The NZ Herald (on the front page of the print version too!) has an article today on a few of the things that I mentioned in a blog post last week the new Auckland Council was thinking about when it comes to improving Auckland’s CBD.
New Zealand’s premier retail street could be blocked to vehicles and turned into a mall in a move reminiscent of New York’s reclaiming Broadway for pedestrians.
Banishing cars from Queen St and reclaiming the inner city for pedestrians are uppermost in a 20-year city centre masterplan being drafted for public release in March.
Other ideas in the document are creating a downtown Chinatown, building public spaces over motorways and providing playgrounds for children.
As I noted last week, this is exciting stuff. Auckland’s CBD has gone through a revival over the past 10-15 years as more and more people are living there, but it still struggles to capture employment numbers and retail market share. A lot of that is because Auckland’s public transport system isn’t good enough to encourage people to use it to get to the CBD instead of driving to the shopping mall. But I think part of the reason the city centre also struggles to get people to “go in there” is because it’s simply not a particularly inviting environment. There are a few nice areas – like around High Street and the waterfront – but many other parts are quite hostile to pedestrians and therefore somewhat off-putting compared to the ease of the shopping mall.
I think the idea behind many of the efforts to improve the CBD is to focus on both these matters: improving the public transport system so it’s easier to get into the central city without having to drive and also making the central city a nicer place to be once you’re there. The article continues:
The “city centre masterplan” will canvass some long-talked-about projects, such as light rail, turning Quay St into a boulevard and converting Hobson and Nelson Sts into two-way roads.
Aucklanders will also be asked for comment on the future direction of the port and creating a continuous waterfront edge, possibly from the Harbour Bridge to St Heliers.
Auckland Council’s future vision committee will consider a preliminary report on the masterplan tomorrow.
It might be well worth getting along to tomorrow’s meeting of the future vision committee to hear what the councillors have to say and how much support the masterplan gets for some of its ideas.
As I noted in my previous blog post on this plan, there are a number of similarities between many of these proposals and some suggestions that formed part of the Campaign for Better Transport’s “next five years” presentation that I helped present in December last year to the Transport Committee. In particular is the proposal to think about pedestrianising Queen Street, which the CBT plan thought could be best achieved by trialling closing the street off to cars on weekends and seeing how things went. The article discusses this matter:
Although the paper talks of turning some central-city streets into malls and of pedestrian improvements to Queen St, the Herald understands senior council planners are keen to turn part or all of Queen St into a mall.
Lower Queen St is the obvious starting point, but a mall could run up to Mayoral Drive, or even as far as Karangahape Rd.
I don’t think there’s be too much gained from pedestrianising further up than Mayoral Drive, even in the long-run: as the wholly retail nature of Queen Street pretty much ends by that point. However, between Customs Street and Mayoral Drive would be a great goal to aim for in the longer run.
The main question is probably “how do we get to that point?” One option is to do it all in one hit – close the street off permanently at some point and redo it, potentially like Queen Street in Brisbane which is a fantastically successful pedestrianised main street. The other option might be to do things in stages: start with weekends and see how things go, perhaps move on to longer periods during summer, perhaps turn parts of the street in shared spaces that give priority to pedestrians while retaining vehicle access. Auckland Council Transport Chairman Mike Lee is in favour of the second of the two options – the careful step by step approach:
Transport committee chairman Mike Lee floated the idea of trialling a pedestrian-only area of Queen St from Customs St to Victoria St at weekends. Turning the whole street over to pedestrians only was not sensible or practical, he said.
Mr Lee said there was a lot to be said for humanising the inner-city streets, but said the central business district was reasonably fragile in terms of competition from the malls and careful planning was required to support a healthy, thriving retail sector.
A sensible approach, he said, was the work being done to create shared spaces in the central city, where pedestrians and vehicles share a road surface. Work has started on the first, in Darby St and Fort St.
I agree with Mike Lee that we need to be careful about how we make major changes to the CBD, because it is fragile in terms of attracting shoppers and employers. I think that pedestrianising Queen Street at all times in one go would probably be a mistake at this point in time. We probably need to give the perception of Auckland’s public transport system enough time to improve (plus obviously the system itself) before retailers would feel comfortable enough with such a proposal. The last thing we would want is what happened in Onehunga where the main street was pedestrianised and it just about killed off the place before cars were allowed back in.
But that’s the beauty of the proposal to trial it at weekends, potentially only weekends during summer to start with. If it works and is super-popular, the retailers and other important stakeholders will start to realise their customers are generally pedestrians rather than motorists (after all, it’s difficult to buy stuff from a car). General users of the CBD may also really enjoy how removing cars has created a massive new public space in the very heart of Auckland. We might see little cafes start up in temporary carts along the street, we might see markets and performers and all other kinds of people and activities using the space. At the same time, if it doesn’t work – if people are discouraged from the city centre or if the place just feels a bit too eerily quiet without vehicles – then a cheap trial can easily be ended. We might reckon that Auckland isn’t quite ready for such a thing, at least not until the CBD rail tunnel is completed. But at least we would have given it a go.
Furthermore, New York City has shown how it’s pretty cheap, easy and reversible to pedestrianise an area – as a trial of closing off parts of Times Square (which has since become permanent) was done quickly and has become a huge success. There was no expensive repaving, no expensive relocation of services (why is it that every time you need to repave something all the service need to be relocated?) This is shown in the image below (from the CBT’s presentation): Wouldn’t it be nice to relax on a seat like this on Queen Street on a nice sunny summer’s afternoon?
So overall I support the step-by-step method, although it would be great it we had full pedestrianisation as a long term goal. I wonder whether doing some temporary road closure during the Rugby World Cup might be a good opportunity to give it a first crack, followed by weekends throughout next summer?