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Are our residential streets too wide?

Walking around my local area got me thinking, why do our residential streets need to be so big. The more I have thought about it, the more I wonder if we have yet again more planning or engineering rules working against us creating higher densities. Its probably easiest to show what I mean so lets start with my local area.

Looking closer using the councils GIS viewer you can see the property boundaries as well as measure the distance between them. For these two streets for example the road reserve is 18m wide, that’s just 2m narrower than at some points along Dominion Rd yet they only serve a handful of houses (34 in the case of these two streets).

Looking at another couple of streets, both Lantern Court and Millstone Lane are 16m wide and each only having 11 houses on them. The same width as Braestar Court and Russett Grove which combined have 26 houses on them.

Yet a large proportion of the road reserve is taken up by space for things like footpaths which all contribute towards in some cases setting houses back quite far from the actual street. What is also interesting in all the examples shown is that whenever I walk around, there are almost no cars parked on the streets due to all houses having a garage (and most a double garage). But what I find interesting is to compare it two another street nearby that I travel through on a regular basis to get to the train station.

This is Vitex lane and putting aside the terraced houses what I have noticed is that every single person walks down the middle of the street and not on the footpaths, some of the local kids even play in the street so in many ways it has turned out to be an early version of a shared space. The road reserve itself is a couple of metres narrower but what interested me was to think about what would have happened if we applied a shared space kind of thinking to to these quiet residential streets.

With only a small number of houses on each of these streets there isn’t much vehicle traffic so a shared space approach would help to not only slow cars down further but also save a lot of needed road space. A couple of metres on less on each side of the road isn’t likely to be noticed that much but when you combine that saving across a number of roads it quickly adds up. In a development of houses this size it might be enough to squeeze another dozen houses in without even considering smaller section sizes. Across whole neighbourhoods it might add enough people  to cross the threshold and allow for the 5 minute pint test to be passed. Further less road space means that infrastructure can likely be built cheaper while also allowing the costs to be spread amongst more properties. It might not be much but when trying to find ways to bring down the costs of development, every little bit helps.

Sadly its a bit late now for these existing suburbs but it is something we should think about for any future greenfield  developments.

56 comments to Are our residential streets too wide?

  • Mr Anderson

    Yes absolutely! We waste so much of our city on overly wide roads, stupidly big front berms and huge frontyard setbacks that nobody ever uses. All that space could be more houses or even bigger backyards.

  • Tony Bailey

    And showing complete ignoring of accessibility requirements.

    I feel sorry for anyone who lives here who has to take to a wheelchair!

  • Lennart

    Could not agree more, when I arrived in New Zealand I always found the streets to be absurdly wide, it encourages speeding and it’s not like you need the width. It also strikes me as odd that for some reason the design of streets always starts with 1.3m wide footpaths, then a usually bigger (1.5m) grass verge, and the rest is filled with asphalt. Regardless of the width. Especially when the street is not filled with parking this leads to traffic lanes of up to 7m wide, which is quite absurd. Why not make streets narrower, allowing for wider footpaths and building some indented parking spaces. It slows down vehicles, is cheaper and it promotes walking and it allows for some children to cycle on the footpaths…

  • Morris T

    Let’s not reinvent the wheel here. Just look across the ditch. See http://www.lgpmcouncil.gov.au for AMCORD, the Australian Model Code for Residential Development.

  • mm

    i’m liking the pedestrian links from the cul de sacs to the main roads

    • Yes that is one thing that has been done reasonably well although its a shame there is no link between Waterstone Way and Checkerberry Court. On the pedestrian links they are also quite wide and generally have had street lights placed at each end to ensure they are well lit

  • Ari

    Yes, lets allow developers to take advantage of shared space so they can avoid paying for footpaths altogether. Screws those pedestrians, who cares about them. Visually impaired and those in wheelchairs can just stay in their homes or go live in the distant suburbs. We don’t want them walking around bumping into cars and we don’t need rubbish trucks to access the street either. Plus we know cul-de-sac developments are amazing for connectivity. In auckland you just end up with crowded streets because every household seems to have like 5 cars. How do you enforce people not parking in the shared space? Have 10,000 wardens walking the suburbs at night? Sarcasm aside, there is no perfect solution.

  • I agree. There is no doubt that wide roads encourage speeding and the make the roads feel unsafe.

    • Brendan

      Yeah, all streets should be like Wood Street in Ponsonby. With car parking on both sides of the street (because many of the houses don’t have garages), it’s wide enough so that if a fire engine, moving truck or dump truck has to drive down the street a few wing mirrors are hit. And being narrow doesn’t seem to stop courier drivers racing down the street and making it feel quite unsafe.

      • Liz

        That’s a bad example because Wood St is a well known through road in a busy area (despite having signs up trying to discourage this). Whereas this post is referring to quieter streets, including cul-de-sacs. There’s no reason for those streets to be as wide as they are.

  • Jon Reeves

    Yes, resealing costs could be halved in many residential streets! Gray Ave in Papatoetoe is a classic road which could be reduced by at least a 1/3 in width…. Huge long term savings for ratepayers, safe roads through lower speeds.

