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Guest Post: Auckland Streetcar Suburbs, More Please

This is another Guest Post by Kent Lundberg and originally appeared on the Isthmus Group blog. It is reproduced here with Kent’s permission.

Ponsonby Road, Auckland (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries)

Recently I wrote about the streetcar genesis of Auckland’s suburbs. All of the historic tram line streets still serve as key movement infrastructure primarily providing central city access.

It’s intriguing to imagine what city life would have looked like 100 years ago. While it may not bear much resemblance to city life in these videos of San Francisco or Barcelona, it is likely that there was more public life along the streets and plenty of movement from one side of the street to the other.

The streetcar fabric is inherently spatially integrated since it was designed primarily for a transportation system based at least in part on pedestrian movement. Below is a test of the ’centrality’ of the Auckland suburbs using the recently developed Urban Network Analysis toobar for ArcGIS, by MIT’s City Form Research Group. The software developers explain the concept of centrality studies “[as helping to] explain, for instance, on which streets or buildings one is most likely to find local commerce, where foot or vehicular traffic is expected to be highest, and why city land values vary from one location to another.”

The red dots indicate a higher score of “closeness”, basically places are close to other places via connecting streets within a given distance threshold (in this case 400m to model walkability). The black outlines show streetcar lines, revealing the natural relationship of closeness with the underlying street grid and street car fabric. Note too the how the motorway development appears to defeat closeness.

Centrality test in Auckland’s streetcar suburbs, showing ‘closeness’

This map gives a false impression, however. I believe that there is not nearly as much closeness or spatial integration occuring along these arterials today. Over the last several decades the priority of movement has been given to through traffic to the city center, at the detriment to local trips, especially those made on foot. In addition to high traffic volumes and excessive speeds when congestion doesn’t prohibit it, there are several other design conditions that limit local connectivity: poor pedestrian design at intersections, limited protected crosswalks or traffic signals, and insensitive public transport conditions (namely speeding buses along street edges).

Take the example of pedestrian crosswalks. Along a comparable streetcar arterial in Vancouver such as 4th Ave there are traffic lights and/or pedestrian crosswalks located every 140m; in places along Granville Avenue they are even closer, about 90m. Here is a map showing the historic tram lines of Auckland in red. The green segments show places with pedestrian crossings or street lights at distances of less than 200m. (The ITE manual Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares uses the metric 200m as the upper end range for the distance between pedestrian crossings. )

Historic tramline routes with areas in green showing higher pedestrian access

Below is an example of a particularly bad intersection that exemplifies the priority through traffic is now given in the streetcar suburbs. The traditional street geometries balloon out here to fill what might have been a roundabout. For much of its length Sandringham Road carries two lanes of moving traffic, but it explodes out here to six lanes, and an incredible eight lanes on the Balmoral side. Pedestrians crossing here have to navigate a dangerous free-flowing slip lane, wait again for pedestrian signals, cross travel lanes, and then finally cross the remaining slip lane. Altogether this trip covers about 45m and takes about two minutes. Is it any wonder that few people walk to school or to St Lukes Mall?

Intersection overkill: Sandringham Road, Auckland

So why does it matter? Two hundred and fifty thousand people live in Auckland streetcar suburbs. Many of these people living in this streetcar fabric could easily walk to local services for their daily needs. Increasingly evidence shows that people who live in close proximity to shops and services walk more, as transport experts from the University of California Transportation Center recently confirmed:

Our results show that the number of businesses per acre is the single most robust indicator of whether people are likely to walk in their neighborhood. We find that people living in neighborhoods with more business establishments per acre conduct more of their travel within their neighborhood and are more likely to travel by walking.

In my opinion, the easiest way to leverage and improve this highly desired AND low-energy lifestyle would be to increase access to amenities (eg. businesses, transit stations, parks) by providing the convenience and safety for people to get from one side of the street to the other. This would effectively double the number of places people have access to as well as provide double the number of customers for businesses.

This concept recalls the classic urban design study conducted by Donald Appleyard that examined the personal relationships of residents located along streets with varying levels of traffic volume. He concluded that residents living on busier streets had fewer personal contacts and used the sidewalks only as a pathway, whereas streets with lighter traffic had increased social interactions and presumably better business environments for local stores.

