Has Christchurch got its Central City Right?

I went into town last Sunday to have some lunch and see what was going on. Unfortunately I didn’t do my research and promptly found that half the streets in Christchurch were closed to traffic due to the Christchurch marathon. There were some quite lengthy detours if you were driving in from the north (which I was). If you were walking, cycling or riding public transport you could still get through unimpeded.

Christchurch marathon map

I was in my car so it was a real mission getting in, but eventually made it and had my lunch.

Town was heaving.

Riverside Lane

Their are now quite a lot of bike racks scattered around the place and they were all pretty full, with bikes spilling out to nearby poles and fences as well.

Bike parking near the Terrace

I did think there was something interesting in this whole situation. Despite it being very difficult to get to the central city by car that day, there was still thousands of people enjoying the vibe there. If anything it seemed busier than usual. Quite a few obviously biked in, some would have taken public transport, some would have walked. Some (like myself) would have driven, enduring the lengthy detours because the destination/event meant it was still worthwhile.

I mention this because I see comments all the time like the one on Facebook below.

The hypothesis being that council need to make it as easy as possible to drive to and park in the central city, otherwise nobody will come to it.

My experiences last Sunday seem to indicate this hypothesis is not true. If the city centre has places people really want to go (like Riverside Lane), and has events people want to be part of (like the marathon), then people find a way to get there. Especially if you make it really safe and easy to walk, bike and catch public transport in. And even if driving involves some detours and difficulty in finding parking, people will still do that too if the destination is good enough.

I just found that CCC publish some good stats on the central city which seem to confirm this. The graph below shows spending in Christchurch’s main commercial centres (central city in blue).

It’s not granular enough to see what last weekend had, but some interesting longer term patterns seem to be emerging. Compared to Riccarton, Papanui and Hornby which are all flat or falling, spending in the central city is increasing year on year. And the rate seems to be exponential with the gains getting more as time goes by.

This is despite council lowering speed limits to 30km/h, removing traffic from some streets to make some amazing public spaces, and installing buslanes and cycleways. Council have basically implemented a whole bunch of policies which make it far easier to get in by walking, biking and bussing, but in doing so make things slightly less convenient to get in by car. It seems like this approach hasn’t resulted in massive reductions in spending as the Facebook pundits are predicting, but if anything has resulted in more spending in the central city.

One factor in the growth in spending is the growth in the number of people working in the central city. The graph below shows employment is increasing year-on-year, but still hasn’t reached pre-quake levels. It will likely take another 5-10 years for that to happen.

Another factor is the growth in people living in the central city. The graph below again shows growth year-on-year, and again the rate of increase is exponential with each year having more growth than the year before it. And again there is expected to be at least another 5-10 years more growth before we start flattening out.

In conclusion, it seems to me like the central city is in not too bad a position. All the metrics are heading in the right direction (up), and growing faster every year, even if they’re not yet as high as we’d like them to be.

If the goal was to increase spending in the central city, then it appears that Council’s decision to make it easier for people to access the central city by walking, biking and public transport was the right one, even if that has made it slightly less convenient to drive a car around. I would hazard a guess that central city spending would have grown even faster if Council had taken a stronger stance on this.

Town a couple of months ago when the Buskers Festival was on. This area used to be a road with a handful of carparks – after the earthquakes Council removed car access and turned it into a really nice public space.

How do you feel about the Christchurch city centre? Do you think it’s heading in the right direction?

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