The auto dominance of cities: Frogs in a pot

Dec 20, 2013
The auto dominance of cities: Frogs in a pot


A great article about New York made me really think about how we have slowly let our cities become dominated by the need to move around a lot of cars. This line in particular could be as much about Auckland as New York:

About 30 years ago, our country lost something precious: a generation of [Americans/New Zealanders] who remembered cities that weren’t completely dominated by the automobile.

Cyclists in Christchurch 1937
Christchurch 1937 – Cnr High and Hereford Streets

I recently read a comment on Stuff about the proposed cycle paths in Christchurch that really brought this home to me. The commentator stated that the proposed cycle paths were unreasonable as cars were such a huge part of Christchurch’s history. This made me realise that people in my home town have forgotten that Christchurch was known as “Cyclopolis” and one of the foremost cycling cities in the Southern Hemisphere, if not the world.

Until after the First World War cities grew organically without little overall planning, expecially when it came to density or size of buildings. From 1910, electric street cars/trams allowed cities to expand out and the bicycle added to the residents mobility. Cycling in Auckland was not as popular as other cities like Christchurch or Palmerston North because the old single or three speed bikes made hills a challenge. By the time cheap ten speeds and mountain bikes came along, Auckland had already been redesigned to cater to one type of transport, the private automobile.

Jervois Road tram – a lost urban treasure

These changes of course did not happen overnight. Like frogs in a slowly warming pot of water, Aucklanders slowly conceded more and more road space and allowed the dismantling of our excellent tram network, until pedestrians (especially if they were also public transport users) and cyclists were consigned to the status of second class citizens.

We should keep this in mind when advocating for cycling in an urban environment. We are not proposing something new, radical or untested. New Zealand cities worked well in the past with cycling as an important part of the transport puzzle and those same cities can do so again.

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