Our love affair with personal mobility

We often hear that New Zealanders have a love affair with their cars. Some people argue that driving is an essential element of our national psyche: even if we succeeded in providing good walking, cycling, and public transport options, Kiwis would doggedly insist upon taking their cars. Even if it didn’t make any sense to do so.

There is some basis for this idea. We do, after all, have an unusually high rate of vehicle ownership. We’re the eighth-most vehicle-owning nation in the world, with 712 vehicles per 1,000 people in 2010. If you take out the anomalously wealthy micro-states – San Marino, Monaco, etc – we’ve got the fourth-highest rate of vehicle ownership, behind the US, Iceland, and Australia.

Let’s set aside the question of whether Kiwis are freely choosing to own loads of cars, or whether car ownership is required by our poor public transport system, and take a look at the cultural aspects of car ownership.

As it turns out, if we take a historical perspective, New Zealanders do have a real preference for personal mobility. But that hasn’t always meant owning cars – the preferred means of getting around have changed as technology and society changed. We expect this process of change to continue – New Zealanders will get rid of their cars as better options become available. (In fact, they already are.)

So let’s take a look at the history of personal mobility in post-European settlement New Zealand.

te ara waka 2003

People also had some pretty awesome means of getting around before the Europeans arrived (Source)

In his brilliant history of the New Zealanders, Making Peoples, James Belich comments that the relatively sparse population density of early European settlements was associated with a surprisingly low rate of social isolation. This was because pakeha New Zealanders tended to travel faster than their forebears in Britain, as a result of extremely high levels of horse ownership:

Horses were expensive in the early 1850s; bullocks were cheaper and preferable on poor roads. There were 115 horses per thousand Europeans in 1851, and some of those were actually owned by Maori. But by 1858, there were 254 per thousand, much of the breed stock having been imported from Tasmania. By 1867, despite the large inflow of people, there were 302 horses per thousand, and 333 by 1878. The equine ratio peaked at 400 per thousand in 1911, and declined slowly thereafter with the development of the petrol engine.
[...]
One horse for every three people was a vastly higher ratio than in Britain, and, from the 1860s, New Zealand horses were cheaper to buy. Mild winter and more easily available grazing meant they had always been cheaper to keep. Easier access to horse ownership, like house ownership, had interesting social implications… [p 354]

I note briefly here that it wasn’t the petrol engine that did in horse transit in the early 20th century. It was actually a combination of the urbanisation of the NZ population, which meant that it was increasingly hard to clear away manure piling up in cities, and the invention of the humble bicycle, which was cheaper to own and run while enabling similar levels of mobility.

Back to Belich – he argues that horse ownership enabled relatively high levels of social interaction even in seemingly isolated rural areas:

Further out of town, high access to horses must have increased the power to associate. In 1881, New Zealand had about six times more horses per thousand people than Britain. Roads were often very bad, but roads and tracks impassable to wheeled traffic were sometimes still traversable by riders. Poor roads were more of an obstacle to economic transport than to social transport. ‘The attitude to travel and distance of the rider or [coach, trap or buggy] driver was totally different to that of the pedestrian or dray driver.’ Riding was several times faster than walking over substantial distances. Even if allowance is made for bad roads, widespread horse ownership must have significantly reduced the social effects of geographical isolation. [p 419-420]

A few decades later, the technology had changed but the social dynamics of transport remained the same. After bicycles were invented and commercialised in the 1860s, they swiftly spread across New Zealand. A few technological innovations later – chain-driven safety bicycles, brakes, etc – the price of bikes was coming down and ridership was on the way up. Personal mobility was still king – but two wheels were now preferred over four hooves.

