Have your say the St Lukes Pohutukawa Trees

The NZTA is advising there’s only two days left to have a say on the fate of the Pohutakawa trees on Gt North Rd which they and the NZTA want to wipe out to widen Gt North Rd.

The NZ Transport Agency and Auckland Transport remind people that submissions on improvements at the St Lukes Road Bridge, as part of the SH16 St Lukes to Great North Road Interchanges upgrade, close this Thursday, 3 July.

The Transport Agency’s Highways Manager, Steve Mutton, says the submissions are an opportunity for people to have their say on proposals which affect their community.

“This is a chance for the public to provide us and our partners, Auckland Transport, with their views and concerns, and any other feedback on the changes at St Lukes” says Mr Mutton.

People can make submissions online on the Auckland Council website, www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz

The current proposal for an additional left hand turn onto St Lukes Road bridge, to handle the predicted change of traffic when the Waterview tunnels open in early 2017, requires the removal and replacement of six Pohutukawa trees.

“We want to assure people that our proposal includes replacement of the trees with six semi-mature Pohutakawa that will be 6-8 metres tall when they are planted,” says Mr Mutton.

“We acknowledge, however, that the community does have concerns about the removal and replacement of the trees at the St Lukes interchange. This is why we’ve asked for the consent to remove and replace them be publically notified. We want to ensure that community views are included as part of the decision making process,” says Mr Mutton.

The Transport Agency is currently widening the Northwestern Motorway (SH16) from three to four lanes in each direction, and improving the St Lukes motorway ramps. As part of the project, Auckland Transport is funding improvements to the St Lukes Road-Great North Road intersection, and widening the St Lukes Road overbridge to benefit drivers, walkers and cyclists.

St Lukes is the last of six related projects to connect the Northwestern and Southwestern motorways and complete the Western Ring Route (WRR) – identified by the Government as one of its Roads of National Significance to help improve the economy and road safety.

The Western Ring Route will provide a 47km-long alternative to SH1 between Albany and Manukau.  It will provide more reliable city connections – particularly with developing commercial and residential areas in the northwest and southwest – and improve regional transport connections for people and freight.

There’s more about the overall project here and below are some images of what they want to do.

St Lukes Interchange - Tree Removal plan

As well as submitting on the proposal you might also want to consider signing this petition.


If  you do make a submission it’s also probably worth highlighting the downgrading of the pedestrian facilities too.

St Lukes Interchange plan - Ped changesUpdate 2:

Here’s the link to the plan change to submit against



New North Road bus changes (or why I hate St Lukes)

Auckland Transport have proposed some changes to New North Road bus services – which is a good thing as the current buses are an absolute mess. Here are the details:

What are the proposed changes?

It is proposed to simplify all services running along New North Road to improve frequency and reliability and to reduce overcrowding.

  • Future services will be timetabled to create a frequency of at least one bus every 15 minutes between Avondale and the City, 7am – 7pm, Monday to Friday. During peak hours buses will run approximately every 5 minutes. No change to weekend frequencies at this time.
  • All future services will go via St Lukes. There will be no service on New North Road between St Lukes Road and Morningside Drive.
  • All inbound routes in central Auckland will go via Symonds St, Wellesley St and terminate at Victoria St in the vicinity of Victoria Park (see future services map).
  • Outbound buses will continue to use Victoria St and Waterloo Quadrant.
  • Services will no longer go via Bond St, Great North Road and K Rd or via Ian McKinnon Drive and Upper Queen St.
  • The deviation along Carrington Road, Fontenoy Street, Margaret Avenue, Martin Avenue, Rossgrove Terrace, Asquith Avenue and Wairere Avenue will be removed.

From Rosebank Road in Avondale all buses will take the same route so passengers travelling between Avondale and Midtown will be able to take any 221 to 224 bus.

And the thinking behind them:

Why are we proposing changes?

  • To make better use of the services that travel along New North Road
  • To simplify the routes from fourteen to five so that passengers will be able to more easily identify the bus they require
  • To increase frequencies along the routes so that passenger waiting time will be reduced
  • To provide local communities along the route with more frequent access to St Lukes (every 15 minutes instead of every 30 minutes)
  • To serve the new intensive residential development around St Lukes
  • To provide an hourly service along Patiki Road on Sundays
  • To improve trip time through the city centre by taking the inbound services via Wellesley Street instead of Waterloo Quadrant
  • To provide more capacity through Kingsland and Eden Terrace
  • To improve access to the Victoria Park area
  • To make it easier to turn buses around in the city as Federal St will no longer be available if it is turned into a shared space. To restart the next trip they will terminate and start in the same place

Let’s take a look at the current, rather complex, pattern of bus services in the area:

And what’s proposed:


Overall I support the changes, though with a few points:

  • I’m not sure whether it’s really necessary to keep the 224 running to Henderson and quite a few buses, plus the trains, already do that trip between Henderson and New Lynn.
  • It seems like all the express bus services have been removed, which is a bit odd and likely to be unpopular one would think.
  • Sending every trip via St Lukes basically just makes the trip for anyone who isn’t going to St Lukes quite a bit longer – which is annoying. While obviously St Lukes is a big trip generator, this just highlights that it’s in the wrong location – fundamentally.
  • What this route really needs is some bus lanes, especially through Kingsland shops where the buses get held up for ages during the morning peak.

