It’s quite easy to forget that a couple of years ago Auckland’s regional and local government structures were turned upside down.
Since then Auckland Council seem to have settled into their work with relative aplomb. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their strategic documents, such as The Auckland Plan (TAP) and the City Centre Masterplan (CCMP). Both these plans identify a number of fascinating projects that Auckland Council considers necessary to transforming Auckland into one of the world’s most-loved cities (NB: In my heart that title is currently held by Istanbul).
Having delivered a number of strategic plans the Council must now consider how we get from where we are today to where we want to be in the future. Council itself controls land use outcomes and its thoughts on these issues will be outlined in the forthcoming draft Unitary Plan. Council also set budgets for each of their CCOs, such as Watercare and Auckland Transport, which will tend to define the rate at which they can make changes to the city.
To me this is where things get interesting: The interface between strategic outcomes, available budgets, and immediate priorities. Most of us will readily agree on the need to transform Auckland from a car-dependent, anti-pedestrian city and into a more diverse and dynamic urban environment that balances the needs of all transport modes. Where opinions are likely to diverge is on 1) the best path to get there and 2) how much money we should spend along the way.
From where I’m sitting (Brisbane, in case you’re wondering) few of the ideas advanced by the Auckland Council have caused such stark differences in opinion as their proposal to two-way Nelson and Hobson Streets. These one-way arterial roads are effectively tentacles for the octopus known as the Central Motorway Junction (CMJ). Hobson/Nelson streets allow vehicles exiting/entering the CMJ to gain rapid access to most parts of the city centre. In serving this purpose, however, they have effectively killed vast areas of the city centre. If one was trying to be level-headed and non-sensationalist about these things then you could describe them as nightmarish abominations that blight the entire western edge of the city centre, as illustrated below.
Both streets are obviously designed to carry shed-loads of cars. But how many cars do they actually carry? Well, if one considers Auckland Transport’s count data then the answer would be “not many if any”. For example, the graph below shows the number of vehicles using these streets in the AM, midday, and PM periods in 2005 (source data). When looking at these graphs it’s worth keeping in mind that the capacity of one vehicle lane is approximately 2,000 vehicles per hour.
The first thing to note is holy flaming wombats; both Nelson and Hobson Street appear to be vastly under-utilised. These 4-6 lane monsters are shifting only 650 vehicles per lane-hour in peak periods, i.e. less than one third of their theoretical capacity.
But on the other hand, one of the main advantages of a one-way street is that it increases intersection capacity by reducing the number of conflicting movements. The signal cycles that result are more efficient, insofar as they are simpler and shorter – with more of the available time assigned to green phases (which could possibly include pedestrians, even though this is not currently the case). So even though the street capacity is under-utilised, the one-way system may still reduce delays at intersections. Another complicating factor is that any change to these streets may impact on the CMJ and thus on the wider state highway network. So whatever happens to Nelson/Hobson must first pass muster with NZTA.
So what might we do about all this? Well, first let’s define the problem more carefully: The main problem with Nelson/Hobson Streets, from what I can tell, is that the current configuration destroys amenity and undermines surrounding land uses. Vehicles on these streets really are moving too fast and too close to the footpath. It’s a classic case of the medicine (transport capacity) killing the patient (the city centre). Therein lies the strategic issue Auckland Council wants to address.
But does a lack of amenity mean that should immediately move to two-waying those streets? Or are there more incremental steps that might address some of these issues? One incremental option that I think is worth investigating in more detail is retaining the one-way streets (for now) but changing the allocation of space within the streets, or at least key segments of the streets. This could look, for example, to develop low-speed access lanes separated from the primary through-lanes by a hard berm. The purpose of the access lanes would be just that: To provide improved access to adjacent land-uses, while reducing vehicle speeds close to the edge of the street.
Such access lanes are relatively common in European cities. For example, the image below shows Rooseveltlaan, Amsterdam. This street was just down the street from where I used to live and it provided access to the E19, which is a major highway linking much of the Netherlands, Belgium, and the north of France, i.e. it’s a pretty important arterial road.
The image below shows a cross-section of Rooseveltlaan. Starting from the right, we have the access lane running in front of the adjacent buildings. This lane is separated from the through traffic by a hard berm. In typical awesome Dutch style they have also included some gardens and trees, a good shared pedestrian/cycle lane, and a median bus/tram lane. One of the great advantages of this type of street is that it separates all of the slow-moving traffic that needs to access the adjacent properties from the faster moving through traffic. By removing this side friction the capacity of the central lanes is higher than what it would be in a situation where all the traffic was mixed together.
NB: If you are interested in transport/land use integration then you may want to have a look at this recently released NZTA research report (I was one of the authors). Page 37 onwards considers the role of street networks and a range of opportunities for better transport/land use integration.
Using Rooseveltlaan as my inspiration, I then wondered whether we could adapt these ideas to create a new cross-section for Nelson/Hobson Streets. One possible cross-section I landed on, which seemed to meet the necessary capacity while greatly increasing space for access, is summarised below (where the elements are listed from one side of the street to the other).
By way of comparison, a few quick measurements on Google Earth suggests that Nelson/Hobson Streets are about 27-30m wide. When you consider the above configuration then you start to realise how much space is currently been wasted (yes, I think it’s fair to use wasted in this context) on Nelson and Hobson Streets.
Of course the access lanes would have to re-join the primary traffic lanes at some point. The Dutch manage this in various ways, of which a common approach is to connect the access lane to the side street via a priority intersection, which is then in turn connected to the primary street via a signalised intersection, as shown below. I particularly like this image because it shows 1) how the access lanes are useful for providing access for service vehicles, such as rubbish trucks, and 2) how Amsterdam has set differentiated speed environments (in this case 30 versus 50 km/hr) between the access lanes and the through lanes. It also shows some of the general attention to detail that the Dutch bring to their streets and urban places, such as using raised pedestrian tables on side streets, which have been discussed at length in other posts.
But my key point is that before we start changing the underlying structure of the network, i.e. two-waying Nelson/Hobson Streets, maybe we should look at re-allocating space within those streets. After all, the one-way street system does provide greater intersection capacity (some of which could be reinvested in catering for pedestrians and cyclists). Also, Hobson/Nelson Streets somewhat naturally lead onto “one-way” state highway connections, i.e. on-ramps and off-ramps.
Ultimately I think Auckland Council and Auckland Transport have a tough choice:
- All-or-nothing – this option involves going straight to a two-way street. While this would provide greater amenity, it would also raise the hackles of NZTA and motorists in general. Personally, I think that if push came to shove then Auckland Transport would have their way – they are after all the relevant road-controlling authority. Perhaps most problematic is the fact that such a major change will take ages to implement and is likely to be tagged to the completion of the CRL. This in turn means the western side of the city centre would be left to rot for another decade; or
- Incremental steps – this option would seek to retain the one-way streets (for now) but commit to progressively re-allocating space within those streets so they better balance the competing need for access and mobility. The benefit of this option is that we could start immediately and hence realise some of the potential benefits earlier. It also would not hinge less on the CRL, which after all may be delayed. This is my preferred option, provided it is done in a way that supports, or at least does not compromise, the end-goal that Auckland Council has identified, i.e. two-waying these streets.
Probably time for me to step down off the soap-box so that some of you can have your (equally valuable) two-cents worth. Enjoy.