The book Ride: The Story of Cycling in New Zealand, written by the Kennett brothers, provides an interesting window into New Zealand’s “golden age” of mass cycling in the first half of the 20th century:

Between 1900 and 1950, New Zealand imported nearly 800,000 bicycles and manufactured thousands more. By the late 1930s, an estimated 250,000 bicycles were being ridden in New Zealand – one for every six people. [p 21]

Cycling, unlike horse ownership, was most heavily concentrated in urban centres, where it was taken up in massive numbers:

Christchurch, nicknamed ‘Cyclopolis’, was the centre of New Zealand’s cycling boom. In 1924, the Christchurch City Motor Inspector estimated that there were 40,000 cyclists in the city – almost half the population. There were 56 cycle dealers and no fewer than 33 cycle clubs. On 4 March 1936, a Christchurch traffic census recorded that 11,335 cyclists had passed the BNZ corner of Cathedral Square between 8 a.m. and 5.30 p.m. – a rate of 19 per minute…

Despite the huge popularity of cycling in Christchurch, a cycle workers’ representative claimed in 1938 that many more bicycles were being imported into northern cities and that “twice as many are absorbed by the North Island as in the South in proportion to the distribution of population”. This suggests that while most people already had bikes in Christchurch, many North Islanders were still taking up cycling in the late 1930s. [p 32-33]

The bicycle’s egalitarian nature was a good fit with New Zealand society – bikes transported the young and old, men and women, and people of all social classes. The book provides all sorts of interestingly suggestive examples – Palmerston North’s cycling fire brigade, Christchurch’s wheeled female nursing corps, bushmen and deer-cullers outfitted with bicycles to make it in to town, etc.

Christchurchs's Atalanta Cycling Club combined two great New Zealand passions: bicycling and women's lib (Source)

The Atalanta Ladies’ Cycling Club in Christchurch combined two great New Zealand passions: bicycling and women’s lib (Source)

As we know, bicycles didn’t remain the mode of choice. After World War II, rural New Zealanders replaced their horses with cars and urban New Zealanders replaced their bikes with cars. We now define personal mobility as the possession of four wheels and a ton of metal and plastic. But it’s important to realise that car ownership itself is not necessarily the be-all and end-all here. It’s just a means of getting around.

History teaches us that New Zealanders will eagerly embrace new and better transport options. We’re less attached to individual technologies, including the car, than we are to mobility. Why would we insist upon travelling in a certain way, regardless of how costly and inconvenient it becomes?

At this point New Zealand is an urban nation, and urban transport solutions are different. Urban transport systems based solely around the car suffer from congestion and the need to spend increasing amounts of money on roads in a Sisyphus-like effort to reduce it. Fortunately, public transport networks can be excellent at offering personal mobility if they are designed well. Transport consultant Jarrett Walker, who helped design Auckland’s New Network, is a big proponent of this idea. His slogan is “frequency is freedom” – meaning, essentially, that buses or trains that turn up every few minutes and connect to other frequent services allow people to get to wherever they’re going, whenever they want.

Frequency is freedom

Frequency is freedom!

Finally, as someone who bikes to work, I can vouch for the speed and ease of urban cycling. When I bike down Symonds St in the morning, I am usually the fastest-moving thing on the road. I often beat the cars back up the hill at the end of the day, too. So I’ll give the last word to the Kennett brothers, who recall an idea that we should perhaps get started again:

Publicised races to work, from the suburbs to the centre of NZ cities, were common around 1980,”with bicycles usually winning hands down. [p 51]

The Pullman Hotel – Pulled into line?

Greetings from Barcelona, where I’m currently winding up a 3 week European holiday that has also taken me to Amsterdam, Paris, and Porto. But my thoughts on those cities will have to wait for another day, because right now I want to engage in some bloated, tapas-filled celebration of a more local achievement.

That’s right – our wee TransportBlog community can notch up another sweet (albeit small) civic success on our train belts (NB: Some of our earlier successes are documented here and here).

First some background. Some of our longer time readers may remember this post from approximately 18 months ago, in which I ranted and rallied against a metal post that had been rather brutally plonked smack in the middle of a narrow footpath, as illustrated below. I live and work in the area and this metal post was, frankly, a small but constant pain in the ass head whenever I stumbled home blind drunk from many and varied soirees.

