Some observations: Christchurch

This post first appeared at TraNZport and is republished with permission.

Over the Christmas break I undertook a trip to Christchurch, where I got to use the bus system quite a bit as well as generally travel about the wider metropolitan area by bus, car, and on my feet. It was an interesting trip as over the last couple of years my visits to the city have been fleeting (note: I am originally from there but have not lived there for a decade). Here are some things I noticed of the city recovering from a devastating earthquake nine years ago.

The city is begging out for some better land-use

One thing I noticed driving, walking and busing around was the proliferation of big box retail in the middle of car park oceans. Even more amazing is how much of this type of development is going on in suburban shopping and commercial areas, next to major road corridors, railway lines etc. A couple of cases in point include the old Sanitarium factory site in Papanui (next to the railway line) and the Skellerup site in slowly gentrifying Woolston. Basically, anywhere you would otherwise think would be perfect for mixed-used, higher density developments aligned with good transport connections (i.e. transit oriented development). Think also of places like Moorhouse Avenue, Blenheim Road, and the suburban centres of Hornby and Linwood. The list could really go on. Almost anywhere you see a site that could be put to another use, it seems to become a Mitre 10 Mega or Bunnings. It’s kind of like going back to the 1990s, and the continuation of this kind of land-use planning into the 2020s puts the city a few steps back with each development. It made me realise why Christchurch is so far behind Auckland and Wellington.

Only I could capture this place looking so quiet. It’s packed most days, and shows some areas of the city are going gangbusters.

An observation that goes some way to explaining how ugly this type of development is is in the south of the City Centre. Around St Asaph Street, a cool neighbourhood is developing with lots of bars, shops, apartments etc. Further south, this gives way to ugly, car-oriented retail. Right where the railway station used to be on Moorhouse Ave, too. With a little more thought, and foresight, perhaps this neighbourhood could have been redeveloped into a mixed use node, and readied for commuter rail north and south. It’s a car infested eyesore now, full of supermarkets, car yards and petrol stations, plus multi-laned traffic sewers that give no priority to pedestrians, cutting the inner city suburb of Sydenham off from the city. Just my observation, but if you want to see city planning done really bad, this is it. Moorhouse Ave has kind of turned into Christchurch’s version of Auckland’s spaghetti junction. It’s a stranglehold on the city. How anyone let this happen is beyond me. It’s just really, really bad. Puke.

The buses are actually kind of useful, if you live near a high frequency route (hint: a lot of people don’t)

The high frequency routes are actually pretty good, though could use some better off-peak frequencies. The plan to increase all the existing five high frequency routes to every 10 minutes is a good one. The plan for a further four high frequency routes is better still, as is the plan for some cross-city routes. Whether that is enough is another topic for another day, but it is clear that there is latent capacity in the bus network. That requires more money, and given that Christchurch lags well behind its northern cousins in per capita public transport expenditure, if they want mode shift and better outcomes associated with that then the dollars have to drastically increase.

My observation is that peak capacity is a problem, and so is coverage of the city. The Canterbury Regional Public Transport Plan goes some way to addressing this, but I think a few more high frequency routes on top of those proposed could be looked at, especially the cross-town route between Shirley and Riccarton. Such changes would help the system move from a primarily peak one to an all-day alternative, the first step to a congestion free transport system. Needless to say, more bus priority is needed, and I was pleased to note more are being rolled out as I write this. Further, the city really needs to take a look at upping capacity through using double-deck buses, as in Wellington, Auckland and Hamilton. Furthermore, double-deck buses add a curiosity factor which inhibits the “loser cruiser” label often thrown at buses. Work is underway on a business case to improve the bus network, so we will have to watch this space.

The proposed future Christchurch bus network as set out in the Regional PT Plan. When will Christchurch see this rolled out? 

It’s a city built for cars. Period.

The thing that strikes me a lot about spending time in Christchurch is how much people moan about the cost and availability of car parks. This goes hand in hand with complaining about the intrusion of “hardly used” bike lanes and bus lanes, 30km zones in the inner city “holding up traffic”, and the taking away of “crucial” on-street parking. Yet, never have I seen a city of such a size with such abundant car parking opportunities and a lack of public transport infrastructure.  There are more than enough car parks in the city centre (it’s a common complaint in The Press letters to the editor that there isn’t) and another car park building is due to open on Hereford Street, one block away from the Lichfield Street car park building, and two blocks from the Crossing car park. And parking is cheap too, comparative to Auckland and Wellington. If you know where to look, you can actually find a number of free car parks pretty close to the centre of the city.

parkin comp

This article pretty much sums up everything that is wrong with Christchurch’s overall attitude to transport issues. It’s stuck in the 1960s. Christchurch only has to look 1000 kilometres north to see a city that followed such overwhelming car-based transport policy and the mess it ended up with. That same city has changed, putting money into public transport and cycling, and the results have already been truly astounding. (Hint: it’s car-loving Auckland).