Updated version of Donald Appleyard’s Study showing the Influence of Traffic Volume on Street Life (Revisiting Donald Appleyard’s Livable Streets)

Without getting too design nerdy about it, the goal here should be to stitch these streetcar neighborhoods back together so that these places are once again connected and more spatially integrated. Reducing traffic speeds and volumes is a start. Other interventions should include additional pedestrian amenities such as crosswalks, ‘context sensitive’ public transit, and thoughtful urban intensification.

10 comments to Guest Post: Auckland Streetcar Suburbs, More Please

  • Ak-Sam

    Excellent post – and I completely agree about our early suburbs being neglected. Many of the motorway-style junctions and blown out intersections installed in the 1960s and 1970s need to be ripped up. Especially this one at Dominion Rd/New North Rd:
    Council: Please fix this

  • Andrew

    Annoyingly, it was not that long ago (sometime within the last ten years, I’m not sure exactly when) that the above intersection, and the Mt Eden Rd / Balmoral Rd intersection, were widened from two straight-through lanes each way for Balmoral and St Lukes Roads to three. We’re still building this crap.

    (And stupidly, these lanes re-merge on the other side, therefore appealing mainly to self-centred queue-jumpers)

    Intersections like this are also expected to become transfer points on the new FTN network (a draft preview map is shown at the bottom of this blog post). In its present form, that won’t be a nice thing to do.

    • The ‘queue jumper’ phenomenon is exactly what these intersections are designed for. They widen out so much simply so more cars can queue across the stop line at any one time, so that when there is a green light more can proceed across the intersection before merging back to the one lane again.

  • Ari

    I totally agree with the premise that we should live in walkable communities. It makes so much sense.

    Just some comments. Slip lanes at signalised intersections generally can reduce pedestrian waiting times significantly depending on the situation. Even more so on one way streets. Studies done in Australia suggest that slip lanes have lower pedestrian accident rates because pedestrians are more cautious, instead of just walking out heedless of vehicles being driven by idiot drivers. Pedestrians are more cautious in these cases. Same principle as shared space. Same as when the traffic signals malfunction, everyone is more cautious and so things are safer because of the percieved increase in danger. Crossing that intersection can still take 2 minutes whether you are in a car or walking. Why is a single pedestrian’s time more important that that of a dozen drivers or a dozen bus passengers? In a pedestrian dominated area, the traffic signals should cater to the pedestrians as much as possible. In a vehicle dominated area, the traffic signals should cater to the vehicles.

  • Geoff

    It’s important to remember that the early urban and transport designs were in the absence of everyone having cars. As cars became more popular because of the freedom of movement they provide, the urban planning changed to accomodate that freedom of movement.

    It’s also important to note that there are many more pedestrian friendly streets today, than there was back then. It’s just they are spread throughout suburbia. Hundreds of quiet little streets in fact.

    Whether these changes are positive or negative comes back to personal opinion of how people should live, and that generally comes down to how social people want to be. Most people prefer how things are today. But if you want to live carless and not really go very far very often, then the old ways would probably be preferred.

    • Geoff, why does a good walking environment have to be conditional on everyone being carless and not really going very far very often? You seem to be suggesting that car drivers are car drivers only, and once you’ve got a set of keys you can or should never walk anywhere again.

      Surely the best outcome is to have pedestrian and cycle friendly streets so that people can drive, walk, cycle or whatever depending on what they are up to and where they are going. You don’t have to rip out all the traffic lanes to make a street work for people on foot too.

      My main beef with the way we do things today is it is 98.5% focussed on maximising traffic throughput at the expense of anything else. Wind that back to say 80% and you can do wonders for walking, cycling and public transport and still be able to drive very easily.

      It’s the old law of diminishing returns, trying to boost the margin of traffic flow a few percent more consumes way more space and resources that the first few percent.