Pullman post gone

 

And just take a look at it now (NB: Photo taken by Kent Lundberg – urbanist extraordinaire and fellow MRCagney worker bee). Note this photo has been taken looking south, i.e. opposite direction from the previous photo.

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Boo yah – begone ye post! And look at all those happy pedestrians; no longer do they have to swerve around the plywood box inconveniently placed in their way. Instead they can move freely, and glower at oncoming pedestrians without obstruction.

More seriously though: This is just one more small example of the sorts of positive transport outcomes that can be driven by an educated, informed, and pro-active community – such as that which TransportBlog has – over a number of years – sought to cultivate.

Of course credit needs to go to Auckland Council and/Auckland Transport for taking this issue up with the Pullman. I believe, from my not-so-secret contacts with democratically elected representatives, that Christopher Dempsey of the Waitemata Local Board also deserves mention for pursuing the issue.

In terms of the Pullman Hotel, I think it’s a crying shame you took so long to come to the civic party and acknowledge that you, or the Hotel’s previous owners, had clearly erred in placing this metal post in the footpath. Personally, I believe that “law” is a minimum morality and that their references to having consent for the aforementioned pole were a dereliction of duty to the community in which their Hotel operates.

But now that it’s been put right, I hereby declare that my Company’s embargo on your services has been lifted. Not that I’ll be using it anytime soon, preferring instead the wonderful travel opportunities opened up by the likes of AirBnb (NB: I hope to cover how this so-called “sharing economy” website is revolutionising how we travel and in turn how we utilise our housing stock in a subsequent post).

In spite of this sweet success, there is one obvious outstanding question: What’s the next priority for Auckland’s long-suffering pedestrians? Speak now; the AT/AC God’s may just be listening.

 

 

Stuart’s 100 #25 The Original Act of Philanthropy

25: The Original Act of Philanthropy

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What if all Aucklanders understood the founding act of philanthropy in this city?

Every city should have an understanding of how it came to be. The gifting of some 3000 acres by Ngati Whatua to Captain Hobson to allow the establishment of Auckland is a hugely significant act. It led to the development of the earliest settlement in the central city and surrounding ridges and valleys between Maungawhau Mount Eden, Mataharehare (Hobson Bay) and Opou (Cox’s Creek).

Knowing this changes both how you understand the historical foundations of Auckland but also the much deeper connections Ngati Whatua and other iwi have to this land dating back long before this city was ever conceived. With such a high percentage of Aucklanders not having been born here, it is important that these aspects of our city story are acknowledged, talked about, and even dare I say celebrated where appropriate.

Stuart Houghton 2014

Stuart’s 100 #23: The Knowledge

23: The Knowledge

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What if taxi drivers knew this city better than you?

A light-hearted observation really; but it seems that in recent times the average taxi driver in Auckland has a very poor knowledge of destinations and how to get around this city. Is the use of GPS systems just making that worse? Surely drivers should still have the Knowledge? Shouldn’t we expect that driver knowledge be more discerning than GPS and outsmart it when the unexpected happens? Has the deregulation got out of hand?

Stuart Houghton 2014

Stuart’s 100 #19: TVNZ

19: Opening up the TVNZ HQ onto Victoria Street

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What if TVNZ HQ wasn’t such a fortress?

There are a number of central government buildings across Auckland that historically have really let the city down, offering very little to the public realm and in their design quality setting a poor standard for the private sector.

One of the worst offenders perhaps is the TVNZ headquarters on Victoria Street West in the city centre.

Clearly, this is a building from a different (post-modern) age. It appears to almost revel in a fortress-type quality in terms of the way it presents to the surrounding streets. It is almost unintelligible to find a way into the building from the public street (as opposed to the basement carpark). And it presents a series of largely solid, blank walls and generally uninviting appearance on all sides; not to mention the famous bunker bus stop on Victoria Street.

