Sunday, June 02, 2013

Auckland's New Unitary Plan:

A Warning from History

Don't you just love traffic?
Let's have lots more new roads and subdivisions!

I had the interesting experience of watching a TVNZ "report" on the controversy over Auckland's new Unitary Plan last week. There may have been more to it on other nights, but the two segments I watched, both presented by Nicole Bremner, seemed to me to sink significantly below the already rock-bottom levels of objectivity in New Zealand television journalism.

First of all came a segment on the Mayor and City Council's plan to try and centralise and focus the city more, thus improving its cohesion, and the viability of its public transport networks. Much of this report was spent on an interview with an old woman in Panmure (we heard from her more than once) who was terrified that she would no longer be able to grow vegetables in her back yard if Mayor Len Brown's dastardly plans went through.

I couldn't quite, myself, understand why her vegetables were so direly under threat under the new provisions, but the impression was clearly given that they are. The "pro" segment of the piece came from Len Brown himself, who was shown given bland assurances that all would be well. If there was more to his remarks (facts and figures, for instance), they were certainly not screened.

The second night focussed on alternatives to the Mayor's scheme: or, rather, the principal alternative of allowing the city to sprawl in all directions as it's doing at present. The centrepiece of this broadcast was a group of prosperous elderly suburbanites in the Orewa Bowls Club who agreed that city sprawl holds no fears for them. One might wonder why Ms. Bremner hadn't thought to interview a single commuter or person of employable age in her sample cross-section ...

However, even in the group she had selected it soon become clear that - rather than reacting to the prospect of Auckland's indefinite expansion into the surrounding countryside - the question they had really been asked was whether they would approve of a rapid-rail transport system running from Whangarei to Hamilton, a line along which future communities could be nested conveniently without having to build up the centre further.

Once again, Len Brown was shown, exclaiming feebly that all responsible overseas research backed up his Unitary Plan. He was not allowed to specify exactly what research he was talking about, though.

Is it just me, or is this unusually slanted reporting even for TVNZ? No doubt many of us would like to see a commmuter railroad running down the line of State Highway One. Is it a present priority of the government's, though? Is it likely to happen in any foreseeable real-world future? Even the (clearly mostly retired) members of the Bowls Club in Orewa could not be made to claim that they precisely enjoy the traffic grind into Auckland city. In order to make them seem to agree with the governments plans to continue the sprawl (and rich developers' profits), a largely irrelevant question had to be put to them.

It was, it seemed to me, basically a party political broadcast for central government, rather than balanced reporting on an issue.

The funny thing is, I know precisely what research Len Brown was talking about. I know why he thinks that the time is now, and that even at this late stage something can be salvaged of the "liveable" city we all dream of inhabiting. I know because I read history books, and find that they sometimes comment quite presciently on the issues of today.

Laurence Rees: The Nazis: A Warning from History (1997)

Years ago I watched a spine-chilling documentary series called The Nazis: A Warning from History. The warning I'm thinking about, though, comes from a book about New York, a city so vast and complex that virtually any problem faced by our own pint-sized metropolis can be paralleled in its own development decades ago. The book is called The Power-Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

It doesn't sound that relevant, does it? The only reason I started to read it was because I'd been enjoying its author, Robert A. Caro's masterly multi-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson, which focusses on the manipulation of power structures in a democracy (or is it really an oligarchy?). I saw that his earlier book on Robert Moses had been listed by the Modern Library as among the "top hundred" non-fiction books of the twentieth century. The top hundred: I have to admit that I imagined it standing alongside The Gulag Archipelago and If This is a Man? - that was before I saw the rather less impressive list the editors had actually chosen. Even so, though, how could any simple biography of a city official have that kind of heft?

Robert Moses (1888- 1981)

Well, I'm afraid it does. And, essentially, it's all about us. I'll leave to one side Caro's painstaking analysis of Moses' gradual evolution from young idealist to power-mad Boss in order to concentrate on his most frustrating legacy: the system of bridges and super-highways that still criss-crosses the modern city and its environs.

And what's wrong with that, you ask? The bridges, parks, expressways and parkways Moses was responsible for building during his thirty-year tenure as unelected official in charge of virtually all construction in the New York region dwarf the efforts of previous monument-mad rulers such as Cheops of Egypt, the First Emperor of Ch'in, or Baron Haussmann's Parisian boulevards ... They are, in conception, beautiful and majestic almost beyond belief.

But they were built by someone who came of age intellectually in the early years of the twentieth century, and who could never be made to realise that the automobile is at least as much of a curse as a blessing for modern cities. His undoubted racism and contempt for the poor and unwashed also led him to neglect all public transport systems during his thirty years of absolute power between 1934 and 1964, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller finally managed to get rid of him.

