Impending population spike means transport solutions are needed

Posted on March 25, 2012 by

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There was an interesting article in the Press this weekend about the logistical problems of dealing with the expected influx of workers required for the rebuild of Christchurch. Very quickly, Christchurch is going to have to start dealing with all those supposedly long-term issues that documents like the draft City Plan were developed to tackle, as the city’s population distribution, and growth, begin to rapidly change. Short-term solutions will be required that in the long-term are sustainable. It is an enormous and complex issue, and central to that is where and how these people are housed, where and how they get to work, and what kind of effect this is likely to have on the long-term development of the city. Ideas and solutions, such as rail, that have come under heavy criticism from some quarters for being too expensive and unrealistic, suddenly begin to make a lot more sense.

Given that the rebuild is looking like a 10-15 year project, there is enormous potential that many of the people who move here for work do so on a permanent basis. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact local authorities will be clamoring for ways and ideas to keep these people here for the ongoing economic viability of the region. What it also says is that temporary solutions to a population influx over the next 10-15 years will have to turn into permanent ones.

What this says to me is that some of the so-called “pie-in-the-sky” ideas expressed in the draft City Plan are perhaps not as out-of-place and fantastical as some critics have suggested. The “pipe-dream” and “pretty big wish-list” comments that some figures made in the media are perhaps completely unfounded.

A lot of growth is likely to occur in the Selwyn and Waimakariri areas in the short-term. This is due to continuation of recent migration trends, the movement of people in red zone areas, and the need to provide accommodation for the 30,000+ extra workers, and potentially their families. These are the areas where there is a lot of land, and which are located alongside the north-south development corridor. This growth can be complimented by improved public transport links. Suddenly, proposed rail services to Rangiora and Rolleston in the next 5-10 years doesn’t look so silly after all.

Interestingly, Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend, who once said something along the lines of rail being a good idea but “lets spend the next 15-20 years talking about it”, had this to say in response to the impending problems of rapid population growth:

“We might have to look at whether its feasible to put on a train service between Ashburton and Christchurch every morning, and another out to the north, so we can get people into the central city for the rebuild during the day.”

How attitudes change. What this says to me is that the reality of what is actually happening to the city, short-term as well as long-term, is finally starting to sink in to some people. We are already seeing what a slight shift in the balance of population distribution can do to road traffic. Remember, the vast majority of  people who were in the eastern suburbs remain there, so what happens when you add more than 30,000 extra people into the mix over a very short time-frame? A lack of transport options will simply mean chaos on the roads, and we will fail to cash in on the silver lining that this disaster has provided. Good transport options will not only mean that the city will operate more efficiently during the rebuild, but will facilitate people making their move a permanent one, and attracting new business, opportunities, and skilled migrants. Business will be attracted to a city that has good links, not one embroiled in chronic traffic congestion and lacking sustainable transport solutions.

Greater Christchurch has already been developing along the north-south corridor that runs roughly from Rangiora in the north, through the city, to Rolleston in the south-west. The UDS and draft City Plan aim to focus development along this corridor, which facilitates better and more affordable transport infrastructure. This is already happening, and you can easily see how the land is available in these areas, the infrastructure is largely there, with new infrastructure to more easily and affordably be developed to take advantage of the concentration of people and business along the corridor. It is an example of how we can adapt the need to provide short-term solutions to fit within the long-term thinking of the future direction of the city.

What is also becoming increasingly clear is the folly of spreading business around the suburbs. I don’t meant to say it is wrong for businesses to be based in the suburbs, but rather that we need to gravitate toward having concentrations of business at hubs linked with good roads and public transport, and mixed with other types of land use, rather than sprawling pockets dotted here and there that are largely only accessible by car. This has undoubtedly been a huge contributor to the increased traffic congestion over the last year, and when you’re talking about all these extra people being added to the mix then it is only going to get worse.

So when you marry the short-term issues with the need to develop a long-term approach, you start to see that everything is interrelated. The long-term goal of a “light rail” network may not be so silly after all and, in fact , a move toward developing such a network in the next 5-10 years, perhaps by implementing a very basic commuter rail system entirely utilising existing main lines, is most desirable, and makes pretty sound sense. Whatever happens, it is clear that we need to ensure we have a plan that deals with these short-term issues, while also providing a platform upon which to develop long-term solutions to the need for a sustainable world-class city. To the critics of the draft City Plan, perhaps now it is becoming a little more clear why it proposes to do what it does.

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