3 simple changes that could be made include establishing a legible and friendly front door to the corner of Victoria and Hobson Streets; providing engaging signage – possibly innovative digital media displays that say interact with passers-by at a pedestrian scale and speak of what goes on inside the complex; and possible creation of some exhibition or gallery space that can stage changing exhibits from the TVNZ archives or be used for promotional activity.

Other state broadcasters, like the BBC in the UK, or Radio France in Paris, are quite memorable places and even major attractions within the city. After all, they play a large role in the nation’s storytelling and culture.

Wouldn’t it be great if TVNZ had even just a nod to that? Otherwise there seems no point to being in the city centre at all. They might as well be out in an anonymous business park somewhere away from the public eye.

 

Photo of the day: Urban Charity

Yesterday was Daffodil Day and in two different locations people put a lot of effort into creating neat displays that enhanced the urban environment and made people stop and look.

The first one I saw was on Durham Lane where Daffodils had been tied to a netting which was hung like a canopy above the lane.

Durham Lane Daffidol Canopy

The second was at Takutai Square at Britomart. Here hundreds of Daffodils had been planted into the grass (this was done a few years ago with poppies for ANZAC day).

Takutai Daffidols 1

What a fantastic way to raise awareness for a charity while also making the city more interesting at the same time.

Stuart’s 100 #17: A Greater Auckland?

17: A Greater Auckland?

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What if we felt like we lived in an Auckland that was greater than the sum of its parts?

This is perhaps one of the reoccurring themes in my 100 days project. It reflects the public discussion and debate happening in Auckland around our future growth challenge, and how best we should invest public money in supporting that growth and our existing communities.

The parochialism of old Auckland was notorious. It was one contributing reason for the governance reforms and creation of the one council.

Only being concerned with one’s own lot in life is not a great basis upon which to debate the future of a city. Neither is only being interested in one’s own patch of the city to the extent of actively fighting against investment or even just change in other parts of the city. These aspects of Auckland seem to relate to a deeper issue around the way this city has grown and developed over time.

It says a lot about the urban geography of Auckland; how the way we have shaped the city then shapes how we feel about each other and the city in which we all live. How do we view a sense of a community? Do we relate to any sense of a greater Auckland, or not? Is there any sense of an Auckland that is greater than the sum of its parts? And what might this all mean for our future?

Arguably one of the best things that has happened through the creation of the one council has been a growing sense of one Auckland While we won’t always and shouldn’t always speak with one voice, a common understanding that we are generally better off together than apart seems a good basis to understanding of why we are all here together living in and around this beautiful Tamaki Makaurau.

Waterfront crowds_8068

Events and public festivals and celebrations that attract big crowds from right across Auckland are one of the few occasions where we all have the opportunity to come together and have a sense of being a part of and connected the other 1.5 million odd residents in this increasingly diverse city.

 

Britomart precinct quick wins

It has now been three months since Janette Sadik-Khan visited Auckland and showed us how easy it was to create a more liveable city by making things better for people to walk and cycle around, and best of all we could do this really quickly and cheaply.

Since the excitement of that time their has been some positive noise about some cycleway projects such as Karangahape Road and Nelson St, however there is so much to do around the city in the pedestrian realm. So now I am going to look at a number of really simple and cheap things we can do around the city to make things much better for people.

The first place I am going to look at is the Britomart precinct. This has become an immensely successful area over the last decade, revitalising a formerly very rundown and seedy area, preserving a large collection of heritage buildings, with a few sympathetic additions. However the streetscape  is still very plain, and the design prioritises cars, even though walking is the dominant mode of travel through the precinct. While it is better than many areas of the city, there is still much to be done.

Pedestrians should really be the priority throughout this area, however the road layout still gives priority to cars, and several streets are used as rat runs. In the medium term we could look at pedestrianisation and shared spaces in this area, however with limited budgets and uncertainty about bus movements this is best left for the longer term. So therefore I am going to focus on easy and cheap improvements.

