A new motorway is set to open in Christchurch that planners hope will transform the city's traffic flow. It's the latest big-ticket project after the multi-billion dollar devastation wrought by the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. Over the past decade, they have slowly been put back together - but some locals feel forgotten, with some streets still pot-holed and corrugated. Why didn't light rail happen after the quakes, and is it too late now? Are Cantabrians even interested in public transport? Herald senior journalist Kurt Bayer investigates transport issues in the Garden City, which bills itself the world's newest eco-friendly and accessible.
The tangy smell of freshly laid coal-black tarmac hangs in the air. Hundreds of kilometres of quake-cracked and broken city roads dug up, redirected and relaid.
The newest project – the $290 million Northern Corridor connecting commuters from the ever-expanding Waimakariri District direct into the city; something kicked around since the 1960s – finally opens today; the smooth tarmac newly dried and aromatic.
But in the coastal suburbs, locals sense the prevailing easterly wind blocking any whiff of progress.
Pages Rd and New Brighton Rd, the main routes from the city into New Brighton, with its jutting pier, sandy safe beach and scenic coastline, remain bumpy, swampy relics of the earthquakes, which savaged the east. At high tide, New Brighton Rd, which snakes alongside the Avon River floods with stormwater. Although repeatedly patched, the busy artery still has smashed gutters and drains, and dangerous, rippled footpaths. Circuitous detours spring up like liquefaction.
Locals struggle to believe it's been a decade since the disaster hit and they're still having to put up with such conditions. They're fed up, says Jo Zervos, a vocal member of the Waitai/Coastal-Burwood Ward Community Board.
"Having to drive over these terrible roads, past broken footpaths and gutters makes people sad, angry," Zervos says. "Some have given up. It's not good enough."
New Brighton Residents' Association spokesman Brian Donovan agrees.
"A lot of people out east feel neglected," he says. "The fact that roads is a core issue, and we're still in a cone zone, it annoys a lot of people."
An "east-west divide" has split the city, according to Donovan. He can't believe the "constant remodelling and improvement" occurring in other parts of the city.
The Christchurch city councillor now in charge of roads admits the city's resurfacing programme has fallen behind.
The local authority needs to allocate around 6 per cent of its budget annually for resurfacing to stay ahead of even general wear and tear. But in recent years, that has been crunched to about 2 per cent. Last term, it was boosted to between 3-4 per cent but councillor Mike Davidson, chairman of the Urban Development and Transport Committee, says he wants the long-term plan to allocate more than 6 per cent to get the roads back on track.
"Successive councils have not put enough money on budget to start bringing it back up and it's continued to lag behind," he admits.
There's no doubt that plenty has been done. The scale of the devastation was unprecedented in modern New Zealand history.
About 1000km of the council's 1985km of sealed roads were damaged in the earthquakes. The worst of it was repaired in the $2.2 billion road and water pipe repair programme run by the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team until June 2017, but the work focused on restoring infrastructure broken beyond usability.
The $900m Christchurch roads of national significance project launched by John Key's National Government built several new sections of state highways – the Western Corridor to Christchurch International Airport, which relieved congestion post-quakes; the Southern Motorway from the key port of Lyttelton to the burgeoning western commuter spots and transport hubs like Rolleston; and the latest Northern Corridor.
Matt Doocey, MP for the Waimakariri District which has had a population boom since the quakes with people moving out of the shaky city, says the four-lane Western Corridor running from the old Northern Motorway past The Groynes beauty spot to the airport, was a "game changer" after businesses and workplaces were pushed out of the broken CBD after the quakes to places west of the city.
Doocey also campaigned for the Waimakariri Bridge to be upgraded and widened from four lanes to six – which will happen before Christmas – as well as a bypass through the North Canterbury town of Woodend, which has been mothballed by Labour.
But he says the Christchurch roads of national significance project has been an overwhelming success.
"We've come a long way because the earthquake of 2010 decimated Kaiapoi and in 2011 the fatal one, you couldn't build anything for a few years because of seismic activity. You'd even argue that motorway construction has only really started in the past six years," he says.