    • Luke

      I don’t know if I’d call suburban streets ‘pedestrian friendly’. They’re not actually built for pedestrians, in the sense of someone walking who wants to get from A to B. Have you ever tried walking through a classic American model suburb? Last time I tried I got completely caught in ‘no exit’ streets, had to walk through a yard and climb a fence to get out of the suburb and onto a 50mph arterial road to get where I was going! :-) A walkable neighbourhood with through streets sets up foot traffic and incentives for small business, neither of which exist in a classic suburb model. This comes back to Appleyard’s diagram I think – not just talking ‘visiting friends at their home’ relationships but casual ‘my local grocer’, ‘bar down the street’, etc relationships.

  • James B

    Check out this slipway at St Lukes (the one going east heading into the mall). Are people really that keen to get to the mall they need a pitlane style slipway with no pedestrian crossing at all.

    https://maps.google.co.nz/maps?q=st+lukes+mall&hl=en&ll=-36.883228,174.73254&spn=0.00085,0.001737&sll=-41.244772,172.617188&sspn=26.112306,56.90918&t=h&hq=st+lukes+mall&radius=15000&z=20

    In fact the whole area is pretty much the worst intersection in Auckland.

    https://maps.google.co.nz/maps?q=st+lukes+mall&hl=en&ll=-36.883802,174.732426&spn=0.001699,0.003473&sll=-41.244772,172.617188&sspn=26.112306,56.90918&t=h&hq=st+lukes+mall&radius=15000&z=19

    • Andrew

      That St Lukes/Wagener intersection outside the mall is terrible but shouldn’t be too hard to fix.

      I propose the following:

      http://www.silverstream.net.nz/img/cbt/StLukes-Wagener.jpg

      Advantages:
      - Proper bus stops on both sides
      - A dedicated bus phase for St Lukes Rd westbound would allow buses to proceed through and also U-turn into the eastbound stop as per current routes 233 and 007, without conflicting with traffic as per current (paths shown as green dotted lines)
      - Traffic can move in any direction
      - Pedestrian crossings on both sides of both roads, can cross in a single phase (the current intersections requires pedestrians to either run or cross in two phases)

      Issues:
      - Eastbound bus stop covers driveways
      - While shown as a bus lane, the eastbound green lane would have to be buses and local access (such as to/from the vet)
      - The vet at #75 St Lukes Rd would need to relocate driveway – this would just swap the entrance/exit and carparking spaces around
      - Megacentre second carpark exit would have to close (marked with a red X), but this could be changed into a pedestrian boulevard connecting the crossing (and the Mall) directly to the Megacentre, allowing pedestrian traffic to flow more freely between the two.

      Please excuse the AC GIS stuff in the view. It was a quick screenshot.
      I haven’t put in lane markings, but it’s pretty obvious which lane is supposed to turn where. The eastbound bus and local access lane would be stopped with a red light when general St Lukes traffic has a green to avoid conflicts between buses and cars turning left into Wagener. This is why there’s a traffic island shown between these lanes, to make the distinction. It would need narrow-view signals. Admittedly this layout could be subject to abuse by eastbound queue-jumpers.

      Also yes it’s still ugly, I restricted changes to fit in with surrounding intersections and the four-lane nature of St Lukes Rd, much as I despise it.

      Some possible alternatives:
      If the mall still wants to restrict entry to left-turning traffic only as per existing, a slip lane with a pedestrian crossing across it could replace the general entrance.
      If the new bus network no longer requires buses to turn here, then instead of all this, perhaps just a pedestrian overbridge?

      I may finish the render (cover the road to be removed, show footpaths etc) later, when I’m not supposed to be working!

      Admittedly this is conservative. One bold move could be to single-lane ALL of Balmoral and St Lukes Roads but I think there’d be too much objection to do that just now.

      • Luke

        I really hope St Lukes can be pushed into doing this sort of stuff as part of consent for their expansion, as much as I hate the expansion. Surely if Syliva park had to build a station, paying for a road redesign to reduce traffic impacts should be forced on St Lukes.
        Interestingly the real reason I dislike St Lukes expansion is its transport patterns go totally against the grain of the street car suburbs. The streetcar suburbs have great public transport heading North South, however East West is dreadful. And due the intersection design highlighted above is difficult to the fix this, the only possibility may be staircase routes. Same issues with Ellerslie employment hubs.

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