Tore Tysbo: Auckland's commander-in-chief is a car

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We may take our car obsession for granted but visitor Tore Tysbo is alarmed by the phenomenon.

Traffic dominates the CBD leaving pedestrians with very few places to sit and enjoy the city. Photo / Richard Robinson
Traffic dominates the CBD leaving pedestrians with very few places to sit and enjoy the city. Photo / Richard Robinson

After living in Auckland for a year, I've availed myself of quite a lot of what is on offer in this fairly sizeable city. The islands are beautiful, Devonport is lovely on a warm summer day and the view from Mt Eden is stunning. If it isn't blocked by Aucklanders out on a Sunday drive in their large 4WD's, forming a continuous line extending a couple of hundred metres down the road, that is.

There is much about the traffic in Auckland that amazes me. The traffic itself is brutish. Everybody owns a car. Everyone is driving their cars everywhere. Even to the top of the biggest volcanic hill in the city. People out on a Sunday drive are meant to ascend volcanoes with 4WD's in Auckland. Jogging or walking up there seems to be regarded as rather peculiar activities.

A volcano is far from the only place cars enjoy a natural presence in Auckland. As I walked (!) down from Mt Eden the other day, I stopped at Mt Eden village to have a drink at one of the delightful cafes which are visible from the summit.

For some reason the restaurants and cafes inhabit buildings resembling the Wild West architecture of 19th-century Nevada, but that's another story. I placed my order at the bar, notwithstanding I had to do it twice as the door was open and the traffic outside drowned out my voice.

By European standards, Mt Eden village enjoys a four-lane express way through it. On the shoulder of this, I sat and enjoyed my drink.

As the massive traffic depleted my peace of mind, and I started to get hungry, I thought I'd find tranquillity some other place and continued my stroll. But as I learned after walking for quite some time, about the only place where there seems to be some understanding of the pleasantness of not having 4WD's literally in their bowl of lunch is the cosy quarter on the corner of O'Connell St and Chancery St, downtown.

On my stroll there I had to cross Queen St, a four-lane expressway right through the centre of the CBD. Luckily, there are traffic light-regulated pedestrian crossings on Queen St. Luckily because on my way I needed to cross roads which did not provide me with the luxury of crossing without having to battle cars approaching me at ridiculous speeds, and I found myself trapped in the middle of the road by Grafton.

As I stood there, in the buffer zone in the middle of the road, I considered myself quite lucky to be in one piece and having escaped the wrath of the driver chasing me over the road. He employed an aggressive tactic; when pedestrians would cross the road some hundred metres before him, he would not slow down and let them pass, but rather accelerate and force them into the middle of the road. Whether this was reflecting his view of his ownership of the road or pure killer instinct I wouldn't know.

I can't fathom why cars have priority before pedestrians in Auckland. One cannot cross streets on foot without a green light telling one to, and a red one forcing the cars to stop. This makes for a fairly normal regulation of traffic. But when this red menace to cars is over, the green relief once again allows them to push records of acceleration to continue the harassment throughout the city. Not to mention the cyclists, waiting anxiously in the designated field closest to the crossing. Sitting ducks.

The city planning of Auckland is great if one desires simply to drive. There are expressways, parking lots and car access everywhere.

There are a few places to sit down and relax in an environment free of cars and emissions. The waterfront in Viaduct for instance, is lovely. However, the Viaduct constitutes only a small share of the waterfront in the Auckland CBD. The rest of Auckland's CBD is cut off from the sea by an express way named Quay St and a big container port.

Where I spend most of my time, the University of Auckland, there is also a relative absence of cars. The university has managed to escape the building of expressways. Almost. Insofar as the inner parts of campus do not face semi-trailers and cars, the faculties are cut off from each other by Symonds St running right through the University area, as an instrument in a divide and conquer strategy. Traffic being the commander-in-chief.

There are few places to actually stop and be in Auckland. Correspondingly, there are heaps of places to just drive through. Chasing pedestrians, paving parks, enclosing every liveable area between expressways and vehicles. Traffic plays the trump card in every aspect of Auckland. Is that really how you would like your biggest city to be?

Tore Tysbo is a 27-year-old Norwegian exchange student doing a final year of his Masters of Law at the University of Auckland.

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