The last five years have seen Auckland change dramatically for the better. If you were in the city then you wouldn’t have found any of the shared spaces, much of the area surrounding Britomart was still run down and unused and Wynyard Quarter as a people place didn’t exist. While we’ve already seen a lot of change the next 10 years promises even more and much of it – such as the CRL – will fundamentally alter Auckland for the better.
In fact there is so much going on in Auckland’s City Centre right now that it’s starting to resemble a sand pit. There are a huge number of publicly and privately funded improvements happening. Importantly they are leveraging off each other to make Auckland a more liveable and attractive place. That’s good for Auckland’s economy which in turn is good for the entire nation. It also bears reminding that the changes and growth that’s occurred in recent years hasn’t spelt doom on the regions roads as all the growth in travel to the centre has happened not on in cars but via PT and active modes.
To highlight all of the known changes that are planned or desired for the next decade the council have created a map showing all the ones they know about (there are bound to be more appear over that time – especially private developments). Note: not all of these projects have funding confirmed yet so not all might happen. Click to enlarge the images or go here for the PDF version (2.6MB).
There are of course a few things missing from this map. A few I noticed quickly are AT’s Light Rail plans, Cycle lanes on Pitt St as part of the Nelson St Cycleway and cyclelanes on Karangahape Rd as part of the city centre priority routes.
The major criticism I can see in all of this is that the map is focused on the city centre. That’s understandable seeing as it’s come from the city centre integration group however perhaps the council should create an interactive version for the entire region. It could show what’s going on and how projects like the CRL benefit the entire region.
I’m looking forward to the changes that planned. It should make the city centre a much more vibrant and interesting and liveable place.
Could Auckland have something like this running on a couple of major city routes before this decade is out? The AT board is to decide later this month how to proceed with its Light Rail plan and with what sort of pace. Everybody it seems loves trams, but why now and why there? What problem are they addressing? In a follow-up post I will discuss the financial side of the proposal.
CAF Urbos Tram recently ordered by Utrecht
First of all lets have a look at Auckland’s situation in general terms. Auckland is at a particular but quite standard point in its urban development: 1.5 million people is a city. The fifth biggest in Australasia; behind Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth. But on the location with the tightest natural constraints of the group; squeezed by harbours, coasts, ranges, and productive and/or swampy farmland, it shares the highest density of the group with Sydney in its built up area. And is growing strongly. It also has the poorest Transit network of the group and consequently the lowest per capita Transit modeshare [although the fastest improving one].
So these three factors scale, growth, and density are all combining to create some serious pressure points that require fresh solutions especially on existing transport routes, and particularly on the harbour constrained city isthmus.
This pressure is on all transport infrastructure, at every scale from footpaths [eg Central City, Ponsonby Road]; the desire for safe cycling routes; on the buses, trains, and ferries; to road space for trucks and tradies, and of course road and street space for private vehicle users. Transit demand in particular is going through the roof and this is way ahead of population growth and traffic demand growth, especially at the higher quality Rapid Transit type of service where growth over the last year has been at an atsonishing 20%.
This is to be expected in a city of Auckland’s current state as Transit demand typically accelerates in advance of population in cities of a certain size, because of the universal laws of urban spatial geometry, as explained here by Jarrett Walker;
This problem is mathematically inevitable.
As cities grow, and especially as they grow denser, the need for transit generally rises faster than population, at least in the range of densities that is common in North America. This is completely obvious if you think about it, and I stepped through it in more detail in Chapter 10 of Human Transit. In brief: Suppose a particular square mile of the city doubles in population. Transit demand would double because there are twice as many people for whom transit is competing. But independently of that, if density is higher, each person is likely to find transit more useful, because (a) density creates more disincentives to driving and car ownership while (b) density makes it easier for transit agencies to provide abundant and useful service. Those two separate impacts of density on transit, multiplied together, mean that transit demand is rising faster than population. Again, go to my book for a more extended and thorough argument.
And that this means that the infrastructure needs of our growing city is likely to be ‘lumpy’. Big long lasting kit that is costly and disruptive to build become suddenly urgent:
As transit demand grows in a growing city, it hits crisis points where the current infrastructure is no longer adequate to serve the number of people who want to travel. Several major subway projects now in development are the result of transit’s overwhelming success using buses. I’m thinking, for example, of Second Avenue in New York, Eglinton in Toronto, Wilshire in Los Angeles, Broadway in Vancouver, and Stockton-Columbus in San Francisco.
Broadway, for example, has local buses running alongside express buses, coming as often as every 3 minutes peak hours, and they are all packed. In that situation, you’ve done just about everything you can with buses, so the case for a rail project is pretty airtight. In all of the cases I mention, the rail project usually has to be a subway, because once an area is that dense, it is difficult to commandeer enough surface street space, and we tend to have strong aesthetic objections to elevated lines in these contexts.
As driving amenity is very mature in Auckland there is very little opportunity to add significant driving capacity to streets and roads to much of the city at any kind of cost, and certainly not without a great deal of destruction of the built environment. This has long been the case so in a desire to solve capacity and access issues with a driving only solution we did spend the second half of the last century bulldozing large swathes of the Victorian inner suburbs into to make room for this spatially very hungry mode. This solution is no longer desirable nor workable. Below is an image showing the scar of the Dominion Rd extension citywards and the still extant Dom/New North Rd flyover. These were to be the beginning of a motorway parallel to Dominion rd to ‘open up’ or ‘access’ the old isthmus suburbs.
