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.

photo

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.

 

 

The difference between Traffic Engineers and Planners

We often deride traffic engineers for the road dominant nature of Auckland. Sometimes this can be a bit unfair as we know not all engineers are bad and the term is often be a bit of a catch all phrase for those involved in the road design process. So when I refer to traffic engineers I’m referring perhaps more to the people and processes that sees the focus on movement and storage of vehicles over a public realm that focuses on people, the type that an urban planner might try to deliver. This post from Greater Greater Washington highlights these opposing ideas perfectly. A freeway was closed along a section of the Anacostia River in Washington DC after a new and updated freeway bridge was built over the river and the old freeway bridge turned into a local road.

DDOT then conducted a 2014 study of options to replace the freeway segment. The study devised xis options, but all of them basically looked like near-freeways. While pedestrians and cyclists could cross to access the waterfront, and cars could turn on and off to nearby streets in some options, all of the options turned a huge expanse of pavement and empty grass into other huge expanses of pavement and empty grass, sometimes also with tour bus parking.

DDOT’s options still primarily focused around moving cars fast, and would all have created big empty spaces that would not create any actual sense of place and would be, at best, unpleasant to cross on foot.

Washington Freeway replacement Option 2

So basically a road and a few cycle lanes surrounded by likely a lot of not very useful green space (the option above even included underground parking under the road for almost the entire length). The other options were all variations of the same theme and this is exactly the same type of thing we would see here in Auckland – and are seeing with proposals to upgrade local roads e.g. Lincoln Rd.

Residents, led by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven, were not happy with the narrowness of DDOT’s analysis. Instead, at Councilmember Tommy Wells’ urging, the Office of Planning stepped in to do a more open-minded study of how to use the space.

OP’s options still look at four-lane boulevards and even four-lane parkways, but with much more appealing designs like a big park next to and partly on top of the road:

These are just some of the options they came up with and include various versions of parks, and development options.

Washington Freeway replacement Planner options

What’s worth noting is that the planners options contained just as many traffic lanes as the traffic engineers options did due to the transport engineers making it a requirement. The post questions the need for it to be four lanes but what is clear is that there are some quite different thinking going on between those just responsible for the movement of vehicles and those who also consider people and the city as a whole.

In Auckland if we could get more of the latter and less of the former then we could end up with a fantastic city that still allows for a wide range of movement even for those that want to drive.

 

Where is the Heart? Critical Public Space in the City Centre

Ever since the Town Hall was built on that odd triangle between converging streets half way up Queen St Auckland has failed to successfully find an important central location that can be considered its spiritual locus. A civic heart: A public space for those collective experiences; celebrations, protests, that everyone automatically understands is the right and fitting place. Unusually Auckland was poorly served by our Victorian and Edwardian city builders in this regard. Their great works are all distributed and largely disconnected; Albert Park, CPO, Town Hall, and Art Gallery/Library. Significantly Auckland has never really been sure where its heart is.

Auckland Plan 1841 Felton Mathew

Auckland Plan 1841 Felton Mathew

Felton Mathew, the city’s first surveyor, saw the ridge of Hobson St as the commercial and administrative centre, so proposed two fine and central squares to interrupt the north south flow with ‘place’ there.  No doubt he was keen to get the great and good away from the waterway of Waihorotiu in the Queen Street gully; he placed the quality residences on the opposing ridge, about where Albert Park came to be. Incidentally his roots in the city of Bath with its fine curving Georgian terraces is clearly visible in this scheme.

Only a few parts of this plan eventuated, Waterloo Quadrant being the most obvious, and the main affairs of the city gradually congealed along Queen St, especially once the open sewer that Waihorotui became was finally piped in the 1890s [“That abomination, the Ligar Canalis still a pestiferous ditch, the receptacle of every Imaginable filth, bubbling in the noonday sun”]. But also up Shortland St, the city’s best professional address and then to Princess St to the grand city houses of the early magnates.