It’s nice to see that Auckland Transport are still looking at ways of making small interim improvements to the bus network, in advance of rolling out the full new network over the next few years.

Is the shopping mall dying?

The indoor shopping mall turns 60 this year, but an Atlantic Cities article questions whether it’s dying:

At the mall’s peak popularity, in 1990, America opened 19 of them. But we haven’t cut the ribbon on a new one since 2006, for reasons that go beyond the recession.

Not a single new mall in the whole of the USA opened since 2006. That’s quite amazing. And by the sounds of it many of the existing malls are struggling to survive too:

By Dunham-Jones’ count, today about a third of our existing malls are “dead” or dying. That’s not to say they’re mostly vacant. But they have dreadful sales per square foot. High-end dress stores have moved out, and tattoo parlors have replaced them – “things,” Dunham-Jones says, “that would normally be considered way too déclassé for a mall.”

About a third of our malls are still thriving, and those are the biggest, newest ones. But America is no longer building many new highways, which means we’ve stopped creating prime new locations for mall development. Some of the earliest amenities of the enclosed mall – air-conditioning! – no longer impress us. And the demographics of suburbia have changed dramatically. Malls draw the largest share of their customers from teenagers, and the baby boomers who largely populate suburbia no longer have teenagers at home.

So what’s replacing these malls? Well, often it seems that we’re seeing something of a return to traditional style “main street” shopping, but within more mixed-use developments known as “lifestyle centres”. The article goes on:

… the suburban mall of Gruen’s plan appears to be victim of more than just the recession. Dunham-Jones, who has tracked this trend in her book Retrofitting Suburbia, estimates that more than 40 malls nationwide have been targeted for significant redevelopment. And she can count 29 that have already been repurposed, or that have construction underway.

In 2010, Columbus, Ohio, tore down the dead mall in its downtown for a park. Voorhees, New Jersey, demolished half of its dead mall, built a new main street and relocated its city hall into the remaining building. In Denver, eight of the area’s 13 regional malls now have plans for redevelopment. One of them, in suburban Lakewood, was converted from a 100-acre super block into 22 walkable blocks with retail and residences.

“It’s the downtown that Lakewood never had before,” Dunham-Jones says. Ironically, this is what Gruen had been aiming for. “Except that now it’s open-air.”

Americans haven’t particularly outgrown the consumer impulse that Gruen detected. We still love to flock to dense agglomerations of Body Shops and Cinnabuns and Brookstones. But now those places look increasingly like open-air “lifestyle centers,” with condos above or offices next door. Some of these places are just the old mall in a new Main Street disguise. But when you add residences, and cut Gruen’s mega-block into what actually looks like a downtown street grid, that begins to change things.

“You’ve got to get a mix of uses, but the connectivity is probably even more important,” Dunham-Jones says. “The uses will come and go over time, but if you can establish a walkable network of streets, that’s when you’re really going to establish a ripple effect in changing suburban patterns.”

Of course the City Rail Link project means that Westfield’s downtown shopping mall will need to be demolished. This is great as the mall is a pretty hideous building on one of Auckland’s best pieces of land. But elsewhere in Auckland it doesn’t really seem as though we’re following the USA’s trend. Within the land few years we’ve seen Sylvia Park and Albany malls open, two of Auckland’s biggest, while big redevelopments of both 277 Newmarket and St Lukes are on the cards to occur in the next couple of years.

I suppose this begs the question of whether Auckland’s fundamental retail environment differs from the USA, or whether they’re just a little ahead of us in the trend and it’s an inevitability that we’ll start to see a “post mall” retail environment. I certainly hope so, as long as it’s something better than the “mega centres” we often see sprouting up around shopping malls (yes I’m looking at you Wagener Place, St Lukes!)

Sylvia Park: PT success or missed opportunity?

