Gridlock

Tauranga's traffic congestion is out of control, with new figures showing an alarming increase in the vehicle count at 10 of our busiest intersections.

But what does Heidi Hughes, a member of the transport advocacy group Greater Tauranga, think about it? In a guest editorial, Hughes gives her opinion on why the city is struggling with traffic and what needs to be done and who needs to solve it.

COMMENT:

The Bay of Plenty has become the Bay of Plenty of traffic, and we're not happy about it.

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Our congestion woes have made more local news headlines than real estate over the past five 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?

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.

The reality is that we are not a breed apart, 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.

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 plan.

Timing has played a significant factor in our current car-centric city.

Our most rapid growth spurts have coincided with mass car ownership – in the '50s and '60s, and the last 20 years when it has become normal to own not just one, but two cars per household.

"This is an issue of design and, if we are going to fix it, we need to be bold."

It is no surprise that new subdivisions are designed with this in mind, two-car garages and wide driveways are the standard offerings.

We even have minimum parking requirements: there are an estimated 2.2 carparks out there waiting for our cars to arrive.

This inefficient use of space has resulted in rapid sprawl and made us even more dependent on our vehicles 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.

Even though cars became a massive problem from the '50s onwards and threatened to gridlock London, Amsterdam and Paris, the transition to a multi-modal 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 carpark 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.

Morning traffic on Turret Rd. Photo / George Novak
Morning traffic on Turret Rd. Photo / George Novak

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.

Our city has been 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, 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' (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 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 understand the opportunities for our city. We need to find examples of great design and 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-focused vision.

We need leaders who are not prepared to be swayed by the squeaky wheels who speak loudly for their 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 by designing a functional city. It's exciting, it is hope, and we should all be part of it.