Rebuilding a city with sustainable transport choices

By Kristen MacAskill*
Monday, 24 October, 2011

Christchurch in New Zealand is planning to rebuild after the devastating earthquakes that hit the city earlier this year. The Christchurch City Council’s draft Central City Plan (dCCP), released in New Zealand in August, offers a timely case for discussion. This plan outlines a vision for rebuilding the city and while it covers a broad range of aspects for redevelopment, this article reflects on the future of transport in the city.

In terms of transport infrastructure, a low-carbon strategy is typically associated with promoting integrated public transport, cycling and walking networks. However, huge challenges remain in attempting to move away from car-oriented cities where there are physical, social and economic constraints on changing existing infrastructure.

The Christchurch City Council is in a unique situation whereby it has an opportunity to reconceptualise and reshape the city’s transport system. In its current form, Christchurch’s transport infrastructure favours car use. Public transport is reliant on bus services that are limited by low-density suburbs and the city’s ‘car culture’.

Over the past few years, the food and drink industry has expanded into new pedestrian laneways, providing a distinct improvement to the city centre’s atmosphere. Yet streets with heavy traffic surround these pockets of people-friendly environments, where buses are caught in congestion and cyclists must navigate between dispersed cycle lanes. The central city road network caters for both city-bound and through traffic, which adds to congestion issues.

While private vehicle use will continue to play a vital role in Christchurch, the dCCP’s key transport-related targets focus on social outcomes, with links to environmental benefits. Major initiatives include converting one-way street circulation back to two-way systems with better amenity and lower traffic speeds. The plan outlines how road space will be reallocated to support multimodal use and provide for an increase in pedestrian and public space. The desired outcome is to create more opportunities for social activity and improve safety, particularly for walkers and cyclists.

Another initiative is to re-landscape the banks of the Avon River and integrate them with the new streetscapes, improving the surroundings for active transport networks and increasing environmental assets through regenerating native species. The dCCP proposes to significantly reduce the footprint of the central business district, creating a centre that is more manageable as a key transport node.

One of the most controversial aspects of the dCCP transport proposals is a new light rail system. It is difficult to get a good sense of the potential feasibility of this proposal without access to a more detailed analysis, particularly because the traffic demand technical data is yet to be released. There is significant debate over whether or not Christchurch could afford to build and run a light rail system. Advocates praise the proposal as a visionary, long-term solution and believe the benefits of light rail have been proved in other cities. Others feel light rail is unrealistic, costly and unsuitable for Christchurch. I believe light rail can add character to a city’s transport system and welcome the concept of light rail for Christchurch. Nonetheless, I am uncertain that it is the right option. For example, there is no dialogue in the dCCP regarding a bus rapid transit system as an alternative to light rail; perhaps this should be on the table, if only to eliminate the possibility.

On this point, it is worth considering the Gold Coast’s experience in planning for light rail. In 2004, a Light Rail Feasibility Study was conducted in the Gold Coast; following this, the Gold Coast City Council (GCCC) resolved a preference for light rail as a new public transport network in 2005 and confirmed this preference in 2007 (GCCC, 2008). It is interesting that in due course these events “appeared to create a belief in the community that light rail was a foregone conclusion for the Gold Coast Rapid Transit project” (GCCC 2008, p.58). There are two significant factors to highlight here. Firstly, including a concept plan for light rail in the dCCP could prove to be particularly influential for shaping future discussion of transport options for Christchurch; its focus on light rail implies a preference for it over other options. Secondly, despite the GCCC’s early penchant for light rail, it continued to evaluate options for both bus rapid and light rail before announcing that it would proceed with light rail in 2008. This decision was the outcome of a preliminary business case assessment that presented the economic evaluation of the options. This is a process that Christchurch should consider to help make a more informed final decision.

A key challenge for future acceptability of major proposals such as light rail lies in the economics of implementing the project. This involves a risk that short-term views and narrow cost-benefit analyses will override the long-term vision. Sustainability is embedded in current political, technological and economic realities, and short-term costs must play a role. However, the nature of the cost-benefit analysis (ie, what is measured, how options are compared and what assumptions are made) could greatly influence the feasibility of proposals.

In developing its plans, Christchurch has an advantage over standard city planning processes in terms of its ability to reconceptualise large areas of the city, building almost from scratch rather than within the constraints of well-developed areas. A significant difficulty is that this is happening in a context of increased uncertainty as major changes in the operation of the city are already occurring. While the central business district remains substantially closed, businesses and restaurants are relocating from the city and signing leases for premises in the suburbs.

To reflect on the broader context of transport decisions for cities, the Christchurch example illustrates that a sustainable transport philosophy supports a growing understanding that increasing road capacity through a ‘predict and provide’ approach is not sufficient to develop infrastructure. Sustainable transport supports a focus on concepts such as access, resilience, character and healthy communities. Also, balancing short-term challenges with a long-term vision will play a critical role in finalising plans for Christchurch. There will surely be lessons we can learn from Christchurch’s impending rebuild, where progress over the next few years has the potential to reveal the reality behind attempts to achieve fundamental changes to a city’s transport infrastructure.

Key references:

Gold Coast City Council (GCCC), TRANSLink, and Queensland Transport, 2008 In Brief - Draft Concept Design and Impact Management Plan October 2008. Source from: [Accessed 15 September 2011]

Christchurch City Council, 2011. draft Central City Plan. 2007, Christchurch, New Zealand: Christchurch City Council, Volume 1. Available at: [Accessed 25 August 2011]

*Kristen MacAskill trained as a civil engineer at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, where she also completed a Master of Engineering Management. She then worked with a global engineering firm, MWH, in Brisbane. Kristen has most recently taken a year out from industry to spend a year at the University of Cambridge in the UK, working towards a Master of Philosophy in Engineering for Sustainable Development. She is now planning to return to Christchurch to partake in the post-earthquake rebuilding process.

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