When I think of the Sylvia Park shopping centre in Auckland, from a transport perspective, it seems to tick a lot more boxes than many other shopping centres around Auckland (particularly St Lukes). The primary reason for this is that Sylvia Park has a train station right next to it – a station that seems fairly popular, especially on weekends. An interesting research piece into the integration of land-use and transport at Sylvia Park delves a bit deeper into analysing the effectiveness of the various transport modes accessing the mall. A lot of the research article focuses on things like parking policies – pointing out the absolutely giant cost of building carparks – but it also provides some useful figures for further analysis when it comes to malls.

Starting off by looking at the mode-split for people accessing Sylvia Park, the figures for public transport are actually surprisingly low: What really stands out here is how low the mode share for buses is. From memory St Lukes – hardly a model of a public transport friendly mall – attracts between 5 and 10% of its visitors by bus.

I’ve often had debates with people over whether we really should be focusing on improving PT modeshare to shopping centres or not. The argument that is most often presented against focusing too much on shopping centres is that they seem particularly difficult ‘nuts to crack’. In fact, the decision on the St Lukes plan change made particular reference to the difficulty of attracting people to shopping centres via public transport:

While the reference to Sylvia Park is interesting, given the context of this post, what I think is most revealing is the “second” reason traffic issues were a major consideration – the assumption of the commissioners that public transport by nature is unlikely to be attractive to shoppers.

Strange how the same rule doesn’t seem to apply to Australian malls – particularly a series of shopping centres in Brisbane that the Sylvia Park study examined: The article explains that the Brisbane shopping centres tend to act as sub-regional hubs for the bus network – much in the same way as happens around New Lynn (and it would be interesting to see a modeshare for Lynn Mall shoppers). It seems to me that while Sylvia Park is doing reasonably well in terms of having a train station next to it, a lot of that good work has been completely undone by having it so poorly served by buses.

To make matters worse, the layout of Sylvia Park means that it’s pretty difficult to serve the centre well with buses. There’s an obvious north-south corridor serving the centre along Mt Wellington Highway – so why is the mall set back hugely from the highway creating a barren pedestrian wasteland between the bus route and the shopping centre (which forces buses to waste huge amounts of time by diving into the carpark). In terms of serving east-west flows, why doesn’t the road-bridge from Carbine Road connect all the way through to Mt Wellington Highway? This would allow east-west bus flows and could potentially create a fairly nice street for shops to line (general traffic may have to be excluded from through-movements to ensure it’s not a massive rat-run, but that’s easy enough).

What we really needed is shown in the map below (in terms of the two obvious bus routes to pass through the area):

Interestingly, a table in the research article shows that improving buses would be one of the most cost-efficient ways of the mall attracting more customers, largely because its capital costs and operating costs are pretty damn low compared to other modes . It’s pretty incredible that over $136 million was spent on  spending related to getting cars in and out of the mall. If we compare the costs with the revenue generated per user, we find that buses actually have a vastly higher “revenue cost ratio” than any other mode: So if I’m to go back to the original question of whether Sylvia Park is a public transport success story or a missed opportunity I would probably lean towards the latter: simply because its bus services are so terrible and its design makes improving bus services pretty damn difficult. While the train station is certainly good (and really every shopping mall should have to be within 400m of a rapid transit station, it’s just logical) it can distract us from how poorly served the mall is in other ways.

Interestingly though, it seems that the biggest loser out of this has been Sylvia Park itself. Because it’s so poorly served by bus-based public transport and because it was designed in such a way as to make it almost impossible for buses to serve the place well, the developers of the shopping centre had to spend an incredibly huge amount of money on making it easy for cars to get in and out of the place – most obviously through providing an insanely massive number of parking spaces. I guess this is why I can never understand shopping centres not being huge fans of efforts to improve public transport infrastructure to encourage more of their shoppers to arrive on the bus, rather than to have to build them an incredibly expensive parking space. Overseas cities get it, why don’t we?

Exploring the connections between land-use planning and transport

I meet up with quite a few people in person as a result of this blog. Sometimes they’re people in official capacities – at Auckland Transport or wherever, other times they’re just interested readers who have contacted me via email to have a chat about transport stuff. I really enjoy catching up with people in person and having a good yarn about transport over lunch, often I learn quite a bit about different experiences or different insights – and I use that knowledge to help inform future blog posts.

One thing that’s really interesting though is how often I’m asked the question “how come you’re so interested in transport?” I guess I mange to rattle off a blog post pretty much every night – and they’re often up to 1500-2000 words long (a reasonable undergrad university essay length) so I must be pretty interested in transport. My answer is always pretty much the same: “I’ve always been interested in making Auckland a better city, and over the past few years I’ve come to the ultimate realisation that the place you have to start is with its transport system.” In essence, I’m not so much interested in transport itself, but more in the impact and effects different transport decisions, policies, projects and actions will have on the quality of Auckland as a city to live, work and play in.

