Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Moving on

Wellington Inner City Bypass trench detail - from http://www.transit.govt.nz/projects/wicb/gallery/photos/trench-5.jspWellUrbanites will know my views on the 'bypass' by now, so it may seem strange that I plan to take the opportunity to "Walk the Bypass" this weekend. Not, as you might think, to engage in some guerilla urbanism such as erecting a shed and then recording an album or brewing some ginger beer, or any of the other things that used to happen back when this was part of the city rather than a trench to help people get slightly more quickly from one suburb to another. No, it's because it's time to accept that the bypass is now a physical fact, and to look at the remnants of neighbourhoods around it, thinking about how the city's flesh can heal around the damage and produce the best urban environment possible. By walking along a route that will henceforth be forbidden to pedestrians, and looking at the newly-opened "heritage precinct" of relocated and tarted-up buildings, I hope to start some thinking and hence debate on the best future for this part of Te Aro.

Brent Efford has written an article for the Aro Valley community newspaper that sums up many of the same feelings I have. I've reproduced it here with his permission.


How to love your local Bypass
We didn't want it, we resisted it for decades. We lost. Active resistance collapsed soon after construction started but that feeling of loss persists to this day. The main bit of the Bypass opens December 28.

To deal with our grief we need to move through two stages:

Recognise the loss
The negatives of the Bypass are real, and justified our resistance:

Traffic induction
– it is obvious from local experience, and confirmed by international research, traffic increases to fill the lane space provided for it. (for a US summary of research on this see www.sierraclub.org/sprawl/transportation/seven.asp). So building the Bypass has simply added traffic which will clog every other part of the network. Promises of reduction in SH1 car journey times will be forgotten as over-all congestion mounts.

Heritage destruction – because the land had been designated for the Bypass, or even grander motorway schemes, for nearly 40 years the route became a unique time capsule preserving (albeit with increasing decrepitude) the last 19th century neighbourhoods in Te Aro. The relocation and restoration of most of the historic buildings, and the intensive archeological investigation do not fully make up for the destruction of the historic neighbourhoods.

Disruption – maybe not as bad as we expected in total, but it happened (and the lack of priority given to unobstructed footpaths in Oak Park Lane, Willis St and Cuba St implies a lack of respect for pedestrians.)

Other stuff - higher volumes of traffic, faster traffic at our front door (50 km/h? yeah, right!) and the ugliness of the trench structure are all potential negatives which may or may not be mitigated over time.

Move on
To leave grief behind we need to recognise that there have been positive outcomes:

Pedestrian and cycle access – the wide cycle and footpath provided beside the roadway will make pedestrian access to Upper Cuba St, Buckle St etc from the Valley much easier. Might even get me on my bike.

Building restoration – let's face it, the relocated houses and shops along the Bypass route have been very thoroughly restored and this will ensure their long-term preservation, albeit not on their original sites. Let's hope they are sold and used for their original purposes in the not-too-distant future.

No more excuses – remember how we were repeatedly assured by the Mayor and senior City and Regional councillors that the Bypass would make all sorts of liveability, pedestrian and passenger transport improvements possible once the through traffic was diverted? OK, perhaps they didn’t really mean it at the time, but now we can demand those promises be made good – more bus lanes, better bus circulation, traffic calming (especially in Ghuznee St), better pedestrian areas, etc.

It's a benchmark – the all-up price for the Bypass was reputedly $40m, including our stormwater culvert. Having monitored the work closely, I am sceptical that it could have been anywhere near as low as that. It will probably be revealed when all the bills are in that the final cost was significantly higher. However, whatever the cost, the size of the job sets a benchmark for major inner-city engineering jobs. It makes me more confident when advocating light rail through the city, for instance. There is no way that a light rail line would be a bigger job than the ICB – almost certainly smaller, in fact – so it confirms that extending the rail system is indeed affordable.

