Families and urban transport

10/09/2012 § 4 Comments

Wellington really is an odd city. Topography has pushed it to be quite concentrated in parts, making the downtown as dense and walkable as a much larger city. But topography also makes it hard to get from one concentration to another. Well, topography and conscious choices by planners. As a result, travel times are as long as a much larger city.

The City Council clearly wants to get us out of our cars. The ‘Sustainable Transport’ page asks us to consider our options before getting into the car. Walking, sharing, cycling, public transport — there are alternatives to driving everywhere.

In principle, I support giving people choices. Having good footpaths that go in the right places, bike lanes that make a safe network, buses that keep to a timetable — all good ideas.

What I’m finding, though, is that ‘sustainable transport’ options aren’t family-friendly. I have two children who are old enough to have activities all over the Wellington area but not old enough to get themselves there. Twice this weekend I had to go to central Wellington for activities, and it was difficult both times.

Sustainable transport forgets that parents are, for 10 to 15 years, taxi drivers. We want to drive somewhere, take the kids inside, make sure they are settled, and leave. They don’t need us to stay around; we have other things to do.

By contrast, sustainable transport is about going somewhere to do something. Walk to work! It only takes an extra 15 minutes and provides some exercise. Take the bus to the show! It only takes an extra 15 minutes and you don’t have to worry about where you put the car. In the context of a whole workday or a whole evening out, it’s not that much of a difference. But when the point of the trip is to get there and get back, an extra 15 minutes or 30 minutes can double the time needed or worse.

The problem is that the planners have restricted the solution space so that there is no feasible solution.

For example, they’ve concentrated several attractions at Civic Square: the Fowler Centre, the Town Hall, Capital E, and the Library. They’ve made it a place they want families to go to. But to go to it, families have to come from somewhere. How will they get there? Buses take a while, no matter where they are coming from. Walking is feasible for families only within a kilometre or so. Sharing is a possibility, but not always. So that leaves cars, and cars need parking.

Parking in the area is a problem. How can I tell it’s a problem? Because the Greater Wellington Regional Council has reserved a number of parking spaces in the Fowler Centre carpark all for itself. Local bureaucrats want to get people out of their cars, but make sure they can still use their own.

I know that some people will say I’m approaching the problem all wrong. Instead of worrying about how to get in and out of the city, I should just live there. Well, we tried, we really did. It turns out that apartments are expensive and not designed with families in mind. Plus, we are all supposed to be involved in telecommuting and entrepreneurship, which require home offices. And don’t get me started on the schools.

The solution Wellington has ended up with isn’t first-best or second-best. It’s make-do. It’s also not family-friendly. The city plan has simultaneously made it unattractive to live in the central city and difficult to visit.

It looks like the goal of ‘sustainable transport’ is for everyone to stay away.

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§ 4 Responses to Families and urban transport

  • Chris Parker says:

    Great post Bill.

    We have three kids 5 yrs and younger, and it can be a real drama to visit town, and to get to the other side of town. Some gripes (for a starter):

    — it is not feasible for normal parents to take their young kids on buses for usual trips, because it’s very inconvenient, and quite frankly dangerous
    — (public transport is only really good for moving massive amounts of people from A to B at peak times, or for otherwise ‘accessibility deprived’ travellers)
    — parks are $4 per hour, and a minimum of an hour, which would effectively suppress demand by for leisure travel by many families during the week
    — the Council’s privately contracted parking wardens are despots
    — the new “bypass” now requires all eastern suburbs (like the country’s biggest, Karori) to travel through the middle of town, instead of being able to bypass it (eg through Able Smith St), making it the opposite of a bypass
    — (you’ve done a blog on something similar previously)
    — raising kids in town isn’t really feasible, given the lack of safe and convenient large areas for kids to play (we tried, and failed)

    • Bill says:

      No, it isn’t easy, although I will say it gets easy as they get older. My kids aren’t that young and they can manage the bus alright.

      Interesting that you tried raising kids in the city and it didn’t work. There was a feature article in the paper recently with beautiful families in beautiful apartments living beautiful lives. All of it was unaffordable to your average punter. The journalist was making the case that city living was easy, but didn’t mention the costs.

  • Matt says:

    This post is very close to my heart Bill.

    With two kids under 5, we visit Wellington very rarely as a family. In general terms, it’s inconvenient and expensive for families. It’s all very well trying to get people out of their cars (which seems to be the main theme of ‘sustainable’ transport) but it this shift prevents families from visiting Wellington, then is this really sustainable?

    We live north of Porirua, so driving is often the only option at weekends when train and bus services are few and far between (a great idea to increase patronage). Trips to Wellington are now only undertaken for specific purposes. Trips to parks and playgrounds are kept local and the Kapiti coast is preferred for a recreational family day out.

    The reality that urban planners need to face is that cars offer a convenient and safe way to transport around a family. There are very different types of trips between weekdays (primarily work) and the weekends (primarily leisure) hence the externalities may be different. Congestion is rarely a problem at weekends but space for parking is, for example.

    Maybe the council needs to take into account these different types of trips and start making Wellington family friendly …. or we’ll continue to stay away.

    • Bill says:

      Of course, living up there you’d have even more difficulty getting into town. Reducing the trains on the weekends is a perfect example of the focus on commuters. It’s not just commuters, either, it’s commuters who are only going from home to work and back. Sometimes I want to pick up a child from somewhere, but it rarely works.

      At least you’ve been ‘confined’ to Kapiti — it’s lovely there.

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