Auckland certainly has a lot going for it: fantastic natural setting, some of the world’s best late-19th and early-20th century wooden housing, a pretty good climate, nice beaches, great parks and so forth. But often the aspects of Auckland that seem to struggle relate very much to its transport system: by international standards the public transport is extremely poor, many of the more recently built parts of the city come across as soulless, uninviting and dull – largely because they’ve been designed with the car in mind, rather than people. The central city has great bits to it, but then there are horrible places too – like Hobson & Nelson streets, like the corner of Mayoral Drive and Cook Street, like the Lower Hobson Street viaduct, like Quay Street. Typically, the parts of Auckland that don’t seem to be as good are those parts where we’ve historically given too much priority to shifting cars.

Yet everyone still has to get around, as efficiently and quickly as possible. We still need to shift freight around the city and we still need to ensure people can get to work easily. Hence public transport as the potential “win-win”: the means of transportation that ensures we can get around the city easily without destroying the city.

The key point here is that this is all about the interactions and the connections between transport and ‘the city’. It’s all about how what’s next to our roads and railways influences what happens on those roads and railways, but perhaps more importantly it’s about the reverse: how the placement, size and design of those roads (most particularly) and railways affect what goes on outside the area dedicated to “shifting people”. This happens at a variety of “levels”, from regional development patterns down to the individual site level – how a different kind of road may influence a different kind of use of a site adjacent (or near) that road.

Every little decision made as part of ‘land-use planning’ (which I might roughly translate as policy decisions relating to what should happen to land outside the road corridor) and ‘transport planning’ (decisions made about where transport corridors should go and what their nature should be) has an effect on the other. There is an incredibly strong interdependency between transport and land-use planning that I simply don’t think has been appreciated. This is evident in the decision made recently on the expansion of the St Lukes shopping centre – where the commissioners had this to say about public transport:
While at a basic level what is said is true – the plan change cannot determine public transport service levels – the point it completely misses is the bigger picture. St Lukes isn’t next to a train station; it isn’t along any major bus routes. All the buses that serve St Lukes have to detour off their quickest route to get there: it’s just in the wrong place. The above paragraph was noted by the commissioners not as a reason to decline the plan change, but rather as a reason to allow Westfield a very generous amount of on-site parking: so they can clog up the surrounding road network.

Nobody asked Auckland Transport (or ARTA at the time) what impact providing more public transport services would have on the efficiency of the network, whether the area is well placed to be served by public transport or anything like this. Transport planning and land-use planning just talked straight past each other: once again.

I’ve been reading a very good book lately: Car Sick: solutions for our car addicted culture. One of the best things about the book is that it doesn’t propose grandiose solutions for auto-dependency like building massive railway lines, completely changing the structure of the city or embarking on other extremely expensive projects. It talks about the effectiveness of relatively cheap and small measures: marketing public transport better, making cycling safer and more attractive, encouraging employers to reimburse their employees with cash instead of providing them with free parking – and so on. An excellent chapter in the book also looks at the importance of integrating our land-use and transport decisions – with the clear message being outlined below:

The moral is simple. There is little point in trying to entice people out of their cars, through persuasion and information and marketing, if we continue to build offices, homes and shops according to the car city blueprint. Of course, it is possible to walk to the shops from a house in a suburban cul-de-sac, but mostly, people will be disinclined to do it. Equally, employers moving to a new business park on the ring road can have some influence on their employees’ travel decision is they install bike parking and offer cut-price bus passes, but really it would be better not to move out to the ring road at all.

The book argues that each little decision we make, in either transport planning or land-use planning, can shift us either further along the auto-dependent, car-based pattern of development that has dominated over the past 60 years, or it can shift us in the other direction away from this outcome. The natural polar opposites in terms of which way we go are Phoenix and Copenhagen – with Phoenix being the car city in its ‘purest form’.

Car Sick looks at Phoenix in a bit more detail to see what kind of result this pure adherence to car-dependency has generated:

Construction of Phoenix’s many miles of highways has come at a price. In the early 1990s, Jeff Kenworthy estimated the cost was roughly $400 per year for every man, woman and child in the city, which puts Phoenix at the top of the world’s league of big highway spenders. In a country that prides itself on its low taxation, that is quite a lot of tax. You might hope that this huge price tag would at least mean Phoenix’s residents were happy with their road system, but in fact a community attitude survey carried out by the city’s government found that the two issues people were most likely to see as major problems in their neighbourhood were air pollution and traffic congestion.

Similar analysis in Auckland comparing different future growth options have come to similar outcomes: the low-density sprawl is the most expensive and generates the worst outcomes. But we mustn’t take that message only at a region-wide level: we must think about the impact of each little transport and planning decision we make. What are the transport effects of this planning decision? What are the land-use effects of this transport decision? Is this decision leading to Auckland being more like Phoenix or more like Copenhagen?