Queen Street welcome US fleet August 1908

Queen Street welcome US fleet August 1908

The inter-bellum years brought even more dispersal of public building with the placement of the Museum in the Domain and the disaster of moving the Railway Station out of town without  building the proposed inner-city passenger tunnel. The attempts at civic placemaking in the Modern era gave us the mess we are now trying to undo: Aotea and QE II Squares.

These have always been soulless places that have failed to earn their hoped for roles as loved and functioning public spaces. The first a formless mess leading to a building with all the utility and charm of a 1970s high school science block; relentlessly horizontal and without ceremony or focal point. The Town Hall itself is so busy sailing down the old stream bed of Waihorotui and opening a-midships on the other side that it may as well not be there [can't we make some kind of use of the bow of this ship? Open a cafe onto the Square through some of those blind openings....?]. Aotea is better now than it’s ever been, after much rebuilding, but is still inherently unable to inspire.

And QE II suffers from containment by buildings of Olympian blandness, that anyway offer nothing but mall food or the blank wall of office blocks, add to that it’s famously shaded, hideously paved, sorrowfully treed, and otherwise peperpotted with meaningless objects and host to that awful and useless over-scaled glass and steel inverted L ….. frankly that it is mainly used by tradies to park on almost elevates the place.

The theme that unites these sad attempts at public space is that they were both built at the full blaze of the auto-age. Both are defined by the dominating theme of vehicles first. Aotea is of course just the roof of a garage, how could anyone be expected to use a public square with being able to park right there? The other disaster that still defines and keeps the square sub-optimal is the severing ring road of Mayoral Drive that cuts it off on two sides. There is no way that the small amount of carriageway be taken over for people without expanding roadspace nearby first.

Queens St from Town Hall Nov 1963

Queens St from Town Hall Nov 1963

QE II Square has a more chequered history. When the CPO was an important building of state [built on the site of Auckland's first train station] it was a busy wide street, first with trams and general traffic:

CPO 1920s

CPO 1920s

Then just general traffic:

CPO Lower Queen

CPO Lower Queen

Then with the amalgamation of the opposite Downtown site in the 1970s the street in front of the CPO was pedestrianised. Great history of this process here, a window onto the forces that formed the places of this period. And this was the result:

CPO 1980s

CPO 1980s

The idea of a public plaza in front of the CPO was logical: It is directly in front of the large and traditional looking public building, like in any European city the old CPO grand and important enough like a ‘Rathaus’ in a northern European city, or, at a pinch, the cathedrals and churches of southern and central Europe, that provide the focus for great public squares.

Yet this space was forgettable; it didn’t work. The great problem was that over the whole period of its existence the importance of the CPO declined right down to closure. So the potential of this space for meaning and centrality could never get going. Additionally it was designed like a suburban shopping centre, just like the new mall on the otherside too which didn’t help, but really its great problem is that it was pretty much nowhere. So its loss wasn’t mourned when the buses were returned as part of the invention of Britomart Station. Even though all we were left with was the terrible sunless end of the Square as it is now.

Which is ironic really because the kind of civic space that I am arguing Auckland critically lacks needs to be the placed at the front door of some kind of busy and important public building like a Train Station. Because now there are people, lots and lots of people, using that grand old pile. All thanks to the ever growing success of the revived passenger rail network. This is what works in those European cities that Aucklanders love to visit, as shown in Warren’s post about northern Europe. This space is at last in the right place to become the locus for all kinds of beginnings; celebrations, protests, welcomes.

It’s a good shape too: There’s a standard rule of thumb about building height relative to its approaching horizontal space that says a good place to start is if these are roughly equal. And it looks to me like the old CPO is as about as high as Lower Queen St is wide. And if Auckland doesn’t start, in every sense, at the sea at the bottom of Queen St then I don’t what it is. The fact that it isn’t large I feel will be an advantage most of the time; it’ll never be empty, and for those big occasions the plan is to close Quay St to both expand the space and complete the connection with the water’s edge.

This plaza should be able to succeed as the ‘Marae’ to Britomart’s ‘Wharenui’. And, for big processions actually link all the way up to Aotea Square, especially when we do the thinkable and get the cars out of the rest of flat section of Queen St.