1963, Dominion Rd flyover in the foreground
Where we can’t nor want to build ever wider roads we can of course add that needed capacity though the higher capacity and spatial efficiency of Transit. Most easily with buses and bus lanes. There are also potential significant gains to made at the margins by incentivising the Active modes with safe routes especially to Transit stations and schools and other local amenity.
However as Jarrett Walker describes above there comes a point where buses, through their own success, cannot handle the demand as the number of vehicles required start to become both less efficient and more disruptive than is desirable. At this point demand can only be met with higher capacity systems with clearer right of ways. Such systems require expensive permanent infrastructure and are never undertaken lightly. The CRL, being underground, clearly fits this definition and is due to begin in earnest in the new year. And although the physical work and all of the disruption of the CRL build occurs in the Centre City, the capacity and frequency improvements are to the entire rail network, and therefore much of the city: West, East, and South.
But not everywhere. Not the North Shore, not the North West, and not in ‘the Void’, as AT call it, the isthmus area between the Western and Southern Lines. Shown below in purple with the post CRL Rapid Transit Network. This area has a fairly solid and quite consistent density, housing about the same number of people as West Auckland, around 150,000. Note also the South Eastern Busway [AMETI] plugging directly into Panmure is very much a kind of rail extension for the Transit-less South-East, as is the Manukau spur further south.
These three major areas will still be relying on buses. The CRL, New Bus Network, and Integrated Fares will enable and incentivise more bus-to-train transfers that expand the reach of the core rail network and that this will help limit the numbers of buses going on all the way to the city. But this is primarily for the South, South-East, and West of New Lynn, there will still be an ever increasing number of buses with from the remaining areas converging on the City Centre. AT calculates that we need to act now to cut the bus numbers from at least one of these major sources to leave room for growth from the others, and all the other users and uses of city streets. [More detail on this in Matt’s previous post, here].
The North Western is currently getting more bus priority with the motorway widening
, and hopefully proper stations at Pt Chevalier, Te Atatu, and Lincoln Rd [although NZTA and/or the government are showing little urgency with this aspect of the route]. Also priority improvements to Great North Rd and further west too. The North Shore is the only one of the three with a Rapid Transit system [which also should be being extended now
], and while there is still plenty of capacity on the Busway itself, like the other routes these buses are constrained once in the city. This leaves the very full and frequent ‘Void’ bus routes as the ones to address with another solution first.
So essentially LRT for this area has been selected because of the need:
- for higher capacity and efficiency on core Isthmus bus routes
- to reduce bus numbers on these routes and especially in the central city
- adds Queen St as an additional high capacity North-South city route
- for extra capacity both before and after CRL is operational
- to address Auckland Plan air quality, carbon emissions, and resilience aims
- to enable major public realm improvements along routes, especially Queen St
and possibly because:
- it may be able to be financed as a PPP so helps smooth out the capital cost of building both projects [more on this in a follow up post]
Above is a schematic from AT showing the two proposed LRT branches. The western one leading to Queen St via Ian Mackinnon Drive from Dominion and Sandringham Roads, the eastern one down Symonds St from Manukau and Mt Eden Roads, some or all routes connecting through to Wynyard Quarter. More description in this post
It is worth noting that this area, The Void, gets its very successful and desirable urban form from this very technology; these are our premier ‘tram-built’ suburbs. With all the key features; an efficient grid street pattern, mixed use higher density on the tram corridors, excellent walking shortcuts and desire lines. So what the old tram made the new tram can serve well too.
Auckland Isthmus tramlines
With all door boarding and greater capacity LRT will speed more people along these routes with fewer vehicles and lower staffing numbers. Frequency will actually drop from the current peak every 3 minutes down to 5 or 7 minutes [I’m guessing]. This along with the narrower footprint required by LRT is a big plus for other users of the corridor. But the huge gain in travel time comes from improvement to the right of way and intersection priority that can be delivered with the system. Stops are presumably to be at intersections, instead of midblock as buses are, so the passenger pick-ups are coordinated with traffic lights.
But best of all for this writer is that LRT is a tool to drive enormous and permanent place uplift. The removal of cars and buses from Queen St, improvements to New North and Dominion Rds, hopefully including that intersection itself, a fantastic new Dominion road with the potential for real uplift to premier status. It will spur the redevelopment of the mixed uses zone all along Dominion Rd. This is real place quality transport investment. And all of course while moving thousands and thousands of people totally pollution free and with our own mostly renewably generated electrons. Breathing in the Queen St valley will become a fresh new experience.
We all look forward to hearing the proposed details of the routes and of course the financials. I will follow up this post with my understanding of the thinking on this next.
Finally it is very good to see that there is no dispute over the necessary solutions to Auckland’s access and place quality issues, just the details and timing. Auckland Transport’s map above is pretty much the same as our solution in the CFN. We are delighted that AT are planning for four light rail routes were we proposed one.
