The ironically-named Let’s Get Wellington Moving was nearly stopped in its tracks last week when Wellington City councillors moved an unsuccessful motion of no confidence in the nearly $8 billion project.

An ambitious, far-reaching rethink of the capital city’s transport systems, Let’s Get Wellington Moving would introduce a second Mt Victoria tunnel, light rail from the city centre to Island Bay, and a range of safety and infrastructure improvements across the region – all in the name of reducing emissions and crunching down on congestion.

Councillors had a range of trepidations, but one part of the plan was particularly unpopular: banning cars from Wellington’s Golden Mile.

“That’s where a lot of Wellington’s retail revenue comes from … something like 30 percent of the shops in the central city are located on that stretch of street,” says Erin Gourley, a local government reporter for The Post and Stuff.

Gourley says traffic on the Golden Mile is currently a nightmare, with congestion at its worst during peak commute times.

“You’re stuck behind buses, there are pedestrians trying to walk in front of you, it’s pretty chaotic.” 

A rendering of what the Golden Mile upgrades could look like. Photo: Let’s Get Wellington Moving

A large group of businesspeople and community members recently signed an open letter claiming shutting the street to motorists would kill businesses.

“They’re pretty worried that the plan, because it removes extra carparks and extra lanes of traffic, will significantly decrease the number of people going to their businesses.

“Whenever you have a project like that, there’s always this backlash.”

One of the most common objections is that removing cars only works in European cities, like London, Paris or Copenhagen, but that it just doesn’t map to New Zealand.

But those international cities weren’t always like that, says MRCagney urban planner Kent Lundberg. In the not-too-distant past, they were choked with traffic, too.

He describes how in the 1990s, French and Italian cities underwent big changes to restrict traffic to certain streets, and introduced highly-visible light rail and bus networks.

Lundberg says there are already successful examples of pedestrianisation in New Zealand, they’re just done incrementally – like Quay Street in Auckland.

“Five years ago, it went from four lanes of traffic, 25,000 cars a day, to something like 10,000 cars a day. Now we have an amazing waterfront.

“A lot of it is squeezing in a bus lane in place of carparking, or squeezing in a bike lane … assigning traffic to certain streets unlocks an incredible amount of space.”

Auckland’s Quay Street. Photo: Supplied/Auckland Council

But when traffic lanes and carparks are removed, where does that traffic go? What happens to congestion?

“It disappears,” says Lundberg.

He explains that people either take a different route, or they change the way they travel, opting instead to walk, take public transport, or ride a bike.

Convincing people to make that change is an uphill battle, since our towns and cities were built around car-based access decades ago, but it can be done, says NZ Herald senior writer Simon Wilson.

“The Northern busway opened in 2008 in Auckland. Prior to it opening, people on the North Shore said ‘We will never catch a bus, we drive’.

“Now, more than 40 percent of commuters crossing the Harbour Bridge in the morning are on a bus,” he says.

But he says there is hesitancy in the halls of power to rock the boat when it comes to car usage.

“There is a pervasive thought that you see all the way through politics in this country: how do we fix a problem without asking anyone to change their behaviour?”

Find out more about how why more cities are pedestrianising by listening to the full episode.

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