The Wrong Side of my Car

A blog about Auckland City, its streets, and culture shock

10 Jan 2016

Reflections on living in an apartment for a year.

If you have been following my blog, you might know that, um…

Sigh. Who am I kidding? Nobody is following my blog.

…I have been living in the Auckland city centre for almost a year now. One of the big Sovjet-style apartment blocks along Hobson Street.

Yes, one of those

You may also know I came from the Belgian countryside. Where the idea of living in the city is a bit of a mystery. Is it really so convenient to have everything close by that you could even—gasp—ditch your car? Or is it really that dystopia of dull grey, crime, claustrophobia and terrible traffic?

Ah, no need for drama. A lot of us countryside dwellers figured this out when we moved to a student room (affectionately called a ‘kot’) to study. Most of us liked that. Don’t be afraid of the big city.

Long story short: as is often the case, there are some upsides and downsides. Let’s talk about Auckland City.

Upside: Lots of choice

How many options do you have if you want to take out some dinner, or go out eating? Options which don’t require you to drive for a quarter-hour? Here in the city we have, just within a short walk, a few restaurants along Hobson Street. And quite a few along Victoria Street. Or the food court at the Eliott Stable. Some fancy restaurants which anywhere else would go broke for a lack of people living nearby who are interested.

Going to the movies? Most suburbs have a cinema nearby, but for the people who like them big, we have the one with the big IMAX theatre.

Upside: Everything is within walking distance

The supermarket, hairdresser, doctor, the movies, restaurant, that fancy restaurant, everything.

You often hear that cars are freedom, right? To go wherever you want to go, bla bla bla. That’s partially right, but it’s also resigning to not being able to get around without the help of a car.

Exactly that is the freedom we city dwellers enjoy: we have the freedom to go where we want to go without a car. I quite enjoy that freedom. Maybe I’m weird, but I tend get cabin fever if I never go outside my home or car.

Upside: Congestion exemption

Walking almost always just works. Even with all the others organising all those traffic jams. You never have to wait for 20 minutes in a pedestrian jam.

And when was the last time you walked somewhere and you had trouble finding a spot to park you, um… shoes?

If you’re lucky you can walk to work. Changes are, your colleague is already in his car on the motorway by the time you’re having breakfast.

Isn’t public transport an upside?

Yeah I thought so. Until the first time I actually tried that out.

There must be some bus to Newmarket, right? What does the journey planner tell me? Something silly, like you’ll arrive in about 45 minutes. And you’ll have to walk to Symonds Street.

On the other hand, assuming I could park my car a 5 minutes walk away, I’ll probably make it to Newmarket and find a parking spot in about 25 minutes.

That was a year ago. Now all those bus routes were shuffled around an there are a few services on Queen Street going that way. And it actually showed up. Things are improving.

But I’d still say for most places outside the city centre you’re still dependent on a car to get there. In fact, I moved a couple of times and this is the first time I need a car to go to work.

Of course if this weren’t Auckland I would get a bicycle to get around. There’s a lot of places you could reach within a 10 minute bicycle ride. For now however that option is quite, how to say it… intimidating.

Question, what about the backyard?

Sometimes phrased as: where will the children play? That is, assuming you actually have children. More on that later.

This is what happens if you project the suburban lifestyle to apartments. The lifestyle here is different, a bit less private. You’ll spend less of your time in your home. If you want to play outside you can walk a few minutes to a park nearby. Meyers Park has been refurbished a few years ago. Go there on a sunny day and you’ll see plenty of families enjoying their day.

Myers Park

And do you know how long it takes until children get their driver licence? Do you know what a PITA it is to drive them around all the time until then? I would say, no thanks.

There is also no law that apartments cannot have backyards. The 18-storey kind likely comes without a yard. But you could also have 3-storey low-rise apartments, on a similar lot as a freestanding house. With a shared yard. It’s just that zoning makes them mostly illegal.

Is not having your own backyard a problem here?

But an apartment is so small!

Well duh. If you do need a lot of space an apartment is the wrong choice.

