By Lindsay Shelton
The battle for Manners Mall took place over three days this week. But the war isn’t over yet.
The battleground wasn’t on Manners Street, but in a committee room at the Wellington City Council where 24 people talked, some of them passionately, about why they don’t want the pedestrian mall reopened to cars and buses.
The council still seems to be in denial about the fact that residents’ submissions show 74 per cent opposition to bringing traffic back into Manners Street.
At the start of three days of hearings, its urban development and transport director said this opposition is “more a pedestrian’s view of the world.” He quoted an AC Neilsen survey which “captures some of the wider community members” and shows 68 per cent support for traffic.
It’s not the first time the council has said its consultation results must be wrong because it’s done a survey which shows something different. But why should it denigrate the point of view of pedestrians? Who better to assess the success and the popularity of a vehicle-free space than the local people who use it?
And why should the council want to destroy an environment that’s working well – the Manners Mall has the city’s highest pedestrian count outside Lambton Quay.
Surely the prime requirement of city streets is to be more than just a speedy transport route for buses? With such a reality, retailers would shut up shop and leave town.
Anyway, a check on the 722 submissions received by the council does not support the suggestion that the 74 per cent opposition comes only from pedestrians. The idea of reopening the mall is opposed also by drivers, shopkeepers, landlords, and people who live in the mall. There’s even a devastatingly-detailed legal opinion.
For a start, 24 of the 26 businesses in Manners Street are opposed to traffic in the mall where they work. And the changes in bus routes and traffic flows would affect businesses on the fringe of the mall as well.
Arty Bees bookshop has just agreed to a six year lease, with parking outside the door a key element in its financial commitment. It needs the carparks for the loading and unloading of books – 108 bags and 71 boxes every week. But the re-routing of buses through Manners Street would remove the car parks and replace them with a bus stop. (A council survey confirms the shop has reason to be worried, and says that an increased number of people waiting for buses “may provide a negative impact on retail premises.”)
The book shop believes the council has given little thought to the social, environmental and economic impact of the changes which it is proposing. Robert Birch, the founder of the shop, spoke strongly against the council destroying the heart of the city by ripping up the mall. He warned that retailers would either be compromised or destroyed.
A lawyer agreed. He said the council had commissioned a report which showed that the Manners Mall is working effectively for shops, offices and pedestrians, but had then been selective in quoting from the report which described how reopening the mall would cause significant adverse effects on businesses and landlords as well as pedestrians.
A landlord said he had bought his buildings specifically because they were in a pedestrian mall, and the reopening to buses would have significant adverse effects.
A driver who said he had 28,000 hours of driving experience (including buses) in the city warned that if a bus broke down in the narrow street the blockage would take an hour to clear. A bus user said he would happily sit in the bus for an extra two minutes knowing that the mall had been saved.
A ten-year resident of Manners Street (“I walk everywhere”) said the occupants of his apartment building were disappointed that the council hadn’t provided an alternative to reopening the street. Two others offered an alternative: if the council wants buses to go in a straight line then the route could go through Dixon Street to Willis Street.
Another submitter – backing up each of his claims with specific detail – said the council plan had no objectives, contained factual bias, inconsistency, irrationality, and hypocrisy.
Altogether 35 people turned up to talk to the council during the three days of hearings.
Twenty-four of them didn’t want Manners Street reopened to traffic.
Eleven of them thought that bringing back traffic would be a good idea. Their arguments were altogether different from their opponents.
New Zealand Buses who own the city’s buses hailed the idea because it “mitigates existing problems.” The Regional Council liked the plan for strategic reasons. The Taxidrivers Federation thought the plan “makes sense” because it “moves the bus services to where people shop and work” but they want taxis to have the same access as buses. The Chamber of Commerce was keen to abolish the mall to “free up transport,” though its representative was challenged to consider the fact that a majority of the street’s retailers want the street to stay free of traffic. The Johnsonville Progressive Association supported reopening the street to traffic; asked for his priorities, its representative said buses were more important than pedestrians. Another organization said the entire length of Manners Street should be only for buses and cycles, a request which was also made by the bus company (though it wants buses only.)
A resident of Wakefield Street had a different focus. Bringing back traffic would, she hoped, “exclude the truants and tyrants from monopolizing this area.”
Let’s revert to the point of view of the 74 per cent, by quoting from the council’s own report which confirms the disadvantages of opening a pedestrian mall to traffic:
• Significant cost outlay
• Increase in pollution from exhaust emissions
• Pedestrian safety becomes an issue … i.e. increases the chance of collisions and accidents
• Congestion of vehicular traffic
• Security and safety not enhanced as the primary source of crime is not dealt with; people in cars are as likely to violate public safety as those not in cars
• Limited sidewalk size increases pedestrian congestion
• Pedestrian walking times lengthened due to waiting for traffic
And all this to save a minute or two in the time it takes buses to get through the city.
None of it sounds like an improvement in the quality of life for Wellington.
And … we would be paying for it, at a time when the council says it wants to save money. To quote again from the council’s report:
“There would be a substantial cost in resources and time in redevelopment of the current streetscape … A large proportion of the funding for this would ultimately come from the community.”