What is in New Zealand’s Future?
Earlier this year I was asked by Penguin Random to contribute to a book speculating about New Zealand’s future, and now it’s out:
This is part two of my contribution, part one is here, part three is on its way.
IS THIS THE FUTURE FOR OUR CITY STREETS?
The war changed everything. In its wake so many things seemed inarguably, even permanently, settled. Technologically, the total superiority of the internal combustion engine and its even sexier new variants, jet and rocket engines, had driven the victory. Oil-burning machines were clearly so powerful, clean, modern and, above all else, American.
And this, too, was now proven. The United States stood alone and above this ruined world, economically, technologically, but also culturally. It is hard to overstate the moral hegemony the US had acquired by 1945. Its machines were not only better, but also its ideas, its people, its ways of living — or was each better because of the others? Could we, too, through the simple act of imitation, all become rich and strong and good like Americans?
What, perhaps other than Coca-Cola, symbolised this more than the private car? Everything about this device seemed to perfectly express the American ideal. It is for the individual, not the collective, owned and directed by each driver, not restricted to a fixed route or timetable, available in a variety of shapes and colours to project personal taste for those that can afford it. An engine, therefore, both profoundly utilitarian and an expression of superiority and success; perhaps the perfect symbol and natural culmination of the triumph of capitalism. Even though it always relies on publicly funded roads and streets to function, the private car nonetheless seems to be the perfect embodiment of Pax Americana. We all still hear this formation today: Cars = freedom.
Postwar New Zealand cities, like the rest of the world, were largely unready for this. They were small and relatively compact, driven by steam trains and electric trams. City centres were dense and the streets and roads were modest because of the inherent spatial efficiency of these main transport modes; trams and trains can carry a lot of people (and trains freight) on relatively narrow right of ways.
Our cities had spread modestly during the first half of that century, with new suburbs linked through the extension of electric tramways. This was the revolutionary urban transport technology of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, connecting the bungalow and state house suburbs beyond the Victorian inner suburbs.
The Victorians, being the truest proponents of laissez-faire, allowed every aspect of life — industry, commerce, education, play, even waste disposal — to occur all at once and wherever. The disadvantages of this in an age of fairly toxic industrial practices and coal-fired energy led to the city beautiful movement — the urge to get away from the chaos and unpleasantness of the unregulated Victorian city. To move families away and apart to clean and green new pastures: the suburb. The tramway suburbs were conceived in this light; leafy, airy, separate.
This also of course fitted neatly with the ever-present industry of land speculation; the problem, however, was not a want of cheap land, but rather the need to efficiently connect these new areas to the old centres of industry, commerce, and society; the urbs to which these areas are sub. In New Zealand as in Britain and the United States, the first new dormitory suburbs were made possible by tramways and railways (cable-cars, too, in Wellington and San Francisco). And we can still see how these transport technologies shaped these places. Railway-oriented development is clearly patterned by a clustering around stations, but tramway suburbs are characterised by several more subtle features, which have left them with a timeless desirability.
First is the street layout. Trams, or streetcars, needed to run on coherent linear routes, which called for an orthogonal-grid street pattern (called ‘Jeffersonian’ in the US) wherever possible; it’s most visible in Christchurch, Whanganui, the isthmus in Auckland, but generally not easy to deliver on New Zealand’s folded topography. And yet even over difficult terrain this makes for a great interconnected street pattern for any sort of movement technology.
Then there are the stops: more frequent and less dominating than train stations, but still visible today by the extant cluster of several two- or three-storey shops with living above, built right up to the pavement to provide shelter and commerce for the traveller. It is these that saved the new suburbs from being monotone bedroom ’burbs. Even today, so many are still neighbourhood-enriching shops, cafes, and bars.
Thirdly, the streets are all connected by walkways. Semi-secret now, these were all carefully placed to ease connection by foot, especially to tram stops but also schools and shops and parks. So while they remain relatively low-density detached-house suburbs, these tram-built ’burbs are still at core successfully mixed-use, connected, and above all highly walkable.