So the plan is a good one:

1. to repair the western street edge of Lower Queen St with activated retail entrances

2. insert new streets through the Downtown site [not internal mall spaces; at least one proper open air public street]

3. return Britomart’s forecourt to being a public square

4. while expanding and improving the water’s edge public spaces

All at the cost of the current QEII Square.

However there is one vital condition to the proposals as set out in the Framework process that I believe has to be properly dealt with in order for any of this to work. Summed up in one word: Buses.

Where do the buses go? We are told Lower Albert St, all through Britomart, including Galway and Tyler Sts, and Customs St. This just doesn’t add up on any level. It isn’t desirable, already the narrow streets behind the Station are degraded by the numbers of buses turning, stopping, idling. The new plaza in front of Britomart will be reduced in utility and attractiveness by buses exiting Galway and Tyler Streets, even if they no longer cross in front of the old CPO itself. Lower Albert St just can’t that many stops.

This whole scheme, in my view, can only work if there is a seriously effective solution to the bus problem, which means a proper station somewhere proximate, as well as a hard headed approach to terminating suburban bus routes at the new bus/train interchange stations like Panmure, Otahuhu, New Lynn, and Mt Albert, etc, in order to maximise access to the city while limiting the huge volumes of buses dominating inner city streets. Howick and Eastern services, for example, could go on to Ellerslie from Panmure then across town instead of into the city. Or simply return to the south east to increase frequency massively on their core route having dropped off passengers to the city at Panmure Station.

Helsinki [pop: 600k], for example, terminated its city bus routes at stations when it built it’s metro system in the 1980s, as well as making an underground bus station for those services that remain:

Many of the buses operating in eastern Helsinki act as feeder lines for the Helsinki Metro. Nearly all other routes have the other end of their lines in the downtown near the Helsinki Central railway station. Such exceptions are present as dedicated lines operating directly from a suburb to another past the centre

Britomart and the improving rail system helps take both cars and buses off the road it will be a long time before the CRL is open and we can use the spatial efficiency of underground rail to replace exponentially more surface vehicles. And even longer again before a rail line to the Shore will be built, and even then there will still be a need for buses.
Because we have refused to invest in permanent solutions to city access like the many underground rail proposals over the years it has now become urgent to get much more serious about how we manage the inevitable boom in bus demand. This issue was disguised for years by the decline of the Central City, or at least its failure to thrive; strangled by motorways, and deadened by street traffic as it has been over my life time. But now its revival is thankfully strong and clearly desirable, the City and the State will have to, literally, dig deep, to keep it moving. After all, all New Zealand needs a thriving Auckland and:
‘Transportation technologies have always determined urban form’
-Economist Ed Glaeser The Triumph of the City P12
While addressing these near term street level issues it is important to keep a thought for an ideal longer term outcome. Here is the kind of treatment that could  ultimately work well for central city Auckland.
Shared Space wit modern Light Rail, Angers, France

Shared Space with modern Light Rail, Angers, France

This could be Queen St, but is only possible once the high capacity and high frequency of both the longer distance rail network is running underground, and the widespread reach of the bus system is similarly properly supported in the City Centre. This type of system is for local distribution not commuting.

 

Space is expensive in cities, so why don’t we use it more efficiently?

Land is a scarce and expensive resource in Auckland, as the city’s strong economy and natural amenities (sunlight! beaches! bush!) mean that a lot of people want to live in a relatively small area. But we often insist upon acting like urban space is worth nothing – why else would we have so many underutilised parking lots around the place?

To an economist, this is perplexing. Econ 101 predicts that when one factor of production becomes expensive, firms and households will respond by substituting other inputs instead. This is easy and intuitive to grasp in practice. For example:

  • If your local fish and chip shop puts up the price of snapper fillets, some people will choose to buy terakihi instead.
  • If wages for checkout operators increase, supermarkets will consider installing self-checkout counters to save on staff costs.

