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The plan proposed by the Dunedin City Council to encourage people to return to shopping in the main street seems to be devised around the concept "you can come but don’t bring your car".
The council appears to have failed to recognise that the George St shopping precinct is a destination shopping centre, and as such, needs to provide easy access for customers.
No developer would build a shopping mall with only a provision of limited parking. In fact, the council’s own regulations would prohibit this. Why then does the DCC persist with the notion that cars are "a social bad" and must be "reduced by 50%" (according to the Central City Plan) or removed from the central city streets altogether (in some plans for George St Renovation under consideration)?
Rapid rises in the use of private cars from the 1950s was, in large part, due to services that cars offer which people found useful in many ways.
Even those who do not use cars benefit indirectly from their use as inputs into many socially and economically productive activities, ranging from leisure walks on surrounding beaches and healthcare, neither of which could be maintained without automobile transport.
If we are to have world-class pedestrian-only areas in the CBD, would Dunedin residents be able to drive into the CBD and use them? Surely it is not either-or and we can have both. Somehow, the convenience of parking near CBD shopping destinations has not registered yet as a socially beneficial public good. Neither has the environmentally positive input services of, for example, Doc, beach maintenance crews, air pollution monitoring teams, and families being able to take their children with them to hike, play and enjoy Dunedin’s natural beauty.
This socialisation of awareness of environmental amenities is environmentally positive and enabled, once again, by cars as key inputs. We do not want less of these valuable services that cars provide. The stated objectives of council are that we want more of these outcomes. They should not forget how valuable automobiles are in doing its own business and helping residents add value in the world by doing theirs.
Traffic congestion and lack of parking are the most significant barriers that many Dunedin shoppers who would like to spend more time in the CBD face. Are all of the 3000 parks within 500m as quoted by the DCC freely available to the public at any time, not leased or restricted other than time or metering restrictions? We need to know more.
Despite Dr Bidrose’s claim that the social-distancing motives underlying the disruption of George St are temporary and "not pedestrianisation by stealth", one may wonder, nevertheless.
The extra two minutes spent travelling at reduced speed have a measurable cost not considered by the council. How often have we seen the DCC fail to rein itself in, spend money on remedial work, or disestablish a no-longer relevant department or position?
One could be forgiven for suspecting council of using this "temporary" plan as gradual social conditioning — the Entr’acte for permanent pedestrianisation of George St.
Destination shopping is successful for one reason — easy access. The successful shopping complexes like the big box retailers do well because they are easy to get to and attract their custom by encouraging the shopper to virtually park at the door.
Public transport is not frequent enough to encourage widespread use during the day or the weekend, the very time shoppers are most likely intending to travel to the central city. The bus hub is a great idea, but in the wrong place.
Interestingly, the designated stops in the bus hub have resulted in those travelling into the city to visit the council offices or library from southern areas having only the option to alight at the Princes St stop at Dowling St, or the last stop in the bus hub by St Andrew St. Is that convenience? Whilst some may say this is only three blocks away, most bus stops are much more frequent than that and for the disabled or elderly, this is a substantial obstacle.
No wonder public transport is not working well in Dunedin.
Our central city retailers will have suffered significant reductions to their sales figures over the past few weeks and for some that may be too much to survive.
We must not overlook the fact that many of our retailers are national or international chains who have no hesitation in closing under-performing stores as we have all seen in the past. Covid-19 has killed off the cruise ship trade for a long time, losing visitors who helped contribute to our retailers’ sales.
To make George St a vibrant shopping area we need the people to get there easily. As it is, the most likely daily visitors will only be those who work in the area. Unfortunately, over the past few weeks, many people in our city will have sustained reductions in their incomes or investments resulting in many spending cautiously for quite some time. This will impact on our city’s retailers as well.
For the council to blithely charge ahead with the precursor to the ill-conceived plan for the George St precinct lacks empathy and understanding. Are the reports to the council which have been used to justify the statistics for this plan relevant, recent, and allowing for the increased population in the city? Why does the plan not allow for replacing the car parks proposed to be removed as well as those lost over the past few years because of cycle lanes and bulbous curbs? Where is the plan for the changes in traffic congestion in the streets around the pedestrian area?
The frightening thing is these are the folks who govern our rates purse. We have seen in the past the money wasted following the poorly planned cycleway on the former four-lane section of Portobello Rd and the failed South Dunedin cycleway. How many more failures are we going to see before common sense prevails?
When public consultation for the George St precinct opens it will be very important for Dunedin ratepayers and affected businesses and permanent residents to make their opinions known to our council and elected councillors in a considered, rational and thoughtful way so that a democratic decision results in changes that are right first time for everybody.
- Alan Race is a retired businessman.