It's a permanent choke point - the Bypass was originally planned as only Stage 2 of the urban motorway extension – but in 2004 we were assured by Transit that Stage 3, a full 4-lane grade-separated motorway, was permanently off the agenda. We were cynical then, but the size and strength of the 2-lane concrete trench under Vivian St, as immovable and non-expandable as a hydro dam, seems to confirm Transit's undertaking. Which means that future travel growth in the corridor is going to have to be accommodated by sustainable, non-road, means – like light rail (even though the City Council bristles at the very mention of the term). And of all the Bypass outcomes that help us accept it and move on, that might be the best of all.
Brent Efford

There's only a couple of things I can add to that. First, I want to reinforce the "no more excuses" point. The Greening the Quays project is allegedly only stage one in a plan to humanise the mini-motorway that separates the city from the waterfront, and originally the intention was to reduce the roads from 6 lanes to 4. That's now been partially weaselled out of, with the lane reduction subject to a review of traffic levels post-bypass. I'd say to the council: if you have confidence in the bypass, commit to a lane reduction now, together with a rephasing of traffic lights so that pedestrians don't grow old waiting to cross the road. After all, if CBD traffic volumes dropped by 9% last year without the bypass, why wait?! Also, while the redesign of Ghuznee St looks pretty good, with widened pavements and some street trees, we should be aiming higher: remove some on-street parking, and maybe a lane or two at the Taranaki St end, and it could be a fantastic urban environment.

Secondly, I'd take a different tack on the "building restoration" section. Rather than letting Te Aro become the new Thorndon, with cutesy cottages and chi-chi antique shops, use some of the restored buildings for community facilities, affordable housing and artists' studios. Toi Pōneke is great as far as it goes, but it doesn't make up for the loss of affordable space due to the bypass and other redevelopment. Maybe even make this a "noise-control-free" zone, an anything-goes environment where would-be developers of expensive housing would think twice. Upper Te Aro will never be the same again, but perhaps it's not too late to retain some of the characteristics that made it, and hence Wellington, something special.


At 9:09 pm, December 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After taking a look at the new tunnel beneath the airport runway extension, I have to wonder why on earth they didnt go for a cut-and-cover approach to the trenched section of the bypass. How much more expensive could it really have been? And if planes can land and take off above the airport tunnel, I'm sure the area above the bypass trench could have been built upon - and if it couldnt, it could have been made into a park. Either way, better use of the land and less of an ugly concrete wound dividing the area.

At 8:05 am, December 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went through the "building restoration" section a few weeks ago. Sadly, it reminded me of Parnell - all a bit too perfect and therefore twee...

At 8:54 am, December 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I wonder if Kerry P will find the bypass as sexy as she found Len Lye's water whirler earlier this year. Triumph over opponents must engender a certain frisson.
On a more serious note I quite agree with anon about the tweeness of the restored buildings. The colours are in some cases appalling (who was it that chose blood red!!) and while it is good that the buildings will continue to have a useful function the character and individuality which I feel they once exhibited has been lost. The new owners can do what they like with the interiors as well, and many will end up as pretty but emotionally hollow shells. Oh well, I guess there's always pockets of Newtown & Berhampore left for a bit of shabby authenticity.

At 9:09 am, December 14, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Andy: Structurally, it's presumably quite feasible, but it probably would have been a lot more expensive. In the case of the runway extension there was a powerful commercial reason to do it, but land on the fringes of Te Aro is not yet so valuable that anyone would pay the premium.

At some stage it may become financially viable to cover over the trench, and I hope at some stage they do so. I don't think it's quite a big enough area for an ice rink, and the proximity to the new southbound lanes (and of course, the northbound ones below) would make noise insulation a big issue for residential development. That would leave things like large-format retail, a caravan park, possibly indoor sports facilities of some kind, and all of thise rely on pretty cheap land, but some day it might make sense.

Jo: I really don't know what to say! Except that you might like this page, though in your case it might be NSFW.

Anon: yep, what you can see from Cuba St looks way too shiny. That might all mellow out with time, but what will really make the difference is what's actually in them. This weekend might be a good chance to get some goss on what, if anything, is planned at this stage.

At 11:07 am, December 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

andy, I'm not actually sure the southern airport tunnel is built to handle repeated loadings. It is there to provide an area for runway overshoots, so would only have a plane on it in the very rare occasions when there was a fairly major incident.

But what you say is valid. The cost of trenching when the path is clear doesn't need to be that high. Since the path was cleared for the bypass there was no requirement to jack and tunnel under structures like Boston's ridiculous Big Dig. Perth finished (around the time the bypass started) a major 6 lane wide (currently restricted to 4 lanes by the road markings) tunnel through the northern half of the city for just over 200 million AUD if I remember rightly. This was just over 2km long. They faced serious technical challenges to do it, namely the fact that much of it was sitting below the water table and in soft sand, so it would quite literally end up floating up out of the ground.