We should expect the exact same thing to happen in the housing market. Broadly speaking, developers produce housing (H) using a mix of land (L) and capital (K), which we can loosely think of as the size of the building constructed on a site. So, for example, a ten-story apartment building will tend to have a quite high K/L ratio, while a detached house constructed on a large lot will have a low K/L ratio.

retrofitting suburbia density gradient

Gradient of low to high K/L ratios (Source: Retrofitting Suburbia)

Warning: Arithmetic ahead. Come back after three paragraphs if you don’t like that sort of thing.

If we assume (as economists so often do) that housing production follows a standard Cobb-Douglas production function, then total dwelling supply can be modelled as a function of land and capital inputs, where a is the input share of land:

Housing equation 1

We can use this equation (plus a little bit of simple calculus) to estimate the marginal rate of substitution between L and K. Or, in other words, the degree to which rising land prices will encourage us to build up to save on land. If we assume that PL is the price of land and PK is the price of capital, then the ratio of K to L is given by the following equation:

Housing equation 2

We can immediately observe a couple of crucial relationships from this equation. First, if the price of land increases (and the cost to build up doesn’t), we’d expect the K/L ratio to rise – in other words, we expect people to build taller buildings on more expensive land. Second, if the cost to build up decreases – for example, through a technological innovation such as steel-framed buildings or elevators – the K/L ratio should also rise. This explains the emergence of high-rise Manhattan in the early 20th century. Third, the relationship between changes to prices and changes in the K/L ratio will hold true in both low-density and high-density areas, although changes will occur at different rates.

Armed with this economic framework, we can start to make sense of the way that various cities look.

Here’s New York. It doesn’t look like this because it’s full of people who, unlike Aucklanders or Texans, have a mysterious preference for tall buildings. It looks like this because land is expensive and people have responded in a rational way.

Manhattan

Here’s an aerial photograph of a suburb in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the world’s true hellholes. Once again, it doesn’t look like this because Georgians have some oddly-shaped utility function. It looks this way because land is cheap in Atlanta (and motorways are large).

atlanta suburbs

And here’s a picture of a typical Paris boulevard that somebody has photoshopped an enormous woman into for unknown reasons. While I’m sure many Parisians would claim that they have a unique cultural preference for seven-story apartment blocks with cafes underneath, Paris actually looks this way because land is expensive and developers have responded accordingly.

paris street with giant woman

With that in mind, how does Auckland stack up in terms of efficiently using its expensive land? Well, as it turns out we’re doing some smart things and some blitheringly idiotic things. Here’s a brief tour.

The Northern Busway: Really smart. Adding two lanes for buses has enabled the capacity-constrained Auckland Harbour Bridge to carry many more commuters than it otherwise would have been able to do. Today, 40-45% of the people crossing the bridge during rush hour are on buses. It’s the most revolutionary transport investment to hit the Shore since the Harbour Bridge’s completion.

Northern Busway efficiency

Manukau Centre’s sea of carparks: Mind-bogglingly irrational. As the map shows, Manukau actually devotes more land to parking lots than to commercial uses. Whoever laid it out obviously hadn’t paid any attention to Auckland’s real estate prices.

mcc-coloured

City centre shared spaces: Bloody clever idea. Turning service lanes and carparks into spaces for businesses to expand and people to enjoy allows us to make much better use of space in the city.

Fort Lane Before and After

Spaghetti Junction: A tortured trade-off. Demolishing a tenth of the city’s housing stock and abandoning much of the city centre to urban blight was undoubtedly an audacious gamble. The motorways move a lot of people, but we’re never going to reclaim the valuable, centrally located land that they occupy.

Newton then and now

Vancouver’s Skytrain – a future option for Auckland? Now this is about as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University. Vancouver built a space-efficient (and cost-effective) transport system that created an incentive to build more densely. A perfect example of the virtuous cycle in which better transport options encourage more efficient use of land.

Vancouver’s Skytrain also provides an impressive contrast to the effects of Spaghetti Junction on Auckland’s city centre, which raises the question – are we smart enough to start building like that, or are we going to carry on with the pretense that urban space is free?

Vancouver skytrain development

View the full video showing changes from 1985 to 2012.

Freeing us from traffic

Yesterday the Herald ran a fantastic opinion piece from Dr Jamie Hosking who is a senior lecturer and health and transport researcher at the University of Auckland. As he says at the end, it’s “a timely reminder for the Auckland Council as it considers whether to reduce spending on big new roading projects. Liveable cities don’t try to make traffic go faster. They free people from traffic.”

We all hate being stuck in traffic. The usual response to congested roads in New Zealand, especially in Auckland, is to make the congested road bigger – turn a two-lane road into four.

Although at first sight this seems to make sense, it’s not the only solution, nor the best.

Building more roads in response to congestion is often likened to dealing with obesity by loosening your belt. This is a useful comparison because it shows that building bigger roads does not fix the underlying problem. The underlying problem is that there are too many cars.

But building more roads is even worse than loosening your belt because it encourages people to drive more.

Transport planners use terms such as latent demand and induced traffic to explain this, but it can be explained in plain language.

If a city’s population is growing, a road will become busier. This continues until the amount of traffic at rush hour can’t grow any more. The congestion stops any more people from using the road.

In other words, a congested road puts people off using it. So, if the Auckland Harbour Bridge is congested in the morning, people are more likely to catch the bus to work instead of driving across the bridge. If they were thinking of going shopping in the CBD, they might decide to go somewhere local instead to avoid the traffic. Or, if the trip wasn’t that important, they might just stay home.

The flipside is that if we make a road less congested, more people will drive on it. So if a road is expanded from two to four lanes, traffic speeds will increase at first, but as more and more cars use the road, congestion will grow again. The end result is a four-lane road with the same congestion and speeds as the original two-lane road.

If all we care about is how fast the cars are going, we’re no better off. We’re worse off. Because on the four-lane road, there are twice as many people stuck in traffic. That means twice as much time lost.

This reminds us that we need to think less about roads and cars, and more about getting people to where they want to go.

In Auckland, we’ve been building more and bigger roads for years, but at peak hours our roads are still clogged. If we remember that bigger roads encourage more cars, this isn’t surprising at all.

If we start thinking about people, instead of roads and cars, the alternative becomes obvious. Our goal shouldn’t be free-flowing car traffic, because we know in the long-term it will never happen. Our goal should be free-flowing people.

We’ve talked quite a bit about induced demand in the past as well as cities which are now starting up pull out some parts of their motorway networks and seeing no negative impacts from having done so. For example from this

before

to this

cheonggyecheon

The goal of free flowing people is a key driver behind why we created the Congestion Free Network and even why we named it Congestion Free as it refers to the people being free of congestion. He then goes on to suggest something very similar to the CFN.

One way to achieve this is building rapid public transport. This needs its own protected space, like trains, or buses on a busway.

Rapid public transport is a great answer to congestion, because the congestion proves there are a lot of people trying to go in the same direction, and this is exactly what public transport needs.

Another way to get free-flowing people is better infrastructure for walking and cycling. For example, routes through parks and greenways help people walk and cycle away from congested roads.

Maybe the best way of all is to design our neighbourhoods and cities better. The more things people can do locally, instead of having to travel across town, the less time they will spend stuck in traffic. Road building undercuts local businesses and services, because it encourages people to drive across town to go shopping instead. The opposite is intensification, which brings more people into a town centre to live in high-density housing and apartments, and attracts more local businesses and services.

That’s why neighbourhoods and cities that want to be more liveable are making roads smaller. This frees space for busways, cycleways or new public areas, it pushes people out of their cars or it encourages them to do things locally instead of travelling across town. The result is fewer people stuck in traffic, healthier local businesses and neighbourhoods that are much better places to live.

I think that if there’s one area he missed it was in relation to the potential benefits investing in the movement of people could have for the movement freight. A network like the CFN would allow us to be bold with how we deal with trucks and other commercial vehicles. In particular we could look at doing measures like the introduction of freight lanes on key routes or other similar measures that speeds up the movement of goods without spending money on wider roads only for it to be gobbled up by cars with only a driver in them.

So yes let’s start focusing on people.

Stuart’s 100 #22: Podocarps for Perpetuity

22: Podocarps for Perpetuity

Day_22_Podocarps

What if we planted more of our ancient podocarps for an Auckland 200 years from now?

Idea 3 expounding the virtues of our heritage plane tree avenues generated some debate around the planting of natives versus exotic plants in New Zealand’s towns and cities. A good discussion to have and one that, ultimately, should probably come down to the right tree in the right place. It certainly was not intended to suggest a universal preference for deciduous exotics over our native trees.

While natives may have the upper hand at present that certainly has not been the case historically. One of the reasons for this has been that we have actually known so little about cultivating our native plants in urban environments. This is often expressed as a false truism that natives are not well adjusted for city life, as if, like kiwis generally, they can never really feel at home in the big smoke.

It turns out this is not true. We have got a lot more experimental and adventurous with the planting of natives in Auckland recently. Taraire trees in shared spaces for example, and puriri trees within the lawns of the Daldy Street linear park, are two good examples that if they establish and endure, should add to the distinctiveness of these new public spaces in years to come.

Wouldn’t it be great if we took this a step further? Why can’t we find opportunities to cultivate more of our majestic podocarps within the city? Imagine mighty totara, or lofty kahikatea rising up to take their place on the Auckland skyline.

This may be more challenging, and we may need more experimentation and nursing to get them established, but the rewards could be great too. If successful, they could provide a new sense of scale and permanence that adds a successional and enduring quality to the greening of Auckland. Like the long term project in Wellington to replace pine with northern rata to emblazon the town belt in crimson each year, a conscious strategy to plant more podocarps in this city could grow deeper connections between this city and its native ecology that resonate and even touch on the sublime (think lofty kahikatea reaching up under the Grafton Bridge).

In some way, this could help us get us past that unhelpful binary that nature and the city are opposites that should never go together.

Stuart Houghton 2014

Stuart H Pages from Portfolio_Mar10_FinalRevs_100305_nomarks_&_bleeds_spreadvers-2

Getting better public space downtown

The Auckland Development Committee meets on Thursday and one of the items on the agenda (19mb) is an evaluation of Downtown Public Space which is related to the potential sale of Queen Elizabeth Square. Council officers have recommended that approval should be given to sell the square based on the outcome of an options evaluation study has been completed which looks at alternative options. It also references a report from Jan Gehl’s company which has assessed the square and made suggestions what could be done to improve it.

The report from Gehl and Associates say that the square has some good things about it – like its size – but also has some significant issues. These include

  • It has poor climatic conditions, in particular that it’s windswept due to tall buildings in immediate vicinity which also cause it to be overshadowed for most of the day.
  • That there’s a lack of activation by the surrounding frontages.
  • That it’s unintegrated from Queen St due to the bus shelters that exist.

The note that to fix the space we would need to

  • Demolish the HSBC building
  • Redevelop the buildings and provide active frontages
  • Reconfigure the bus interchange

The Council have said buying and demolishing the HSBC building would cost approximately $100 million. Gehl and Associates also made the comment “if other open space options exist within the area it would be worthwhile exploring how they could offer something that is more valuable and attractive than the current QE Square.

The options evaluation report which was by Reset Urban Design starts by looking at the history of the square along its attributes. One of the ones that stands out most for me is that the space is sunny at lunchtime for only 25% of the year. Overall when looking at the existing square it notes the following pros and cons of it.

The positive attributes include:

  • It is next to a major pedestrian route – adjacent to Lower Queen Street
  • At approximately 2000 sq metres, it is a sizable space
  • It is opposite the CPO (Britomart Transport Centre) building

The negative attributes include:

  • It does not support objectives of connectivity and permeability in relation to the public open space network in the downtown area
  • It creates a gap in the building edge on the western side of Queen Street – the main city to harbour link
  • It is subdivided from the adjacent space of Lower Queen Street and does little to support this space
  • It is a residual space that has become the forecourt to a private shopping mall development with poor building edges – it is not a destination
  • Its original reason for being is usurped; it has become a ‘side show’ to the nearby waterfront and does little to enhance the link with the waterfront
  • There is minimal mana whenua or heritage value
  • It has a poor environment – being both windy and in shade for the majority of the day
  • It doesn’t meet the open space/recreation needs of residents, workers or visitors

It then looks at some potential options which are shown below

Downtown Open Space Options Report - Options

They’ve then compared each of these options against the criteria set out in the Auckland Design Manual.

Downtown Open Space Options Report - ADM Analysis

It’s pretty clear the options that perform the best are numbers 2, 6, 7 & 8 which are looked at in more detail.

Downtown Open Space Options Report - Possible open space

The options looked at hint at the direction council and it’s agencies are heading towards and represent some big changes that could come to this area of the city in the future.

Lower Queen St

The bus interchange would be moved to Albert St and linked to Britomart by 24/7 lane. There would still be some buses accessing the area although they would be restricted to just accessing or exiting from Galway and Tyler St. That would leave the area out the front of Britomart as well as half of the existing street to be turned into a pedestrian area that would be bigger than QE2 square is now. The new development which Precinct would build would then have active street frontages and it notes the section on QE2 square space would be a maximum of three storeys. I personally think it would be fantastic to have the area directly outside of Britomart as an open space.

Downtown Open Space Options Report - Lower Queen St

Admiralty Steps

This is the section of waterfront to the east of Queens Wharf (C above). It would need to be brought of the Ports of Auckland and the intention would be to create an urban beach including access to the water.

Downtown Open Space Options Report - Admiralty Steps

Downtown Open Space Options Report - Admiralty Steps visualisation

Lower Albert St

Creating a wide promenade and people space between Queens Wharf and Princes Wharf. It would mean the ferries currently in the area would have to move more to Queens Wharf (more on that below).

Downtown Open Space Options Report - Lower Albert St

Downtown Open Space Options Report - Lower Albert St visualisation

Base of Queens Wharf

The existing ferry terminal (not the Ferry Building) would be removed. A wide promenade would be extended out from the Ferry building. It suggests ferry operations would be moved further up Queens Wharf

Downtown Open Space Options Report - Queens Wharf base

The council suggest that large parts of the Lower Queen St space would be paid for by the CRL project which will have to put large parts of the area back together after the tunnels are dug. The three waterfront options are being considered together and it’s proposed that the delivery of them is tied in with the Quay St upgrade. They say the sale of the square should be able to cover at least two of the three waterfront options.

So all up we have multiple reports from different companies saying that the existing square isn’t ideal and short of buying and demolishing the HSBC building will always be suboptimal. To compensate for the sale the suggestion is for a series of projects which would improve open space in the area for people. It still seems like quite early in the piece but personally I would much prefer what’s suggested above to an upgraded existing QE2 Square.

The Completed Grafton Gully Cycleway

The Grafton Gully cycleway opened yesterday. My post yesterday afternoon covered the opening ceremony and this post is about the cycleway itself.

Moving from South to North the project starts at Upper Queen St before winding it’s way down beside the motorway to Grafton Rd where it meets the section completed last year which in turn leads on to Beach Rd.

01 Grafton Gully Cycleway Map 1

At Upper Queen St the bridge over the motorway has been narrowed down significantly to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists. Previous the bridge had 6 lanes of traffic plus a parking lane and footpaths on both sides. This has been narrowed down and the carriageway is now only four lanes wide (yet still seems largely empty of traffic). While the cycling area is fairly clearly delineated it does feel a bit like there should have been a slight height difference been the footpath and the cycleway.

Grafton Gully Opening - Upper Queen St Bridge

On the Northern side of the bridge you enter the cycleway. Unfortunately there have placed some of the large staples which are obviously to slow cyclists heading towards Upper Queen to prevent them from blowing through on to the road. I wonder if the same effect could have been achieved by putting a short fence out on the road edge.

Grafton Gully Opening - Upper Queen St Staples

Moving on down and just after you pass under Symonds St the path starts to dip down. It’s quite interesting feeling seeing the motorway that close and merging in front of you

Grafton Gully Opening - Motorway Merge

Just around the corner you get the sight of the gully opening up ahead of you and spanned by the magnificent Grafton Bridge.

Grafton Gully Opening - Grafton Bridge

As you approach Wellesley St you can clearly see that if we ever decide to humanise Wellesley St (which we should) it would be very easy to add a connection to do so.

Grafton Gully Opening - Wellesley St

At the same location you can also see where a bridge will be added which will give access to Whitaker Pl and Symonds St. It is meant to be completed by the end of the year.

Grafton Gully Opening - Whitaker Pl

From then on it is under Wellesley St where some motifs have been embedded into the concrete on each side of each entrance.

Grafton Gully Opening - Concrete Motif

From Wellesley St it is a short ride down to Grafton Rd where the route joins the section opened last year which in turn flows on to the Beach Rd section. I do have one issue with this part which is the slip lane that has been retained at Alten Rd and for which the planting makes it difficult to see if anyone vehicles are coming when you are heading north. Also on the Northern side of the Alten Rd intersection there is a short and sharp incline which seems like it might cause a few issues.

The videos below show what the route looks like heading both uphill and downhill between Quay St and Upper Queen St.

While there might be a few issues they are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things and all up I think this is a fantastic addition for the city. One aspect I was pleasantly surprised about was that the uphill section between Wellesley St and Upper Queen St was no where near as steep as I thought it would be. Some people may need to get off and walk but for many people it is easily rideable. From a quality perspective these two projects do feel like a step or two above anything else we have which is great to see. I think this and Beach Rd are going to represent an important turning point in the development of cycling in Auckland and people are going to demand this level of comfort in future cycling projects. I think the challenge for Auckland Transport and the NZTA will be in how they can get similar results from projects for a much reduced cost, something that should hopefully be possible if it’s a case of reclaiming some space on our streets.

Driverless in the rain

Occasionally someone will argue that we don’t need to invest in public transport as new technology like driverless cars will come along and render our roads much safer and more efficient. In some cases they say the impact on the transport system will be similar to the one that private vehicles started having on transport. At the transport debate just over a week ago Transport Minister even spoke about a future of diverless vehicles after being given a ride in one of Google’s prototype autonomous vehicles.

We’re told this technology is just around the corner and it will soon be on the market. However in many ways it seems much like a carrot that’s constantly hanging from a stick in front of us as despite the progress being made by Google the technology is still a long way away from becoming a reality.

Many motorists dream of the day they can sit back and relax while their car drives itself.

And while Google and other companies are working hard to make autonomous vehicles a reality, it could take years to create a car that can negotiate complex situations on the road – including wet weather conditions.

Google’s self-driving cars can’t currently cope in heavy rain or snow – or find their way around 99 per cent of the US, an insider has admitted.

According to MIT Technology Review, the current prototype cars are very reliant on maps to navigate and can’t react like a human driver, dodging potholes and other hazards.

Google’s cars have driven themselves over 700,000 miles (1,126,540km) but they can’t cope in snowy conditions and cannot negotiate heavy rain.

Chris Urmson, director of the Google car team, said this is because the detection technology is not yet strong enough to separate certain objects from weather conditions.

While the cars’ cameras can spot a traffic light changing, they can be confused by strong sunlight.

They don’t distinguish between an empty plastic bag – which could be easily driven over – or a rock, so cars must drive around both. They also can’t detect uncovered manholes or potholes.

Mr Urmson told the publication: ‘I could construct a construction zone that could befuddle the car.’

The cars ‘see’ pedestrians as moving blocks of pixels and know to stop, but unlike a cautious human driver, they could not spot a traffic policeman at the side of the road, waving for traffic to stop – which could lead to trouble.

Those seem like some fairly serious issues that need to be addressed before the technology could even be considered for public use. For their part Google thinks the issues could be resolved in 5 years-time but I suspect that timeframe could turn out to be a pretty wild guess. Going further, even if Google manage to get everything working fantastically within that time frame  it’s unlikely there’ll be more than a handful in the country for quite some time and it would take decades before they’re owned  in any quantities. For the time being at least it seems like we still not going to see any change to the status quo.