There are of course plenty of debates to had about further extensions to the Transit networks that this proposal invites; LRT in a tunnel from Wynyard to Onewa, Akoranga, and Takapuna? Then up the Busway? From Onehunga to through Mangere to the Airport? Along Grey Lynn’s apartment lined Great North Road, to Pt Chevalier, and the North Western? Panmure, Pakuranga, Botany, Manukau City Airport? Which of these need to be true grade separate Rapid Transit and for which are bus lanes or busways a more cost effective option? Are their others that would be better suited to extending the rail network? Is there enough density elsewhere in the city to justify other LRT routes?
Matt’s post last month on a new apartment development in Albany caused me to start thinking about street grids. As Matt noted, the development will start filling in the big gaps between Albany’s broad, curving roads to nowhere. Here’s a picture of the development:
Albany’s got many attractive aspects. It’s got loads of space for growth, which in a growing city means that it will grow. It’s got aspirations to be a live-work-shop kind of centre, rather than just a mall in a paddock. And it’s close to the Albany Busway station – although the busway hasn’t made it far enough north yet due to some bad decisions by the Government. But that street network could easily cripple it. Albany’s curvy roads and over-sized roundabouts are good for drivers but highly inefficient for people on foot, bike, or bus.
As Jarrett Walker is fond of saying, you can’t argue with the facts of geometry. Roads that meander and don’t connect with each other will always be costly to serve with public transport and difficult for people to navigate on foot.
If sprawled-out exurbs remained on the car-dependent city fringe in perpetuity, it might be fine to build them with inefficient, non-connective street patterns. But if a century of urban expansion has taught us anything, it’s that today’s fringe suburbs will be part of tomorrow’s urban fabric. Over time, they will become more densely populated and require a greater range of transport choices. We will have to think about incorporating them into public transport networks and putting a sidewalk on every block.
Street networks are incredibly persistent. Some European cities are still laid out on right-of-ways first established by the Romans. Or think of Karangahape Road, which has been used as a thoroughfare since Auckland was first settled around 800-1000 years ago. But in recent years, some people have started to think about how we might rebuild or “retrofit” inefficient suburban street networks.
One such effort, Galiena Tachieva’s Sprawl Repair Manual, summarises a number of strategies for retrofitting suburban developments into urban places. Here’s one of her schematic designs for transforming a single-house subdivision, complete with cul-de-sacs, into a neighbourhood centre:
Unfortunately, retrofitting is costly, as it will require governments or transport agencies to buy and demolish houses in order to restore a street grid. As the overall density and efficiency of the neighbourhood would increase following such a rebuild, doing this might even make the government money in the long term. But it would involve some pretty serious up-front expenditures.
In order to quantify the “unfunded liability” associated with inefficient, car-based suburbs, I’ve gone back to Tachieva’s example and put a red X on the properties that we’d have to demolish in order to restore a sensible urban street grid that would enable better PT, walking and cycling provision.
Out of a total of around 180 properties, we’d have to buy and bowl at least 18 to retrofit a proper street grid. That’s 10% of the suburb’s houses that we would have to demolish!
Houses that would have to be demolished in order to repair a suburban street grid
In short, the costs of retrofitting inefficient suburban street networks are so high as to be prohibitive. This raises two questions.
First, what’s going to happen to Auckland’s existing sprawl suburbs? Will they hold their value if it’s not possible to provide them with better transport choices? And if we can’t, will they suffer a reversal of fortune, offering few opportunities for low-income residents cut off at the end of cul-de-sacs?
Second, why on earth are we still building subdivisions with dysfunctional street networks? What form of mad inertia is leading us to construct places like Flat Bush and Massey (below), where road geometry means that it will always be difficult to run a frequent bus route or give people direct walking access to the shops?
Traffic engineers and subdivision master-planners seem to be quite good at “future proofing” their roads for growth in demand. They build them too wide in anticipation of the day when more cars will be driving on them.
But that’s not sufficient. They need to go a step further and future proof against a change in transport demands and a change in the functioning of suburbs. The places that are being built on the edge of the city today will not work very well when they begin to merge into the urban fabric tomorrow.
Remember, you can’t argue with geometry!
A while ago Kent and I made a proposal for a tree lined boulevard in Auckland. Curiously, the biggest theme of the comments section was about the perceived lack of value that trees bring to the street corridor. It seems that most people consider street trees to be at best, decoration, and at worst a waste of time and money, dangerous even. Indeed I have seen road design handbooks whose only mention of trees was to outline all their problems in the section of ‘non-frangible fixed hazards’ (in traffic engineering terms, frangible means something that will break off when you drive into it, rather than stay solid and crumple your car around it).
I wanted to use this post to outline some of the reasons why trees are beneficial for our city streets. Not just beneficial from appearance or character, but beneficial in the sense of making the street work better in terms of its transportation and land use.
A word of clarification up front however. I am talking about trees on city streets, particularly urban inner city streets with speed limits of 50km/h or less and ‘stuff’ around that people actually do there (like live, work or play, and not just move). Trees on rural highways and back roads with nothing going on but through traffic are a different story.
