Fewer Cars = Good Times

Concerning city centres, slower speed limits, more walkable streets, and what lessons Auckland and Wellington should learn from what’s happened in Christchurch city centre post-quakes. This article first appeared over at TraNZport blog and is republished with permission.There is a lot of debate going on in Auckland at the moment about restricting city centre traffic to 30km/h. Check out Greater Auckland’s cool piece on this here but, to summarise, the AA is seeking a compromise solution of 40km/h, but the jury seems to be out on why 30km/h is by far the ideal speed limit in high density inner city streets with lots of activity. Check out this Spinoff article for further reading on this.Why is this so? Well, basically it results in far fewer incidents (you can slow down a LOT quicker) and any resulting impact from an accident between cars and pedestrians results in far fewer deaths and injuries. Yes, even far fewer than cars travelling at 40km/h. This is important because central city spaces are usually hubs for activity, including business, cultural and leisure, as well as being high density residential areas. What they aren’t is key arterial links designed to move as many cars as quickly as possible. Central city spaces are predominantly for people, not cars, and their economic performance is enhanced by enacting policy that support this, not opposes it.

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In addition to Auckland, I think that Wellington could use a bit of 30km/h love. Surprisingly, for a city so celebrated for its progressive and liberal views, the Wellington central city is a bit of a traffic sewer. It simply blows me away that Lambton Quay still allows general traffic down much of its length, Courtenay Place too. Featherston, Victoria and Taranaki streets are examples of absolute traffic mayhem most of the day, and are either dead zones with little street activity or sever different precincts of the central city from one another, being effective boundaries to pedestrians and stunting economic activity. Don’t get me started on State Highway One or the Waterfront quays. I’m like a broken record on how they disrupt Wellington’s inner city. It’s not just 30km/h speed limits that are needed, though. Street design is an important part of the traffic traffic calming package that allows cities to reinvent themselves and become much more attractive spaces to being in, becoming more about people than metal boxes of death whizzing about the place. Too often I see streets where a token 30km/h sign is erected, but the street remains a traffic sewer. I mean, lowering the speed limit is great, but there is so much more that can be done. I believe it needs to come with a wholesale rethink of how traffic moves about a city and, indeed, how much even gets into it.

 

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30 km/h but where is the love, Wellington? Still choked with cars and an unfriendly traffic sewer.

One thing I do not hear often is how these cities could look to Christchurch to see an example of what happens when pedestrians are giving priority in an inner city. Christchurch enacted a 30km/h zone back in 2016, and this is already having a positive impact on injury rates. However, the thing that really strikes me about Christchurch is when you are experiencing it for yourself on foot. Sure, Christchurch’s central city is not as busy a Wellington or Auckland (well, 80 per cent of it was destroyed several years ago and is still being rebuilt) but with traffic and people returning, and more on the horizon, it is an interesting test case.

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Having wandered around the city myself recently, I can attest that it is a much easier city to explore on foot than, say, Wellington (and yes, I’m discounting  hills here!) and I would go so far to say that it is quite a calming experience. While some might point out the difference in number of workers or economic activity overall, which might account for the “calmness”, the biggest observation for me has been the interaction with roads as a pedestrian, which, even when traffic was backed up for blocks (yes, it does that in Christchurch’s central city at times) I didn’t find it hard to navigate, nor find the traffic itself to be  too much of a nuisance. That doesn’t mean the city is perfect, it’s still a car-centric cluster overall, but the central city area definitely has room to make the most of its strengths (socially and economically) with traffic de-prioritised and people prioritised instead.

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In truth, Wellington does have a lot of 30km/h zones, including in the inner city, and I believe more are being explored. However, it is the overall priority that cars have in the city, and the lack of pedestrian priority and good pedestrian linkages that concerns me. Especially for a city centre that is increasingly peppered with high density apartment buildings, has the highest rate of per capita public transport use, highest concentration of employment, and is the country’s self-proclaimed cultural capital. Auckland is already proposing a wholesale pedestrianisation of its CBD, a really exciting project that you can read about more here. In Wellington, hopefully the “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” project, due to report back soon, will lead to better outcomes for the city.

Meanwhile, I think the changes already achieved in Christchurch’s core, with more to come, will enable some great social and economic opportunities, and have contributed to a really great space.

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