All hail the painter Chris Dews, one of my favourite Aucklanders right now. He had a short exhibition last week of his paintings of an Auckland that might never be but is utterly worth imagining. He's even fronting up to council in a few weeks to pitch the vision.
Here's one of them: Waihorotiu Restoration, showing the stream under Queen St daylighted and flowing freely past the town hall. Gorgeous.
Auckland can already be gorgeous, of course. You can't beat it on a good day, and it sure was a good day last Saturday. All the sunshine, all the shops open and the parks and beaches beckoning, and Auckland Transport invited everyone to ride the trains and buses and some of the ferries for free.
Amazing. Patronage jumped 21 per cent on the previous Saturday.
Public transport has taken a battering in the wake of Covid but last Saturday numbers were back to 94 per cent of where they used to be.
Crowds milled around downtown, spilling in and out of Commercial Bay, checking out Te Ngauo Horotiu – the brand-new ferry piers on Queens Wharf – and the lovely new Te Wānanga plaza on the edge of western Quay St.
There were crowds uptown too, cruising the refurbished and bristling-with-life-once-more Karangahape Rd.
AT says Hop card use was up around 20,000 people. The business group Heart of the City reckons the pedestrian count downtown was up 20-30 per cent, with "around 10,000 extra people overall in the city centre", compared with the previous Saturday.
AT says six times more people than normal queued up for the Hobsonville Point ferry, which unlike Devonport and Waiheke was not on the list of excluded ferry options. People who'd never been there, taking the chance to do it the best way anyone can.
Devonportians report they had crowds there too, despite ferry passengers having to pay. I guess that's like when you go into a shop with a sale and buy something not on sale.
There are many lessons in all this, for Auckland Transport and the council and most of all for the shops. The value of cheap and free public transport, obviously. The value of improved urban spaces, ditto. The opportunities that both those things offer retailers, hospitality and everyone else trying to make a buck in the city.
It was a free PT day but why wasn't it a market day on Queen St too? I'm so looking forward to the lessons being learned.
Sigh, Queen St. While Quay St has turned out good, Queen St still limps along. The next round of "consultations" and "activations" and whatnot is now under way and Councillor Chris Darby, chairman of the council's Planning Committee, says this: "The vision for Queen St outlined in our City Centre Masterplan is unshakeable. We're entirely committed to creating a great street for people that is inviting, accessible and lively, and free from drive-through traffic."
Really? There is actually no plan currently being implemented to free the street from drive-through traffic.
No relief is in sight, either, for pedestrians wanting not to share the footpaths with scooters. Nor is a solution on offer for drop-offs and pick-ups at the town hall, nor for cyclists who don't like taking their chances in the ever-busier bus lanes.
And there is still no hope for bus passengers who would like to ride from one end to the other without being stuck in traffic and having to watch people walk past them.
Unshakeable vision? It's not Darby's fault. He clearly wants what he says to be true. But Auckland Transport and his own officials in Auckland Council just will not deliver. I'm surprised he doesn't drag them by their lapels out into the street and bellow at them, "Why are you getting this so wrong!"
The only "unshakeable" thing about all this is not a vision at all, but a timid little idea. It's the belief there is some kind of happy medium where nice planters, more pedestrian space and lots of room for buses and cars will make everyone happy. If your progress is slow and careful enough, with enough "trials" and heaps of "consultation", you'll find that happy place.
It's a kind of anti-vision. Especially as the trials don't seem to change anything.
Last month I asked Barry Potter, the council's head of infrastructure, what they hoped to learn from "trials" when they could be producing a fabulous plan and winning us to it. He answered by saying maybe some of the planters they were using weren't quite good enough.
Aaarghhh! How is that still the issue?
To be very clear. The reason the buses are clogged up on Queen St is the cars. The reason there is no lane for cycling and scootering is the cars. The reason there has been so much dithering about Queen St, despite that "unshakeable" vision of it being "free from drive-through traffic", is they cannot bear to confront the idea the street must stop prioritising cars.
Why don't they close Queen St to non-essential cars now? And then, with the bedrock of the vision in place, they can worry about the planter boxes. If they really do believe in "trials", that's what they should trial.
It's not just Potter and his mob who've closed down the vision thing. I blame Andrew Krukzeiner too. He's the Queen St landlord who set up the Save Queen St Society and took the council to court.
He then reached an out-of-court resolution with council, which he announced as a victory, because council was going to pull up the dayglow sticks earlier than planned.
How is that a victory and how was it even the issue? Krukzeiner told me he was contesting the council plans because 1) he wanted a beautifully designed Queen St and 2) he did not want the return of all the cars.
But the cars are back and the beauty is not, and planning has been reduced to planter boxes. That's a win?
Still no word on how drop-offs and pick-ups will work at the town hall. Potter assured me last month that people with mobility needs will "absolutely" be catered for.
How? He didn't know. He said they hadn't started thinking about that yet.
I said I didn't believe him. After months of lobbying by the Auckland Philharmonia and others, it's still sitting in the in-tray?
A couple of weeks later I asked again and he told me they actually have been looking at it, but have nothing to announce yet. Or propose for consultation, I think he meant.
Meanwhile, Wellesley St has been reopened, for buses and cars, while Victoria St closes because of CRL work. This will last another three years, after which Victoria St will reopen as a "linear park".
One of the core principles of transitional planning is that you use every disruptive opportunity that comes along to do the new things you know you need to do. It's easier to make changes for good when you're making changes anyway.
So how come there's no bike lane on the new Wellesley St?
AT told me there were safety issues.
What? How is a cyclist safer in a multi-lane bus route than they are on a dedicated cycle lane? For at least three more years?
Not good enough, Auckland Transport. Not putting a cycle lane on that street, even though it would have been easy and not even controversial, surely contravenes AT's own aspirations and those of council.
Good news about the neon lights, though. Seen them in the trees in Queen St, High St and Lorne St? A touch of winter loveliness right there, thank you Heart of the City and Auckland Council.