  • Sting

    Have you tried challenging the road “standards”? I’ve been working on several new residential developments, and the one thing the developer tells you is a fix, and you do not challenge, particularly in old Manukau, is the road widths – because the fight would just be too expensive and prohibitive. Ridiculous how our rules have become so powerful, even when all the parties involved agree they are stupid.

    • Yes I suspect that it is largely to do with road standards designed to make things safer but that often can have the opposite effect or other unintended consequences. It reminds me of this video, the standard must be right.

  • Poul Tvermoes

    Just a few comments re above. The links between culdersacs are fine but need clear lines of access ect so do not become points for assaults, for which they can be a hot spot idf no clear lines of site and too much vegetation. In terms of street widths and road reserves most of the services are under the foot paths in shoulders of the actual road and when laid out by the engineers guess they gave themselves room for growth.

    I have to agree the roads and reserves take up far too much space. They could be considerably smaller and at the same time reduce the speeds that can be used on the roads as they shrink. In many areas of Oz some roads in residential areas are reducing speeds to 20 kph, which does allow for a multi use road, cars sharing with pedestrians safely and removes the needs for additional footpaths.

    The wide roads that do exist can have bike paths or routes incorporated into them, but not sure about on street parking. As a keen cyclist in Melbourne where many cars park on both sides of the street a big issue for cyclists on busy roads is being doored, so if cars park on site or in designated areas even better.

  • jonno1

    An interesting post that makes a lot of sense. This approach could provide a degree of intensification without the downside of high-rise shoeboxes or terraced housing. Checking my street (which happens to be a private cul-de-sac), the total width is 9m with a 1.5m footpath on one side and a 1.5m berm on the other. So the carriageway is a mere 6m. Parking is restricted to one side only for safety reasons (ie service vehicle access), and it works fine.

    One thing that the post doesn’t address is access to underground services (water, power, gas) where the berm/footpath is limited. In my street this was resolved by locating these services behind the boundary lines within easements, which makes much better use of the setback (which is needed anyway to avoid a canyon effect). I see no reason why this model couldn’t be used elsewhere, although perhaps with a bit more width for a through road.

    Ironically, the same developer built a council road nearby, also a cul-de-sac, which is twice the width, so Sting’s comment above is accurate.

  • Lennart

    The same goes for a lot of intersections by the way. On small residential roads, you can find intersections that look more like arterial interchanges:
    http://goo.gl/maps/0qdSP (Parau Street and Fearon Ave)
    http://goo.gl/maps/iK8Ia (Kiwitea Street and Lambeth Road)

    Look at those vast expenses of asphalt! You could land a helicopter in the middle without obstructing traffic

  • RHarris

    While I agree with most the comments I do find these streets a pain for visitor parking. If you have 4-5 car loads of people around they have nowhere to park and these streets are some times designed around no public transport.

    • jonno1

      Agreed. Most of the houses in my street (see comment above) have ample off-street parking. We’re also a pretty friendly bunch, so when a resident is having a party we use each other’s parking areas as needed. Ditto for trade vehicles.

    • bbc

      Then they can park around the corner and walk, stop trolling, I am yet to come across a single instance in Auckland where it was difficult to find a park. Designing all roads for the extreme such as someone having a rave and needing 50 carparks, or a roundabout being twice as large as necessary because one day a large truck might drive through is what has got us into this mess.

      • RHarris

        Don’t be ridiculous. I’m sitting looking across the road at one now. Who wants to walk 5 minutes everytime they pop into visit you. I don’t think it is an extreme.

        • Narrower streets could easily include a couple of intended parking bays for visitors. Also even if there was a shared space type situation in a residential area, nothing wrong with people parking on it as if they block it, they will have to deal with their neighbours who won’t be happy.

  • Glen K

    I suspect that a lot of our Councils’ subdivision standards are heavily influenced by the equivalent NZ Standard NZS4404; indeed; some Council District Plans just seem to be a carbon copy of this. The previous (2004) Standard featured much of this “traditional” thinking about minimum widths for roadways, minimum kerb radii at corners, etc, all designed for the prospect of two B-Trains never having to conflict with each other it seems. The revised (2010) Standard however now provides a radical rethink on the role of local streets as places in their own right and generally suggests much narrower roadway widths than before (and indented parking if need be to help narrow the perceived road width). It’s pretty good, but it is probably still filtering its way through into revised District Plans. No reason why you couldn’t encourage your friendly developer to look at it more closely however…

  • Ash

    Yes, NZ as a young country had the luxury of being able to sprawl its residential areas, but I would argue that this and the resulting “easy privacy” has spoilt us. We’ve become dependent on our own private fenced-in space, to the detriment of life outside of our little kingdoms.

    There has probably never been any satisfactory accounting for the social effects of our urban design patterns, and too much attention given to vehicle speeds.

  • Stu Donovan

    Yes absolutely. I live on one of the narrowest streets in Auckland (Seafield View Road, http://goo.gl/maps/ezceR) and it’s absolutely desirable. I wish traffic engineers worried about the connectivity of the street network more so than its physical dimensions.