To give one example (described by Caro on pp.951-52 of his immense tome), a city official noticed one day that the cross-bridges on Moses' Long Island Expressway seemed unusually low. He measured one. It offered eleven feet of clearance. So did the next one. And the next. It turned out that all of the literally hundreds of miles of Moses's superhighways had been built with bridges of eleven - or even, at times, nine - feet's clearance. The average bus requires twelve feet of clearance. Fourteen feet is safer. Moses's legacy to the ages was this cunning device to insure that buses would never be able to use his motorways - without thousands of millions of dollars being spent on costly rebuilding of all the bridges and overpasses ...

Screw the poor. If you can't afford a car you're not really human, anyway - that was his attitude first and last.

There's a fascinating passage in Caro's crucial chapter 40, entitled "Point of No Return." In it he analyses the moment, sometime around the early fifties, when it would still have been possible for New York City and State to make up for their neglect of subways and trains and other mass-transit devices since the mid-thirties. Sections of the highways then being built could have been set aside for trains. Even if the money wasn't available at that precise moment to build the lines and buy the rolling stock, with a little foresight the land could have been acquired at little cost at the same time the highways were being pushed across it.

It wasn't. All such arguments were contemptuously rejected by Moses and his cronies (his immense interlocking system of incriminating dossiers on all local politicians ensured that few of them could ever vote against him). He simply couldn't seem to understand that each new road he opened simply made the situation worse - within weeks it would be as jammed as all the others. The roads actually created new traffic by encouraging more sprawl, more subdivisions, more two-car families ... Sound familiar?

Long Island held the last remaining largely undeveloped sections of open land within a reasonable distance of New York City. Planners almost wept as they begged Moses to set aside land in his new expressway - for buses, at least, if not trains: "but Moses replied by saying it was 'impossible' - and by refusing to discuss the matter." [p.946]. For "Moses" read Nick Smith - or John Key?

The Joy of Auckland Traffic (1): Northern Motorway

This is how Caro explains it:

Making provision for mass transport on the Long Island Expressway was in many ways not only Long Island's chance but its last chance.

Mass transportation systems work only if they are able to transport masses - people in numbers sufficient to pay the system's cost, to justify the immense public investment that created it. Such systems work only if there is high-density development around them, they do not work in an exclusively low-density subdivision landscape. Low-density subdivision had already inundated two-thirds of Nassau County. But the rest ... still lay largely unsubdivided - unshaped; great chunks of Long Island were in 1955 still a tabula rasa on which a design for the future could be etched with the lessons of the past in mind. For these areas - close to a thousand square miles of land - there was still time to insure a different, better, type of development - a different, better life for the millions of people who would one day be living on that land. But there wasn't much time. With the population of the two counties increasing at the rate of almost 100,000 per year, each year the tide covered almost five years more of the Island. If a change was to be made in the development pattern, it must be made at once.

Once the Long Island Expressway was built, no change would be possible. Construction of the great road would open the entire Island for development ... The time was now, before the Expressway was built, to insure not only that rapid transit would be provided, but that it would be used by enough people to ease the transportation burden from the backs of all the people on Long Island ... Build the Long Island Expressway with mass transit - or at least with provision for the future installation of mass transit - and Long Island might remain a good place to live and play. Build the Long Island Expressway without mass transit and Long Island would be lost - certainly for decades, probably for centuries, possible forever. [p.945]

The Joy of Auckland Traffic (2): Easy Going on the Bridge

For "Long Island" read Auckland. It may well be too late already. But Len Brown doesn't think so. He understands that complaisant inaction now, at the last possible moment to reverse the trend, will condemn all of us to a future of horrific traffic-jams and transport chaos. It will stifle our city as it has already stifled so many others.

By the time Robert Moses was dragged kicking and screaming from his last bastion, the luxurious headquarters he'd built for himself under the toll-booths on the Triborough Bridge, it was too late for New York. You can't neglect a mass transit system for thirty crucial years (literally no new subways or railway lines were built in New York between 1934 and 1964) and then just start again from where you left off. The damage done will be there for centuries.

So think about it a bit before you start spewing out your support for our present government's "plan" of completing the Auckland motorway networks (plannned in the 1950s) and encouraging new subdivisions off all of them. Where is all that new traffic going to end up? People tend to live near to train and bus stations because they have to walk to them each morning. In an automobile-dominated world, they each live on their little self-contained sections, hundreds of thousands of them, each requiring their little connecting roads, their arterial routes, and their main tributaries, guaranteeing ever-worsening traffic congestion forever.

None of this is "conjectural" - "debatable" - or (worst of all pejorative terms) "theoretical." It's all happened before. And it will happen again right here if we don't at least try to understand the logic behind Mayor Brown's plan. Shame on you, TVNZ.

The Joy of Traffic (California)

1 comment:

June said...

Well said - I wish more opeople would listen