Walkability, Connectivity, and Te Araroa

Two months ago I wrote about Te Araroa (The Long Pathway), and it seems apt to point out that there’s now a set of forums which attempts to build a community of people wanting to discuss walking of the route. I heard about it during a typically tangenting discussion on the NZ Tramper website, which caused me consider more clearly what Te Araroa is for me.

I guess it’s possible to perceive that Te Araroa is (or should be) a top-down consistently-designed, clearly-marked and well-managed walking track. Perhaps this will be the case some day with sufficient motivation throughout its length, but presently it’s a bottom-up effort to link together a massive collection of smaller walk-ways. Much of Te Araroa already existed, but the project (approaching 20+ years of effort) ensures that individual routes and walkways are connected and defined as part of the network. In places where there’s been no reasonably direct or useful connection between sections, access has been negotiated or built to complete the continuity.

Being a bottom-up creation rather than a top-down creation, Te Araroa is not automatically a sparkly, consistent and necessarily easy-to-locate walkway for the entire length, despite ongoing efforts to improve it. What it does mean, however, is it’s actually possible to walk legally between any two places along the route with the exception of occasional bodies of water. At no place is it necessary to stop and get a bus, or drive a car between two points.

Celebrating the ability alone to walk between two points may seem an unusual thing, as walking is usually the lowest common denominator. If there’s land one needs to cross, it seems intuitive that there should be a foot-friendly route even if it’s not possible to ride a bicycle or drive a car, or catch a train, bus or taxi. Sadly we live in a modern world in which this isn’t always the case, because the demand for efficient routes between popular places means that walkability no longer gets priority.

A Wellington-centric example of this effect, which I wrote about in 2009, involves the State Highway 2 Hutt Road route between Ngauranga and Petone: the main link between Wellington’s CBD and the Hutt Valley. This direct line used to be an accessible route for walking or riding between those two centres of population. Over the years, any sensical form of walkability has been obliterated by the presence of two railway lines, four lanes of roads, and a horrible cycleway [youtube video] which most cyclists despise and avoid as much as possible. All of this is now a high-speed asphalt corridor pressed between a cliff-face and Wellington Harbour. I last tried walking this stretch in 2005, mostly sticking to the bumpy and pothole-infested cycle-way until it abruptly ended 400 metres short of Petone. At that time I hitched a ride into Petone rather than brave walking into accelerating high-speed traffic with no side-lane. The walking infrastructure that once existed along that stretch has simply dissolved in the demand for nuclear-family-age transport infrastructure.

The above length is a relatively short stretch between Ngauranga and Petone, but it’s a major commuting route. Unfortunately, anyone who wants to walk between the two ends today can only sanely do so by walking towards Tawa or Porirua, then at some point climbing over the hills of Belmont Regional Park to get to reach Petone or the Hutt Valley. Disconnected streets and private land make this largely impractical without walking an absurdly long way compared with the original 5 kilometres, and a one hour walk suddenly requires the better part of a day. To travel direct, however, means travelling by train, bus or car. Wellington is more walkable than some other places, but this is one of at least several such routes where I’ve encountered major frustration trying to walk relatively directly between two seemingly obvious points.

The Te Araroa concept attracts a variety of people who intend to, or already have walked the length of New Zealand, either via a Te Araroa based route or via some other route. It includes people from overseas who want to experience New Zealand in unusual ways, and also a few kiwis. I don’t think I’m the sort of person who would ever attempt to walk the length of Te Araroa from one end to the other, or even a significant section of it in a stretch. To do this takes a very particular type of person with certain goals which, while totally valid, are not priorities that I presently share. I’m glad that it’s possible to carry out such a trip, but for me it’s not the highlight.

In my mind, the most important achievement of Te Araroa is not that it gives people something new to do, but that it promotes connectivity by foot in general. Following mountains of work by people on the trust and others, Te Araroa has buy-in and support from local and regional councils, governments, land-owners and other stakeholders at the highest levels. It unites the goals of all of these bodies for ensuring foot-based continuity for 3000 kilometres, ensuring that continuous walking routes remain open and available. As long as Te Araroa exists, there will always be a connected way to walk between anywhere on the route, even if it’s re-routed on occasion.

The existence of Te Araroa establishes a precedent for the importance of actually being able to walk reasonably directly and comfortably between important places when planning infrastructure for other forms of transport. Even when it’s necessary to create corridors for other forms of traffic, having walking routes ensures that a reasonably direct route is available at that level. All that really remains is to take the precedent and extend it in other directions.

In case there’s any confusion, please be mindful that I have no direct affiliation to any of the Te Araroa Trusts and do not speak for them.

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