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Keith Rankin: Oh Auckland!

Oh Auckland!
2 November 2000
Keith Rankin

Auckland’s public policymakers have a longstanding problem; indecisiveness. One Tree Hill is just the latest example.

Last week, the lone pine on Maungakiekie was cut down at indecently short notice, on grounds of public safety. Six years earlier its life expectancy was cut short by a man from Kaeo who showed about as much sensitivity towards Aucklanders as Ariel Sharon showed towards the residents of East Jerusalem.

Surely, in 1994 the Auckland City Council should have started the process of deciding what to replace the tree with, and have made a firm decision by 1996 at the very latest. Instead, we are told that the consultation process will now begin. Although nobody has objected to the planting of pohutukawa on the summit, we are going to go on and on about consultation, with someone every now and again suggesting that “a totara would be nice”.

It is odds on that One Tree Hill will become the 21st century analogue of the Queen Street railway station; no nearer to a decision in the year 2050 than today. Or there may be a de facto resolution. The name "Maungakiekie" will become more prominent, and we'll just forget that there was ever a tree there, much as we forgot about Partridges (very large) Windmill that was removed from the corner of Karangahape Road and Symonds St in 1950.

The next casualty of the same malaise will be somewhat more impressive: the entire Auckland central business district (CBD), whose future appears to be as a combination of port, motorway interchange and 1980s/90s' theme park.

In how many other cities in the world is rush hour traffic congestion worst for traffic heading towards rather than away from the city centre? Even the Harbour Bridge is more congested southbound than northbound at 5:15pm.

A large and increasing proportion of Auckland's employment is in the belt close to the southern motorway, from Grafton through Newmarket and Penrose to Manukau City. So the latest private sector initiative – the country's biggest shopping mall planned for the former Auckland Power Board's site in Newmarket – takes on somewhat more significance than many of us realise.

Newmarket is in the process of becoming the centre of Aucklanders' Auckland, as opposed to visitors' Auckland. The mixture of popular shopping malls (Auckland is the city of sales), entertainment and banking facilities, and public transport access makes it into a natural hub for a population on the move.

When the CBD experienced its power crisis in early 1998, Newmarket was already in place to take over all the functions of the CBD. Many other CBD firms relocated, in many cases to sites along the Grafton to Manukau axis.

Rather than destroy Newmarket's character, the new Westfield supermall will enhance its status as the de facto city centre. It’s no longer the village that it was in the 1980s.

So the big question then becomes, is downtown Auckland saveable? And is it worth saving?

A further problem (in addition to indecisiveness), often sadly more common amongst left�wing local politicians, is an inability to see that many problems require analysis rather than staunch position-taking.

The best solutions to intransigent problems are often counterintuitive. For example, it makes no green sense to discourage people from bringing cars into central Auckland. In fact, I am sure that the greenest scenario for Auckland in the long run is to encourage more traffic into the central city. Auckland's traffic problem is "through-traffic", not "to-traffic".

The defunct Britomart Transport centre may have been central Auckland's last chance. It wasn't a perfect plan. But in real life you cannot wait for the perfect solution; you have to accept or reject whatever is possible. Not only would Britomart have brought trains back into Queen Street and become the basis of a coordinated public transport system, but it would have also been a clear statement that the lower Queen Street area was the business heart of the country. It would have given downtown Auckland the critical mass that it lacks.

If downtown Auckland withers, then the opportunity to have even a half decent public transport system dies. An Auckland with a hole in the middle – all artery and no heart - will be more than ever a motorists' city. And that's the way it's headed, suffocated by people commuting through rather than to central Auckland.

Well-meaning people still believe that the city's traffic congestion is linked to an excess of private traffic going to and from the CBD. Suggestions have been made to make it much more expensive and inconvenient to drive into central Auckland. Such proposals will just quicken the flight to Newmarket, and further disable public transport in Auckland.

The proposed expansion of Spaghetti Junction is about to get under way. The plan is to enhance the access of port traffic into (rather than by-passing) Spaghetti Junction, and to make it easier for cross-down traffic to use the central city as a conduit.

The current proposals have one thing in common. They will boost Newmarket at the expense of Queen Street as the real hub of Auckland. Further, they will make Auckland into a city of suburban nodes: Manukau, Henderson, Albany, Takapuna, Pakuranga, New Lynn. If we include Newmarket and St Lukes, most journeys will be to or between these eight nodal points. My guess is that 98% of those journey's will be conducted by private vehicle.

To develop a viable public transport option, Auckland needs today a Britomart- type transport and commercial development on the Britomart site. And Auckland needs a genuine alternative roadway (SH20, SH18) that removes much of the through traffic from the city centre. Auckland also needs an eastern corridor roadway that removes the massive amount of port-related commercial traffic from Spaghetti Junction, Grafton (the site of super hospital), and Newmarket. Then, and only then, will it make good sense to say "no more motorways".

Auckland needs more people to go to rather than through its heart, by whatever means. If more people make journeys to and from downtown, and frequent trains are coming into Queen Street offering a viable alternative to the car, then there will be a sufficient market to make public transport viable.

But that will not happen. In effect, the decision to make Newmarket the new centre of Auckland has already been taken. In an Australian boardroom.

(c)Keith Rankin 2000

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