"The former National government has actually done more for transport and roading than any government in the history of Christchurch, especially for the northern areas."
Others aren't so sure. Davidson, and others, believe cars and new roads aren't the answer to Christchurch's transport future.
New motorways encourage urban sprawl, more cars, and more emissions, says Davidson. He cites the recent Victoria St and Hereford St redevelopments as fine examples of modern thoroughfares delivered quickly and producing "really good outcomes".
"What we want to achieve is a road that works for people, where it's good for everyone – whether you're walking, biking, on a bus, or in a car, it's a good street. And that's what we need to start focusing on. Trees, build-outs for easier crossing, slowing it down, wider footpaths, places for people to sit. It should give people more confidence in what the council can do in the roading space."
The current public transport model isn't working. Up until the quakes, there were around 17 million trips on city buses every year. After the magnitude-6.3 February 22, 2011 quake decimated the CBD, numbers plummeted.
They have never recovered.
In 2018/19, there were 13.6m bus trips. This year, with Covid-19, there's been even fewer.
Environment Canterbury (ECan), which runs the city's buses admits the impact of the quakes has been challenging.
"The numbers tell the story pretty clearly – we've never got back exactly to where we were prior to the earthquakes," says Edward Wright, ECan's manager of public transport strategy, planning and marketing.
"We've still got quite a different city to what we had in 2010. The central city has never fully recovered, in terms of its worker population. We still have less people commuting into the central city than we did in 2010. We would like to see growth, back to before the earthquakes, and beyond. Because public transport is a really positive choice in terms of reducing your emissions and congestion."
Davidson agrees public transport is "letting the city down".
So what about light-rail?
Many feel that the perfect opportunity to splash out and build a mass rapid transit (MRT) system was missed in the immediate aftermath of the quakes. It had been included as part of the first post-quake recovery plan, a light-rail network zipping out to the University of Canterbury campus and on to the airport.
But when the National government took over the city centre's rebuild, the light rail proposal was ditched.
Axel Downard-Wilke, a Christchurch-based transport expert, says politicians dropped the ball on public transport at a time they were "clear-felling entire city blocks".
Downard-Wilke described the Key Government as having "a 1950s transport planning agenda", which focused on the car.
"We missed the opportunity at that point in time," he says. And it wasn't down to cash, he believes, but rather "purely ideology".
But Downard-Wilke says it's not too late. It will just require joined-up thinking by the various local authorities.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party campaigned to develop a rapid transport network for Christchurch.
An investigation into MRT is under way, including a business case, which is due to be completed next year.
The business case is being done by the Greater Christchurch Public Transport Futures partners – Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, ECan, Christchurch City Council, Waimakariri District Council and Selwyn District Council.
The Herald understands that the focus is on the broad corridors north of Christchurch - between Rangiora and the central city - and the southwest between Rolleston and the central city.
A "range of route and mode options will be examined", road and rail, according to Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency director regional relationships Jim Harland. Each option will present "different opportunities to connect activity centres along the corridor".
"Details on routes, funding, timing and modes are not known at this stage and are the subject of this investigation," Harland says.
"Funding will be considered at the conclusion of the business case and will go through Waka Kotahi's normal funding and prioritisation process."
Downard-Wilke has his own thoughts. He proposes a light-rail loop from Lyttelton into the CBD, stopping at the Ara Institute of Technology, the new covered multi-use stadium, bus interchange, hospital, Riccarton Rd, and connecting back with the existing Main North Line.
Doocey, who lived in London for 15 years, is a big fan of light rail, as long as it's frequent and reliable.
Christchurch City Council is "pretty united" about MRT, says Davidson who stresses urgency.
"We need as strategic partners to agree on it and have a conversation with the government," he says.
"Because at the moment, the reality is that public transport in Christchurch and Greater Christchurch is not working. It hasn't been working for a long time, and that needs to be reversed. And if we're going to serious about it, it's going to need serious government funding."
He adds: "It needs to happen. At the moment, Christchurch doesn't have a congestion problem, compared to the likes of Auckland, but if we don't improve public transport it won't be long before it does have a congestion problem."