There was good news recently, in Christchurch, when the Christchurch City Council unanimously agreed to reconsider how it manages the downstream effects of the soon to open northern motorway extension. In short, it recognises that the impact of more than 40,000 vehicles being funnelled into inner-suburban streets is not something that is desirable, and creates a lot more problems than benefits. It recognises that more needs to be done to discourage people from using there cars, that public transport alternatives are not up to scratch.
The question that needs to be asked is, how did this situation occur?
A little history…
Back in the mid-1960s the Christchurch Master Transportation Plan was produced which provided for a network of new and improved road links across the city. This included an improved arterial road network, which is where the one-way system and the quasi-motorway Brougham St come from, a network of cross-city expressways, largely built during the 1980s and 1990s as two lane roads like QEII Drive, and a not insignificant north-south motorway spine.
Over time, the motorway aspects of the plan were shaved back. Initially consisting of a northern motorway cutting through St Albans and the Central City, meeting a southern motorway in Waltham, with a short east-west motorway through Hagley Park and across the northern Central City (the much derided “Fendalton-Avonside Motorway”), the later aspect was cut, and the central section through the Central City was removed. Then, later still, the northern and southern motorways were cut back to terminate at Cranford Street and the west end of Brougham Street respectively. So, in essence, the current Christchurch Motorways built as part of the previous governments Roads of National Significance programme, were to complete this motorway plan from the 1960s. However, as you can probably guess, this is a fundamentally flawed plan.
Ignore the (many) usual reasons for why investing in roads-only approaches is flawed, and consider that this plan is finishing a network that is no longer fit for purpose. For a start, the northern motorway will terminate into Cranford Street, depositing tens of thousands of vehicles per day onto a Christchurch City Council controlled road. The Council were expected to deal with the downstream effects of this, which effectively meant acquiescing to the governments roads-only approach to transport policy. To boot, there was no money for public transport to mitigate the effects of the motorway extension, no congestion management, and HOV lanes have had to be battled for, with only small wins so far.
The government effectively built State Highway One into inner-suburban Christchurch despite the fact that State Highway One had long ago moved to the west. So it begs the question of why this link was built as it was. A motorway without a proper role, dumping thousands of vehicles daily onto suburban streets, without he city left to pick up the tab and deal with the effects. How this decision came to pass is beyond me, it’s simply appalling.
This is possibly the worst road funding decision I have ever heard of in New Zealand, because it’s based on completing a plan that is woefully out of date. It actually makes things worse than they were, by shifting the problem to an area that is even less equipped to deal with it, as well as doubling-down on an unsustainable approach for linking Waimakariri and Christchurch. Although I wouldn’t have been in favour of it, given the previous government’s penchant for roads, I’m actually surprised they didn’t throw in cash to widen Cranford Street while they were at it. This would have locked in auto-dependence, and simply shifted problems again, but at least you could say that they were applying some sort of consistent logic, even if it was flawed.
The Downstream Effects Management Plan (DEMP) attempted to effectively deal with the extra traffic, however it did this by making the journey as nice and lovely as possible for cars rather than taking into account the impact these vehicles would have on the community, both at a micro and macro level. Thankfully, this was plan was canned by the Council a few days ago, and I have to say that the speeches given by a number of councillors were incredibly encouraging. Reducing car dependence by providing mitigation through improved public transport and encouraging higher occupancy of vehicles (i.e. car pooling) is certainly something that should be a priority, yet the initial approach didn’t seem to do enough.
So what should happen? This is potentially a turning point for Christchurch, and you would hope the city pivots from here and begins to look at its transport provisioning with a more open eye. To get people to use public transport some big changes are necessary, beyond anything the city has considered before.
Ultimately, any investment in public transport will need to be good enough to attract people if serious mode shift is desired. The first, and most obvious, action that could be done is improving bus services. That’s no easy feat as buses will be stuck in the same traffic as cars, but introducing HOV lanes on the motorway, and bus lanes on Cranford Street, would be a good start. Improved park and ride facilities would also be desirable, and I see that a park and ride facility at QEII Drive interchange is one proposal being thrown about, to discourage people commuting by car all the way into the inner-suburbs (I guess). See this post on Talking Transport for a really inspiring plan for how express bus services might happen, by Axel Wilke.
HOV lanes would also be a good legacy project regardless of the future direction of rapid transit to the north. I still think developing the rail line is a desirable medium to long term option (see here and here) but investing in better bus services is also desirable and doesn’t impinge on the future provision of rail, as HOV lanes would be very useful for more than just buses (and that’s a good thing, in this instance).
A good outcome from a bad situation…
While I slap my forehead in disbelief at what is an utterly terrible situation that was allowed to develop (including spending millions to get there), it nevertheless could serve as a catalyst for significant, positive change. That is a very good thing. It illustrates the futility of roads-only transport approaches and, in my view, provides a bit of an early warning alarm that the city is going down the old “Auckland approach” to transport, which most people would agree is desirable to avoid. The reaction thus far is overwhelmingly positive, if completely reactive, but the outcome might be a more proactive one in the long term. We have seen that poor funding of public transport in Christchurch leads directly to poor outcomes, and this situation with the Northern Corridor is a microcosm of that issue. Politicians are now realising that they have to seriously engage and strategise, and put their money where their mouths are, to foment positive change. I certainly look forward to the outcomes of this, and hope it is the pivot point the city desperately needs to move to a truly balanced transport network with high quality public transport options.