Trapped in the convention centre

The shiny new council-supported convention centre is designed to bring lots more people into Wellington, apparently helping to add vibrancy and turnover to the local economy. So far, so good – it’s the business plan of every convention centre in the Western world, even if it turns out that many of the benefits can be extensively over-sold by their promoters.

But let’s assume for a second that the conference centre works as advertised, and that hundreds or thousands of attendees flock through its newly opened doors, are subjected to a few hours of the delights of Microsoft PowerPoint, and then decide to explore the cultural richness and world-class entertainment that the coolest capital in the world can offer. How will this work in practice?

Let’s explore the experience of two conference attendees, both of whom are staying at the attached Hilton Hotel. The first we’ll call CultureVulture; he’s looking forward to attending the conference because he knows Te Papa is right across the road, the Museum of City and Sea is one of the top 50 museums in the world and that the City Gallery beckons. Our other attendee, BarFly, is also keen on the conference because he wants to sit amongst the Wellingtonistas at Hummingbird and stroll amongst the fashionistas along Cuba Street, as well as exploring all the late night energy of Courtenay Place. How do they fare in our fair city?

Let’s take up the cause of CultureVulture first. Dispensing with the delights of the conference lunch buffet, he decides a quick reconnaissance of Te Papa and a brisk walk along the waterfront will be a good way to get to know the city. He heads out the front door of the Hilton into Cable Street, where Te Papa beckons from just across the road. All he has to do is navigate across three lanes of roaring traffic, where doing the lunchtime dash between speeding courier vans and aggressively lane-changing 4WDs looks like a quick form of suicide.

Deciding that discretion is the better part of road safety, CultureVulture looks around for a pedestrian crossing of some description. The one at Taranaki Street means he has to fight his way across the exit to the BP station and then take his chances against traffic trying to push its way into Cable Street, so he decides that the crossing at Tory Street is the better bet. He strolls down, presses the button for the pedestrian lights, and waits … and waits … and waits …

As a visitor, CultureVulture probably doesn’t realise that Cable Street is regarded as a major traffic route, just like … well, practically every other road in the city. That means he’s in for a rather long time staring at the traffic whizzing by – in this age of global warming, glaciers can move faster than the pedestrian lights on Cable Street. So more of his lunch break will probably be consumed by road crossings than cultural enlightenment.

BarFly doesn’t have any problems with Cable Street, because he’s determined to head to Courtenay Place just as soon as the conference presenter has clicked through the last slide. He heads out the doors to Wakefield Street, turns left towards Tory, and discovers that there isn’t even a pedestrian crossing at the intersection. He’ll have to cross Tory Street first before he can cross Wakefield, as Wakefield Street is a major traffic route and there’s no way the council’s traffic planners will let mere pedestrians get in the way of the courier vans and 4WDs. Assuming he tarries for the pedestrian lights through the inordinately long cycles, he’s in for a wait that will be even worse than CultureVulture’s.

After he’s enjoyed a great evening out, BarFly will need to remember to navigate carefully back to his hotel room – although after he’s had a few boutique beers, perhaps he’ll be tempted to just dash across the three lanes of traffic on Wakefield Street, consequences be damned. And if he gets hit by a car, at least we’ll be able to blame the irresponsible out-of-town pedestrians.

After the conference, both CultureVulture and BarFly will need to call a cab to the airport. There’s a perfectly good Airport Flyer bus (free wifi!) but as there’s no public transport of any consequence on Cable Street, getting to the bus will mean a trek down Tory Street to Courtenay Place, complete with trolley bags, fighting the traffic lights at every corner. For the vast majority of conference attendees, that all falls into the “too hard” basket.

In some cases the purpose of a convention centre with a hotel attached is to deliberately trap guests and attendees, maximising the amount of money they spend with the operator. (See also: the entire midwestern United States for this effect in action.) It’s a legitimate business model for the operator … only in this case, they have a strong ally to help them ensure no-one escapes: the Wellington City Council’s traffic planners.


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