Urban transport is a tension between the “through” and the “in”, as I have described many times before on this blog. We need to shift people around a city, but often that process of shifting them destroys the quality of the city itself. A motorway is the most obvious example of this – all ‘through’ and no ‘in’. But many of our main roads are arguably even worse, because we want to be locating more people and business along these routes (especially if they have high frequency public transport), but the heavy traffic and completely ‘through-focused’ street environment makes these places incredibly unattractive to live, work, visit or shop.
Take Pakuranga Road for example, this isn’t the most inviting urban environment you’ll come across: Six lanes of traffic, narrow footpaths, the noise and pollution putting off any street activity. On-street parking is restricted at peak times – although it doesn’t really seem like the kind of road you would want to park on any time of the day. The residential development is generally low density, shielding itself behind large fences, walls and hedges, from the street.
At first glance, Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, New York City, doesn’t look particularly different to Pakuranga Road. A similarly large number of lanes and probably a similar number of vehicles carried:
But if you look a bit closer, at the sides of Ocean Parkway, you can see that it’s not just a normal road – it’s a multiway boulevard. The slip-lanes on each side create an interesting combination of allowing a lot of speedy through-traffic in the middle but access and a nicely buffered area to the houses. Looking at the houses that front Ocean Parkway, it’s fairly obvious that they’re much more valuable than what fronts Pakuranga Road. Despite being a very busy road, Ocean Parkway is still very much the kind of road that people want to live along: There are two boulevards like this in Brooklyn, built in the late 19th century and described in superb detail in the excellent The Boulevard Book, by Allan Jacobs, Elizabeth MacDonald and Yodan Rofe. Ocean Parkway is the longer of the two, cutting a huge north-south swathe across Brooklyn: Another city that has plenty of boulevards, and is in fact most famous for them, is Paris. We often think of Paris as such an incredibly different urban environment to Auckland that there’s not much point trying to emulate too much of what is there, but it’s interesting to see how they have managed to combine very busy roads with retaining a quality built environment. Two boulevards that are looked at in some detail in The Boulevard Book are shown in the map below:
Avenue de la Grande Armee is a continuation of the very famous Champs Elysees to the northwest, and carries an incredibly high 92,000 vehicles a day (compared to around 60,000 on Pakuranga Road, New Zealand’s busiest non-motorway road). This is what the main roadway looks like: Not a particularly welcoming looking street at first glance, but remember this road carries half again as many vehicles per day as the busiest non-motorway road in the whole of New Zealand. But once again, if you glance towards the edges of the road you can see some pretty high quality buildings. Look closer and this is confirmed – not only are these your typically nice Parisian buildings, but they’re also being put to fairly high-rent uses. Of course the wide road, the slip-lane, the wide footpaths, the two rows of parked cars and so forth take up a lot of space. The width of Avenue de la Grande Armee is a pretty mighty 70 metres from building to building. This is twice the width of Pakuranga Road, measured front fence to front fence.
But not every Parisian boulevard is as extremely wide as this. Just around the corner we have Avenue Marceau, which is 35 metres across from building to building. This boulevard is one of my favourites:
The traffic lanes on the main roadway are split into three in one direction and a bus lane in the other direction, but it could be split any way really. The slip-lanes are really narrow, but theoretically could be narrowed further for wider footpaths by only having one row of parking:It’s hard to imagine a better way of using a 35 metre wide street, in terms of being able to shift traffic, provide a buffered place for pedestrians and local traffic, provide some nice trees, a good pedestrian environment and generally create a high quality place that’s desirable for people to live, work, visit and shop in. As I noted above, probably the only change I would make is reducing a bit of the parking and increasing the footpath width.
To be realistic, it’s difficult to imagine too many opportunities in Auckland to “retrofit” these kinds of boulevards. It may be possible along Pakuranga Road, if we ever decided that it was important to turn that road into more of a corridor. However, in the parts of Auckland to be developed (and, whether we like it or not, there is likely to be quite a lot of urban expansion over the next 30 years in Auckland) these type of roads could play a really important role. Ormiston Road in Flat Bush is an obvious candidate, the Mill Road corridor proposed to link Papakura and Flat Bush could be done similarly. Hobsonville Road and the old State Highway 16 through Westgate, West Harbour and onto Hobsonville may also suit becoming this type of boulevard – being both important regional routes (though thankfully not to the same extent they are now) but also roads we really want to encourage urban activity on.
Traffic engineers will probably scream over the complexity of intersections, but The Boulevard Book explains in nice detail that complexity generally leads to greater safety as people are careful. This type of road, in the right location, seems to be a great way of achieving that seemingly impossible dream: “to shift a lot through without destroying the in“.