So my point is street trees are not merely decoration and can be included in street design specifically for several practical, technical reasons. In no particular order, these are as follows:
An outer row of trees can provide physical separation between the traffic lanes and the footpath, cycleway and retail frontages.
Your friendly local highway designer will tell you that trees are a fixed hazard, according to the Austroads design manual at least, and that a high speed highway needs a wide exclusion zone either side so that speeding drivers who run off the road can careen onwards without hitting anything. While this is a very appropriate safety treatment for a state highway out the back of Waipukarau, it is completely inappropriate for a city centre arterial.
For a start we don’t want a high speed highways through our inner city. That what the motorways are for and we don’t want cars and trucks to speed through dense people-focussed places at street level. Rather we want move plenty of vehicles in an efficient manner while keeping to a reasonable speed limit for a city arterial. Consistent reliable travel times and total throughput are far more important that high speed alone.
Secondly, we certainly don’t want vehicles running off the traffic lanes at high speed. In an urban context this means running over whoever happens to be walking on the footpath at the time and smashing into the front window of a shop or office building! We want to keep traffic in the traffic lanes.
Thirdly, we don’t want to waste scarce city land on wide empty shoulders for our main roads: we can’t afford the land and don’t want the severance it creates. Nobody wants downtown to look like Albany (and in fact I’m not sure if anyone especially wants Albany to look like Albany either!), and we shouldn’t really be spending good money to create empty verges in town centres.
So indeed, one very practical reason for street trees is to keep traffic in the traffic lanes and out of the footpath and shops. We could use bollards or Jersey barriers for separation, or wide swathes of land, or we could use trees.
Better to hit a tree than a primary school?
Trees provide a physical barrier to prevent vehicles being parked across the kerb.
This physically stops people from parking vehicles on the footpath, or in medians or other non-traffic spaces. Again we could install bollards all the way along the edge of the road, but trees can do the same job too.
A physical barrier to stop people parking on the footpath.
Street trees provide shade to the footpath and cycleway.
Shade would not be of concern to someone designing a rural highway, where they don’t want nor expect any pedestrians or anyone else not in a vehicle for that matter. But if we are talking inner city streets such things must be considered. People walk, cycle, wait, linger and loiter on city streets and a little shade goes a long way in the summertime. Indeed in Melbourne they have started a program of street tree planting to mitigate the increasing number of heatwaves, and shading the tarmac is a good way to reduce the urban heat island effect and manage stormwater. Trees are a handy component of a complete street that has many simultaneous uses, and users.
Well placed trees can shade the footpath to provide a comfortable walking environment.
Trees can visually screen heavy traffic from the footpath and adjacent buildings.
…and to a lesser degree provide some containment of noise and fumes. Once again this is a very practical concern if we are discussing inner city corridors, particularly those that are ripe for commercial development. Heavy traffic is a necessary evil on city arterials, generally speaking, but it’s impact can be mitigated through design elements such as this.
Trees provide a perceptual barrier that visually narrows the the carriageway.
Perhaps most importantly, a rows of trees can be used to visually narrow a simple two way street or split the opposing directions of a multi-lane arterial with a physical and perceptual barrier. In the case of a multiway boulevard a row of trees can be used separate the local and through lanes from each other.
Overseas, using trees to separate lanes is an intentional feature designed to break up the wide roadway into discrete sections, each section being relatively narrow. The purpose of this is to perceptually narrow and contain each piece of road to no more than two narrow lanes to remove the visual cues that encourage speeding. In effect the trees act like side walls, narrowing each part of the road and forcing drivers to maintain limited speeds. Without them, any multi-lane street would present you with a wide, straight, flat roadway many lanes wide, all if which tell your subconscious mind that you are able to put your foot down. Of course the highway handbooks define this as the problem of ‘shy lines’, assuming lanes should be as fast and wide as possible and describing anything less in terms of reduced capacity. But this capacity reduction comes from lower speeds, which is precisely the thing we are after on streets, if not highways. Furthermore the shy line effect is almost negligible on 50km/h arterials, it’s really a highway thing.
The literature is quite clear on this topic: people drive fast on big wide roads, and creating a visually constrained roadway is the best means to keep then to the speed limit (ever been infuriated driving on the highway behind someone who is slow on the single lane sections, but who speeds up second they get to the passing lane? That’s them simply responding to the form of the road: going slow and cautious on the narrow winding bits, and driving faster when it goes wide and straight. Its a simple, instinctive perceptual response…)
So we prefer to see this ‘problem’ as part of the solution. Here the trees become a perceptual traffic safety device for reducing speeding and keeping traffic moving efficiently at the proper speed limit.
Octavia Boulevard, SF. Rows of trees turn an eight lane monster into groups of two lane streets.
But what about simple beautification?
Finally however, what if the trees were just ‘useless’ beautification? And what of the potential for ‘useless’ good quality paving, street furniture, artworks even? Is it a waste of time to make things attractive? Should we spend money on a nice looking and pleasant urban environment?