    • mm

      i walked down your road a few weeks ago and was admiring it – lovely looking character homes, well kept, nice trees to offer greenery and some privacy if desired, quiet and it seemed friendlier than the wider streets. although maybe the sun shining helped with the positive outlook!

      • Stu Donovan

        Yes, unfortunately our house is probably one of the worst houses on the street, because previous owners decided to pave over the front yard for parking. Nonetheless, our neighbours have lovely gardens that we also admire when walking down the street ;).

    • Stu- you live in a beautiful street. At an appropriate width too! Very central and walkable..

      Can you still see the sea or have the hospital extensions taken out the view?

      • Stu Donovan

        Thanks and yes it’s probably the loveliest place I’ve ever lived. Traffic goes very slow and people can walk/cycle up the middle of the street if they so wish. Plus Grafton shops at the end of the street has really benefited from the street upgrade that occurred when the Central Connector went in – it’s now supporting several more cafes/restaurants and is generally a lot more buzzy.

        Unfortunately the views of the sea have done with the hospital extension.

    • jonno1

      Yes, a beautiful spot Stu. Just begging for high-rise apartments and/or terraced houses.

      • Stu Donovan

        Yes, there’s some potential for that on some of the more recently developed sites (i.e. 1950s), which have generally over-built their parking and so generally have a lot of potential for more intensive development.

    • OrangeKiwi

      Are numbers 42 to 48 still vacant? (They are on Google Maps). Perfect site for terraced housing/apartments…

      • IIRC, three new houses were recently built at those sites. Missed opportunity for dense housing. The most telling feature of the new buildings is the wide, prominent garage doors, while their front doors are comparatively marginalised — quite unlike the many of the older buildings around them, which have a more human contract with the street. Still better than in most other suburbs of course, as the houses are at least closely packed and have short driveways.

    • I’ve walked that street for years and can’t say it’s all that friendly. The footpath is comically narrow and obstructed every few metres by a signpost, telephone pole, bush, bin or protruding motor vehicle. Check this out: http://bythemotorway.tumblr.com/post/29459892556/lining-seafield-view-road-grafton

      For a narrow street with such impoverished footpaths, there is an astonishing oversupply of on-street car-parking (take into account the large car-parking lots and off-street spots serving the area — see an aerial view).

      Admittedly, the whole of the street becomes a de facto shared space as a result — which would be really cool if its design reflected the reality; if it did not invite motorists in cars to always claim priority, to speed, to sneak out the wrong way and what not. It’s particularly uncomfortable walking northwards because you can’t even make eye contact with most drivers to negotiate a safe passage.

      There are some redeeming features to the place and useful lessons to pick out, but I wish this city was held to a much higher standard.

      • Stu Donovan

        Yes, I completely agree that the treatment of the footpaths is despicable. Nonetheless, it’s still better living on a narrow street, and you’re correct – the whole street does function as a de-facto shared space. They really should pull out some of the car-parking though – it really does stuff up the street. Maybe they could turn them into loading bays?

    • fiddlestixbob

      Seaview street appears to be a one way street. no wonder it’s narrow…. cant think that creating one way streets everywhere would do much good. the footpath is also very narrow which has been cited as very bad in previous blog posts.

      what happens if a pedestrian wants to get past a wheelchair user when a car is going past…. also too much parking.

  • Aaron

    Home buyers like wider residential streets. Therefore, developers will build them.

    • RHarris

      Don’t think that’s true. Developers would like smaller streets cos its cheaper and that would win out. I think if the street is well presented and in perspective the area will sell.

    • Steve D

      What home buyers and developers would like to do is irrelevant to what actually happens. You must build to the standard, or your development will not get resource consent. The standard calls for huge wide residential streets, so that’s what gets built.

    • Not true. I just bought a house and one of the things we looked for was a narrow street as it discourages traffic. All wide roads do is invite traffic. I would argue the exact opposite of what you are saying.

  • St Nick

    The wastage from set backs for houses I find more annoying than the surplus road space. Our subdivisions still follow the same formula that they have for maybe 100 years? For instance you can look at early state housing areas (1930s/1940s) and the house is plonked bang smack in the middle of the section, making the rest of the section good for nothing. We’re still doing the same thing today with the detached homes we build, and throwing so much money away (considering land prices nowadays) in wasted land, we’re a smart bunch aren’t we.

    • james

      why is everybody obsessed with living on top of each other? having a setback is great so that we can have a bit of a garden and a bit space on my section. i cant think of anythi ng more ugly than a narrow street lined on both sides by garages with flat doors.

      • Having setbacks generally results in wasted space. My house has a huge one and the only thing it is good for is growing grass that then needs to be regularly mowed to keep the place looking tidy. I would much rather my house was further forward on the section to give a bigger back yard which is where I spend more time.

  • Kent Lundberg

    This is clever, via Brooklyn Spoke: Manukau vs old city Auckland. http://instagram.com/p/TBIl2zFz_u/

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