Before the war, cars crept gradually into this world. Limited to the wealthy minority, they simply added an additional layer of mobility for those who could afford it. And because first the Great Depression, then the war, limited vehicle numbers to usually the local doctor, lawyer, and occasional successful businessman, both the exclusivity and (especially) the effectiveness of the mode were maintained. The car retained all its desirability through scarcity, and the roads and streets were kept efficient because most people were still riding the trams and trains. In fact, Auckland in the late 1940s, with its widespread and frequent tram system (‘Always a tram in sight’), reported the world’s highest proportion of public transport users in any first-world city.
Then came the revolution. From the late 1940s all across the world almost every city had widespread tramways and almost every city ripped them up. Only a handful retained them, most notably Melbourne and Toronto, always through quirks of local politics and public outcry, but even in these places their systems shrank back or were no longer extended until late last century when they became valued again.
No New Zealand city retained its tramway. The forces at work here were the same as everywhere: with rising car traffic the trams were blamed for the increasing traffic congestion; they were seen as old-fashioned (‘Streetcars are as obsolete as the horse and buggy’ — Toronto, 1966), criticised for being ‘inflexible’, which is to say un-car-like, and attacked by well-connected motorists’ groups and the growing automobile industry. What ultimately sealed their fate was the fact that everywhere the systems had not been invested in through the privations of (again) the Depression and war, and all were due major upgrades to vehicles and systems alike.
Even though Auckland’s trams, for example, were still extremely effective and running at an operating surplus, the need for major public investment doomed them in the face of the not-unreasonable idea that their market could be served just as well, if not better, by ‘modern’ diesel buses. But the removal of the tramways through 1949–56, and their replacement with buses, led to an immediate collapse in public transport use, one that has been described as ‘the largest decline in public transport patronage recorded over this period in any large city in the world’.3 Partly this was to do with the spread of car ownership, which began to accelerate in the 1950s as a result of increased availability and investment in motorways, but it was also because the buses did not have priority on the streets like the trams before, instead becoming ever more delayed behind ever more cars.
Slowly we discovered our road and street networks straining under the burden of taking every tramload of people and expecting them all to find space to drive a car, especially into the city. But by then it was too late — or rather, the growing mass of vehicles just underlined further that this was the future. In every year from 1946 until the oil crisis of the 1970s the price of crude oil fell, and the postwar economic boom expanded the number of households and businesses able to buy a car.
Naturally looking to our new American overlords for guidance (‘America’s most faithful disciple’),4 the chosen answer to this problem was an all-in commitment to a brave new world of dedicated motorways and car-parking structures, and to gift every existing piece of carriageway over to private car users. All while defunding and managing down our railways, and even those new buses, to near-oblivion.
This became the single-minded direction of all transport policies for the rest of the last century and into the current one. The 1955 Master Transport Plan used photographs of wide American freeways and clover-leaf intersections on bright sunny days and contrasted them with gloomily shot tram-filled Auckland city streets to great effect. It is still orthodox to consider that ‘transport policy = road-building’, and this was enshrined into funding policy; New Zealand is still the only country other than the US that ring-fences transport taxes for transport use (which quickly became understood specifically as road-building). And when it comes to transport choices, what we fed grew; New Zealand now has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world.
Transport investment decisions always have urban form consequences. The Auckland Harbour Bridge created the North Shore suburbia in both fact and pattern. Because it is a road-only bridge, the new suburbs built in its wake are entirely on an auto-dependent pattern, hard (but not impossible) to now retrofit with alternative modes. The same goes for east Auckland over the Tamaki River, and the rest of the new suburbs built after the war. There was not even a right of way reserved for possible future rapid transit systems, so total was the belief in a car-only future.
Just a decade later, in 1965, more American consultants were hired to guide us, but this time they advised a ‘balanced’ rapid transit and motorway system, now that the folly of the imbalanced approach was already patently obvious. But the way our institutions were now set up there was no funding source for half of the programme, so the rail/bus rapid transit part of the De Leuw Cather plan was ignored while motorway expansion continued; this included the construction of the southern hemisphere’s biggest urban motorway interchange, Spaghetti Junction, which led to the complete physical severance of the city centre from its inner suburbs.
