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Turn roads into houses?

A really interesting article in yesterday’s Herald, analysing an idea put forward by a Parnell community group looking into ways of increasing the number of houses by taking back a few of the more pointless roads in the area.

The Auckland Council is being urged to use roads for housing as a way of solving the city’s accommodation crisis. What’s more, the promoter of the idea, the Parnell Community Committee, has nominated several roads in the inner-city suburb for housing and community uses.

“It’s really quite obvious,” says Jenni Goulding, a planning consultant to the committee. “Roading takes up a large percentage of Auckland spatially and Parnell has indicated the city needs to provide an inventory of roading that may be suitable for intensification.”

The idea is certainly a little out of left field, but makes quite a lot of sense if you can find the right roads that can be narrowed or closed.

The committee’s plan for the future of the suburb, Tomorrow Parnell, suggests some residential roads carrying small volumes of traffic that could be “more efficiently” used as bare land for residential or commercial building and community use.

They include Augustus Tce at the bottom of Fraser Park and the northern end of Balfour Rd, opposite the Gladstone Tennis Club.

Other roading space that could be turned into community uses, such as new parkland or even a community vegetable glass house, are the Parnell Rd side of Fraser Park and the top end of St Georges Bay Rd.

I’m not particularly familiar with the roads suggested, but looking at the diagram in the print edition of the NZ Herald today they seemed like relatively short stretches of road which didn’t really serve much useful purpose. I’m a little wary of reducing the connectivity of neighbourhoods by closing too many roads (turning a grid into a defacto cul-se-sac dominated area would be a step backwards) but I think a few locations could probably be chosen where this would work.

Interestingly, Auckland Transport don’t seem too keen on the idea. Their comments give away a lot about the mentality of that organisation:

An Auckland Transport spokesman said a myriad of issues would have to be looked at before any road space could be used for housing.

They included legal and access issues, the impact on services like power and water, the implications for public transport, needs for future development and road user demand.

“Vehicles are more of a liquid than a gas. Vehicles don’t disappear if roads are closed for some reason. They spill onto surrounding streets, so we would have to look at the impacts on other suburban or nearby arterials,” the spokesman said.

Oh dear, too many former civil engineers getting into the transport business I think. Actually traffic is very much like a gas and really does just disappear if roads are closed. There are many examples of this from around the world, such as the removal of the infamous Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco.

38 comments to Turn roads into houses?

  • Chris Randal

    They could start with the Southern!

  • This is a step further from what I suggested a few months ago which was to use the massive road reserve that exists on some roads.
    http://transportblog.co.nz/2012/09/26/15790/

  • Kent Lundberg

    Vancouver recently approved this concept. http://former.vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/cclerk/20121002/documents/rr2.pdf They call it “Thin Streets”.

  • Stu Donovan

    Baaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh ha ha ha – that comment from AT is hilarious; what a weird thing to say?

    Surely the more relevant question than the elasticity of vehicle demand with respect to road supply (they obviously think it’s relatively inelastic; I’m not so sure) is whether there is an alternative route available that is able to accommodate any vehicle demand that does decide to divert in a post road-closure situation?

    To rule it out on general grounds seems, well, bizarre.

  • Matthew

    You could always turn the grid into cul-de-sacs for cars, yet allow permeability for pedestrians and cyclists by closing off the end of the road with housing except for a gap.

    • David O

      My thought exactly – I think that the ‘griddiness’ we want, at least at this scale is much more about pedestrians than about cars

    • I’m surprised they didn’t do that with some of the streets in the Pt England ‘self explaining roads’ project. Would have solved the complaints from Police about people speeding through there when being chased :-).

  • Yes, we’re in one of those weird areas of standard transport thinking, where it’s okay not to provide space or facilities for non-vehicle traffic because walkers and cyclists can always wait, go further or choose another mode – but we can’t reduce provision to drivers lest their brains explode from the stress of having to drive another way or (the horror!) trying another mode to get where they are going.

  • Sacha

    I’m glad you highlighted that ridiculous comment. Little wonder transport engineers have trouble understanding induced demand and other ‘gas-like’ phenomena. And that *people* and goods travel, not cars and trucks.

