This is mid-week reading – a feature I’m writing while trying to get on top of work and back on a regular blogging schedule.
This week’s theme is connectivity. Transport networks are powerful tools for connecting people – or separating them. When designed well and managed safely, they can allow people to reach opportunities. But when designed poorly, they can create severance and isolate people from each other.
Unfortunately, once infrastructure’s been put in place, it’s extremely persistent. A non-connective street network will stay in place more or less indefinitely. There are relatively few opportunities to change that.
However, the clever folks at Bike Auckland recently highlighted a new opportunity to overcome severance through the design of the Tamaki Drive to Glen Innes cycleway. In their first post on the topic, they highlighted the abundance of connections offered by the Northwestern Cycleway:
This is a tale of two paths. We begin out west, on a stretch of the Northwestern Cycleway. This is a ‘road of national significance’ for people on bikes – a commuter path from the far west into town. But at the local level, it also makes all sorts of handy journeys possible for people like Penny and her family, who use the path to access school, daycare, and work.
Motorway-style routes have a seductive A to B directness, whether they’re for cars or bikes, but what makes them truly useful, as Penny’s family’s story shows, is the exits – the on- and off-ramps, if you will.
Of course, the Western Springs/ Kingsland stretch of the NW cycleway is especially rich in access points, a legacy of how SH16 was sliced through the heart of the original connected neighbourhood. Take the 2.5km stretch from St Lukes Rd to the Waima St over bridge that leads to Penny’s school. There are by a rough count 14 connections to local streets. One every 180m or so!
And the relative paucity of connections proposed for a key section of the new Tamaki to GI cycleway:
From our first engagement with this project in November 2014, we’ve seen this path as not just a utilitarian urban access route for long distance commuters, but an iconic destination and local treasure in its own right. We’ve consistently made the case for linking the cycleway to existing recreational paths and nearby streets, so as to make local journeys possible and to integrate the path into the neighborhoods it passes through. (We’re also battling tirelessly for better cycle facilities on the roads that will bring people to the cycleway).
In other words, this path will not only link Glen Innes to downtown, but will also allow for smart local trips like Penny’s family’s rides – if it comes well-supplied with local connections.
Wait a minute. Did we say ‘if’?
Because there’s a chance that Stage 2, which is the 2.5km stretch between St Johns Rd and the Orakei Boardwalk, may yet make it through construction with no side connections (only the future possibility of them).
In Bike Auckland’s second post, they explored the impact of adding even a single local connection:
But do you really have a feel for what difference just a single additional side access could make – and how many more people could get to the path easily and safely if one was built?
Well, we wanted to get an idea, so we did an experiment. We used an Open Street Map, with the new Stage 2 section of the path added in red – and we estimated the catchment first with, and then without a key additional side path.
We started from Meadowbank Train Station, which is a good local marker because everyone knows where it is.
Then we went out 2km, and then 3km, following all the branching paths and local roads (major caveat – not all routes on the map are cycle-friendly), to see just how far that took us.
The results are in the animation. See how one short side path of 150m opens up a new catchment that’s within a 3km ride or walk of the station?
Interesting results. It’s a bit hard to tell from the map, but that looks like it’d bring another 100 homes or so within reach of the station (not to mention the cycleway).
On a much bigger scale, Henry Grabar reports (in The Atlantic) about Paris’s new Metro plan, which is aimed to “tie Paris back together”. The city has a long history of overcoming problems that manifest in its urban form through investments in altering that urban form, knitting it together in different ways:
Here begins the most ambitious new subway project in the Western world. The extension of Line 14 is but the first leg of the Grand Paris Express, a $25 billion expansion of the century-old Paris Métro. By the time the project is completed in 2030, the system will have gained four lines, 68 stations, and more than 120 miles of track. Planners estimate that the build-out will boost the entire network’s ridership by almost 40 percent.
The goals: Reduce the smog-choked region’s car traffic. Link business districts, airports, and universities. Ease social ills by knitting together the French capital’s isolated and troubled banlieues, much as the initial Métro construction did for the outlying districts of Paris proper at the dawn of the 20th century…
Benoît Quessard, an urban planner for the local government, told me that he sees the expansion as not merely “an economic wager but also a social one.” In this sense, it will test an old Parisian belief about the Métro conferring, beyond convenience, a kind of citizenship on its riders. In 1904, four years after the first line opened, the writer Jules Romains predicted that the system would be a “living, fluid cement that will succeed in holding men together.”
Incidentally, when I read about the banlieues, I always think of Guillaume Apollinaire’s wonderful poem Zone, a drunken-dreamlike walk through the downscale outer districts of early-20th century Paris, before the Metro put them on the map:
Some refugees stay in furnished rooms
In the rue des Rosiers or the rue des Écouffes in the slums
I have seen them at night walking
Like pieces on a chessboard they rarely move
Especially the Jews whose wives wear wigs
And sit quietly in the back of the shop
The last article of the week is from Grant Schofield, a professor of public health at AUT, who summarises his new research on the impact of urban form on physical activity:
Living in an activity-friendly neighbourhood could mean people take up to 90 minutes more exercise per week, according to a study published in The Lancet today. With physical inactivity responsible for over 5 million deaths per year, the authors say that creating healthier cities is an important part of the public health response to the global disease burden of physical inactivity.
The study included 6822 adults aged 18-66 from 14 cities in 10 countries from the International Physical activity and Environment Network (IPEN) . The cities or regions included were Ghent (Belgium), Curitiba (Brazil), Bogota (Colombia), Olomouc (Czech Republic), Aarhus (Denmark), Hong Kong (China), Cuernavaca (Mexico), North Shore, Waitakere, Wellington and Christchurch (New Zealand), Stoke-on-Trent (UK), Seattle and Baltimore (USA).
The research team mapped out the neighbourhood features from the areas around the participants’ homes, such as residential density, number of street intersections, public transport stops, number of parks, mixed land use, and nearest public transport points. Physical activity was measured by using accelerometers worn around participants’ waists for a minimum of four days, recording movement every minute.
On average, participants across all 14 cities did 37 minutes per day moderate to vigorous physical activity – equivalent to brisk walking or more. Baltimore had the lowest average rate of activity (29.2 min per day) and Wellington had the highest (50.1 min per day).
The four neighbourhood features which were most strongly associated with increased physical activity were high residential density, number of intersections, number of public transport stops, and number of parks within walking distance. The researchers controlled for factors including age, sex, education, marital and employment status and whether neighbourhoods were classed as high or low income. The activity-friendly characteristics applied across cities, suggesting they are important design principles that can be applied internationally.
Just a brief comment on this last point. One legitimate question about these findings is, basically: what’s stopping people from choosing to live in healthier places if there are benefits to doing so? (Or, in economese, what’s the market failure, exactly?)
The answer is that decisions about the built environment aren’t made by individuals. People don’t always have a free choice. Road networks are centrally planned, and the planners may not necessarily have good information about people’s actual needs and desires.
A bit more choice could be good for us!