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Three Quick Wins for Auckland Walkability

This is a guest post by Brent Toderian & Darren Davis. Brent was recently in the Auckland. They have requested we post it although it originally appeared on the Shape Auckland site.

After six packed days working with staff from Auckland Council and Auckland Transport last month, it was very clear to our international urbanism consultant, and co-author of this article Brent Toderian, that there are a lot of great things happening in Auckland city-making! From a growing shared streets and spaces network and double-phased scramble intersection crossings on Queen Street, and the revitalization of the Britomart area following the return of rail to the downtown, to the high value, low-cost placemaking in the harbourside Wynyard Quarter, and the innovative redevelopment of a former airbase into the Hobsonville Point new urban community, Auckland is building great momentum around a culture of strong urban design. But that’s not to say that tremendous work isn’t still needed! If Auckland is to achieve its ambitious and admirable aspiration to become the world’s most liveable city, another level of achievement is necessary.

Brent’s work with staff covered the gambit of city-making issues large and small, from their new Unitary Plan and City Centre planning and implementation, to housing, transport, design, density & culture. Still, some of the most interesting work focused on how a liveable city for people often comes down to walkability. The following “top three” relatively quick wins for a more walkable city, written below from the perspective of Brent’s observations, reflect some relatively low-cost opportunities toward a more liveable & successful Auckland.

1. Create “eye candy” for pedestrians!

Brent Toderian - Motorway landscaping

Lush motorway landscaping: Eye candy for car drivers

Auckland’s motorway system has some of the best and lushest landscaping I’ve seen anywhere – what I call eye candy for car drivers! Unfortunately, I saw a lot less evidence of such attention and effort dedicated to improving the walking experience. It’s time for more attention to the pedestrian at eye level, such as addressing all those blank walls, including all the glazing at street level that is misappropriated for advertising (which defeats its intended purpose of having eyes on the street, and providing something interesting for walkers to see).

The key to walkable streets is providing an interesting and engaging pedestrian experience. Although the horizontal details of public realm design are important, as discussed in the next section, the vertical view at eye level along the street wall is particularly critical to get right.

This could start with conducting a visual walker’s audit of the downtown and inner-city, perhaps engaging the public to participate through a photographic competition, and committing to quickly address the 10 worst offenders.

The blank walls could be seen as a canvass for artistic expression (and by this, I include commissioned or sanctioned graffiti). Another thought I’ve shared with staff – when the cut and cover section of the City Rail Link is built along Albert Street, why not let artists and kids loose on the inevitable construction hoarding, turning it into an arts project, and turning an eyesore and source of scowls into a creative and cultural opportunity and source of smiles?

Brent Toderian - Street Art

Street art near Karangahape Road

2. Fix up the sidewalks!

Even in the city centre, the quality of the walking environment is very much hit and miss, with some excellent pedestrian and “shared” streets in a rapidly connecting network, but plenty of mediocre areas and shoddy stand-out spots. Further out, walking through areas like Eden Terrace exhibits “billiard table” smooth road surfaces combined with narrow, uneven and poorly maintained sidewalks. On top of this, slip lanes with no provision, let alone priority, for pedestrians, reinforce the feeling that pedestrians come last in the mobility food chain.

Brent Toderian - Eden Terrace

It should be the other way around, putting pedestrians at the top of the hierarchy. Even balance will not do, as this is frequently code for business as usual. To be more specific, the prioritisation should be walking, biking, and transit, in that order, which makes the city work better for all modes of travel, including driving!

I’ve suggested walking audits of the pedestrian networks, building out from the most heavily walked streets in the city centre, to areas on the edge of the downtown, and then to the second tier centres, so that investment can be targeted at the most heavily walked areas. This could be in the form of an action plan of pedestrian improvements to be implemented within six months.

Brent Toderian - Elliott St

Elliott Street shared space, City Centre

3. Activate & Get More Out of Streets!

Many streets in Auckland seem scaled for peak hour traffic (and sometimes apparently well beyond peak traffic, on streets such as Hobson & Nelson Streets). This means that for 20 hours a day (and perhaps 24 hours a day on weekends) they are over-scaled for the volume of traffic using them.

A simple way to strategically make use of such surplus car space for place-making and walkability is to convert it to other uses when not needed for peak car movements. A good example of this is the Saturday farmers market, which takes one city block at Britomart downtown, and positively contributes to the vitality and people-friendliness of the whole Britomart area. Such ideas could and should be used more widely – for example, activating parts of Queen Street on weekends.

Brent Toderian - Britomart Market

Britomart Farmers’ Market

New York City, a favourite city of mine, has powerfully shown what you can achieve with simple things like green paint and basic street furniture, in converting dull car-dominated areas into lively people-oriented places. The counter-intuitive irony of such improvements along Broadway in New York, is that they’ve delivered better outcomes not only for the people using the great new public spaces, but for all road user groups, including car drivers (and only 25% of Manhattan households own a car).

Vancouver has embraced this approach as well, through our “Viva Vancouver” street activation program that I formerly co-chaired. Building on the observation during the 2010 Winter Olympics that streets closed for civic celebration don’t translate into the world ending, seasonal and pilot street installations, “parklet” transformations of parking spaces into public places, and other placemaking approaches are becoming common around the city. The streets have become our civic living rooms, our stages for civic life. It’s nothing short of transformative.

Auckland has shown it already understands this “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach (as New York’s Project for Public Spaces calls it) with many of its simple but powerful pilots and designs on the Auckland waterfront.

“Lighter, quicker, cheaper” in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter.

“Lighter, quicker, cheaper” in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter.

