Christchurch is a Car City – Why Fight it?

I read a stuff comment a few weeks ago (I know I know, I really should stay out of there) on an article about public transport improvements that said “People need to just accept that Christchurch is a car-city – why try to fight it?”. Then yesterday I was trying to explain to a friend why I had decided to spend my evenings and weekends on a blog to try to change transport in Christchurch. She couldn’t understand why I felt so strongly about it.

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“Christchurch is a car-city”

I think there are lot of people around who genuinely don’t see that much wrong with our current setup, and therefore don’t understand why we should bother fighting to try and change things. So I thought I’d set out the reasons why it is so important that transport changes here.

Our current setup in Christchurch (along with most of NZ) is largely mono-modal. That is, it’s built primarily for primarily for people travelling in cars, with people travelling other modes being secondary to this. Our roads are typically comprised of several traffic lanes, and a footpath on each side. Trucks, buses and bikes generally share the lane with cars, with some exceptions if they are lucky (bus lanes, bike lanes). As a result, some 82% of people commute by car.

There are some good things about this approach; it works quite well as long as you don’t have too many people trying to use it and you are fortunate enough to own a car and are able to drive.

But there are a lot of bad things too. It kills and maims massive numbers of people – 14,000 odd every year nationally (that’s 1 in 300 of us – let that sink in for a second). It results in very high carbon emissions, as I’ve written previously. It is expensive – the overall cost that society as a whole pays for travel would be much lower if we primarily travelled by walking, biking, and public transport. It quickly grinds to a halt whenever you get more people trying to use it than can fit. It is the main reason we are one of the most obese nations on earth (an astounding two thirds of kiwis are overweight or obese).  It is bad for people who can’t drive; the old, the young, the disabled, the poor etc. It causes air pollution which is making us sick. It requires a lot of land; cars are the least efficient way to move people as this diagram shows.

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People moved per hour for different travel modes (Asian Development Bank, Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit, 2011)

And lane space isn’t even the biggest issue- parking for all these cars is the big space devourer.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. A multi-modal system can solve, or at least reduce, a lot of these problems. That is, a system that includes useful public transport, safe cycling networks, and a high quality walking realm, alongside a network for driving.

It is no coincidence that every other city in the world of comparable size to Christchurch  has decided to take a more multi modal approach than we have. It’s because it makes good sense, whether you are looking at it from an economic, financial, safety, health, environmental or social perspective.

When you give people genuine choice to use whatever mode of travel suits them best for that particular trip, they are better off. People who enjoy walking can walk in comfort, people who enjoy biking can bike safely, people who like the convenience of getting dropped off in the middle of a pumping city centre without having to stress about traffic or parking hassles can take public transport, and people who want to drive for any reason can still do so. Everyone is better off.

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Christchurch gets a lot of people opting to bike even with sporadic bike infrastructure. Research (Koorey, 2017) indicates a lot more want to bike, but don’t feel they have the choice as there is no safe infrastructure.

This view is not controversial- from what I’ve seen in my 10 years of working in transport planning, pretty much every expert I’ve met agrees that a more multi-modal approach would make us all better off. But unfortunately it’s not the experts who make transport policy, it’s the politicians, and they are merely doing whatever is popular with Joe Public at the time. And up till now Joe Public has never understood transport well enough to realise what is best. We somehow need to get the public to realise what every expert already knows – we need to get more multi-modal.

So to come back to the stuff comment;

People need to just accept that Christchurch is a car-city – why try to fight it?

My response was;

“Because fighting it will result in us being a happier, healthier, safer, richer, cleaner, more equitable society. All good reasons right?”

But I never got a reply. I think he was too busy commenting on the next article about lime scooters or something.

2 thoughts on “Christchurch is a Car City – Why Fight it?

  1. Good post! I am always stunned when I hear people praising cars as a modern means of transport. The history of cars cars goes back more than a century and it is showing. Why do we need a polluting 2 tonnes vehicle to crawl through the CBD which only carries ourselves and a cell phone in the cradle only to reverse this journey again at the end of the end day, paying for a vehicle that is often unproductive for most of the day? Cars are expensive to purchase, to maintain and cumbersome to maneuver in city centers. Cars should not be banned from our streets but alternative ways of transport should be encouraged. The true costs of driving (and parking) need to be passed on to drivers, these revenues can be used to subsidise (free) public transport and other means transport resulting in a more vibrant and green city.

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    1. Yep. Cars have their place but they shouldn’t be the only choice for most people for most trips. They’ve only become that in the last 50-60 years because we’ve chosen to build mono-modal infrastructure, combined with our failure to charge people the true cost of driving.

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