The Bay of Plenty has become the Bay of Plenty of traffic, and we’re not happy about it. Our congestion woes have made more local news headlines than real estate over the last 5 years, and that is saying something in this country.
So how has this congestion happened so rapidly? And how do we get ourselves out of this, given that someone has let the cat out of the bag about how nice it is to live here?
Tauranga holds the record for the highest use of private cars in Australasia. Some would have us believe that this is because we are a city of people who love to drive and we wouldn’t have that any other way. But the reality is that we are not a breed apart, we are a mix of people from everywhere, and we generally make our decisions based on the best options available to us. This is an issue of design, and if we are going to fix it we need to be bold, future focussed and as a community we need to get involved, educate ourselves and be part of the suite of solutions needed to turn this juggernaut around.
Our recent frustrations are a result of ad-hoc and reactionary transport projects aiming to solve one issue but creating another: Bus interchanges sited within quiet neighbourhoods; concreted plazas trying to provide parking and community space and achieving neither; the green fields ‘free-for-all’ where mega malls and cookie-cutter subdivisions are plonked within a development zone with zero thought to creating community. These are all a symptom of a growing city with no clear vision and future plan.
Timing has played a big factor in our current car-centric city. Our most rapid growth spurts have coincided with mass car ownership – in the 50’s and 60’s when it was suddenly possible for most families to own their own car, and in the last 20 years when it has become normal to own not just one, but two cars per household. It is no surprise that new subdivisions are designed with this in mind, two car garages and wide driveways are the standard offering.
We even have minimum parking requirements to ensure there are parks waiting when we roll up almost anywhere. In fact, for every car there are an estimated 2.2 carparks out there waiting for our cars to arrive, (think about the implications of this idle tarmac for a moment, and imagine what your children would paint to fill these spaces – to give a sense of how much potential we have for our communities).
This inefficient use of space has resulted in rapid sprawl and made us even more dependent on our cars to get around. You can google “induced demand” to find out why widening roads will not help. In fact, please don’t stop there, google “will building more roads solve congestion?” and you will discover that an epiphany has hit home in the majority of the world’s most progressive cities and has produced an exciting shift to designing for people, not cars.
European cities were built during a time when most people had to walk to do anything, therefore houses and amenities were clustered together, and as the cities grew these smaller villages became thriving neighbourhoods of a larger city. This has made it relatively easy to design a transport network to link these dense neighbourhoods. Even though cars became a massive problem from the 50’s onwards and threatened to gridlock London, Amsterdam and Paris, the transition to a multi model solution has been remarkably swift and successful. City leaders have initiated sweeping changes involving a combination of levers including safe cycling infrastructure, public transport and road use and parking charges. Instead of towering car parking buildings and choked streets which were threatening to destroy the soul of these cities, the tide has turned – and trees, park benches and eateries once again spill on to plazas as streets are reclaimed and enlivened.
Our challenge is that our city has not come from a history of compact villages. But we are far from finished growing, so it is time to decide how we want to grow.
Internationally, cities have shown that building ‘upwards’ rather than ‘outwards’ is far cheaper for Councils over the long term – as a result of decreased infrastructure costs. Here in Tauranga, our Council is reaching its debt limits – due largely to infrastructure requirements to service our current ‘sprawl’ model.
Our city has been very slow to respond to the pending calamity of congestion and infrastructure costs. While other New Zealand cities have been making the most of the new Government spending direction to get congestion in cities sorted, our council has produced a conservative transport plan, which was rejected due to its lack of ambition and any clear evidence that it would have any effect.
There is however a light shining through our congested tunnel. Nobody likes missing out on funding, and behind the scenes, the wheels have been spinning faster than a boy racer in a cul-de-sac and finally, all councils and agencies have come together to develop a new plan.
The plan is called ‘UFTI’ (The Urban Form and Transport Initiative), is made up of all of the agencies and councils across the sub region – and is finally looking at both urban form and transport together. Their job is to develop a plan for the growth of our city which incorporates compact urban planning and multi-modal transport solutions in order for the Bay of Plenty to access central Government funding to move our city forward.
But here is where we come in. Our role as a community is to educate ourselves and take a step out of our own back yard to understand the opportunities for our city. We need to find examples of great design and we need to talk to our community, come up with local solutions and champion those that will reflect the intrinsic values and cultures that brought us here, or have kept us here.
We also need to choose elected members who understand the big picture and have a clear future-focussed vision. We need leaders who are not prepared to be swayed by the squeaky wheels who speak loudly for their own self-interest at the expense of the community. Ultimately, it is not us who will be paying the price of our unwillingness to change, it is our children.
The reality is that this is not about congestion. Congestion is a symptom, and it can be our vehicle to change. This is about climate change, pollution, road deaths and worsening health statistics, disconnected communities and unaffordable housing. This is about designing a better future through designing a functional city. It’s exciting, it is hope, and we should all be part of it.