Similar treatments could start in streets such as Victoria Street as a precursor for the planned linear park in this street. Some may be put in as pilots, and others as “bridges” to a more permanent redevelopment. If they don’t work for whatever reason, they can simply and inexpensively be pulled out. If they succeed, which frankly they usually do, they can be made permanent with more investment in the lasting design, when funding becomes available.

While my six days working in Auckland hardly qualify me as an expert on your city, my suggestions here are somewhat universal in idea (if not in application), and based on proven successes in cities around the world. Efforts to enhance walkability are being prioritised in many global cities as a key way of making them more people-friendly, while positively contributing to both liveability and economic success. My fervent hope is that Auckland will make some quick positive steps in these directions, amongst your many important city-making efforts!

Brent Toderian is a global expert and consultant on city planning, design and advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, the former Chief Planner for Vancouver Canada, and the founding President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian.

Darren Davis is the Principal Public Transport Planner: Network and Service Policy at Auckland Transport with 20 years experience in transport in Auckland, including being a public transport lobbyist, planner, strategic advisor and consultant. Darren hosted Brent’s recent visit to Auckland on behalf of Auckland Council. Follow him on Twitter @DarrenDavis10

16 comments to Three Quick Wins for Auckland Walkability

  • Sailor Boy

    Very well written article, couldn’t agree more, would be awesome to get parts of Victoria Street, and Lower parts of Hobson and Nelson Streets reappropriated for pedestrians with some planters, bollards and paint.

  • Jennifer Ward

    Yes yes yes and YES.

  • Sam

    Fantastic article. Has been one of my real pet hates in Auckland. Little attention is paid to walking environments throughout the city and suburbs. Art works, quirky detailing, street light design, etc. Alot of easy wins could be made when designing or repairing areas.

  • patrick

    It’s good to see Federal St next to Skycity being upgraded to shared spaces, but it shows up streets with uneven tarseal even more. How about concreating the footpaths on Victoria St and the rest of Federal St like it has been done on Shortland St.
    I don’t know why Shortland Street’s footpaths were concreated, was it planned or just random, anyway quality concreating is a huge improvement over tarceal, we should demand better footpaths, we pay enough rates, don’t we?

  • Waspman

    From my experience the footpaths in the old Auckland City Council areas are by far the worst probably from years of “keeping down rates and sticking to core council functions” (Citizens and Ratepayers mantra). Try running along Tamaki Drive sometime, for example, especially on the Hobson Bay side and the moons surface springs to mind. Sure its sealed & patched, sealed and patched but that’s about it. And yet the road is so very perfect. Unfortunately on the North Shore where paths were light years ahead the old ACC’s philosophy has been adopted by the new super city and I have seen little in the way of path improvements. Having said that road maintenance seems to have dropped off noticeably there as well. And yet rates haven’t, strange!

  • Dave

    No pedestrian ‘beg’ buttons. You shouldn’t have to request permission to get a green man to cross the road.
    These should be automatic. The only function of such buttons should be to extend the pedestrian phase, if you need a bit of extra time to walk across.
    Vehicular traffic gets an automatic green – it should be the same for other transport.

    • Steve D

      Vehicle traffic has a beg button of a sort – the inductive sensors buried under the road. They don’t get a phase unless a large metal object triggers the sensor (which can be a problem for bikes). Beg buttons do have their place, especially on arterial roads with few pedestrians. It doesn’t make sense to run a pedestrian phase (or any phase) when no-one’s going to be able to use it.

      What I’d like to see in some places, though, is a pedestrian green being the default: lit green normally, with no button push needed. It would only flash red when a car actually triggered the sensor loop, there’d be a short car phase, and then there’d be a delay before the next car phase was allowed. It’d suit roads that have regular pedestrian traffic, and long periods with no cars, but occasional bursts of large amounts of traffic (especially buses). The traffic lights on New North Road in the shops at Kingsland, during the evening, for example.

      Another good change would be replacing pedestrian crossings with lights with just plain old zebra crossings.

    • Steve D

      But even if a crossing does activate automatically, we’ll always still need the button, so that blind people can activate the audible signal when they need it, but without having the noise going permanently (which would drive people nearby crazy).

    • David O

      My strong impression as a regular impression is that the pedestrian beg buttons are placebos only. Most crossings seem to run almost entirely according to the ‘needs’ of the traffic, not the traffic on foot. The button is there just to give pedestrians something to do while they wait their turn.

      • Steve D

        Well, it’s not a placebo. If you don’t push the button, the pedestrian phase won’t go. Ever, No red light = no green light’s going to come.

        The opposite isn’t true, though. Some lights will go through a full cycle with the ped crossing light lit red without giving peds a chance to cross (e.g. Carrington Road at GNR, Victoria St at Franklin Rd). I don’t know whether they simply don’t let pedestrians across half the time, or whether you actually need to mash the button repeatedly, but either way it’s shameful.

        And I was trying to cross Customs & Gore diagonally a couple of months ago, and the pedestrian phase (there’s normally one Barnes Dance per cycle) never went at all. I was busy chatting to a friend I’d just bumped into, so we didn’t notice at first, but after about four cycles, maybe ten minutes, and a serious crowd had built up I twigged up that the ped phase was just being skipped every time. I phoned it in, and it was fixed by the next day when I next tried to use it, but you’d never imagine AT would let that happen to cars.

  • Owen Thompson

    Sidewalks are American; we have footpaths.

    • Steve D

      Well, sidewalks are also Canadian, and as you might have noticed from reading the article, Canada is the country Mr. Toderian hails from. Plus, “sidewalk” is a pretty straightforward name, and especially in context you’d have to be pretty dim not to grasp what he was talking about.

  • Glenn C

    There’s quick wins for walking in other cities as well.. for instance, if there was an overbridge from Wellington Railway Station to the waterfront, it’d take out one of the most frustrating crossings in the city and open the waterfront right-up.

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