A thing some people may underestimate is how many small households are out there. According to the statistics, in Auckland almost half of the households are 1 or 2 persons. These people don’t have much use for 4 bedrooms. In the suburbs, many end up flatting together in those big houses. And how many rooms do you usually rent when you are flatting somewhere? Right, one bedroom. A lot of people are OK with that.

Mixed bag: The street

If you read the points above it should be clear that when living in an apartment, part of what can make this a great place to live is the surrounding streets. Because you’re on these streets so often. When walking around doing your daily errands, when enjoying the fair weather in the park.

And unfortunately, many of these streets are still optimized for getting a lot of cars through. And most of the open areas between buildings are reserved for cars as well.

Pedestrians are still just tolerated rather than welcome.

Just look at the traffic lights for instance. How long is the green phase for pedestrians? Often just long enough to make it theoretically possible to cross the street at some indeterminate point in the future.

And crossing between traffic lights is no piece of cake either. How many of you have the courage to dash across a 5-lane street?

5-lane streets (or wider), and the spaghetti junction

If you live on the Hobson Street ridge, there’s a lot of them around you. If you don’t jaywalk, getting around is going to be very cumbersome. Every time you cross one of these big streets in that map, it will add another couple of minutes to your journey time.

But at least there is something on that street. If you live in the suburbs you can walk for 10 minutes, all you’ll see are just other homes. And in Auckland that usually means you’re not even looking at houses, but at front fences. If you like the ambience of a ghost town, this is the place to be.

Downside: The noise

Yes, about that. They are not exaggerating about that.

Of course it is ridiculous to move into a city and expect you can hear a pin drop at all times. But it is a downside compared to suburbia.

Long story short, if you plan on living there on the long term, then you must find an apartment with a ventilation system. Why? So you can keep your windows closed. The air in a small apartment will go stale very quickly without ventilation. If the only way to ventilate your apartment is an open window, then that open window will also let all the noise in.

And growing up on the countryside didn’t condition me well for this. I never leaned to sleep through the noise of police sirens, engine brakes on trucks *1, or kids racing their tuned cars on the street. The noise pollution may very well mean that if you’re not a deep sleeper, you are banished to the suburbs.

And, obviously, sleeping at night is fundamental if you want any illusion of quality of life.

It’s not just sleep. If you’re not living alone, then you may want to watch a movie together, without the traffic noise drowning out half of the dialogue. At least it is usually possible to talk to each other without having to yell. Usually.

(*1) 

In case you’re from any other place in New Zealand and reading this, yes, that is allowed over here.

Downside: made by developers

Are there a lot of people out there for whom following points are not bleedingly obvious?

Yes, yes. The benefit of hindsight, I know. But seriously, some of these things should be obvious to anyone in the business of designing a home.

Conclusion

I can definitely see what makes living in a city centre so appealing. But in Auckland we are not quite there yet.

Maybe the main problem is a lack of ambition. From both the council, and the developers building these apartments.

The council chooses to make getting around by car as convenient as possible. The council chooses to tolerate silly things like trucks using their engine brakes in the middle of the night. And the government for whatever reason thinks there is merit in allowing those stupid after-market exhaust pipes.

So, ambition. Are we happy to accept an apartment in the city centre is merely a place where we may tolerate living when desperate, until we can afford to move out? Or do we want to make it a place where people actually would want to live?

2 comments

Adam Parkinson (17 February 2016 at 16:01)

Excellent summary. I have also now been living in the city for 1 year. Still can't understand how all those (un?) (de?) tuned cars and motorbikes get through WOF checks.
Loving the city tho - and have just bought a bike - last time was when I was student living in the city - 1982. No empathy and lots of anger everywhere. Some of them really would like to hurt you. Gotta be brave.
Keep up the good work/blog

Roeland (17 February 2016 at 16:41)

Thanks Adam.

The WOF checks, I have no idea. Maybe they swap out their exhausts for the check.

And lack of empathy on the road is perhaps the main issue with riding a bicycle in Auckland. Or walking, for that matter.

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