Willis Street: “flawed and dangerous”

“Flawed and dangerous.” After two expensive council makeovers of Willis Street within the last three years, we’ve been given an official verdict on the failure of the re-design.

The “flawed and dangerous” verdict on Willis Street is an authoritative one. It comes from deputy mayor Ian McKinnon, quoted in the print edition of the DomPost on Saturday morning after retailers had taken action against the barriers which were a last-ditch attempt by the council to stop pedestrians being hit by buses.

If the DomPost has quoted him correctly, he’s saying that the two reconstructions of Willis Street have made it too narrow, because the widened footpath has taken away the buffer between the kerb and the wheels of cars and buses.

The barriers were approved in August after the council considered two reports analysing the spate of accidents – including a fatality – involving pedestrians and buses. They were supposed to be temporary, till better safety improvements were made.

But temporary can be a very long time. And on Friday morning, a group of retailers pulled them down, saying they were causing a drop in business. TV3’s news showed a heated confrontation between a retailer and the deputy mayor (who’s not identified in the TV report), who says there haven’t been any accidents since they went up. But the council doesn’t seem to have considered the realities of commerce. One of the retailers talks about not being able to stay open if business keeps dropping because of the barriers between his shop and its customers.

The council, of course, has a direct link with the accidents in Willis Street and in Manners Street – the most recent was last Thursday. They’ve all occurred since it changed bus routes through the CBD. Back in 2009, 74 per cent of public submissions said they didn’t want the bus routes changed . Some submissions even worried about pedestrian safety. But the council knew better. Mayor Kerry Prendergast led the campaign, with some strange justifications: she said the changes would make Wellington more vibrant and more internationally competitive. She said the new routes would make it easier to find bus stops. But she didn’t predict that pedestrians and buses would come into conflict with each other. One of her staff downplayed the public opposition, saying it was a “pedestrian’s view of the world.” A regrettable comment, given what’s been happening since the council plan was put into effect.

The work started in 2010. It cost the council $11m to rearrange the bus routes. Reconstruction in Willis Street, which included rebuilding the footpaths, dragged on for months beyond the council’s deadline – another period when retailers lost business. When the work was completed, the accidents began. The council says there’ve been seven accidents in Willis Street since 2010.

This year the council spent a further $1m on the Willis Street footpaths. The aim: to make the street pedestrian-friendly. But it hasn’t become friendlier for pedestrians. With so many buses, such an aim is not possible.

By now, the planners should be considering the pedestrians’ view of the world which they put down three years ago. But their only new idea is to add street furniture which they hope might somehow discourage jaywalking. The only real solution, of course, is one that the council doesn’t want to think about. Willis Street and Manners Street are too narrow for both pedestrians and buses. Pedestrian malls are the answer. Just look at the vitality of traffic-free Cuba Street.

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