Chloe Swarbrick: The battle for Queen Sts soul

OPINION:

Growing up, freedom was the ability to get from A to B at the drop of a hat. It was travelling from mates’ places, to town, work, and play without having parents worried about safety. Freedom was, therefore, a driver’s licence.

When you grow up in a city that invests in and prioritises just one way to get around, everybody has to use that way or just not get around. It didn’t have to be like this.

At the Queen St entrance to Aotea Square, there’s a cast-bronze statue of an older gentleman with glasses, perpetually shaking his fist toward Auckland’s Town Hall. The immortalised Sir Dove-Meyer Robinson, “Robbie”, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with every kaupapa and protest that occupies the space.

Our “noisy crank” mayor was elected on a populist, environmentalist, working-class platform, rallying against sewage and slaughterhouse waste discharged into the Waitematā Harbour.

Re-elected to a second term in 1968, his key focus was implementing a bus-rail rapid transit plan connecting people across Tāmaki Makaurau: an underground station in the city centre connecting to Howick, Auckland Airport, and an underground tunnel to the North Shore.

Robbie imagined freedom for all to move around our city without the cost of an individual car and without wedging ever-more car parks into finite space.

Conservative politicians rallied against investing in this freedom and the third Labour Government ended up reneging on its election promise to pay for the rapid transit plan. The bill was an estimated $273 million in 1973. The Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator tells us that’s the equivalent of $3.6 billion in today’s money. For a rapid transport system that could have delivered three-minute wait-times for quality passenger rail across the city.

Learning this history raises hackles. So much of the relatively small change for today’s public transport and cycling infrastructure sees opposition decry the expense, implausibility, and some notion that we’re not comparable to other cities and towns who already enjoy these amenities.

With more political willpower at the time, we could have already had them. Fifty years later, we’re retro-fitting what will be the transformative City Rail Link to double the capacity of our trains. Without Robbie’s fulsome airport, Howick, and North Shore connections, the City Rail Link is costing $4.4b.

In 2012, the 2030-horizon City Centre Masterplan was published with a foreword from Mayor Len Brown. It outlined a vision for the City Rail Link, green space, “radically improv[ing] the quality of urban living”, pedestrian-friendly streets and so much more.

Refreshed in 2020, city centre residents, business associations, the council, and the now sadly disbanded Auckland Design Office came together to reaffirm the strategy of accessibility, reduced traffic, vibrant neighbourhoods, breathable air, flourishing small businesses, and density done well. Everyone seems to agree in principle. For one reason or another, it’s the getting it done that’s so hard.

Nowhere is this tension more evident than the slow-boil battle for Queen St’s soul.

Bookending the street is pedestrianised Te Komititanga, flanked by buzzing Commercial Bay, Britomart’s Chief Post Office station and the freshly opened, tree-lined Te Wānanga waterfront public space. Up top, Karangahape Rd’s bright-pink cycle cruising lanes and widened footpaths host crowds of locals and visitors milling through small businesses.

Big, sometimes transformative calls have been made. There was substantial disruption. Things didn’t always go to plan. The community kept going back to the table to negotiate and make things happen. Changes, creative thinking, and new ideas must continue to have a place. It worked: these locations have been cemented as destinations unto themselves.

We have the opportunity to see that Queen St finds a way to bloom too. Viewed by too many as a mere thoroughfare for cars, it fails. Let’s make it succeed at what the community has already agreed: a place for meaningful meandering, supporting local businesses, encouraging community building and vibrancy.

Unnecessary traffic – that is, outside of access, delivery or service vehicles – routed elsewhere. Public spaces with shady trees teeming with locals, families, office workers and students eating lunch at midday, and serving as a welcome respite for shoppers taking a rest at other times. Safe, separated lanes for bikes and scooters. People arriving by bus and train from all over the city to work, eat, shop, hang out.

Wellington has just decided to redevelop its “golden mile” from Courtenay Place to Lambton Quay for people: open spaces, enlarged parks, trees, and safe cycling and bus lanes. General traffic won’t be allowed. Footpath space will be increased by 75 per cent.

Surely we won’t let Wellington beat us to it?

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