The city needs a “big sexy hook” for public transport

I think, fundamentally, the most important thing in the city is to get the bus network firing on all cylinders. There needs to be a great, coordinated push to improve patronage and the share of total trips, which are lagging well behind Auckland and Wellington. Yet, having a key public transport project acts as a catalyst to changing public perceptions is crucial. Buses still do the heavy lifting in Auckland, for example, but it is the improvements to rail, the building of the northern busway, and now the impending City Rail Link that have really driven the changing attitudes to using public transport in that city. Christchurch needs its big, sexy public transport project, that goes hand-in-hand with bus network improvements. Business cases are underway in 2020, but mass rapid transit was delayed for technical reasons. That’s a worry  and I hope during 2020 something happens.

The reason I say all this is because my general observation is that people in Christchurch view taking public transport as something akin to being on a benefit. In other cities they embrace and own their public transport, but it just doesn’t appear to be the case here. I dare to suggest that this is not only because of an ineffective network (with little spent on it) but also because there is nothing of substance that can be used as a poster child, nor to build a future vision around. Rapid transit, in the right place, will not only provide a step-change in service, but act as a catalyst for a changed attitude. Look at recent light rail projects in similarly car-dependent cities like Canberra and the Gold Coast to see what I am talking about here (and check out this post on Canberra for a more in-depth take).

My own idea for a basic rapid transit project for Christchurch. The city needs bold thinking.

There is a sense of division holding things back

However, the underlying sense I get in Christchurch is that no one in a position to is really championing a change. Sure, the Mayor and ECan talk of the need for mode shift, but there isn’t any concept to sell to the public. If people can’t see and get a feel for what the future might be, they aren’t going to take it seriously. Someone influential, in power, needs to start saying “lets do X to achieve Y” and lobbying government for support (I mean, $100 million is apparently sitting there for commuter rail, but the region just isn’t organised or enthusiastic for it).

Christchurch’s only form of urban rail is an expensive tourist trap using antiquated trams. Shouldn’t a 21st century city have something a bit more modern and effective?

Greater Christchurch is split across four councils (Christchurch City, Waimakariri and Selwyn districts, and the regional council (ECan)) and with the growth of urbanity in the two districts there seems to be a real division starting to emerge. There has been talk about shifting public transport responsibility from ECan to the City Council, but for the life of me I fail to see how that resolves some of the key problems associated with the metropolitan area speaking with one voice on the topic. That problem, in my observation, is definitely holding the city back. A single transport authority with responsibility for public transport matters in the metro area would be a better solution, in my opinion. Such an authority could identify the issues with the public transport network and can focus on addressing them, both from local and central government (for example, getting increased funding to better match Auckland and Wellington per capita).

Christchurch has some great cycleways!

One of the few areas Christchurch has it over other cities is its cycleways. They are fantastic, and stay in one spot long enough and you will see people actually do use them. They are segregated, wide, and therefore safe. Long may it continue!

It’s not all doom and gloom (well, sort of…)

The city is recovering. The area bounded by Hereford, Manchester, St Asaph, and Montreal streets is really starting to feel like a city again. Yet, turn a corner, and you are struck with several undeveloped sites, often turned into grotesque car parks until future plans come to fruition.

Taken a while ago, but this view of the east frame has little changed in 2020. 

I hear from people when they come back from a visit one of two things; they either think the city’s recovery from disaster is going really great, or it is going extremely poorly. My own view is that it is definitely somewhere in between those two extremes, and certainly not either one. There are success stories, undoubtedly, and it isn’t an unmitigated disaster. However, I do think the city is a far cry from where people wanted to see it, both in terms of progress and the quality of what has been developed (particularly the built form of the city and its transport connections).

Remember the “Share an Idea” campaign? It was supposed to drive the eventual blueprint developed by the government, but it is really hard to see it reflected in the city several years later. Sprawl and the car predominate at levels like never before. Literally. Total public transport use is down, both in terms of per-capita and totals. That’s incredibly sad because, compared to other cities, it is like this “new” city is going backwards. I walk (or drive) around the city and just shake my head at every at the way it is being built around the car. The promise of a new dawn definitely faltered. It certainly isn’t what I would call a world-leading, sustainable city, and that is an indictment on the leadership post-2011.

Yet, it is not too late to change to a more progressive direction. Walking around the City Centre I see apartments starting to make their presence felt. More key projects are nearing completion (convention centre), underway (metro sports centre) or closer to a green light (city stadium). That should kick off more private development to boot. Population growth is strong, and while problems come with that there is also opportunity. Certainly this growth cannot continue with such an unsustainable approach to transport and land-use planning, especially in 2020. This isn’t Auckland 1966, although you could be forgiven for thinking so. Mode shift needs to be at the top of the agenda for the city’s leaders. What is needed is a better vision, better leadership, and an improved framework to allow that to happen. In my opinion, of course.

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