Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Digging deeper but not in our pockets?

Hamilton Transport Centre - city bus exchange, regional and long distance services (including booking office), taxi ranks, luggage lockers, real time signage, cafes. Could Christchurch build on this model - impressive for a smaller city - and on the model of airports and rail and bus stations overseas to create a lively hub offering easy mobility and transfers, with added multiple activity purposes, a hub that is largely self financing?

"It is absolutely pointless spending millions on a bus exchange and not guaranteeing the free flow of buses in and out of the passenger loading area".

Bob Parker has re-emerged as mayor, mainly thanks to the kudos he won for his commitment and leadership in the weeks following the major earthquake on September 4th. It is not often a politician wins because he or she is standing on shakey ground! And it would indeed be shakey ground to pre-suppose, on the base of pre-earthquake polls, that Parker has any mandate for light rail, let alone his madcap scheme for tram-trains, an obscure technology which has dangerous lightweight trams too dangerous to mix with heavy rail (quite apart from impeding freight movements) and heavyweight trams too dangerous to mix with pedestrians. Indeed the polls pre-earthquake suggest voters were even baulking at the relatively low cost (an extra $21 million) to ratepayers of putting the new Bus Exchange underground, which Jim Anderton and the other 2021 candidates campaigned against.

While this sounds good budget-wise it is important that buses can enter and exit the new bus exchange unimpeded by pedestrians, and can exit unimpeded by traffic flow (ie exit into a separate bus lane to the next lights or an extended merging zone). The present situation where buses queue up at peak hours trying to get out of the Bus Exchange is farcial - the more so as other buses behind these can't get onto the stops to load up passengers, further slowing the process - at a time when loading and departure is at a premium bizarrely there are moments where stops are empty but buses can't load!

When I was bus driver it always struck me that only urban bus drivers are continuously, at all times, involved with operating heavy machinery amongst people, in heavily pedestrian areas and in situations where members of the public can so easily suffer gross injury or death through a moment's inattention or stupidity but so rarely do entirely because bus drivers are constantly alert to this factor. The present situation where drivers exiting the Bus Exchange need look left for the (often rare) gaps in the traffic, even as teenagers and kids, mostly, make opportunist runs across the front of departing buses, almost below the driver's sightline, from the right, is totally unacceptable.

The big shift in thinking being made overseas is to realise that if public transport wants to attract people out of cars it must offer journeys that are more attractive than car journeys in peak times and do this it has to lift urban buses out of the traffic queues, give bus services their own lanes or (far far better) mainly entirely segregated corridors, with free flow traffic signal priority, whilst minimising stopping for any other reason than loading or dropping off passengers.

I believe, it is absolutely pointless spending millions of dollars on a bus exchange and not guaranteeing the free flow of buses in and out the passenger loading area. It is as silly as if each commuter train leaving Wellington Station had to stop to wait for cars a hundred metres after departure. Indeed the US expression "Think rail; build bus" to me says it all, the magic is not in the mode but in the mix. Give buses the same support mechanisms and freeflow status of rail and watch them go!

Vehicles that can carry the same number of travellers as thirty to fifty cars must be given greater status if they are to save the city from gridlock and the massive expenses of extra peak hour capable roading.
It is feasible rather than the buses going underground using (attractively designed) subways or overbridges and lifts and escalators and stairwells, pedestrians entering the building or going past the exchange (heading west towards Durham) could be kept separate from bus lanes and this might be a bit cheaper. But amortizing the cost of $21 million borrowed across 25 years by borrowing more to include more on-site retail and service facilities seems a far more attractive idea to me.

I am not a businessman but I am confused as to why the Bus Exchange should be something that the ratepayer/taxpayer needs to subsidise. As long as it is well designed, to keep people and vehicles in safe relationship, and to keep noise and fumes separated from other areas, it would seem to me a fantastic busy opportunity not a white elephant.

It would be the one point in Christchurch that everyone - across the whole city and surrounding towns - could reach by bus. Or conversely if anyone lived at that location they could reach every point in Christchurch without having to own a car!

Such a large land area has been purchased this suggests a whole range of buildings could be built in concert with private developers to address the huge market these opportunities offer. This could range from multi-storey retirement apartment and garden balcony complexes, to ESOL colleges and student apartments, to Medical centres and specialist facilities (for the sight impaired for example), to day care and early childhood centres, to Hotels and backpacker hostels, to a city centre Farmer's Market barn offering fresh produce and flowers, to a regional and long distance coach departure point, to a taxi rank on site. Or be the home for the new city library as one bus driver told me he had suggested to the Council. Or a gymnasium complex....the list is endless. In the main building or close to the passenger loading area might also be a range of rental retail places - fast food or drycleaners, florists or bakeries, travel agents, a city council service centre and of course as in Wellington Railway Station a small supermarket aimed specifically at the passing commuter traffic needs.

I find it hard to believe with Metro as an anchor tenant why a package of leases and public-private development deals can't be put together which fairly well guarantee an income to finance the complex, service the loans and minimise the on-going cost from taxes and rates. From taxis and long distance buses (like Hamilton Transport Centre with their own multi-service ticketing counter?), to fast food chains and supermarket franchises, from private developers or big players like Ngai Tahu or Christchurch City Holdings, everyone here has a chance to contribute towards the ongoing income and reap the added benefit of this busy place with direct links to airport, port and every part of of Christchurch.

Or are we designing something akin to another bus boarder? Pure and virginal in its idealism, not sundered by any secondary uses and purposes,a monument to public service flying in the face of common use reality, commercial pay-your-way and political realpolitik. Are we treating buses as a special "social category" or as "morally correct and superior" , vehicles that need an artistic temple to be worshipped in? Rather than recognising buses as the grunty front row forwards of tomorrow's urban post-peak oil peak-hour transport systems, carrying tofro the energy, the hub-bub and life of the city. Are we building in awareness of all the extras needed to make buses competitive with the (more expensive) flexibility of cars? Are we building a system right there every time to meet people's needs?
The Christchurch Transport Centre needs to be a grand building, just as metopolitan railway stations once were, a building tens of thousands of residents can enjoy each day, a well designed, attractive, spiritually uplifting building. But not please God a dead and functionally minimalist cavern of cold concrete and hard steel .

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