If Auckland’s ever going to dramatically improve as a city to live, work and play in – and if we’re ever going to sort out “the transport problem” – we must consider these questions all the time. What are the land-use effects of different solutions for Dominion Road? How might the CBD Rail Tunnel transform Auckland’s future growth form? Do we really want to let this office park develop nowhere near public transport? Should we really approve Auckland’s biggest shopping mall when it’s not on any decent public transport routes? If we can do this, then I absolutely think Auckland can be the best city in the world.

St Lukes – the ultimate planning failure?

On Monday next week the new Auckland Council formally comes into being. The agenda for its first meeting has already been uploaded to the new Council’s website. Let’s hope such timely uploading is a sign of good things to come! Much of what’s included in the agenda for the Council’s first meeting is standard “house-keeping” stuff – although it will be interesting to find out the structure of the different Council committees, including who ends up chairing them. But hidden as the last agenda item in the meeting is the first difficult decision the council will need to make: whether to approve the St Lukes Plan Change or not. Auckland City Council it would seem didn’t get around to making such a decision (I originally called this gutsy to potentially go against the recommendation of the commissioners, but now I actually think it was gutless of the previous Council to simply put it onto the new Auckland Council). I’ve previously blogged about it here, and to summarise basically it will allow St Lukes shopping centre to double in size.

The situation facing the new Council with regards to the St Lukes plan change is summarised here. Effectively, they have incredibly little scope to do anything but approve the plan change – despite the huge community opposition that appears to be mounting. The officers present the Council with two options:
While it’s very likely someone will appeal the Plan Change should it be approved, the decision made by Council is important, because it determines what side of the fence they end up on in the appeals process. With the new Super City structure in place there will also be no opportunity for someone like the ARC to support local community groups in their opposition, which means that any appellants will be taking on both the Council and Westfield. A pretty scary prospect if you ask me. Perhaps the one potential saving grace is that both ARTA and NZTA submitted on the plan change – so that might mean (I’m not sure of it though) that Auckland Transport could appeal the plan change if they so desired.

But anyway, it seems very likely the Council will have to approve the plan change. But is that the right decision? As I was a submitter on the plan change in the first place (back when it was notified I lived locally) I have received all the documentation and had a good read through the logic behind both the planner’s recommendations (which recommended approval subject to a number of amendments) and the final decision (which seems to have largely bowed to what Westfield wanted in the first place). So I’m reasonably up to speed with what has happened here thus far.

My general opinion, right from the start, has been that St Lukes is simply is the wrong place to become Auckland’s biggest shopping mall. There are two primary reasons for this:

  1. It has relatively poor access to public transport. Most other shopping malls in Auckland have far better public transport access: Henderson’s next to a train station, so is New Lynn and Newmarket, Manukau City will be next to a train station by the middle of next year. Albany has a busway station that’s nearby. Sylvia Park has a train station next to it and so forth. St Lukes really is the odd one out in being away from the train network (Morningside station really doesn’t count in my opinion) and not even properly on a bus route (all the buses on New North Road and Sandringham Road have to detour to get there.
  2. It’s not in a ‘proper’ town centre. Aside from Sylvia Park (which seems to have aspirations of becoming a town centre) most of the other shopping centres are generally located in areas with a mix of other shops too – and are often traditional town centres. Henderson, New Lynn, Newmarket, Glenfield, Shore City and Milford are all examples of this. What happens in these situations is that the shopping centre assists the town centre by attracting people to the area – perhaps the best example being Dressmart’s contribution to Onehunga. In the case of St Lukes, it just eats away at nearby town centres like Balmoral and Mt Albert, undermining – rather than contributing – to their success.

These two factors seem pretty obvious, and pretty fundamental to the question of whether or not approval should be given to this plan change. However, because of the convoluted nature of Auckland’s planning system – and the reluctance of various agencies to do their job properly in my opinion – these fundamental issues have generally been given scant consideration in the final decision-making process for the plan change. And what’s worse, because of the nature of the planning system, they have quite rightly been given this scant consideration.

Let’s look first at the “town centre issue”. It seems fundamentally obvious to me that St Lukes is not a proper town centre. Sure, there’s a big white box surrounded by carparks the makes up the main mall – and across a million lanes of traffic (which takes pedestrians about half an hour to cross because of the horrific traffic-light phasing) there are a bunch of other shops hidden behind a giant carpark. But does that really make a two centre? How does that compare to places like Mt Eden Village, New Lynn, Takapuna and Newmarket or local centres like Mt Albert or Balmoral? There’s no public space, there are few community facilities, there’s an utterly terrible pedestrian environment, there’s no relationship between the street and the shops (although the proposed improvement to this is perhaps the one saving grace of the plan change).

It seems to me that the commissioners understood this situation to some extent – that St Lukes is really pushing the limit of what might be called a town centre. I think the commissioners also felt that it the question of whether or not St Lukes was a town centre was quite fundamental to their decision on the plan change. However, once again due to Auckland’s convoluted planning system and despite all evidence pointing otherwise, an official decision had actually already been made – due to a recent environment court settlement (between Westfield and the Regional Council) on Plan Change 6 to the Auckland Regional Policy Statement, St Lukes had officially been declared a “town centre”. The commissioners noted the importance of this decision:

In so many respects, the settlement of the ARPS plan change appeal, leading to the designation of St Lukes as a ‘town centre’, sealed the fate of this subsequent plan change. I imagine the commissioners mulled over the question of “how could St Lukes be a town centre and then have the City Council not approve a plan change that seeks to try as hard as possible to give effect to this”?

In short, the environment court settlement between the ARC and Westfield meant that the fundamental question of whether or not St Lukes is the right place to build Auckland’s biggest shopping mall could not really be taken into much consideration. Despite the commissioners probably feeling that St Lukes really doesn’t look or feel like a town centre, they had to ignore such fundamental problems and questions. This is outlined below: …and…
I guess we can only contemplate whether the commissioners would have come to a different recommendation on this plan change had the ARPS not included St Lukes as a town centre – but my feeling is that would have been quite likely.

Turning now to the other fundamental issue – whether St Lukes’ poor level of public transport provision should have swayed the commissioners towards declining the plan change. This issue is mentioned by the commissioners in an introductory way when they consider how much of a ‘town centre’ St Lukes really is:
PC6 refers to plan change 6 of the ARPS, rather than the specific plan change the commissioners were consideration (which is PC8). Interestingly enough, this shows that they really did consider the St Lukes centre to be “out of step” with what would normally be considered a ‘town centre’ – and a major reason for that consideration was the lack of public transport. However, they then fall into the trap of stating that “it’s not Westfield’s problem”. While certainly Westfield is not responsible for providing public transport, if we continue to separate the decisions we make on land-use planning from their impacts on transport we will continue to make the same old mistakes, undermine public transport and increase our auto-dependency.

One of the interesting things in the commissioners’ decision, as it relates to transport matters, is how it would appear Westfield argued both that public transport to the area wasn’t as bad as people were saying (and therefore the plan change shouldn’t be declined for such a reason) but also argued that public transport to the area was generally poorer than to other shopping centres (and therefore they should be allowed to provide a huge number of parking spaces). Here’s what Westfield’s transport expert says about the quality of PT provision:
The difficulty with making this “ARTA’s problem” is that, once again, fundamentally St Lukes is very difficult to serve with high quality public transport. Diverting more Sandringham Road or New North Road buses via the mall creates a significant loss of time for all other commuters on those routes. The Morningside train station cannot magically be pulled closer to the mall. Perhaps the one easy thing to do would be an increase in weekend cross-town 007 services, but compared to other shopping centres and other real town centres, it is damn difficult to improve public transport provision to the area – hence the fundamental question of whether St Lukes is the right place for this (or indeed the right place to be designated a town centre in the first place).

The poor provision of PT (and the limited ability to improve it) ends up being used as justification to effectively “exempt” St Lukes from region-wide policies designed to cut back on the amount of off-street parking provided, and thereby encourage people to use alternative transport options – rather than clogging up the roads with their cars:
Once again, the problem is not that St Lukes doesn’t attract enough public transport patrons for it to be provided. The problem is that St Lukes is simply located in the wrong place – not on a public transport corridor. Fundamentally, it’s just in the wrong place.

So what to make of this all? Well, overall the whole thing in my opinion is just a giant mess. An utter planning failure all around. While I disagree with the extent to which the commissioners separate out land-use and transport (the “let’s make it ARTA’s problem” approach), in general I completely understand why they have decided to recommend approval. In essence, the decisions made on the Regional Policy Statement PC6, to (for some unknown reason) make St Lukes a town centre meant that the commissioners’ hands were tied. They asked themselves the question of “as this is (supposedly) a town centre, how can we decline a plan change that seeks to formalise that?” Of course, the answer they came to was “well we can’t”. And this is the decision that the Council will, inevitably, have to end up making (and probably the Environment Court should it go to appeal) – that given the regional planning framework in place, there’s simply no way to do anything but approve this.

That certainly doesn’t mean it’s a good planning outcome though. As a result of this mess we’re going to end up with St Lukes nearly doubling in size, the addition of a huge number of parking spaces (and therefore huge amounts of traffic) and little, if any, improvement to public transport to serve this. The disjoint between land-use and transport will be exacerbated, undermining the integration that so many of our planning documents and strategies have tried – so unsuccessfully – to achieve. I don’t even know what’s the best we can hope for now – perhaps making crossing St Lukes Road more pedestrian friendly and thereby integrating the two halves of this supposed ‘town centre’? But St Lukes Road will be so busy, from all this extra shopping traffic, that it will be incredibly difficult to achieve this. What about ARTA’s plans to implement a QTN along St Lukes Road and Morningside Drive? Well with all this extra traffic I think we can probably kiss that goodbye – as there will be no chance of managing to implement bus lanes. St Lukes will continue to undermine the viability of nearby real town centres: like Mt Albert and Balmoral, probably to a greater extent than ever before given its ability to become such a “mega-mall”.

There’s probably some ability to still argue over the details: whether the interface controls between the expanded mall and the neighbouring residential properties can be improved. Whether the heights are exactly right. Whether ARTA wanting to put a QTN through the area means a big rethink in the traffic plans. Whether it’s possible to narrow St Lukes Road a bit so that it’s more like a normal town centre main street and so forth. These are important arguments that might yet require consideration at an appeal, but fundamentally I don’t think there’s any chance that this won’t eventually be approved.

I guess if we are to try to find a silver lining in this complete and utter mess, it is that while the Auckland Council spends 2011 formulating the Spatial Plan they will have the perfect example of why we need a Spatial Plan – in the form of the mess of the St Lukes situation. The Council will hopefully learn the importance of being careful about where it selects ‘town centres’ to be, so that they are real town centres located on logical public transport routes. The planning disaster that St Lukes has turned into will hopefully show the Council exactly why it is so important to properly integrate land-use and transport planning. Perhaps, in a similar (although somewhat less dramatic) way that the demolition of Pennsylvania Railway Station in New York City led to the formation of a heritage protection movement there, the complete and utter planning disaster or St Lukes will waken us up to the need to get our regional planning right. Because, as St Lukes has shown, if you stuff up the big picture strategies everything falls apart.

Parking and St Lukes

There’s a particularly large planning application (in the form of Private Plan Change 8) working its way through the Auckland City Council system at the moment, which relates to the possible expansion of the St Lukes shopping centre. The proposed expansion is pretty damn big – upping the possible size of the mall from around 45,000 m2 of floor area to a maximum of 92,500 m2, of which some would be office rather than retail. Similarly, the already rather large 2,018 space carpark would be increased to match the growth of the mall – to something near 4,000 spaces.

Along with 1100 others, I made a submission on the proposal – supporting some aspects of it but opposing others. I noted that some improvements would occur, such as enhanced integration with the surrounding area (the plan proposes to open up the mall to the street more, so it’s not just a big white box in a carpark) and attempts to improve walking/cycling/public transport access. However, I felt that overall these improvements were absolutely not counter-balanced by the negative effects that the enlargement would have – most particularly in terms of its traffic effects.

As someone who has lived near St Lukes for most of my life, and someone who still visits it fairly regularly, I’m aware of the well-known fact that the street network that surrounds the mall is pretty much at capacity during busy times. The traffic report with the plan change did not dispute this fact.  Furthermore, the traffic report confirmed the extremely low proportion of visitors to the mall who use public transport (under 5%), and the relatively low proportion of visitors to the mall who walk or cycle there. As I’ve noted in my recent attempts to improve the bus routes along New North and Sandringham roads, St Lukes is located in an extremely poor and downright annoying place when it comes to public transport. Compared to just about every other shopping mall in Auckland, it is much more difficult to serve well. There’s no train station nearby (unlike Sylvia Park, Henderson, New Lynn and Newmarket), there’s no bus hub nearby (unlike Henderson, New Lynn, Manukau City, Newmarket and in the future Albany) and it’s not even in a location that’s easy to serve with a logical bus route (unlike pretty much every other mall in Auckland). Somewhat bizarrely, the Booz Allen report which accompanied the plan change had this to say about the level of public transport service for St Lukes: Geez, I’m utterly terrified to think what their standard would be for a shopping centre poorly served by public transport. In the real world, bus services aren’t particularly frequent along New North Road & Sandringham Road (at least not the ones that divert to St Lukes), while the railway line is so distant that not even 1 per cent of visitors to St Lukes use it – which means that it can effectively be deemed irrelevant.

So ultimately, it is going to be a big challenge to significantly improve this 4% figure – which means that at St Lukes grows it is inevitable that unless something pretty drastic is done, most people will continue to drive there and the streets will be clogged up more and more. This will be particularly exacerbated by roughly doubling the amount of on-site carparking. To avoid this traffic nightmare, my submission proposed a cap on the amount of parking, and a cap on the amount of additional floorspace that could be developed until the modeshare of public transport, walking and cycling was increased (in other words, put the ball in Westfield’s court as to how they’d go about reducing their own car dependency).

In assessing the plan change proposal, Auckland City’s planner has recommended approval, but with a number of potentially quite interesting alterations. I’ll talk about the amendments that relate to public transport first, and then get on to the parking issue. This is what’s said about public transport:   I disagree with the final paragraph that it’d be impossible to propose a restriction – as in my opinion a District Plan rule can say whatever council wants it to say. Overall, it seems as though the planner’s report clearly recognises the problem that the plan change does nothing much to improve public transport – but then the planner backs away from actually trying to remedy that issue. A pity.

Looking at parking now, this is where things start to get quite interesting. The current mall has around one parking space per 22 m2 of floor space, and Westfield were proposing to retain that sort of ratio – although as a minimum rather than a maximum. However, perhaps as a result of my submission – and certainly it would seem as the result of pressure from ARTA and NZTA – the council wants to propose a maximum parking rate of 1 space for every 25 m2 of retail floor space. This is a step in the right direction, if a small one. However, Westfield are exceedingly grumpy about not being able to build as many carparks as they’d like (I often joke that they’d build a carpark over their grandmother they’re so keen on them). Westfield’s transport expert has this to say about why restricting parking is, in their opinion, the worst thing possible in the whole wide world: Let’s work through these points one by one. With regard to the first point, well the whole entire idea of restricting parking is to make it more annoying to drive and park there, and therefore encourage people to use alternative transport options. You only need to get stuck in a carpark for half an hour trying to find a carpark to learn that perhaps next time you should catch the bus or train there, or go at a more off-peak time. All of which are good things for the surrounding road network, as they reduce the peak-time loads on it. If restricting parking supply didn’t cause frustration and on-site congestion then there wouldn’t be any point to doing it!

In terms of the second point, that’s a complete red-herring as a District Plan rule or resource consent condition could require a certain amount of parking spaces be set aside for staff. Furthermore, isn’t it a good thing to encourage staff to use transport methods other than driving in order to get to work?

In terms of the third point, once again – discouraging those extra road trips to St Lukes at peak times is the whole point of restricting parking supply. I disagree that it would necessarily involve people travelling further to other shopping centres, as one could equally argue that people from afar would travel a long way to St Lukes (and therefore clog up the roads) if its parking was unrestricted. Nobody knows for sure which argument is stronger, so I think it should remain a moot point. What is obvious is that restricting parking would restrict the number of shoppers (unless Westfield actually got serious about trying to attract more people via public transport, walking and cycling rather than paying lip-service to it) and therefore hurt Westfield’s bottom-line. But, at risk of repeating myself, that is the point of restricting parking: to restrict the number of people that can drive to the shopping mall and therefore encourage more sustainable transport options.

There’s actually quite a lot of support for restricting parking supply from various agencies. NZTA’s planning expert has this to say:

ARTA’s planning expert has this to say: In my opinion even a 1:25m2 maximum is pretty tame compared to what is probably really necessary to help ensure St Lukes doesn’t just become a bigger traffic generating monster than it is now, and doesn’t make traffic jams around it even worse than they currently are. I remain enormously sceptical of the traffic modelling outputs that say (with a straight face, unbelievably) that doubling the size of the mall will not have a major impact on traffic, and will only require a few upgrades (like one more lane on Morningside Drive and one more set of traffic lights to access Exeter Road). One does wonder how a full 4000 space carpark will not create a lot more congestion than a full 2000 space carpark on the surrounding road network.

I still remain of the opinion that the development should be ‘capped’ at certain levels of additional floor area until the percentage of people accessing the mall via private vehicle can be reduced. This would ensure that effects on the road network are minimised and to ensure that St Lukes can be a step in the right direction in integrating transport and land-use – rather than a continuation of the extremely horrible “predict and provide” status quo that has led to Auckland being one of the most auto-dependent cities in the world. It would also force Westfield to be a bit creative about encouraging more people to use public transport to get to the mall (like providing them with free tickets with every $20 purchase perhaps?)

However, shifting to maximum parking rates is a step in the right direction, and it’ll be interesting to see what the outcome is on that matter. Hopefully one day Westfield’s thinking on this issue will be dragged into the 21st century out of the dark ages, and they’ll realise that it’s actually in their own best interests to promote public transport, walking and cycling – after all it’s probably damn expensive building carparks!