In the case of the city centre or other town centres, absolutely we should. Recall what we are talking about here are on the whole prime commercial redevelopment sites, where we should aim to maximise both the sale value of the land release, and the intensity and value of the subsequent developments. Simple ‘beautification’ would reap big dividends on the final form of development in the corridor. That’s not to say street trees are all you need to create a blue chip commercial precinct bringing in rates and business investment, but they definitely contribute. Beautification is a practical function when it comes to catalysing redevelopment.
An “un-beautified” road. What sort of development would this attract? Hat tip stroadtoboulevard.tumblr.com
So there we are, several reasons why street trees should be considered as technical components of street design with specific transport outcomes. For a wider discussion of all the benefits of street trees, transport and otherwise, check out the 22 Benefits of Urban Street Trees by Dan Burden.
Last year Auckland Transport started consultation on improvements to the iconic Franklin Rd that is in some serious need of improvement – in part due to the damage caused by the roots of the trees that give it its character.
Back in October AT presented two different options for the street and one aspect that was common among them was to push the kerb out past the trees to better protect their roots however that caused its own issues. The two options are below
Like many others we felt there were a number of issues with both of these designs and that AT could do much better.
AT have now released the results of the feedback they received which falls under 12 key issues.
Cycling – There was significant support for cycling facilities – 18% of responses raised cycling as an issue, 6% of those questioned the need for cycling facilities.
Pedestrians – Catering for pedestrians was a significant issue, with the safety of pedestrians a key focus.
Speed – Reducing the posted speed limit was suggested by a number of people with either 30kph or 40kph suggested. The speed limit on Ponsonby Road has been lowered to 40kph and is perceived to be working well.
Parking – Retention of parking between the trees was supported by the majority of people.
Carriageway configuration – Carriageway configuration includes the cross-section, or how the road looks from one side to the other. Key themes were:
- Retaining parking between the trees.
- Ensuring safety.
- Suggestions for alternative configurations.
Options presented in November 2014 were considered to create safety issues.
Detailed design/services – Comments relating to the detailed design of the final option included:
- Improvements to the road surface to reduce noise.
- Undergrounding the power.
- Ensuring raising the pavement (if this is the design) does not increase runoff into adjacent properties.
Flush median – There was significant support to maintain the flush median, primarily for safety reasons.
Trees – The London Plane trees are recognised as being iconic and important to protect and retain. Experience from overseas was also provided to demonstrate the resilience of the trees
Footpath/berm – Most people preferred low growing native plants. Other suggestions included:
- community garden,
- fruit trees,
Intersections – Safety at intersections was raised, in particular the Wellington Street intersection.
Ensuring safe traffic flow through Franklin Road is critical. At peak times bottlenecks are experienced:
- turning right from Wellington Street onto Franklin Road,
- turning from Scotland Street onto College Hill,
- the Victoria Park New World where the reduction of road width (due to entry / exit barriers) prevents cars moving to the left for turning into side streets or Victoria Street West.
Franklin Road residents suggested a roundabout or traffic lights for the Wellington Street and Franklin Road intersection. It was decided that traffic lights could increase street noise for local residents and impede traffic flow, so options for a roundabout needs further exploration.
Streetscape – The visual appearance, symmetry and iconic views of the wide street are valued by many. Both original options were considered to narrow the view corridor and diminish the “beautiful and wide boulevard that has become so iconic in Auckland”.
There’s also a desire to consider street furniture such as rubbish bins and seating.
New World entry – While not a road intersection, the entry to New World was raised as a safety issue.
Following the feedback and further technical assessments AT have come up with two revised options that they are progressing. The biggest change is that AT are looking at keeping parking between the trees – although presumably on a more controlled basis than currently exists so as to achieve the aim of protecting the roots. Both options also now contain a flush median.
In the first option there are painted cycle lanes on each side leaving the footpaths for people.
In the second option parking on the downhill side is pushed further out and the cycle lane is raised above the road. For uphill, riders share the foothpath with pedestrians.
The key issue with both options remains that any on road cycle facility would exist outside of parking which will always lead to concerns. In other locations I’d probably be more critical of AT for this but given trees can’t be moved – and removing any more parking than currently planned would start a local revolt – it’s probably the best we can hope for. It’s worth noting that these plans result in the removal about 40% of the current parking on the street. As such AT will include Franklin Rd in the Freemans Bay residents parking scheme which will be rolled out later this year.
Overall it seems AT have improved the design however a combination of the two still seems like the best outcome. By retaining the recessed parking on both sides like in option 1 and probably narrowing the median a little then they could have that downhill Copenhagen lane replicated uphill.
AT have also given an update about the intersection Wellington St. They say that traffic lights wouldn’t work as they would be too obscured by the trees until drivers were too close to the intersection. Instead they say they think they can fit in a roundabout which is shown in the image below. They do say there’s much more work to do to improve it for walkers and cyclists but that they think it’s possible.
Overall it seems like there are a few good improvements but that there are also a few more to go.
