Motorists’ Mecca, why the rebuilt Christchurch CBD

Bernd Gundermann can’t help but wonder why the rebuilt Christchurch CBD – intended to be a ‘people-centred city’ – needs so many downtown parking structures 

HAVE A BRIEF LOOK AT THIS SCENE, depicting an intersection of two four-lane roads.

We see cars, a truck and a motorbike making their way through a typical town paying attention to each other and waiting for their turn to continue their way. The illustration shows road markings, streetlights, even the hanger rods of the canopies haven’t been omitted; the provided level of detail makes the pic- ture believably realistic. Really? Where are the people, or are these already autonomous vehicles in a world depopulated by pollution?

Well, there are a few: a girl with pigtails trotting dangerously close to the curb, the feet of a man at the corner contemplating if he ever will be able to cross the street and a more courageous guy having one foot already on the asphalt. These citizens face the threat of being run over in their attempts to leave the city blocks to which they are obviously confined, because in this exemplar town, free movement is awarded solely to motorists.

This image adorns the cover of New Zealand’s Road Code. Therefore, it communicates what our government expects our young drivers to prepare for.

Although the vast majority of Kiwis lives in town and cities, the youth won’t get trained for the complexity of urban traffic, where pedestrians, bikers or moms with prams will be swirling in front of their cars. This title illustration suggests the simple world of the 1960s, when our precincts became bulldozed to make way for Californian style freeways, their name already promising the unlimited freedom to drive.

This is the promise that motorists – and the government - still believe in.

At touristic destinations, special signage informs foreign travellers that “Motorists have the Right of Way” to avoid fatal encounters. How hard can it be for a government to adjust our country’s barbaric legal uniqueness to international standards by generally giving way to pedestrians within towns and cities?

Changing the law doesn’t cost much, adapting the cities to people-centred standards in civil engineering, however, takes time and effort.

Christchurch’s rebuild, therefore, is the test if our society is mature enough to move up. When we look at the council’s beautiful brochures about the design of streets, lanes and squares, we might believe that we are already there. The imagery in these booklets is far out compared with the Road Code.

Walking the city, however, is sobering. Developers implement lots of car parking into the rebuilt CBD 

precincts, because ‘we cannot change behaviour on day one’ – but, with all these parking structures built, will we ever?

Yes, Christchurch has a centrally located bus exchange as magnificent as a cathedral, but across the (Lichfield) Street looms an equally stunning multi-storey car parking structure offering hundreds of spaces. Who will hop on a bus when people can have ample carparks right in the middle of the city?

Recently Christchurch’s newspaper reported that the numbers of bus patrons are in freefall and the authority in charge has commissioned a market research to learn why people still prefer driving.

Looking at Christchurch’s inner city car parking capacities it seems obvious that Cantabrians stick with their old habits. And it’s not only the locals that hold on to their custom. When inquiring how this ambiguous planning of a carpark next to the bus exchange could comply with the council’s ambitions for a people-centred city, I learned that the council had been overruled by the government.

That means, if leadership is mistaken for conserving superseded behaviour to please everybody, New Zealand will remain a driver’s dreamland and pedestrian’s purgatory with an overlay of contemporary urbanist window dressing. 

Changing the law doesn’t cost much, adapting the cities to people-centred standards in civil engineering, however, takes time and effort.