  • ingolfson

    Unless your are willing to force everyone (and that includes furniture delivery, fire engines and rubbish trucks) to walk the whole length to a building in these streets, then I don’t see how this makes much sense in the proposed locations. You would still need a reasonably wide right-of-way (say 6m minimum), and once you deduct that, the remaining street width isn’t wide enough for buildings, in my view. And that is before people (with some right) start complaining about losing outlook, street trees and getting shaded. So I am not too optimistic about the practicality of the proposal, gut-feeling reactions from (or against) traffic engineers opinions notwithstanding.

    More sensible locations seem to me places like Shipwright Lane, but such places are rare.

  • jonno1

    A bit off topic, but older readers may recall a couple of streets in Mt Eden that had never been designated as such. Someone in the council of the day (Mt Eden BC?) was charged with disposing of surplus land and included these. One of the heavy haulage companies bid on them, won, and started parking their trucks on them. All hell then broke loose. I’m sure it was eventually resolved, but it was a lot of fun while it lasted. (I may have got the details a bit wrong, but that was the gist of it).

  • Steve D

    Even if we don’t use up the whole road, it might be time to start narrowing our streets ( http://oldurbanist.blogspot.com/2011/04/are-narrow-streets-realistic-objective.html ). The berms, on-street parking and overly wide traffic lanes take up a lot of room. We could go further, and have a 3-4m shared space with a 10 kph speed limit. It should be enough to provide access for deliveries and emergencies, and would help make the streets more pedestrian friendly by discouraging driving. Looks a bit like this: http://www.newworldeconomics.com/archives/2011/050111.html

    It’s not too hard to implement. We can sell a few metres of road reserve to the adjoining property owners if they redevelop at a higher density. For many sections, it might be enough to fit in another unit, especially if we get rid of front setback requirements at the same time.

  • Nick Iversen

    People are like a gas too. If you remove houses people will disappear. We could solve Auckland’s problems by removing houses not by building more. With the people gone we can remove the roads.

  • Phaaaaark! Was he misquoted? Traffic does behave EXACTLY like a gas; it expands to occupy any space open to it, yet it is commonly talked of as being like a liquid.

    In fact this was the very line I used in the post below about cars in Queen St, was this numpty seething over this article, it was in Metro magazine too, and finally saw his chance to reject it in public?

    http://transportblog.co.nz/2011/08/30/guest-post-why-are-there-cars-on-queen-st/

    • Here:

      “People often talk about traffic with words like ‘flow’ as if it is best understood as a liquid, when really what it is actually like is a gas. Traffic expands like a gas to fill any space available to it [which is why it is futile to try to road build your out of congestion]. There are cars in Queen St simply because we let them be there, like an old habit we’ve never really thought about. l think it’s time we did.”

  • Liz

    When reading http://www.cityofseattle.net/transportation/docs/ump/06%20SEATTLE%20Case%20studies%20in%20urban%20freeway%20removal.pdf, I was struck by a sentence in one of the case studies: “On seven acres of former freeway right-of-way, between 750 and 900 units of new housing are planned. About half would be affordable, and costs would be further reduced by limits on parking.”

    Yet another argument for removing parking minimums.

    • Steve D

      Speaking of which, the old Works Depot is sitting on about 7 acres of pretty good CBD real estate, mostly for carparks – why hasn’t it been redeveloped?

      • Max

        GFC hit it – financing / lack of demand made the project fail at least twice. Was supposed to be a lot of high-rise residential at first, then cut back the high-rise, and more boutique live/work spaces, that also didn’t go ahead. Will of course still get developed eventually.

        • A lot of issues are raised by this site. The first proposal was a huge car park with some buildings on top. It did improve with the ratio of building to parking increasing quite a lot, and in some ways I think the longer it takes the better the eventual project will be as Auckland’s steady transformation into an Urbs continues.

          The other issue is that Tournament’s business model; landbanking with a parking cash flow is pretty hard to beat, but only because they will be paying relatively low rates as their sites are unimproved. If we had a rating system that reflected potential value then more development would be encouraged. Right now car parking as biz is incentivised which is why we lose great old buildings and are then left with a gapping wound in the city fabric; like the old Auckland Star site between Fort and Shortland; also Tournament, and we all lose out.

          • Bryce P

            Rate the land rather than improvements?

          • Steve D

            I hadn’t thought about it that way. If it had been redeveloped back in 1995, I’m sure by now we urbanists would all be horrified by whatever automotive monstrosity was there.