The cost to run such a tunnel, 4 lanes wide in Wellington along the 700m stretch of the bypass would've been under $100 million NZD extra on top of the $40 million for the bypass. The biggest engineering problem was around the underground streams, and the trench under the Vivian St section (which was largely completed anyway). Unfortunately Wellington is stuck with the bypass, sadly there'll be no way now to convert it to a tunnel in the future, so we'll have to make the most of it. :(

Fortunately there are other great planning mistakes being made as we speak that we can get antsy about, Transmission Gully anyone? (Oh but wait, apparently we'll all drive electric cars that we charge at our kerbside power outlets by that time.)

At 11:13 am, December 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding the Quays, if traffic dropped 9% last year, and the bypass is opening soon, with the current net shift towards public transport usage. You're right Tom, couldn't be a better time to reduce them, it'll be a heck of a lot easier to achieve now than any time in the future. What is the story with this, has the Council made any definitive statements about what it is going to do or is it just wavering in the hope eventually it wont have to make a decision?

At 11:18 am, December 14, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

"Fortunately there are other great planning mistakes being made as we speak that we can get antsy about, Transmission Gully anyone? (Oh but wait, apparently we'll all drive electric cars that we charge at our kerbside power outlets by that time.)"

I agree about the Gully. And the whole thing about electric/hydrogen/biofuel cars is a bit of a sideshow from my perspective. Some of those technologies will eventually probably play a major part in replacing polluting, non-renewable fuels, and will be necessary for those transport uses that can't be replaced by public transport.

But from an urbanist's perspective, the main trouble with using private cars for everything is how incredibly inefficient they are with space. A bus with 50 seats takes up the space of two cars, which on Wellinton commuter averages would hold fewer than three people. Rail and light rail are even more space efficient. If everyone drove into work, the roads would have to be so big that there's be no room left for the city!

At 11:22 am, December 14, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

"has the Council made any definitive statements about what it is going to do or is it just wavering in the hope eventually it wont have to make a decision?"

I'd very much suspect the latter. Or maybe they're really hoping that waterfront traffic doesn't drop after the bypass so that they can avoid making a change that would be hugely unpopular with the roading lobby and those who fulminate that removing three carparks makes the council "anti-car zealots".

At 11:48 am, December 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In regards to the Greening of the Quays, it would be a no-brainer to lay a light rail track if any lanes are reduced.

At 3:28 pm, December 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They were going to have a cut and cover tunnel but they were penny pinchers, and yes you would have been able to build above it.

The full motorway cut and cover trench would have been a better choice because instead of having 2 sets of 2 lane arterial roads cutting across cuba st (vivian st and the new route) it would have been underground. On cuba st it would be far safer for pedestrians and you wouldn't even noticed the motorway was there under your feet unless someone told you. It would have cost $140 million and I find it odd that a billion dollar project such as transmission gully is no problem, but this is.

To all the people who protested this bypass - this is probably the 2nd best way it could have happened. (except for the cut/cover trench obviously) Something you should realise - had it not been for the motorway designation the buildings which have been restored and/or saved from demolition would have been demolished long ago (ALL of them, instead of just a few) and replaced with apartment blocks and other new buildings. There would never have been any sort of community there.

At 4:20 pm, December 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Something you should realise - had it not been for the motorway designation the buildings which have been restored and/or saved from demolition would have been demolished long ago (ALL of them, instead of just a few) and replaced with apartment blocks and other new buildings. There would never have been any sort of community there."

Anon, this is old news. Most, if not all, bypass opponents acknowledged this fact. A friend & I recently published a book that discussed this called 'Heritage of Health: a brief history of medical practices, maternity homes and motorways in Te Aro, Wellington'. You should check it out.

At 5:13 pm, December 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a solution to the removal-of-lanes-from-the-quays issue - how about lining each side of the Quays with angle parking: We could remove the car park under Frank Kitt's and create a better connection to the harbour there; the traffic would be slowed down considerable along the quays by people waiting/pulling in or out of parks, to the point where the bypass would become the preferred route; and the street parking would better serve both city and waterfront than the current options do. Of course, there would then be the ability to surreptiously remove these carparks incrementally with future improvements (I'm thinking long term here) such as a true boulevard, perhaps with a series of mediating public parks in the centre islands ala Paris... pentanque anyone...