*** Here at TransportBlog we’re big advocates for making Auckland more “family friendly”. In general, this means designing our city to be safe and pleasant for the most vulnerable people: Children. While many parts of Auckland are a long way from idal, the City Centre has – in my opinion – come a long way over the last 10-15 years, I’m struck by the number of families and children I now see wandering around enjoying all that the city has to offer. This post documents the experiences of one such family. Edward and his family have lived in an apartment in the City Centre for almost a decade. This post provides a glimpse into their experiences, warts and all. We hope it encourages decision-makers (elected representatives and public servants) to continue to “family proof” Auckland, while also encouraging more families to consider living in the City Centre. As Edward notes, there are some significant upsides to living in an apartment. Less time spent maintaining property and/or travelling = more time spent with loved ones. ***
My name is Edward and this is a photo of my son eating a Popsicle while watching cricket on a large screen down at Britomart.
My son has spent all of his seven years living in an apartment in central Auckland. He goes to the only primary school in the city centre.
We are not particularly well served with playgrounds where we live. Until recently the closest playgrounds were Victoria Park (which he doesn’t rate highly – the equipment looks good but doesn’t offer good climbing challenges); Wynyard Quarter (which is fun because there are a lot of other kids playing here on the weekends); and Gladstone Park (opposite the Parnell Rose Gardens, which is a hidden gem with long slides and climbing apparatus).
The newly upgraded playground in Myers Park is a great addition to the city centre. Last time we visited there were about 40 people of all ages using the playground, with the large swing especially thrilling for children of my son’s age. The primary issue with Myers Park is the poor pedestrian connections to Aotea Square, which makes it less easy and safe to get to the park from that direction.
Living in the City Centre has encouraged us to to improvise. We wade through every water feature we can find, climb a lot of the pohutukawa trees, and play on the steps of buildings. Indeed, it’s almost as it the city is his playground. The photo below shows us enjoying Auckland Anniversary activities on Queen Street.
Cycling is particularly important to us: It allows us to roam further afield and unlock more places to explore and play. From our apartment we can easily reach the Parnell Baths and Pt Erin Pools within 20 to 30 minutes away along mostly flat routes with only about five road crossings to tackle. We take cycle paths when they are available but we will bike on footpaths, parks, squares and shared spaces to get where we are going.As a parent, however, I’m aware of how the design of our streets creates unsafe situations for children.
The city centre is alive in the weekends and we try to make the most of it. But when we need quiet time it is easy to retire to our apartment and shut out the noise.
There are so many activities for him to do. Every year we go to the Diwali, Lantern and buskers festivals. During the Lantern Festival we ate dinner in Albert Park and walked home in 10 minutes, with none of the stress and hassle involved in driving through traffic and having to park miles away. In December we walked to the Domain to Christmas in the Park.
We have been spoilt over the last few years and now the idea of driving somewhere and searching for a car park when we get there seems like too much hard work, so we try to avoid it if we can. When we feel like an excursion we tend to take the ferry to Devonport or a bus to Takapuna. On a recent weekend we took the ferry to Waiheke, which simply involves a 5 minute walk to the Downtown ferry terminal.
Winter activities are a bit scarcer. We swim at the Tepid Baths or the Newmarket Pool (after mid-day when the smaller pool is released from lesson duties), visit the Art Gallery or library, and attending the great Pick & Mix activities at the Aotea Centre on Saturday mornings. The Britomart farmers market on Saturday morning at Tukatai Square also has a great hum and there are always other children there. I’m interested to know whether they also live in apartments nearby or whether they are simply visiting.
The primary thing the city lacks is other children.
He is the only child in our apartment building. Pregnancies begun and babies have appeared but they have all disappeared into the suburbs within a short time. Children come into the city whenever there are events on or to visit Wynyard Quarter but we don’t see regular faces on a day-to day basis. The birthday parties he attends are all in the suburbs, as is his sport and extra activities he has participated in. Cricket at Victoria Park would be the closest organized sport he could attend or tennis at Parnell (the closest tennis club at Stanley St doesn’t have a children’s holiday programme).
I think his life will be more interesting if he had friends living nearby. I understand the Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Hall on Freyberg Place will provide a space for children’s activities soon. I hope so. We will support it if it does. The recent closure of Quay Street was a fun opportunity for us to explore a place that is usually hostile to families.
Some people are unsure how to treat kids in the City. Security guards tell him to stop playing on steps because he could fall and hurt himself. Adults tell him to walk on the edges of shared spaces because a car might drive down it.
Apartment living has many aspects we like. We can lock up and go away for the weekend without too much effort. We don’t have to spend time commuting or maintaining our property. We are lucky that we have a lot of friendly people in our building willing to give my son some attention. I know more of my neighbours than I ever did when living in the suburbs. The city centre has most shops we need. I do need to get in a car if we want things from a hardware shop.
Living in an apartment means I spend a lot of time with my son, which I see as a good thing. But it is not just the quantity of time we spend together, but also the quality of time – both of us enjoy the interesting things on our doorstep together, with little to no stress involved. Living in a smaller space encourages us to get outside more and experience the spontaneous entertainment one often encounters in the city.
It is different from my childhood in Hawkes Bay and I am constantly looking for signs of deprivation, but so far I haven’t found any.
The Auckland City Centre is entering a phase of profound change. The rest of this decade it’ll be undergoing a more extensive and disruptive renovation than your average Ponsonby villa. The designers and financiers are at work and the men and machines are are about to start. The caterpillar is entering that difficult and mysterious chrysalis phase; what kind of butterfly will emerge?