            It would be really nice if when that Auckland Star site is built on, there’s pedestrian access through it. Even with the puddles and gravel and cars, plenty of people use it as a shortcut at the moment, and a little Vulcan Lane-style pedestrian path with shops would make a good link from Fort Lane to what I hope will by then be the O’Connell St shared space. Something like Wellington’s Chews Lane would be enough, or at the very least an arcade.

          • bbc

            I agree, the Rhubarb Lane looked good in principle but included 3500 underground carparks!!!! A previous proposal basically mirorred what has been built up between Symonds Street and the motorway (here http://bit.ly/Tflx2P), so the longer we wait the better the outcome I also feel. Near there the SugarTree development (http://bit.ly/SC09XO) is already a huge improvement over the other monstrosities that have been built around this part of town. If the council works site had been built on we’d probably have something like the god-awful Zest, (ob)scenes or the buildings on Queen Street and Liverpool Street.

          • On that topic, the Auckland Star site was being tar sealed today so I dont know if anything is happening there or whether Tournament were just embarrassed by the terrible surface.

          • Steve D

            I’d figure if they’re tar-sealing they don’t intend to do anything for a while – since it’ll all be dug up when a building goes in.

          • bbc

            The Auckland Star site is simply being re-surfaced to increase the number of carparks, they started around a week ago and I checked with the contractors about what they were doing. It reopens in the coming week as a carpark.

  • KLK

    On the positive side, it’s good to see inner city owners encouraging intensification in their neighborhoods – not screaming that the council wants to tear down their bungalow and replace with 15 stories of shoeboxes….yes, that’s you Bill Ralston.

  • We’re a bit wacky like that around here, talking of turning unneeded streets into needed housing and such, you’d think the fundamental idea of a city was serving large numbers of people or something…

  • David O

    I know there has been a long-running project at the council to look at where there is land with development potential for intensification. It would be interesting to know if roads as developable land have ever featured in such scoping exercises.

  • TimR

    I really don’t know where to start with this. Are they for real? I might be biased ‘cos my office is at the bottom of Parnell, but this just seems like an ill-thought through lark. Gave us a lot of laughs in the office…

    One of Auckland’s best mixed use, relatively high density areas with a great street grid and (mostly) well balanced off street parking that offers myriad connectivity…and they want to start taking links out of the network? This is the sort of stuff this blog (rightly) would scream about if NZTA achieved this outcome as a byproduct of state highway “upgrades”. That’s before you get into the technical and costly questions of underground services, and the many reasons that this “land” might not appeal to many developers.

    Would it not be better to keep the streets and maximise the use of the land in between…? We’re not in the burbs here with wide streets serving few uses like the Vancouver example seemed to show. The photo of the road with parking next to the park used by the herald belies the way this short-stay parking makes possible the intensively mixed land use in the adjacent blocks.

    Am I the only one who thinks this ‘idea’ is slightly nuts?

    • Hamish O

      I certainly wouldn’t say this is a good idea, but I think the main point of this post should be AT’s response. It is a simply appalling line of reasoning.

    • Liz

      I agree filling in roads is probably not best for Parnell, but thinking about reducing car use (while allowing pedestrian permeability, as someone mentioned above) is not a bad way to think – despite the ridiculous AT response, as Hamish points out. This could tie in with better use of all those parking lots down around St Georges Bay Rd, etc.
      Here’s a residential London example of pedestrian permeability: http://goo.gl/maps/p7S13. Several of the roads perpendicular to Muswell Hill are gated at that end (so cars can’t go through, but the gates could be opened for emergency access if necessary, and pedestrian/cycle access is still completely available). There are still plenty of access points from the other end, but no easy thru-routes for drivers taking short cuts. The car part of these streets are narrow (the overall streets are still quite wide, probably because they used to be full-width) and plenty of people walk along them. In fact, the roads are even paved with gravelly stuff not tarmac. It doesn’t really feel like a road, there just happen to be some cars parked on it.
      The best part is the permeability. I hate cul-de-sacs in Auckland (veering away from the Parnell topic here!) because if you live in one you generally have to walk for ages to get anywhere. Pedestrian through-routes (lanes, ROW, whatever they are called) should be mandatory for cul-de-sacs. Looking at google maps of Auckland and seeing all those silly windy roads with turning circle blobs on the end makes me very grumpy.

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