahead of the curve and come up with brave, effective ideas that work together to truly increase accessibility in the city (like my affordable, comparatively easy to implement proposal for a rapid transit start-up). Because, whatever is being done now, just isn’t working, and the city will fall further and further behind as other cities get their share of grease.