Some of the probable additions to AKL’s skyline [image: Luke Elliot]
If even half of what is proposed gets underway almost every aspect of the centre city will be different.
Precinct Property’s 500 million dollar total rebuild of the Downtown centre and a new 36 storey commercial tower is confrmed to start next year. The 39 storey St James apartment tower is also all go [with the re-opening of the ground floor to the public soon]. An apartment tower on Albert and Swanson has begun. There are a huge number of residential towers seriously close to launching some of which are 50+ floors. These are on Victoria St, Customs St, Commerce St, Greys Ave and more. The biggest of them all Elliot Towers is rumoured to underway next year. Mansons have bought the current herald site and said to looking at residential there. On the same block 125 Queen St is finally getting refurbished bringing much needed new commercial space in the city [+ about 1000 new inner city workers]. Of course the Convention Centre and its associated hotel will start too. Waterfront Auckland have announced new mid rise apartment developments and a new hotel beginning as well. This list is not by any means exhaustive. Auckland is now a builders’ boom town. And it will resemble nothing other than an enormous sand pit for the next few years.
Regardless of the forms of these buildings they are going to have profound impacts at street level; flooding the footpaths with people, stimulating more and more retail and especially hospitality services. Add to this the disruption of the works themselves, for example later this year the first stage of the CRL is going to start. Digging up everything from Britomart through Downtown, up Albert St to Wyndam St. If the proposed Light Rail system goes ahead that will mean the [no doubt staged] digging up of the whole length of Queen St and other places, Dominion Rd, Wynyard Quarter. Street space is becoming more and more contested. Driving in the city is going to get increasingly pointless, most will avoid it. But unlike last century that won’t mean people won’t come to the city. One, because it’s become so attractive with unique retail offers, unrivalled entertainment attractions, and a fat concentration of jobs. Two, because people are discovering how good the improving Transit options are becoming, so why bother driving. And three, because increasing numbers are already there; it’s where they live anyway.
And that Transit boom is going to continue, or even accelerate. Britomart throughput is now running at 35 000 people daily, when planned it wasn’t even expected to reach 20 000 until 2021 [see below; the blue line is still growing at that angle; it is now literally off the chart]:
Why is this happening? A lot of people in wider Auckland still think the city is unappealing or unimportant. Aren’t we spreading new housing out at the edges? Aren’t new businesses building near the suburbs in those business parks? Well ironically one of the reasons so much growth and investment is happening in City Centre is because those same people, the ones that prefer their suburban neighbourhoods to the city, don’t want any change near them. The City Centre is one of the few places that it is possible to add new dwellings or offices at scale, and because it is a very constrained area with high land value this can only be done with tall buildings. The more suburban people refuse to have growth near them the more, in a growing city, investment has to concentrate where it can, and in Auckland that means downtown.
Auckland’s first electric tram 1902
Auckland is still spreading outwards and businesses are growing in suburban centres, but these areas are not appealing or appropriate for all people and all businesses, and nor are they sufficient; the City Centre is growing by both these metrics too, and at a greater pace. The 2013 census showed that AKL city is the fastest accelerating place to live in the entire country, growing at over 48% between 2006-2013, and currently the city is experiencing a new shortage of office space and an interesting reshaping of the retail market. The education sector is also still strong there, with Auckland Uni consolidating to its now three Central City sites and building more inner city student accommodation. City growth is strong and broadly based: residential, commercial, retail, and institutional.
There are risks and opportunities in this but what is certain, outside of a sudden economic collapse, is that the City Centre will be a completely different place in a few years, in form, and in terms of how it will operate. And the signs are promising that what we are heading to is an almost unrecognisably better city at street level than it has been in living memory.
What is happening is simply that it is returning to being a city of people. Ten of thousands of new inner city residents, thousands of new visitors in thousands of additional hotel beds each night, hundreds of thousands of workers and learners arriving daily from all over the wider city each day too. All shopping, eating, drinking, and playing within the ring of the motorway collar. Auckland is moving from being one of the dullest and most lifeless conurbations in the world to offering a new level of intensity and activity. Well that is certainly the possibility in front of us now.
Auckland has had boom times before, and each of these leave a near permanent mark on the built fabric of the city [the Timespanner blog has examples in great detail]. So it matters profoundly what we add to the city this time. We are at the beginning of the opportunity to correct the mistakes of the postwar outward boom that came with such a high cost for the older parts of the city. By forcing the parts of the city built on an earlier infrastructure model to adapt to a car only system we rendered them unappealing and underperforming, and the old city very nearly did not survive this era. Only the persistence of some institutions, particularly the Universities, enabled it to hang on as well as it did. The car as an organising device is ideal for social patterns with a high degree of distance and dispersal. It is essentially anti-urban in its ability to eat distance but at the price of its inefficient use of space; it constantly fights against the logic of human concentration that cities rely on to thrive. It not only thrives on dispersal, it also enforces it.
Queen St 1960s
But now the wheel has turned and cities everywhere are booming on the back a of model much more like the earlier one [see here for example: Seven cities going car-free]. This old-new model is built on the understanding that people in numbers both already present in the city and arriving on spatially efficient Transit systems providing the economic and social concentration necessary for urban vitality and success.