The East-West site link is probably the most important, linking the station to the atrium of the Westpac building through Takutai Square. For some unknown reason this link is totally devoid of zebra crossings, which would prioritise pedestrians, slow cars and improve safety.

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Commerce Street

 

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Gore St

 

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Britomart Place, looking towards the disaster of Scene Lane

 

Zebra crossings could be added to all three of these roads tomorrow with tiny cost, yet make things so much better for people walking in this precinct. Zebras with raised tables should also be added to all the side streets, such as the corner of Galway and Commerce Streets.

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Galway and Commerce St

In a slightly longer timeframe consideration should be given to closing at least one of the north-south links to through traffic. These streets are much busier than they should be because of rat-running and cars circling for parking. At least in the short term, Commerce Street is important for bus movements so that will need to stay. Gore Street is probably the most likely candidate, the main use of the area seems to be taxis illegally parking in the median.

While Britomart Place has some traffic calming in the use of lane narrowing and pebbled surfaces directly opposite the Westpac atrium, the two ends at Quay St and Commerce St are totally oversized, and for 4 lanes so every turn movement can have their own lane. The slip lane from Britomart Place to Beach Road is also very dangerous and should be removed as a priority.

Britomart Pl 4

Britomart Place – 3 southbound lanes for one quiet street

The area could be narrowed substantially, with traffic lanes roughly halved. The narrowing would be best done on the western side, which would allow popular places like Mexico, Brew on Quay and several cafes to expand their tables over more of the pavement, and provide more room for pedestrians. This can be done without any expensive reconstruction in the short term, just by allowing planters and tables to cover part of the existing road.

Britomart Place map

This rather crude drawing shows how much space could be freed up for people and street life, while still allowing 2 lanes of traffic through the area.

There is also one change that could benefit people cycling. If you are cycling from the (rather pathetic) bike racks at Britomart you can head east along Tyler St. However heading towards Britomart there is no obvious direct legal option, and people are forced to cycle the wrong way down Galway St between Commerce and Gore Street. If this section was flipped this would make things much easier.

Another option is the provision of contraflow bike lanes. These are used with some success in Adelaide, the use of which in their laneways was noted recently by the excellent Cycling in Christchurch Blog. If flipping the streets was not possible for some reason, then these could be installed to allow cyclists to travel east-west through the area.

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Adelaide Laneway – c/ Glen Koorey, Cycling in Christchurch blog

All these changes suggested would help ensure Britomart could continue to be an exciting area and further enhance its reputation as a great place to be.

Stuart’s 100 #16 A Retail Renaissance?

16: A Retail Renaissance?

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What if Topshop Topman was just the beginning?

Over the past year or so there has started to be some recognition in the media that change is afoot in the central city retail scene (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11269705http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=11262222 ) . Queen Street in particular, much-maligned for many years as the home of tacky souvenir and $2 shops, is really stepping up. Later this year, we can expect a number of new retail openings. These include a number of new to NZ flagship stores, including Topshop Topman, Prada, Dior and Camper, all opening along and just off Queen Street.

Wouldn’t it be great if this was just the tip of the iceberg in invigorating the city centre’s retail scene?  Historically, Aucklanders used to flock to the shops in town on late nights and weekends. Is this likely to start happening again? Would more global brands such as the middle market, fast fashion stores many New Zealanders shop at on international holidays help achieve this?

 

Cycling in Manukau

Last week I looked at how hard it was to safely walk around Manukau City. Today I am going to look at the cycling infrastructure that has been provided.

On the various regional cycle network maps a lovely grid of completed cycling facilities is shown (solid lines).

Manukau Cycle Network

 

This is a 2011 version, but can’t fund anything newer on the Auckland Transport website. All the dark red lines are existing facilities, which are fully complete as far as AT is concerned. However the reality is somewhat different. Luckily I was walking around Manukau when I took these pictures, because I sure wouldn’t have wanted to bike along any of them, even though I am quite a confident cyclist.