At 9:03 pm, December 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding the extra cost of building a cut and cover tunnel for the bypass I wonder if hypothetically the extra rate revenue from all the extra development that could have gone over the bypass and maybe higher property values next to the bypass could have coverred the cost of borrowing the neccessary money.

A surface road always seemed short sighted.

At 9:51 am, December 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ix, interesting point!

Deepred, there are only a couple of issues that have appeared with the Quays route. 1) It would take away the ability to line the Quays with trees. The Quays are 30m wide at their narrowest points (or in fact 25m at Post Office Square). This could be resolved by putting some of the wharf side buildings on rails and sliding them back about 3-5 meters. There are at least two buildings (with a possible third at Post Office Square) that would be affected, but it'd be worth it. 2) The only main problem might be that any stops on the Quays wouldn't bring riders as close to their destination as other proposed routes (up Willis, etc.).

At 10:01 am, December 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about converting the bypass to a tunnel, say if a future generation decided it was butt ugly and how could our generation build such a thing.

The largest constraint is the Vivian St cutting which is only three lanes wide, and which uses much of any possibly alignment a tunnel could take. This exits at Abel Smith St, it would be trivial to redirect flows onto Abel Smith St while constructing the Willis St to Taranaki St section.

This could then resurface at an intersection on Willis St, and flows could be directed down the tunnel. Unfortunately this would be pretty ugly, so there would have to be a period where flows are directed back out onto Vivian St, up Victoria St, and then continuing down Abel Smith St. While the tunnel is continued under Willis St, and the Vivian St cutting is modified to merge with it. This would be an unbelevable disruption obviously to the city which is why I think it'll be impossible. Also the Vivian St cutting being only 3 lanes would need to be widened and Transit have said no capability to do this was put into the design so this would end up a costly exercise.

Sooo... how about we all just scrap it and build the tunnel now before it becomes impossible to redirect cars off it? Is this really that crazy to suggest? (Sometimes I think mistakes like this should just be realised, even if it comes late, and fixed.)

At 1:41 pm, December 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as i understand, the ORIGINAL plan for the bypass was indeed to have an underground tunnel, but people like the current bypass protestors (not the ACTUAL current bypass protestors, cos they wouldn't have been born yet...) raised a ruckus, delayed it for years, and so NOW they couldn't afford to do it properly underground.... sigh... now, of course, its just an ordinary menace, a street level slow motorway. Would have been far better underground.

And Jo, i'll take you up on that offer any time...

At 3:02 pm, December 15, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Deepred, anon6: removing a lane each way would certainly allow room for a dedicated light rail line, a cycle lane, wider footpaths, a wider median... or some combination of the above. I'm not sure I'd start with angle parking though: such "temporary" solutions have a way of becoming permanent.

Anon7: I'm pretty sure there would be room for a light rail track and some extra trees, though if it came to a choice between the two, I'd go for the rail. Also, tram tracks can run along a grassed right-of-way, and can look much more attractive than a road lane. As for the route, I agree that following the Golden Mile would be the best for serving commuters, but a heritage tram running along a waterfront loop would be a great complement to it. I discussed that combination in an earlier post.

A whole bunch of anon's: even if an underground bypass would have been better for traffic, and would have enabled better pedestrian access at the surface, it still has a several other problems. Es Brent points out, by (temporarily) reducing congestion, it would make driving easier and thus encourage more car use. In the longer term, it encourages urban sprawl because it makes long-rnage car commuting seem less of a hassle. And even if it would only have cost $140m (that seems way too low: what was the estimate for Transmission Gully back when that estimate for an undergroudn bypass was made?), that's money that could have made a big difference to public transport.

If CBD traffic volumes can drop 9% in response to what in the long term will seem like a minor burp in petrol prices, and when the public transport options are barely adequate, then what do we need a bypass for? Congestion charges plus a decent public transport network would do the trick. It's time to stop spending money on increasing road capacity, and time to stop designing our cities around the motor vehicle.

At 10:36 am, December 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The airport tunnel patterns are based on airstrip markings for the DC8 and the 747SP when they landed at Wellington many years ago. We quite possibly have the world's shortest airstrip that has ever handled 747s on a regular basis.

At 4:26 pm, December 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

and of course it should be mentioned that it was a plain ordinary boring engineering tunnel till architectural super-uber-gurus Studio Pacific get their hands on it and sexed it up... ...without any lube or artifical stimulants too....

if only someone had got them to design the bypass (oops Car-O drive) too...

At 9:02 pm, December 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I eat puppies.


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