This worked as far as it went, but by end of century it had well and truly hit its limits. The need to revive an effective transit system in order to relieve this huge investment became all too clear as Auckland succumbed to the inevitable outcome of such an all-in car-only policy: the urban cancer of traffic congestion.
Additionally, the consequences of over half a century of this monotone policy is a monotonous world. Auto-dependent suburbs, like the tram-built suburbs before them, come with their own pattern language. Gone is the grid; the swooping cul-de-sac is king now, with no more compact two-storey corner shops and very few pedestrian short-cuts. What little amenity there is has been placed at driving distance and supplied with acres of parking — including, ironically, the gym and, unbelievably, the pub. The car not only conquers distance, but also enforces it.
The result is large swathes of dormitory zones, pepperpotted with enormous shopping centres, set back and separated from their communities by oceans of tarmac, all served by multi-lane highways and intersections uncrossable on foot. And this, too, created a cultural shift.
Auto-dependency is a very precise phrase. It describes a culture of addiction. People cannot imagine executing even the simplest of tasks in these areas without first grabbing their car keys. And this is not because of love or desire, as expressed in the inane observation that ‘Kiwis just love their cars’; it is because of design, because of policy. These new suburbs are incredibly difficult to use outside of a car. There’s nowhere safe to ride a bike, no efficient transit service, not even anywhere close by to walk to.
Furthermore, a key outcome of dependency is compulsive behaviours. These areas generate the most change-resistant politics, characterised by wildly overblown reactions to any plan to remove a car-parking space, or even add more movement options for the direct benefit of both locals and drivers. These reactions speak of irrational fears, of the addict concerned only about the fix.
This model comes arm-in-arm with appalling rates of death and serious injury from crashes, an epidemic of the diseases of inactivity, such as diabetes, and, for such a low population, wastefully high levels of traffic congestion. Economists estimate the annual cost of traffic deaths and serious injuries in Auckland at around $1.3 billion — about the same figure they come to for the cost of congestion. These are huge burdens imposed by our drive-only city planning decisions.
So now we are confronted with the paradox of trying to spread the freedom the car offers individually to everyone for all journeys; but driving is great until everyone is doing it. It worked so well, and was so direct and desirable, when most people were still on the spatially efficient trams and trains. Now that everyone drives, for every journey, it’s a bust. And traffic sure is democratic: we all get stuck in the same congestion, because we are that congestion. The six-lane Pakuranga Highway is the busiest non-motorway road in the country, uncrossable by foot, often maddening to use in a vehicle, without relief from any alternative. Destined to choke itself to death, it’s a monument to the naivety of postwar planning.
Both new suburbs and new highways exhibit a version of the ‘boiling frog’ metaphor in their life cycles. Both start out relatively clear — the new suburb still with something of the countryside it replaces about it, and the highway free-flowing to begin with — but their very success becomes their dysfunction. Additionally, all this driving out in the new suburbs never stays there; the freedom to drive demands access all areas, including the old tram-built suburbs, the even denser and entirely pre-car Victorian ones, and the city centre itself. This has led to massive retrofitting of motorways through established areas, with wholesale demolition and division of places and communities.
There is, however, a solution to these problems. And it doesn’t involve destroying what’s good about the last century’s world, but augmenting it with what’s currently missing. And not only that, but we’re actually doing it.
1 Paul Mees & Jago Dodson (2001). An American Heresy: Half a century of transport planning in Auckland. Presented to NZ Geographical Society & Australian Institute of Geographers conference, University of Otago, Dunedin.
2 David Owen (2009). Green Metropolis: Why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are the keys to sustainability. New York: Riverhead (a Penguin imprint).
3 Mees & Dodson (2001).
5 Jeff Speck (2012). Walkable City: How Downtown can save America, one step at a time. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
6 Alan Ehrenhalt (2012). The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. New York: Knopf.
7 Charles Montgomery (2013). Happy City: Transforming our lives through urban design. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.