This seems likely to lead to a situation more or less observable in many cities world-wide where there is an intense and highly walkable and Transit served centre surrounded by largely auto-dependent suburbs. Melbourne, for example, is increasingly taking this form. And, interestingly the abrupt physical severance of Auckland’s motorway collar might just make ours one of the more starkly contrasting places to develop along these lines. A real mullet city: one made up of two distinct patterns.
Bourke St Transit Mall, Melbourne 2014
Frankly I think this is fine, it could make for the best of both worlds. Those who want to live with the space and green of the suburbs can continue to do so but are also able to dip into a vibrant city for work, education, or especially entertainment, on efficient electric Transit, ferries, and buses when that suits. A vibrant core of vital commercial and cultural intensity sustained by those who choose to live in the middle of it 24/7. The intensity of this core plus any other growing Metro Centres [will Albany really become intense? Manukau City?] meaning the sprawl isn’t limitless and the countryside not pushed so far away that it is inaccessible. Auckland as Goldilocks; not all one thing or the other; neither all suburb nor all city. People will use or ignore which ever parts they want, and soon members of the same households will be able to indulge their different tastes without some having to leave the country.
What are the threats to this vision? Well we do actually have to build the Transit, this means completing the CRL soon as is possible, and ideally replacing a good chunk of the buses with higher capacity and more appealing Light Rail. To connect these two halves; the success of both the centre and the region it serves depend on it. But also we have deliver a much better public realm on the streets and especially at the water’s edge. We have to retain and enhance the smaller scale older street systems to contrast with the coming towers, like we have at Britomart and O’Connell St. All these moves require leadership and commitment and an acceptance that the process of getting there will be contested and difficult.
I have no fear that people in the wider city won’t be happy to choose to leave their cars at home for some journeys, especially into the city, then jump back into them for others across the wider city or out of town. After all it’s happening already. This is not then a bold prediction, merely the extrapolation of current trends. And it is the trend that tells us more about the future than the status quo. More of this:
CPO Lower Queen St 1960s
AKL Grafton Gully 70s
A great video from Riga, Latvia with some tactical urbanism to show how a street could look if wider footpaths and cycle lanes were added.
*This is a guest post by regular reader and occasional contributor, Warren Sanderson.
RAIL AND THE CITY – Shrinking Our Carbon Footprint While Reimagining Urban Space
Unlike Paul Mees‘ book ‘Transport for Suburbia’ which deals in depth, among other things, with what went so terribly wrong with Auckland’s transport planning in the second half of last century, Roxanne Warren does not mention New Zealand once. Her book is almost totally focused on the transport problems of the United States but she does refer frequently to Europe and Japan where transport policy has been handled so much better.
But don’t let the concentration on US problems put you off. This is a great read for anyone who is unhappy with what auto dependency does to the liveability of our cities and especially here in Auckland.
I like the organisation of this book. It has a preface in a tight precis form plan which sets out exactly what it is going to say and then chapter by chapter gets on with it, in a fluid and engaging style. And there are extensive references at the back of the book.
I enjoyed particularly her comment on the basic reasons for rail’s practicality and popularity, including the operational, aesthetic and permanence advantages for the city. This includes standard surface rail or light rail. Furthermore a public preference for rail has been revealed in surveys and generally attributed to a smoother and faster ride and to rail’s permanent presence – a preference that has been reflected in increased property values around stations.
The last chapter deals with the question of climate change and the desirability of shrinking the very large footprint that we are placing on the earth. While always keen to reduce a personal footprint, I find it hard to get worked up about the science of climate change. What astounded me however, was the idiocy of the US tax cum subsidy set–up as outlined. Fossil fuel have benefited from a full century of subsidies and the oil industry in particular receives generous tax breaks at every stage of the processes of exploration and extraction. Ditto for corn ethanol i.e. food for our cars rather than for people. These subsidies create market distortions that encourage wasteful consumption and undercut the position of clean energy, while effectively exacerbating climate change.
The author points out that regardless of general resistance to change, population increases and migratory trends toward cities, thus increasing congestion in cities, is making ever more obvious the need for a more rational use of urban space and for more compact and sustainable forms of mobility, namely, walking, cycling and transit. She reports that the common wisdom that has it, that only ‘progressives’ (read lefties) favour the support of public transport which denies the movement of prominent conservatives in support of passenger rail transport for the reasons she cites in Chapter 3.
I believe that MOT/NZTA/AT should not employ anybody who has not read this book by a deadline date of 30 April this year. Why? Books like this were not around when many of the older hands commenced work. We need big changes in our transport policies and the government and these three institutions are charged with operating in our best interest. Yes, change is needed……………and fast. This is an excellent read.
Finally, about the author. Roxanne Warren is an architect and principal partner in Roxanne Warren Architects in New York. Her prior experience included a period with I M Pei and Partners but since 1999 she has dedicated her time increasingly to advocacy of Vision 42 which is a proposal for ‘River to River’ low floor light rail in a landscaped auto-free 42nd Street, New York.
42nd St LRT route
Warren Sanderson 2015
The truly great Lyttelton Market: