Today’s ‘on this day’ post comes from 2012.
The additional southbound lanes over the Victoria Park Viaduct, made possible through the construction of the Victoria Park Tunnel, open to vehicles today. John Roughan’s NZ Herald editorial can barely contain his excitement at this prospect, largely because (he hopes) it will get rid of queue jumpers holding up traffic through St Mary’s Bay. While I must admit a small part of me is hoping for the motorway opening to be yet another congestion catastrophe, this is generally a motorway project that I have supported because it is aimed at eliminating a bottleneck, rather than simply adding capacity and creating a bottleneck elsewhere in the system.
One of the biggest potential benefits from this project was highlighted in the comments section of my previous post on the motorway opening: that connections between the northern motorway and the Port would become more attractive, removing cross-CBD traffic from Customs, Quay and Fanshawe streets. In many ways, this benefit of the project is similar to how the biggest benefits the Waterview Connection proposal will bring is through a reduction in local traffic on roads like Mt Albert, Blockhouse Bay, Sandringham, Dominion and Richardson roads.
While Google Maps suggests that someone travelling between the North Shore and the Port/Parnell area would utilise the motorway system, rather than travelling through the heart of town, congestion on and around the viaduct (back to the harbour bridge for southbound traffic, the incredibly slow ramp signal for northbound traffic before it joins SH1) means that much of the traffic takes the red route instead:When the Victoria Park Tunnel is open to its full complement of three lanes for northbound traffic, and any teething issue for southbound vehicles have been resolved, we should see a reduction in through traffic away from the red route (and hopefully also away from Customs Street). However, as with the Waterview Connection, the Hobsonville deviation and the Manukau Connection, the reduction in vehicles on local roads is only likely to be temporary – thanks to induced demand. If there’s way less traffic on Quay Street and Fanshawe Street, then vehicles using other congested routes will shift back to these freer flowing streets. Motorway traffic may also shift back onto the local roads as some people find them to be faster. Over time, if we don’t make some interventions, we could end up back where we started – but now with a congested wider motorway and congested inner-city streets. Such an outcome would undermine what should be one of the biggest benefits of the Vic Park Tunnel project: the removal of traffic from CBD streets to free up more space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.
However, if we’re smart we can avoid such an outcome. And, for once, I’m fairly confident that we’ll be able to actually achieve some real benefits if we move quickly. The City Centre Master Plan proposes to significantly increase pedestrian priority along Quay Street by reducing vehicle capacity – exactly the kind of intervention that’s necessary to dissuade vehicles back onto Quay Street once it’s a bit quieter:It’s also a golden opportunity to get rid of the horrific Hobson Street viaduct:Fortunately, this is also given consideration in the City Centre Master Plan:Completion of the Vic Park Tunnel may also be a golden opportunity to look at reallocating a bit of roadspace to buses along Fanshawe Street so we can actually complete the Northern Busway. At the moment we find ourselves in the stupid situation of having citybound buses take as long to complete the last few hundred metres of their journey as they did to get between Constellation and Akoranga stations – something we spent hundreds of millions on speeding up, to go and undermine our investment simply because we can’t be bothered putting bus lanes along remaining sections of city streets.
The key point is that we have to move quickly in advancing these projects to take advantage of the ‘window of opportunity’ to really lock in the benefits of the Victoria Park Tunnel project. If we stuff around for a few years then we will lose this window, and implementing projects that reallocate roadspace away from vehicles will be that much harder.
While there has been little progress ‘on the ground’ when it comes to reallocating roadspace on Auckland’s ‘east-west’ city centre streets to fully take advantage of what the Victoria Park Tunnel provided, the “CEWT Study” released by Auckland Transport last year proposed an exciting and much more sensible future for all these streets, with Victoria becoming a walking and cycling focused linear park, Wellesley becoming a bus corridor, Quay become a pedestrian focused boulevard and Customs… well, seemingly doing everything.
Yet during some of the debates about Queen Elizabeth II square it appeared as though there are some strong supporters of retaining a car focus to the city centre, even on Quay Street. Crazy ideas, like undergrounding the road at a truly massive cost, were also bandied around. How about we just let the motorway network do its job at moving people past the city centre?
The council’s City Centre Master Plan contains a huge number of great ideas for making the city centre a better place to live work and play but it’s far from the first document looking at the subject. Our friend Darren Davis has recently come across a document from 1971 called Central Area Proposals outlining a number of ideas from the time. Some were good ideas, some odd ideas and some terrible ideas. Of these some were implemented and others not. The ideas also don’t appear to be a cohesive set of projects and so some of the ideas clash with other ideas.
One interesting fact from the document was that mode share to the central city was about over 50% PT, walking or cycling , a similar level that we’ve only just achieved again.
And from the files that didn’t happen, pedestrianising Queen St
This idea seems to be about getting people out of Queen St, presumably so there’s more space for cars and parking – although the image is shown with pedestrians at street level too. It certainly wouldn’t go with the idea of closing Queen St to traffic above.
Closing K Rd to traffic but presumably providing more parking.
Wellesley St elevated over Queen St which would have destroyed the Civic corner and made a hostile area for pedestrians under the over pass.
Mayoral Dr sold as a tree lined boulevard linking up green spaces in the city. Implementing this wiped out a significant chunk of CBD property
An extension of Mayoral Dr all the way to Quay St on the eastern side of the CBD. With option 1 of this we wouldn’t have had an O’Connell St to make a shared space on and the Britomart area would have been severed by a massive road.
And perhaps the granddaddy of bad ideas an elevated motorway along Quay St – the idea was first proposed in the 1955 master transportation plan but thankfully none of these proposals ever happened.
I’m not sure when this image is from but it gives an idea of what it may have looked like, some more shots here and here
Thankfully we managed to dodge at least some of these bullets which if implemented might have been enough to well in truly kill the city centre.
Thanks for the images Darren
Over the weekend the latest shared space in the city was completed, on O’Connell Street. This joins the growing network of shared spaces with Lorne Street, Elliott St, Darby St, Fort St and the also recently completed Federal Street. I would argue that O’Connell Street is the best one yet. The new paved look beautifully matches the scale of the street and period buildings. The street is also all activated frontages with no parking buildings that cause issues on some of the other spaces at peak times.
O’Connell Street on late Sunday afternoon
A great feature is that all of the benches have little historic stories in the street. Several focussed on how the area was viewed negatively for so long. Another bench notes how the street was widened by 50% in the 1920’s, with buildings from the 1840’s demolished for this to occur. However this can party explain the wonderful character of the street.
O’Connell St on Monday lunchtime
Even though the street had been a construction site for 6 months until a few days ago, the street was buzzing with people yesterday lunchtime. A couple of cafes on the street had already set up tables on the street, and I’m sure more will follow. People we also sitting on the benches reading or otherwise relaxing. Overall had a wonderful atmosphere.
For a comparison, this is what O’Connell Street looked like at the start of the year.
A contributing reason for the great atmosphere was that workers were still touching up a few small things, therefore street was still closed to general traffic. However as soon as barriers were removed even briefly, people drove through, and straight away someone was taking advantage of the free parking on offer. I understand later in the afternoon the street was fully opened for general traffic and there were some issues with cars driving too fast.
It is worthwhile pointing out that their are no vehicles entrances on the street, and no carparks. Therefore the only reason cars need to be on the street is for deliveries, which certainly are essential.
This sign from the end of the street makes clear that deliveries should occur between 6am and 11am. So therefore after 11am their are no reasons for cars to be on the street at all. So we really need to ask the question as to why general traffic is allowed at all. The only use is as a rat-run, or for people circling around looking for parking, both pointless activities. So why not shut the street from 11am everyday, or even better have bollards to allow deliveries only between 6am and 11am, so no general traffic is allowed at all. This will not mean any money has been wasted, but will allow the full potential of the space to be used everyday.
The 2013 Census results showed very strong population growth in Auckland’s city centre. The four census area units of Auckland Harbourside, Auckland Central West, Auckland Central East and Newton grew from 19,116 usual residents in 2006 to just under 28,000 in the 2013 census. However, the number of people under 15 years of age living in these four census area units is still pretty low – with only 1,068 being recorded in the 2013 census – just 3.8% of the population. This is far below the proportion of under 15s across the whole of Auckland, which sits at 21%.
This situation is not unusual internationally, with many cities struggling to attract families with children to live in their downtown cores. The reasons for this are – to some extent – fair obvious: a lack of schools, a lack of space for outdoors play (at least private space) and I imagine a bit of remaining stigma around downtown as an appropriate place to raise children.
Yet there are good reasons why we should want families with children to live in the city centre. Strong communities need a wide variety of residents, people downtown have a huge active transport modeshare to work and therefore take pressure off the transport network, people and families living in the city centre give it a liveliness that continues 7 days a week, not just in business hours. But how can families with kids be attracted to living in a part of the city which seems so unusual and (to some) seeming unnatural?
Vancouver is an excellent model here, as over 5,000 kids now live in their downtown and the proportion of the downtown population that is under 15 is on the up:
The CityLab article linked to above explores some of the deliberate steps Vancouver has taken to increase the downtown area’s attractiveness for families with kids:
Units: For starters, Vancouver required developers to set aside of share of high-density housing units for families—typically 25 percent, according to Langston. That means at least two bedrooms, one of which should have play space for toddlers designed into it. (Oh, and thick, thick walls.) Since families might not want to live on the 16th floor, the city suggested grouping family units closer to street level, often in multilevel townhouse-type structures that form the base of more traditional residential towers. This ground-level clustering makes coming and going easier and gives children peers in neighboring units.
Buildings: Family-friendly buildings need a few architectural quirks that towers for singles might not: bulk storage space for things like strollers or toys, better nighttime lighting in common areas, corridors that can fit a tricycle. They also need secure, safe play spaces—ideally ones that can be seen from inside the units or from a designated supervision area. The spaces should maximize sunlight and be made to withstand “the rough and tumble of children’s play,” according to Vancouver’s guidelines. You have to love a government document with lines like this: “Opportunities for water and sand play are especially important.”
Surrounding areas: Vancouver also realized that not all parts of the city were as family-friendly as others. It instructed developers to choose sites within half a mile of elementary schools, daycare centers, and grocery stores, and within a quarter mile of transit stops. Safe walking routes—ideally separated from high-traffic arterials—were also important. Langston writes that the city went a step further and actually required some developers to build or fund community facilities (such as daycare centers or parks) if none already existed, and even to designate sites for schools.
It seems like creating a more family-friendly city centre requires a number of pretty active interventions on behalf of the Council. Partly through its investments in public realm improvements, safe walking routes and community facilities but perhaps more so through clever regulations and incentives for developers to provide housing typologies and facilities themselves which attract a wider range of households to the area.
Streets safer for kids to play – Photo by oh.yes.melbourne
The city centre part of the Unitary Plan contains some provision for bonus floor area provisions – based around heritage protection, encouraging residential dwellings, public open space, artworks and through-site links. Perhaps, to truly encourage families with children into the city centre these rules over time need to be further expanded to deal with issues such as the provision of childcare or other family-focused facilities.
The Ministry of Education also need to raise their game by providing a Primary School within the city centre, which along with the City Centre Master Plan‘s vision of a people-focused city centre would go a long way towards increasing the diversity of the population and really bringing families and kids into the heart of Auckland.
Wynyard is one of the few places designed to let kids play in the city – Photo by oh.yes.melbourne
Wynyard includes lots of family friendly features – Photo by Patrick Reynolds
Just over a week ago the new Auckland Development Committee held its first meeting. This committee inherits the work of the former Auckland Plan Committee, which largely was taken up by the work on the Unitary Plan. However the cessation of the main body of that work means this committee can now look a wider range of projects. Responsibilities of the committee include the Unitary Plan, Special Housing Areas, Spatial Plans and City Transformation Projects.
The meeting agenda included a wealth of information with updates of progress on a wide variety of the City Transformation Projects, which cover town centre upgrades, CBD upgrades and legacy greenfield projects like Westgate, Flat Bush and Hobsonville. This post will focus on updates in regard to projects featured in the City Centre Masterplan, as this is the first time we have a comprehensive progress update since the plan was released.
Quay Street Upgrade
As we have highlighted before Quay Street is a real missed opportunity for the city, and having 6 lanes of traffic here is totally over the top.
The Concept Plan should see public consultation in 2014. There was a low quality screenshot included, but it doesn’t really give anything away in regards to the final form of the street.
There is some exciting news though in regards to some low-cost place making exercises, and the Albert Street parklet looks like it was the first of these.
“early initiative trials of concept including Placeman, bike event, temporary street furniture, park-let and safety upgrades.
The update notes $25 million was set aside in the LTP, mostly for 2016/17.
Upper Queen Street Cycleway & Gateway upgrade.
The Upper Queen Street motorway over bridge is currently a very miserable windswept place. It is also well over-engineered for the traffic volume it carries, with 3 lanes in each direction. Strangely it even has parking on the bridge itself. However it will all change in the is project which is linked to the Grafton Gully Cycleway project. This is programmed for construction in 2015/16 at a cost of $1.5 million.
Bledisloe Lane Upgrade
Bledisloe Lane is the covered walkway than runs between Wellesley Street and Aotea Square, and helps build on the lane way network as is opposite Elliot Street. Currently is a rather dark and uninviting thoroughfare.
A concept design has been delivered. The construction should start early 2014, and last 6 months. The total cost will be $3.6 million.
Freyberg Place Upgrade
Freyberg Place currently allows cars through at the northern end which is very strange, and negatively affects the whole space. The render shows that car access will totally disappear which is fantastic, as there is no need for cars to short cut through here at all. Will be built 2014 or 2015 at a cost of $2 million.
Upper Khartoum Place
This is the gateway to Auckland’s fabulous Art Gallery, and is in somewhat of a rundown state. It is currently out to tender, construction should start in 2014. Note that the Women’s Suffrage memorial is being retained as part of this redesign, as this has caused issues with previous upgrade proposals.
O’Connell St Upgrade
Costed at $4 million, construction should commence in early 2014. Initial designs for this upgrade showed a very unambitious upgrade, with only minor changes. However public feedback meant that a shared space appears to be the outcome.
Victoria St Linear Park
Victoria Street is a somewhat uninviting streetscape, and the 4 lanes seem unnecessary considering the also wide Wellesley Street is the next block south. The long term plan is to turn it into a Linear Park to link Albert and Victoria Parks which will provide a high-quality East West Link in the mid-cty area, and that is sorely needed.
Again a concept design for was delivered in October. Construction should start in late 2014 or early 2015, and will be delivered in stages out to 2017. First stage will cost $4.7 million, with total cost of $24 million.
Overall is great to see that a number of exciting projects are likely to progress over the next few years, continuing to improve on the massive gains we have seen in the CBD in recent years.
Back in 1970, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens put out a song, and it went a little something like this:
I know we’ve come a long way,
We’re changing day to day,
But tell me, where do the children play?
I live in the CBD, and my considered response to this rhetorical question is: where indeed? To my knowledge, there are just three playgrounds in the central city: one at Myers Park, one at Wynyard Quarter and another nearby at Victoria Park (let me know if I’m missing any). And, as we were all reminded recently, Myers Park is not without its problems.
Despite some great public spaces in the CBD, there are not many places where your kids can have a slide or a swing. The CBD is just not very family-friendly, and outside of events like the Santa Parade, children are actually quite a rare sight. The situation is improving – Wynyard Quarter and Britomart have revitalised the waterfront area, and there seem to be more families wandering around the bottom of town. Even so, we’ve got a very long way to go, if the CBD’s population is going to double in the next 30 years and if those people aren’t just going to be more students and DINKs (double income, no kids). So come on, Auckland Council, let’s get a few more playgrounds around the central city. How about, for starters, one in the Vector Arena/ Quay Park area, and one midtown – maybe Freyberg Square, where there’s already a Pumpkin Patch store?
Here’s what the CBD’s population currently looks like:
Of course, there’s a big bulge in the 20s – not surprising, with the universities and nightlife. There are also a lot more CBD residents in the early-30s range; after that, people seem to get the heck out of dodge and go and procreate somewhere else.
If you look at the under-14 population, it’s interesting that there are a few young kids in the 0-4 age bracket, and almost none at school age (5-14). I wonder why this might be?
According to the Ministry of Education’s Directory of Schools, there are more than 2,500 schools in New Zealand. That’s about one for every 1,800 people in New Zealand.
The Auckland CBD, with a resident population of 22,000 people – to say nothing of its working population of 90,000 – has just four schools: ACG Senior College, ACG New Zealand International College, Mindalive, and Kadimah. There are no state primary schools in the CBD (Kadimah is an integrated school, with a Jewish emphasis) and most central city residents have to take their kids to school in inner-city suburbs: Parnell or Freemans Bay. This reinforces car dependency, because it’s pretty hard to get your kids to those schools any other way except by car.
There are billions of dollars invested in the CBD, with plenty of public and civic facilities of regional importance. It’s strange that you can do just about anything in the central city, except take your kids to school there.
If the central city is going to grow, central government is going to have to come to the party, with school facilities. This won’t be cheap – high land costs and a lack of outdoor space for physical education will see to that – but it’s a necessary step.
City engineers have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at. – Jeff Speck, Walkable City
A few weeks back I prepared a cross section of the cbd that revealed an interesting land value gap that seemed to correspond to the disurban environment caused by the mini-motorways of Hobson and Nelson Street. In an upcoming post I will look more closely at these streets, in particular their potential for redevelopment, but for now I wanted to compile some background material on the history of one-ways.
Land value gap. Auckland CBD.
Understanding one-ways first starts with the design paradigm that required them. One of the few studies on the subject, “Downtown Streets: Are We Strangling Ourselves On One-way Networks?”, by Walker, Kulash and MacHugh, sets the stage:
For many years, traffic engineers were mandated to “move as much traffic as possible, quickly as possible,” often resulting in degradation of movement for other modes of travel. The unequivocal movement of the motor vehicle through a downtown network was of paramount concern; all other modes of travel took a back seat. Effectiveness of the network was measured by the amount of delay a motorist would encounter on a given street segment or intersection during either the morning or afternoon peak hours.
The authors document the typical transition of American downtowns beginning with the ‘pre-Freeway era’, where streets served a multitude of users and modes and most of the city’s cultural, social and civic activities took place in the historic centre. During this time most of the workers lived within a short distance to work as well (think Auckland streetcar suburbs).
Looking south along the west side of Hobson Street from Fanshawe Street. ( ‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-2052′)
The ‘Freeway Proliferation Era’ encouraged city workers to move farther from their work. “As downtown workers began to seek out less expensive housing in the suburbs, the mode balance on downtown roadways that had existed for years began to move toward facilitating the speedy entrance and exodus of commuters. Downtown streets began to be converted to one-way travel to facilitate this expedient movement into the city in the morning and out in the afternoon.” Below is an example of the technique used to accommodate traffic into and sometimes through a cbd/downtown.
Typical solution: one-ways. Charleston, South Carolina. (source: Meagan Baco)
The Post-Freeway Era reached its peak in the 1980s, when corporate offices chose to locate in suburban edge settings. In addition to the one-ways, increasing traffic also gobbled up surface and ground floor real estate in the form of parking which contributed to “blighted, empty streets and boarded-up storefronts, devoid of life after 6 pm.”
Multiple-lane, high speed, one-ways. Land use responds with the highest value: parking.
Finally, the Reemerging Era is where we are today with an increase interest in both residential and business activities locating in traditional city centres. This urban renaissance has lead to a proliferation of one-way re-conversions beginning in earnest in 1990 according to student researcher Meagan Baco.
As urban observer Alan Ehrenhalt notes, in the Return of the Two way Street, cities across America are coming to the conclusion that one-ways should go as documented in this story from Vancouver, Washington:
In the midst of a severe recession, Main Street in Vancouver seemed to come back to life almost overnight. Within a few weeks, the entire business community was celebrating. “We have twice as many people going by as they did before,” one of the employees at an antique store told a local reporter. The chairman of the Vancouver Downtown Association, Lee Coulthard, sounded more excited than almost anyone else. “It’s like, wow,” he exclaimed, “why did it take us so long to figure this out?” A year later, the success of the project is even more apparent. Twice as many cars drive down Main Street every day, without traffic jams or serious congestion. The merchants are still happy. “One-way streets should not be allowed in prime downtown retail areas,” says Rebecca Ocken, executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association. “We’ve proven that.”
In addition to Vancouver, Washington, ‘hundreds’ of North American cities have already made one-way conversions, including: Baton Rouge, Berkeley, Dallas, Green Bay, Portland, Sacremento, San Francisco, San Jose and Miami. The success of these efforts are increasingly being documented, like this story from Canada:
“It was somewhat controversial at first, but I would say now that, without exaggeration, people are 90% in favour,” said Brian McMullan, the city’s ebullient young mayor. A prominent local businessman came up to me the other day and said, ‘I didn’t support it from the start, but this is the best thing you’ve ever done.’ ”
This brief post does not address the traffic and street design dynamics of one-ways that make them so dangerous for pedestrians and repulsive to urban life. Instead, I thought it would be best to document how common the practice of retrofitting has become and where it sits in a historical context. Taking a different look at street design, mobility and accessibility (Link v Place) questions the entire premise of our modern transportation planning (What’s the point). It is increasingly becoming evident that designing our city, streets and neighbourhoods for people (as opposed to cars) provides significant value and resiliency.
From the first report mentioned above I recreated an interesting diagram that depicted the premise that there is a “livability” dividend that can be realised if we are prepared to sacrifice a few seconds of time from a vehicular trip. Turning one-ways back to two, like shared spaces, signal priority for pedestrians, and providing for transit and cycling is increasingly being seen as a “no-brainer” for cities intent on remaining relevant in the 21st century.
New paradigm: modified from Walker, Kulash, MacHugh.
An interesting Australian article highlights something that has perhaps slipped under the radar of many – that a huge implication of economies in countries like New Zealand shifting away from manufacturing and more towards knowledge industries is a likely changing of the geography of employment. The Australian Federal Minister of Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, notes that Australian cities are facing increasing competition from growing cities in Asia, while at the same time facing the aforementioned shift in employment types. Let’s pick up a few key paragraphs:
Albanese noted that Australian cities will continue to face competition from a growing number of larger cities in the region.
“That puts a major incentive in dealing with how we position ourselves in our increasingly urbanised and increasingly affluent region,” he said. “Our cities have to be more productive. Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it’s nearly everything.”
Albanese added that the changing nature of cities will mean more need for inner-urban medium density housing as work increasingly shifts away from outer urban areas toward city centres.
“In terms of economic functions, our cities are shrinking in on themselves,” he said. “The forces which drove the spread of our cities in the post-war period, predominately manufacturing, are being replaced by knowledge industries – the banking, legal, insurance and myriad of other business services.”
Albanese pointed out that the changes will continue to influence the shape of cities in Australia.
“Whereas manufacturing plants which are traditionally located on the city fringe or in industrial zones, the job-rich knowledge industries tend to concentrate in the heart of our cities,” he said. “As the State of Australian Cities reports, this trend is seeing more and more workers commuting into our city centres.”
There’s a bit of a myth (perhaps another one for our list) that Auckland’s city centre is somehow dying and becoming increasingly irrelevant as employment disperses wider and wider throughout the region. Furthermore, there are often quotes that only 13-15% of Auckland’s jobs are within the motorway ring that’s generally used to define the CBD. Yet as Matt showed in a recent post, the city centre and its fringe is actually still by absolutely miles the largest concentration of employment in Auckland. Furthermore, as shown in the map below, by far the greatest concentrations of employment – in terms of jobs per hectare, are in meshblocks located in the CBD:
There has long been debate between the Council and Central Government over the future projections for employment numbers in the city centre, which seems to be quite critical to how well the business case for the CRL stacks up. If we follow the trends that are increasingly seen in Australia – and which just seem pretty logical as our economy transitions more and more to a post-industrial state – then a reconcentration of employment downtown seems likely (and also incredibly desirable in terms of economic productivity). Which, of course, makes the case for CRL even more compelling.
..The City is never complete, never at rest. Thousands of witting and unwitting acts every day alter its lines in ways that are perceptible only over a certain stretch of time. -Spiro Kostof
Looking south along Queen Street from corner of Customs Street showing the Waitemata Hotel (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1-W519)
I was inspired by Patrick’s recent transit dividend post where he documented the laneways around the Pacific and Matt’s people buy stuff and wanted to look a little closer at the things happening on the street which to me are fascinating and representative of a highly dynamic urban ecosystem. In particular, over the last year I believe I have witnessed Auckland’s return as a walking city. Recall that before Auckland was conventionally considered a “car city”, it was a streetcar city, a walking city, and a water city, and of course many combinations of these all, and somewhere in there an airport city and PT city.
Melbourne Laneway (source: Patrick Reynolds)
Melbourne’s famous laneways are a fantastic story. They are symbolic of an urban transformation that the city has undergone over the last 20 years. Especially interesting to me is that these laneways weren’t built into the modern block structure. Instead they were introduced over the years by what urban scholar Arnis Siksna argues is an largely predictable process to provide better performance. Siksna studied (pdf) cities across North America and Australia and concluded that areas with high intensity of pedestrian traffic performed best with a short block system (a “pedestrian mesh”) of between 50-70m. Melbourne, like many other Australian cities, was designed with much larger block sizes closer to 200m. He documents that over time these over-sized blocks are predictably broken down, through “successive uncoordinated actions of individuals”, to facilitate a more efficient land pattern, one that provides better circulation patterns and more potential lot frontages.
Modifications to original block layout of Melbourne, Modified from Siksna (1996)
Auckland also has many examples of areas with short blocks, laneways, and arcades on some of the larger blocks. The real transformation in Auckland is occurring at the street frontage level- with the emergence of micro retail. While Melbourne’s laneway system developed over decades, this retail transformation and adaptation is occurring over night.
People rule: slow traffic, short crossing waits (20-30 secs.), frequent transport
There are several major shifts which have spurred this phenomenon. First, and most important, is the accommodation of pedestrians. This has been done through major signal timing and street crossing improvements, slower traffic speeds, and increased pedestrian mobility via a web of new shared space laneways. Second, is the increase concentration of pedestrians using the street as a conduit to and from public transport. And finally, the challenging urban retail environment itself has been adapting to the competition from both web-based and more suburban retail models.
According to Heart of the City there are over 25,000 people walking along Queen Street every day. If you have been downtown recently no doubt you have experienced the days with thousands of people walking shoulder to shoulder on footpaths while cars trickle down Queen Street. In one of my previous posts I suggested that streets are a platform for exchange, and nestled in a highly connected (laneways, short blocks, layers of transportation) create the most valuable real estate.
Retailers “plugging in” to the value of the street, Auckland
There couldn’t be a better example of the free market “plugging” into the value of the street, remember People Buy Things Not Cars. Using a scientific metaphor the micro retail trend, like it’s international counterpart the foodcart, is capitalising on the value of the street by increasing its surface-to-area ratio. Here’s wikipedia:
An increased surface area to volume ratio also means increased exposure to the environment. The many tentacles of jellyfish and anemones provide increased surface area for the acquisition of food. Greater surface area allows more of the surrounding water to be sifted for nutrients.
And how does a property owner increase surface area? In Melbourne, they broke down large blocks. While this was described as providing an efficiency for movement, I’m sure the business owners weren’t so altruistic, instead they were more likely attempting to “acquire their food”. In Auckland, it’s more of an effective increase of surface area by finely breaking down the store front space. Here’s what businesses looks like trying to plug in the value of the street. This crepery (below) measures 105 cm across its front. Most other shops are about 3 metres. At that dimension we are entering the domain of Venice, Italy store fronts which have a typical dimension of 3 metres. Yes, that Venice that is a car free city.
Pedestrian scale, Auckland (photos: Scot Bathgate)
As prominent urban designer Jan Gehl notes:
When buildings are narrow, the street length is shortened, the walking distances are reduced, and street life is enhanced.
This concept of store front variety is one among many urban design imperatives that is often turned into a endless list of guidelines, codes and regulations. For example, buildings should be placed on the street edge, have transparent glazing, not be too wide, have a diversity of uses, etc. It is my theory that these reasonable outcomes don’t create vibrant cities, instead they are the outgrowth of them. What creates vibrant cities is the existence and especially the accommodation of people within a traditional urban street network supported by various transportation options.
Surface-to-area, maximising the value of the street. Queen Street, Auckland.
As an extreme example, imagine a property owner choosing to provide parking in front of his store which would obstruct the other 25,000 people on foot. Or imagine a property owner who would allow a large monotonous land use like a bank take up excessive store front space and create a dead space. With the return to the pedestrian city these urban design issues become moot, since no one would jeopardise their premium real estate asset which is the street frontage.
Instead, what I think will happen, and largely what is already happening, is that the city centre will becoming increasing re-scaled for people on the street. The outcome will be closer to what typically could be considered traditional, almost European-type urbanism, what has traditionally only occurred on High Street. This means increasing micro-retail uses. Also, large office uses will be wrapped internally with street-serving business. This is typically how old theatres such as the Capital on Dominion Rd address the street, by a narrow passage allowing users into a large internal space but not wasting surface area unnecessarily. At some point there will be undoubtedly be increasing break-down of city blocks to further access property value of the street, just as what happened in Melbourne.
Micro retail: a dynamic and resilient urban model
The amount that the city has changed over the last year is remarkable. As someone who can’t wait for things to change, and has all but given up on formal planning, it’s exciting to see how much change is occurring on its own. While some of it is due the impressive physical improvements of he public realm, most of it is an outgrowth of thousands upon thousands of individual choices, many of which are facilitated the provision of public transport and by simply accommodating the people that are already there.
Despite the critics, Auckland’s city centre is probably in better shape than it has been for decades. Foot traffic is high, new streetscape improvements continue, Queen Street is clearly still extremely “hot property” and the place just feels vibrant. Looking into this steady, almost sneaky, transformation of downtown over the last ten years or so, I went searching for what seemed to possibly be the cause. Clearly one of the parts of town that has improved the most during this time is around the Britomart precinct, which is a lot to do with Britomart train station. So improved public transport is clearly a candidate. But, for some reason, it also feels like we’ve slowly managed to claw back the city centre from vehicles – little by little, bit by bit.
This ‘clawing back’ hasn’t just been through the flagship shared space projects, but also through little tweaks here and there – like the double-phasing of pedestrian crossing signals on Queen Street, like some of the small infrastructure improvements which make life just that little bit nicer for the pedestrian. Sure, there’s still a long way to go but it feels like things are certainly a lot better.
In looking for some quantification of how traffic to the city centre has changed in this time, a report to the September transport committee provides some really useful numbers using the annual “screenline survey”, which has tracked public transport since the late 1980s and modal splits between PT and private vehicles since 2001. Looking first at public transport usage, we can see that the number of people using PT to enter the city centre during the AM peak period has increased massively over the past 11 years, up from 21,000 to 33,000:
The next thing to look at is modeshare between public transport and private vehicles (other screenlines take into account walking and cycling but the CBD doesn’t for some consistency reason). Yet again we can see that over the past decade the proportion of vehicular trips into the city centre has significantly swung towards public transport:
The graph below shows the growth in public transport use over the past decade and splits it up by mode. You can see that all the modes have grown well, but particularly we have obviously seen massive growth on the rail system.
But getting back to my earlier points in this post, what is really fascinating is not just what has happened to public transport use for trips to the CBD over the past decade, but also what’s happened to car trips. Using the PT patronage totals and the modeshare totals we can compare the number of car trips to the CBD in 2001 with today.
The number which clearly jumps out the page at me is the massive drop in private vehicle trips to the city centre over the past decade: over 6,100 fewer vehicles in the AM peak – over 15% fewer vehicles all up wanting to enter the city at peak time. This is illustrated in the graph below:
With a typical arterial road (with regular intersections, like what happens in the city) able to cope with around 600 vehicles per lane per hour, this is over 10 lane-hours worth of roadspace that has been completely freed up.
I still don’t think we’ve yet taken advantage of this simply massive reduction in traffic in the city that has happened over this time. Put simply, we now probably have a vast excess of roading capacity compared to what we need and it’s about time we put that to better use – like a pedestrian space along Quay Street, bus lanes on Customs and Wellesley Street, closing Queen Street to general traffic and building that lovely linear park on Victoria Street. We’ve done the hard yards in terms of removing the traffic to make these improvements possible – now let’s cash in on all that hard work to make the city centre the heart of truly the best city in the world.