The last time I spent New Year’s Eve in central Auckland was years ago. We had dinner downtown and as midnight approached, made a break for a friend’s apartment where we could watch the limp fireworks off the Sky Tower while avoiding the clumps of drunken teenagers and wayward boy racers hovering on Queen Street.
In 2019, things had changed. Wandering around the city, it was apparent that the crowds were different.
The increased population living in the now archaic sounding but-everyone-still-calls-it-that CBD might have something to do with it, and so might the improved streetscapes, or the concurrently running Elliot St night market. Or maybe it’s just the vibe of the thing. But whatever it is, it’s different now, and it’s better. Mostly.
AT advertised a decent chunk of the central city would be closed to cars this year, with a few blocks around Victoria Street from Albert Park to the Sky Tower promising escape from the near death experiences of last year. And they generally achieved this, with pedestrians, cyclists and various retro-future mobility devices granted freedom of movement within this sandbox, starting shortly after 10pm.
Part of the value of these events is that they allow us to see the city in a different light. With so many decades of the city being treated as a thoroughfare rather a destination and a neighbourhood, it can be easy to overlook that it’s now home to tens of thousands of people. This is especially true on the ridge of Victoria Street West, which on an average day feels like a glorified motorway off ramp, despite being surrounded by loads of residential. Pedestrianisation gives us a glimpse how it might one day feel every night, after the linear park is installed.
Step a bit outside the designated playground however, and business as usual was in full effect, with High Street on the east of the city largely being used as a feeder for the Victoria Street carpark and general rat-running – albeit with several businesses along it clued in to the increased volume of pedestrians, open and busy.
But the big test of New Year’s Even in Auckland is what happens afterwards. In 2018, people were crowded off overcapacity footpaths and convoys of Prius VIPs pushed through uprising pedestrians.
In 2019, thanks to pedestrianisation of a larger area, and cutting out of space for access to parking buildings, much of the danger of crushing by light machinery was mitigated, at least around Victoria Street.
But although so much effort had gone into providing separated vehicle access to parking buildings, much of the work to provide similarly good access to public space for pedestrians was timid: and pointlessly so.
With only a few blocks around midtown officially pedestrianised, no amount of cones were able to stop the overflow of thousands of people walking through the city after midnight. Lower Queen Street and half of Quay Street were impromptu pedestrianised, despite not being part of the advertised vehicle free area. Why not do it properly and just pedestrianise the lot to begin with?
On the public transport front, little has improved from last year. Almost immediately buses filled to capacity, and running at low frequency, stranded people at stops to wait – in my case almost 1.5 hours – before eventually becoming available. On the 25, it went something like this:
- 12.25am: Arrive at bus stop
- 12:30am: Bus full
- 1:00am: Scheduled bus no show
- 1:30am: Scheduled bus no show
- 1:50am: Mystery bus turns up
Others reported making it onto a bus, but it taking over an hour to get out of the city, stuck in traffic from vehicles leaving parking buildings.
Waiting in the queue for the 25, the roads began to hollow out, and the carriageway began to fill with the population from years ago again; people in cars with broken exhausts screaming down the street yelling abuse at the crowds stuck at the bus stops.
All sorts of people have started using public transport now – no doubt partly because they’ve been encouraged to do so by AT’s own advertising, lowered child fares, and improved service with the new network. Is it reasonable – or safe – to leave them and their families stranded after a huge and predictable event? Should anyone be surprised that now we’re beginning to provide a service… people want to use it?
Being abandoned at a bus stop in the early hours of the morning makes your mind wander. Mine wandered into the realisation that all the effort put into pedestrianising streets, carefully controlling access to parking buildings and fastidious traffic management was really for the benefit of exactly that: traffic. When the cars have safely cleared out, and the roads are free flowing again, you’re on your own.
Central Auckland feels like a neighbourhood now. With families, eateries, supermarkets, housing – and large events people will travel in for. But it feels like our authorities still treat it more like a nuisance to be managed rather than something to provide for and grow. In 2020, hopefully we’ll see the old attitudes start to shift a bit more, and as it becomes 2021, maybe we’ll be able to get home afterwards too.