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This is Manukau Station Road. For starters a narrow painted lane with no buffer is totally inappropriate for a road that is signposted at 60kmh.

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Things quickly go from bad to worse. While running cycle lanes through bus stops isn’t great practice it is rather common place in Auckland. However is this is not just a bus stop where a bus stops momentarily, it is a bus layover area where buses park up for extended periods of time. Potentially even hours. So anytime a bus is parked here people cycling have to veer out into 60kmh traffic.

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This is Manukau Station Road again, between the MIT campus and the council offices on the left. The cycle lane just suddenly ends without warning, and there is not even a ramp that leads to the path to allow people to leave the road safely. It seems as though a dedicated right hand turn lane is more important than safe cycling

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This is Manukau Station Road at Lambie Drive. The motorway on-ramp is straight ahead so people cycling need to turn left or right here. The little green patches show a narrow cycle lane up against the kerb on the left hand side. Then there is another cycle lane starting in the foreground of the picture. However to get between the two you have to veer across 2 lanes of 60kmh plus traffic. Again totally unacceptable.

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This is now on Great South Road. The cycle lane is less than 1m wide. Note to designers, if you are struggling to fit the bike stencil in the lane it is definitely way too narrow. Cyclists have to chose between riding close to the debris filled drain on one side, and fast traffic on the other side.

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Also on Great South Road by Redoubt Road. Again have cycle lane that is about 1m wide with no buffer next to 3 lanes of fast traffic. Again cyclists have to cross several lanes of traffic to keep going straight ahead.

These issues are of course not unique to Manukau, and I’m sure anyone that rides a bike could tell you there are serious issues all over the city. However Manukau probably the worst example of a “completed grid” that is complete rubbish. Unsurprisingly the lanes are a total failure and it is rare to see people cycling here.

This highlights a big problem with the 1000km Regional Cycle Network that Auckland Transport claims is 30% complete. Very little of this 30% is actually up to scratch once you discount shared paths through reserves. At least 5% of the network is bus lanes (not great), or even transit lanes (awful) so none of that should be counted. Then there are the many painted sections that are narrow, unsafe and disappear without warning. Bike lanes like this can be worse than nothing, as they force cyclists weave and merge into moving traffic, rather than just staying in the traffic lane and making drivers overtake. Of course this style of cycling is only for the brave, and will never get more than a hardcore cycling in these conditions. Cycling should be a relaxing everyday activity, not an adrenaline rush for the fearless.

With the opening of our first section of urban separated cycleway on Beach Road next week lets hope Auckland Transport has turned it’s back of the pre-amalgamation ways of doing things. Successful cycling requires build cycling infrastructure that everyone is able to comfortably cycle in.

Vancouver has it spot on with their Transportation 2040 Plan:

 

C 1.1. Build cycling routes that feel comfortable for people of all ages and abilities

Many people are interested in cycling but are afraid of motor vehicle traffic. For cycling to be a viable and mainstream transportation choice, routes should feel comfortable and low-stress for people of all ages and abilities, including children, the elderly, and novice cyclists.

Design details depend on a variety of factors, but especially motor vehicle speeds and volumes. Bicycle routes on arterials and other busy streets should be physically separated wherever possible. Routes on neighbourhood streets may require traffic restrictions, speed management and/or parking restrictions to ensure comfort for a broad range of users. Designs should ensure sufficient visibility at intersections and driveways, and minimize the potential for conflicts with car doors, pedestrians, and other cyclists. Other factors to consider include topography—by providing well-marked alternative routes around steep hills, for example—and requirements for un-conventional bikes and other forms of active transportation, including recumbents, cargo cycles, bikes with trailers, and skateboards.

The last few months has seem much more positivity about cycling from Auckland Transport and Auckland Council with talk of separated lanes along Nelson Street and a trial along Karangahape Road. Over the next year we should see if results on the ground match this rhetoric.