Monday, May 08, 2006

Brian Rudman: Let taxis use Grafton Bridge to ferry the sick to hospital

From the "Only in Auckland" file. First we concentrate all our public hospital services astride a notorious traffic bottleneck. Then, in an attempt to cure the transport problem, we restrict the times the halt and the lame can travel by car across Grafton Bridge, which just happens to be the most direct route to the hospital for much of Ponsonby, Grey Lynn and parts further west.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all in favour of the planned central transit corridor, the new busway linking the CBD and Newmarket via Grafton. If it's going to cut 14 minutes off the bus travel time of 65,000 people a day, that's wonderful. But surely it shouldn't be done at the expense of those heading off to have their cancers zapped or their prostates tickled.

The plan is to ban cars (including taxis) and trucks, from Grafton Bridge from 7am to 7pm, Monday to Friday, to make it easier for buses and bicycles and emergency vehicles to get through. This means patients from the Western Bays will have to cross through the central city to access Grafton Rd from the bottom of the gully, or take the polar route down Khyber Pass Rd to approach the hospital from the south.

Even to a public transport advocate like myself, this seems a tad purist. Surely the sick could be forgiven for leaving their bikes or bus passes at home in such circumstances and succumbing to a little pampering.

Admittedly, sorting the sick from the cheats driving across Grafton Bridge would be an impossible task. So private cars remain a no-no. But why not let taxis ferry the ill across?

A few stakeouts to catch and punish any taxis abusing the system would soon hammer the message home. Alert Taxis part-owner Paul Cafferkey said last week that having to avoid Grafton Bridge would almost double the fare from the city to the hospital. Being ill is costly and dispiriting enough without this.

The need to have to funnel 2600 buses a day across Grafton Bridge at the expense of other road users is the unsatisfactory compromise you end up with in a city where public transport has lingered bottom of the funding queue for the past 50 years.

This latest incarnation of the CTC, involving busways along Anzac Ave, Symonds St and across Grafton Bridge to Newmarket, is but a pale imitation of a scheme dreamed up during the Christine Fletcher mayoralty.

The original plan involved a light rail-bus corridor from Britomart station up Queen St, along Wellesley St, then across the Grafton Gully motorway on its own bridge, continuing in a tunnel under the hospital - with an underground station there - and on to the western rail line at Boston Rd.

The John Banks council canned this. The Queen St route was abandoned for fear of asphyxiating shoppers with diesel fumes, and the buses directed along Anzac Ave to spew fumes at university students instead.

At the time, Transit New Zealand was in the final design stages of its Wellesley St-Grafton Gully motorway interchange.

The sensible solution would have been to incorporate a passenger transport corridor across the motorway into this design. But such was the dysfunction between local and national transport providers and between road and public transport proponents, that Transit blundered ahead with a roads-only solution.

This left Auckland City and its fading CTC project facing the cost of a new bridge, or the less-than-ideal alternative of retrofitting and hi-jacking historic Grafton Bridge.

As a way of siphoning busloads of commuters rapidly back and forth from the CBD to Newmarket and on to the East and South, it's no doubt a perfectly workable and cheap solution. But nothing's free, and in this case the takeover of two-lane Grafton Bridge by buses is the price.

With the anti-suicide barriers poised to trap the belching bus fumes, pedestrians and cyclists will need free oxygen bowsers at frequent intervals to stand a chance.

As for the sick, the least they deserve is the chance to take a taxi by the most direct route. Not via Hamilton.

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