Huanui Lane, central Christchurch, before and after the bollards were removed (Photos: Christchurch City Council, Oliver Lewis)
Huanui Lane, central Christchurch, before and after the bollards were removed (Photos: Christchurch City Council, Oliver Lewis)

OPINIONSocietyJuly 17, 2021

What the hell happened to Christchurch’s Huanui Lane?

Huanui Lane, central Christchurch, before and after the bollards were removed (Photos: Christchurch City Council, Oliver Lewis)
Huanui Lane, central Christchurch, before and after the bollards were removed (Photos: Christchurch City Council, Oliver Lewis)

Motorists in the southern city have overrun a public laneway with next to no pushback from the council. What would have happened if cyclists or pedestrians did the same?

In the dead of night, or during the day if they were feeling brazen, a parking-inspired vigilante shoved aside the heavy concrete blocks meant to keep a new Christchurch laneway car-free. They almost certainly used a vehicle. The 400 kilogram barriers were dragged out of the way like so many pieces of Lego, opening the floodgates to an influx of freeloaders.

“It’s outrageous,” said Simon Kingham, chief science advisor to the Ministry of Transport. “It’s an invasion of space meant for people.”

Huanui Lane and the park it bisects, Rauora Park, are part of the East Frame, a post-earthquake development in central Christchurch. When it opened, the laneway was a peaceful, quiet space for cyclists and pedestrians. Now it is choked with cars.

On Tuesday, The Spinoff counted 133 vehicles parked on the laneway between Lichfield and Gloucester streets. Pedestrians weaved between cars parked two abreast and cyclists had to make way for frustrated drivers looking for a park.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

A council supplied digital image showing Rauora Park and Huanui Lane as they were supposed to look (Christchurch City Council)

Among urbanists, the idea of induced demand is accepted wisdom. As the famed American sociologist Lewis Mumford quipped, “Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.” More free parking does the same thing – it makes it easier for people to drive, and so the extra parks just fill up.

Kingham, a University of Canterbury professor of geography with a focus on urban environments, said the overrun laneway was a terrible look for the area. There was no such thing as free parking, he said. If motorists weren’t paying, then someone else was picking up the tab for things like maintenance. The solution was simple: return the concrete blocks.

“I could go to any primary school and ask them what the solution is and they’d work it out like you and I have. It’s not difficult.”

Council staff knew in mid-April that the concrete barriers had been removed. They have handed out 13 infringement notices for missing warrants and registrations since, but have otherwise left drivers on the laneway alone. With a free pass to park for free, motorists have continued to flock to Huanui Lane in droves.

Huanui Lane today (Photo: Oliver Lewis)

Crown rebuild agency Ōtākaro developed the laneway as a shared space. There was always meant to be a limited amount of paid parking: 24 two-hour spaces across four blocks plus a small number of disability and motorcycle parks. However, this parking wasn’t meant to be accessible until the East Frame was almost finished. An Ōtākaro spokesman agreed this could take years, as the project included a considerable amount of residential housing. The council had intended to remove the concrete barriers then and install parking meters.

Transport operations manager Steffan Thomas said the council was in the process of installing signs telling people not to stop except in signposted spots. Once they were up, the council would start issuing infringement notices to people parking in non-designated areas, Thomas said. Payment signage wasn’t considered appropriate as the meters weren’t installed.

“Council will start issuing warning letters next week with enforcement starting the following week,” he said.

Council staff were currently reviewing parking restrictions on Huanui Lane, with options to go to councillors depending on the outcome. Last month, Thomas told Stuff previous signage in the laneway had been taken down by people unknown to the council. In response to The Spinoff, he seemed to frame that as an opportunity.

“When the lane was first constructed it was assumed that paid parking would be appropriate in the area due to the expected adjacent land use. As this is yet to eventuate, and the signs have been removed, it is a good opportunity to consider if paid parking is required or whether time restrictions would be more appropriate.”

Kingham was incredulous.

“You’re winding me up on a Wednesday afternoon,” he said.

Professor Simon Kingham (Photo: University of Canterbury/supplied)

If the barriers hadn’t been moved, Huanui Lane would have remained a car-free space for years, or at least until the East Frame development was mostly finished. By not moving them back, the council was essentially rewarding motorists with early access for having the audacity to move the heavy blocks in the first place. Moreover, staff were considering relaxing requirements for people to pay to park on the lane.

Kingham contrasted this with what happened when someone painted a pedestrian crossing on a stretch of dangerous road in Christchurch last year. Council contractors painted over it the next day. Wellington council moved similarly quickly earlier this year after activists installed a pop-up cycleway as part of a protest against the lack of safe cycling infrastructure in the region.

“We do seem to have different rules,” Kingham said.

“If you are a pedestrian or a cyclist and you do something they cover it and do it really quickly. If you’re in a car, you just get away with it.”

Photo: Oliver Lewis

How much parking is too much parking?

Christchurch is one of the most car-dependent cities in the country, with a higher share of people driving to work than Auckland or Wellington. Public transport ridership is still down on pre-quake levels, more than a decade ago. And there is lots and lots of parking: an estimated 33,000 parks in the central city alone. The council, which has a goal of net-zero emissions by 2045, has acknowledged free or cheap parking encourages people to drive into the central city, and that encouraging mode shift from single-occupant vehicles was an important part of its strategy to reduce emissions.

Central Christchurch has close to 70 hectares of vacant land, including numerous gravel lots turned over to car parking and run by operators like Wilson Parking. In her excellent review of When a City Rises, a documentary about the rebuild, local academic and critic Dr Erin Harrington noted the strange juxtaposition between the flash new developments and the derelict buildings and empty lots.

“The city that was and the city still to come are overlaid, ghostly, across a sea of Wilson’s car parks,” Harrington wrote.

The Huanui Lane situation presents a different kind of juxtaposition.

Motorists parking for free on the laneway are leaving their cars right beside the two Good Spot car parks, spaces run by Gap Filler, a social enterprise. Parking revenue goes towards making improvements in the local area. Gap Filler director Ryan Reynolds didn’t think Good Spot had been losing out on revenue, but he was still annoyed about Huanui Lane.

“It’s been driving me nuts,” he said.

“As someone who’s organising events throughout Rauora Park and on either side, it’s annoying and dangerous and actually just inconceivable to me that people can park like three deep in an area that is not supposed to have any cars.”

Good Spot, which charges $2 an hour or $5.50 for all-day parking, funnels the money it makes back into placemaking activities in the area — things like the nearby flow track, or installing fitness equipment.

Meanwhile, the motorists overrunning public space on Huanui Lane aren’t contributing anything at all. Someone had the audacity to push aside the heavy concrete barriers, and the council doesn’t seem to think it’s appropriate to put them back. By taking direct action, the vigilante effectively cracked open a new space for parking years in advance. Could a cyclist or pedestrian do the same?

Keep going!