Cars, trucks and bikes in Dunedin

Draft strategies at the most relevant of times can be dull fare, and the Dunedin City Council draft transport strategy would not normally cause heightened debate.

Documents and processes can be hard going because they deal in concepts and in the future.

People usually relate so much better to the concrete and the here and now.

Nevertheless, strategies guide policy and spending and are, therefore, important.

The city's draft transport strategy seeks to identify and address key transport challenges facing the city over the next 30 years, beginning with improving the city's poor safety record.

Initiatives proposed include a multimillion-dollar central-city upgrade, improved cycleways and bus services and a new eastern freight bypass.

The Otago Chamber of Commerce, however, has said the strategy ignores the inadequate arterial route through the city, a lack of commuter parking and the significance of the road link to Port Chalmers.

It claims the document contains a thinly veiled agenda of sustainability.

The council's hearings subcommittee reconvened on the matter last week, and Cr Lee Vandervis weighed in, pushing for changes.

He alleged the strategy had been hijacked by an anti-car agenda and was an assault on motorists.

He repeated an earlier call for the strategy to be abandoned, saying the draft was based on false assumptions, lacked evidence and ignored reality.

Clearly, there is a major division, one which is emerging as a serious election issue in the council elections. One comment at the Otago Daily Times mayoral forum even went as far as to wonder if cycleways in the city outnumbered cyclists.

The chamber, for its part, is conscious everything possible must be done to make the city as efficient as possible for trucks and motorists and therefore business.

That, it argues, is the reality for now and well into the future.

Jobs rely on Dunedin being as effective as possible, and slowing down roads with cycleways and all sorts of other potential hindrances degrades little by little Dunedin competitiveness.

Every time a truck has to stop or every failure to improve the road to the port disadvantages business.

Similarly, one of the attractions for all those who do business and choose to live in the city is easy car access.

Motorists like the speed, comfort and flexibility of commuting by car that Dunedin is able to provide.

There seems to be a thread of idealist, wishful thinking in the document, particularly on the cycling and bus emphasis.

Given the city's hills and its winters, it is debatable how much commuter cycling - even it was safer - would take place. Interestingly, while recreational cycling has spiralled in popularity among the middle classes, largely that has not translated to cycling for travel to and from work.

Cycling among pupils to travel to school also remains rare, and at lower levels than 40 years ago.

The strategy also envisages fuel prices will keep rising and, thus, car numbers will drop off. Hopefully, though, Dunedin's growth will be sufficient so pressure on the roads remains an issue.

It is also dangerous to predict a future different from the trends of the past.

After all, vehicle numbers have kept rising, vehicles have become significantly more fuel efficient and accessible oil reserves have been boosted by fracking and advances in technology.

Petrol and diesel prices, too, are still well below those of much of Western Europe, and affordable electric cars might be around the corner.

It seems, too, that no matter the efforts, public transport patronage remains modest. Dunedin population numbers and densities are just too low and private transport just too convenient and cheap.

While increased bus use might be advantageous for various reasons, that does not mean it is going to happen.

Cr Vandervis managed to extract some changes from the subcommittee as the draft strategy goes to the full council next Monday.

The ideological mix on the full council is different, and it is possible further change could be made. Whether the majority of the subcommittee likes it or not, cars will remain the overwhelming form of transport around Dunedin, and the strategy needs to reflect that fact.

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