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Many spent lockdown counting the cost to their businesses and planning to set things right. They accounted for what they knew — that Covid-19 Alert Level 2 restrictions would restrict how they trade — and for the high chance their market will be smaller and more cautious for some time to come.
They had to plan for change forced by the national response to the global pandemic. They must now plan for the still-uncertain effects of a hurriedly-devised response of the city’s own making.
Many are understandably angry the council yesterday decided to drop the speed limit along George St’s retail trade district to 10kmh, to allow pedestrians to mingle more safely with traffic.
The plan was adopted as a means to support retail and hospitality businesses, an option to encourage people to return to the city centre while adhering to the Covid-19 response rules.
Councillors learned physical distancing is a challenge in a space serviced by narrow two-way footpaths. Cafes might also struggle to operate the tables needed to get their businesses running profitably.
The council had the means to minimise the impact of the Covid-19 controls: it could allow business use of the footpaths and could regulate the use of the road to keep pedestrians safe.
An epidemic is considered an emergency when it comes to installing new, temporary speed limits. Thus, the speed limit could be changed as an emergency measure, for no more than 12 months.
The words ‘‘temporary’’ and ‘‘emergency’’ featured prominently in council staff advice and in the debate after which the measures were passed. It was a singular move to help protect people’s lives during a public health crisis — but it was a singular move inevitably coloured by recent temporary tinkering and by many years of debate as to how or if to revitalise and especially, pedestrianise, George St.
A current, preliminary, plan to make the street between Moray Pl and Frederick St one-way is hotly contested. Petitioners oppose it; businesses assert their position as key stakeholders who must be consulted, or be in the tent, if a new-look CBD is planned. They have demonstrated a strong desire to be part of the process for many years, and they have been very firm in their response to measures they considered unnecessary for the street.
With this in mind, it is little wonder many are worse than disappointed by the council’s hurried 10kmh response. No matter the circumstances, it is a decision made without consulting the people most affected by the changes, and by the effects of the pandemic response.
Mayor Aaron Hawkins acknowledged engagement would be better in an ideal world but that during a pandemic, this was not an ideal world.
Health and safety dictated a speedy move. As businesses adjust to a new compliance environment, the city environment will change to help ensure this normal does not endanger lives. Free parking will encourage people into town, though this will be reviewed monthly. The speed and footpath provisions will remain for at least as long as physical distancing is required.
They are temporary and easily reversible, but it would be naive to think they will not influence the council’s longer-term push to make the central city "people friendly".
Traffic calming would be a key component of any such plan, and the council will now have a new opportunity to measure the impact of low-to-no traffic volumes on the street’s use — albeit a street now empty of tourists and crowds. It should also understand how the changes affect the businesses that rely upon a safe and functional George St, even if these times are far from normal.
Then, it must reinstate the speed limit as swiftly as it was changed, ahead of the much more important conversations — and formal consultation — it must have with the community it serves as it maps the future for George St.