Car Dependence, Climate and Community - Part 1: Looking Back from 2021

Updated: Jul 8

by Roland Sapsford

Mt Victoria Tunnel
Mt Victoria Tunnel - R Sapsford Photographer

The Wellington suburb of Northland in the 1970s was a far cry from what it is now. I had an after-high school job delivering groceries for the GHB store (like Four Square), that is now a Burger Wisconsin. The owner Rua Harris (“Rua’s personal grocery service”) was a charming man and had customers all over the show, who rang in orders and then me and one or two others delivered them in an old CA Bedford van. Some of the older people loved our visits and would always have tea and biscuits for us. Deliveries took a long time some days.

Next door was a butcher shop (now Hell Pizza) where as a three-year old, I once climbed into the window display, and then a chemist, bookshop, fruit store and a Post Office. Every 250 m or so further up the hill along Northland Road was another dairy. Most shops were closed at the weekend so people working in them got to have lives as well. Now you can get almost any variety of take-aways from 10 am to 10 pm, 7 days a week, and one dairy remains within a kilometre radius.

The point of this is not nostalgia, though I still smile at the pleasure of buying DC comics from the bookstore, or taking my cents into the post office to deposit in my school savings account. Rather, it’s that you could meet almost all of your needs locally, and almost all the rest were only a trolley bus ride away into town. As a child my friends were all walking or cycling distance away, and any spare bits of greenery were threaded with the trails made by young imaginations.

Growing up without a car didn’t seem odd. My family wasn’t well off but we weren’t desperately poor either. Most kids around me were in roughly the same boat, so while we who stayed at home might think people who got to go on holiday at Christmas were lucky, there weren’t big dividing lines around who could wear or do or own what. Sharing clothes we’d grown out with other families was just something we did.

No-one talked about CO2 emissions then, but this was a relatively low-emissions lifestyle compared with today, and we were generally well fed but rarely overweight.

Two or three times a year, my father would rent a Mini for the weekend and we’d go places like Makara where the buses never reached. On one of these trips we got the front wheel stuck in a pot hole (the original Minis are LOW) and were pondering what to do when four guys in a farm truck came down and lifted the car back onto the road!

Then of course, came the mid-80s to the mid-90s – the era of deregulation; car prices plummeted and car ownership sky-rocketed. Shops across the city were open longer and you could drive around shopping for bargains. Cheap imported goods flooded New Zealand and were sold in big box retail facilities. And we entered the world of brunch and takeaways as dietary staples. Decades after many other places, New Zealand rushed headlong into consumerism, car dependence, and it has to be said, great coffee.

Northland is an older suburb, built around the tram route that became the trolley bus route. Many houses are relatively close together and grouped around the public transport route because that was how you travelled before the final walk home. It’s much less dense than Aro Valley or Newtown, but much less sprawly than the newer outer suburbs of the 80s and 90s.

Even so, as the 80s rolled on, life in Northland and many other places started to revolve around car ownership. Public transport patronage plummeted and the era of peak-hour trolley buses going every five minutes from Brandon St to Northland became a distant memory.

Pretty soon after that, the trolley wires themselves also went; in an attempt to combat falling patronage a single bus service all the way to Mairangi was introduced and soon after, the “short service” to Northland disappeared even in peak hours. With no buses using them, the trolley-bus wires were removed back to Chaytor St, where the Karori trolley- buses would continue to run for another 35 years or so.

Local shops couldn’t compete in terms of convenience, range and price, and, as inequality sky-rocketed and unemployment soared, getting a bargain became a matter of survival for many. It's not a very big step from there to the row of takeaway shops we see today.

Takeaway shops - R Sapsford Photographer

Elsewhere of course, the era of motorway and sprawl began in the 1960s, and the world of suburban isolation and car commuting was in full flower from the word go.

By the early 2000s in Northland, more footpaths and traffic islands appeared, and more recently a 30km/hr speed limit, but there’s also far more cars, with a fair few people driving much faster than 30km/hr. And back on Northland’s side streets, freshly minted driveways cut across public land that used to be play space for kids. Kids cycling on the main road are few and far between.

And so we arrive at today. It's 2021, and the world needs to change once again. Our survival demands we decarbonise our transport and the way we live.

We all need help to reduce car dependence across our city and its myriad communities. What does the 2035 version of an urban low-emissions life look life? What do we need to do in 2021 to get there safely?

Part 2 will look back from 2035 on how we might have answered these questions.

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