Council debate goes off the rails on pedestrianisation semantics

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Dunedin City Council’s actions were meant to be simple enough in principle; take note of the reaction to a series of pedestrian-only trials and use that to inform future decisions – but the politics of pedestrianisation meant it was never a simple exercise.

Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins and Sue Bidrose addressing media this afternoon regarding her resignation.

Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins and Sue Bidrose Photo: RNZ / Tim Brown

The council this afternoon debated a report assessing the outcome of the “Octagon Experience” – three trials of various pedestrian-only scenarios staged in and around Dunedin’s Octagon from late January until mid March.

For almost an hour, councillors grilled staff on their cover report and the various attachments which informed it.

At the heart of the debate was whether the failings of the Octagon Experience would affect plans for redevelopment of Dunedin’s main street.

Councillor Lee Vandervis argued the unfavourable report should lead to a rethink of the future of Dunedin’s main street, George Street.

There are plans for the street to be more pedestrian-friendly with fewer vehicles.

Councillor and chief executive Sue Bidrose shared a back-and-forth over what was being planned for George Street.

Vandervis characterised it as pedestrianisation and pointed to a series of artist’s impressions not featuring cars as evidence of that.

Bidrose disputed that.

“I think you’ll find they have a road-way – that by definition is not pedestrianisation,” she said.

“I note your new definition of pedestrianisation chief executive Bidrose, with interest,” Vandervis responded.

The chief executive had earlier noted there were no plans to pedestrianise the main street, but the matter continued to rear its head.

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“A quick look online will send you to Wikitionary, the Free Dictionary, the Cambridge Dictionary, the Collins Dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary – they all say pedestrianisation is the removal of cars and turning all spaces into pedestrian-only. There are no plans to do that,” Bidrose emphasised following further questioning from another councillor.

Vandervis could not leave the subject at that though.

“Do you have a dictionary definition of pedestrianisation that specifies it must be 100 percent removal of cars as opposed to the just removal of cars that you quoted before,” he asked the chief executive.

At that point Mayor Aaron Hawkins attempted to interject and said there was “very little value at this point in getting into a semantic argument about removal of cars versus removal of all cars”.

Bidrose was happy to oblige however, stating: “I’ll just read some of the definitions”.

“Oh, go for it. We’ve got all the time in the world,” Hawkins said.

“So, to restrict vehicle access to a street for exclusive use of pedestrians. To make an area into one where vehicles are not allowed to go.

“You and a number of other people talk repeatedly that council is planning to pedestrianise George Street. Pedestrianisation – to convert a street into an area for the exclusive use of pedestrians. George Street is not being converted into exclusive use of pedestrians. Every definition says the same thing.

“You might wish it to be different because you keep saying ‘pedestrianisation’. But George Street is not being pedestrianised. If you bastardise the word it doesn’t make any sense to people if you seek to pedestrianise somewhere else.”

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Mayor Hawkins added his voice to Bidrose’s. “You can’t be half-pregnant, councillor,” he told Vandervis.

What was meant to be discussed was the pedestrian-only trials of the Octagon.

The trials had a budget of $150,000, but blow-outs resulted in a final cost of more than $330,000.

The trials also proved unpopular with those surveyed. More than two-thirds of respondents disliked phase one or two – the most extensive closures – and only phase three, which involved the least disruption, had majority public support.

The council’s city services general manager, Sandy Graham, said poor ground work for the project turned public opinion before it even began.

“The report clearly says we got our consultation and engagement wrong,” she said.

Retailers had complained of large drops in turnover due to the street closures.

Research from First Retail showed retail spending in the Octagon was up 14 percent in January, but down 4 percent in February and down 43 percent in March.

After staff were grilled for more than an hour on the report’s contents and its implications for future projects, and then almost another subsequent hour of debate, the council unanimously agreed to note the report, though Vandervis was absent.

The council then agreed to extend the meeting beyond its six-hour statutory timeframe so it could continue with the rest of the agenda.

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