Last night I went to an interesting workshop, run by Auckland City Council, to help discuss important matters that should be included in a future District Plan for the Mt Albert area. This is all part of the Future Planning Framework that was supposed to inform the next generation District Plan for the isthmus area of Auckland City – until the whole Super City thing killed off that idea. Nevertheless, Auckland City Council continue to plough forwards with their work on this, I suppose hoping that the new council will pick up on the work that has been done and carry it forward into the new District Plan for the whole region that will need to be prepared eventually.
Anyway, the workshop was quite interesting, broken into three tables: transport, housing and main street. I tended to flit between the transport group and the housing group, as I was there for work reasons so couldn’t solely focus on my transport interests – although it was tempting given the number of ARTA staff there! Focusing on transport matters (as, after all, this is a transport blog) I tried to point out to a number of people that Mt Albert actually has a heck of a lot going for it: there’s a railway station in the middle of the town centre, there’s a strong CBD-focused bus route along New North Road and there’s also a pretty strong cross-town route – in the form of Carrington Road and Mt Albert Road. Sure, the bus frequencies on the cross-town route aren’t particularly flash, but hopefully over time that will be improved as ARTA (and their undemocratic successor) get around to putting bus lanes along Mt Albert Road and Carrington Road and creating a property “Quality Transit Network” along that route.
As shown in the map below, in terms of transport accessibility, you can’t do much better than Mt Albert: Yet something doesn’t work here. The Mt Albert shops are a place one tends to avoid, rather than be particularly drawn to. The general quality of the shops seems surprisingly low when you consider that the residential areas surrounding them are quite highly gentrified, particularly to the east. The train station is reasonably well used, with around 1,500 passengers a day boarding and alighting (making it the fourth busiest Western Line station after New Lynn, Henderson and Newmarket), but considering Unitec is located fairly nearby, I would think that the patronage is slightly disappointing.
In the future, as our cross-town routes (hopefully) get better supported, and as integrated ticketing encourages people to make multi-leg journeys a bit more, Mt Albert could become a critically important transfer point in the Auckland transport network. However, I don’t think that’s going to happen unless significant improvements are made to the finer details of how this transport interchange will work, and also vast improvements to the Mt Albert train station and its site surrounds are made. Unfortunately I don’t have a photo of the station, but trust me it’s pretty dire – possibly the ugliest station left in Auckland at the moment. ARTA have some plans for a quick-fix upgrade, but really in the longer term I think that Mt Albert’s strategic location means that something extra is needed. If we get the train station upgrade right then hopefully it will have significant wider benefits for the whole town centre too.
An idea that I had, along with a number of other people at the workshop, was that we really need something that will help link the railway station with New North Road better, will help stitch together the two-sides of Mt Albert (split by the railway line) and will help “open up” the rear of the shops along New North Road to the train station. Another matter to consider was the need for the Woodward Ave level crossing (to the southwest of the map above) to be grade separated for safety reasons at some point in the future. This is likely to mean that the railway track will be lowered. If the tracks are to be lowered, then there’s the potential to do something similar to what is happening at New Lynn at the moment, with the line being put into a trench. On top of the trench, at least as it passes through what would be Mt Albert station, you could could a big public square – which would act as the heart of Mt Albert and have shops opening out onto it. There would be plenty of links between the square and the surrounding street network (so that it doesn’t end up hidden like the Newmarket Station Square). Possibly something like this: An upgrade like this would clearly link together the two sides of Mt Albert to a far greater extent. The new roading link would provide better access to the shopping area for those who live on the northwestern side of the tracks, and would probably make that area more suitable to the kind of intensification Auckland City Council envisages for the area (up to 3-4 level townhouses and apartments). Opening up the back of the shops that are squeezed between the railway line and New North Road would also improve their economic viability and performance, while the public square itself would provide a great focal point for the community – and would be reasonably safe and secure because of the proximity of the new road link, Carrington Road and the various other access points.
Of course this is all just a bit of a dream, but what it shows me is that it’s stupid trying to plan transport upgrades (like the Mt Albert station) without co-ordinating them with other land-use improvements or townscape upgrades. As I have said many times before, we need closer co-operation and integration between land-use and transport planning. It seems pretty crazy that instead we will be splitting them into two completely separate agencies.