Aging gracefully?

This month, my grandma moved into a retirement community. In some respects, it’s a significant change for her. After 95 years living in standalone houses, she will be moving into a small, sunny apartment. To do that, she’s had to downsize significantly – donating furniture, giving away belongings, and simply leaving some things behind. (The cycad that my parents gave her decades ago; the lemon tree that I’ve greedily harvested for years.)

Grandma's new neighbourhood.

Grandma’s new neighbourhood. Wish we built places like this for young people too.

But in other respects it’s not such a big step. She’s not moving far – only from Takapuna to Milford. Because there are retirement apartments sprinkled around Auckland, she is able to downsize and stay in the same community. (As John P’s excellent RCG/Transportblog development tracker highlights, there are many more such developments in the works.) That means that she can maintain all of her social ties and everyday habits – same church, same lunch groups, same healthcare facilities, and same proximity to family.

So I’m not worried about Grandma. But it’s making me wonder what’s in store for my parents, who are now in their early 60s.

They live, as they have done for most of the last two decades, on a large section on the edge of one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s many excellent regional parks. It gives them plenty of space to run a business and pursue their hobbies, like my mom’s wine-making and my dad’s shed Ponzi scheme. (He builds workshop space to house the lumber and tools that he will need to build more sheds.)

But it’s not exactly convenient if you can’t drive. (Or bicycle – they’re now spending more time on electric bikes.) Their house is at the top of a rather steep hill, the sidewalks are pretty patchy, and the nearest stores are three kilometres away. There is no bus service anywhere in the vicinity. Things are very spread out in the California suburbs.

While my parents are fit and vigorous, the fact is that at some point in the next two or three decades, they won’t be able to drive. At that point staying in place will no longer be an option. And if they don’t plan ahead, possibly by moving to a more accessible location before they absolutely need to, it could be a difficult change.

I suspect that they are not the only ones facing this dilemma. Many Baby Boomers will not be able to age in place. The post-war sprawl suburbs where they have spent their adult lives are not suitable for people who can’t drive.

There are three main problems with aging in a typical post-war suburb. Fortunately, all can be corrected or ameliorated – but doing so will require us to do some things differently.

The first is a transport problem: street networks and transport choices. As I highlighted in a post last year, designing neighbourhoods primarily for cars – with a hierarchy of cul-de-sacs, collector roads and arterials – don’t work for other transport modes. You can’t run efficient, usable bus services through these neighbourhoods, and it’s slow to walk anywhere. Furthermore, as shown the following image illustrates, changing that is hard due to the fact that you’d need to re-route street patterns:

Sprawl repair manual subdivision rebuild

A related issue is the quality of sidewalks, crosswalks, and other pedestrian infrastructure. In suburbs where most people drive, these tend to be in poor condition or simply non-existent. I have full use of my legs but still find this exasperating. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for people with limited mobility.

Poor transport choices often coincide with segregated land uses. Because older people tend to be less mobile, regardless of mode, their lives can be better when distances to retail and social destinations are short.

Unfortunately, a second issue that will face aging boomers is that post-war zoning codes have generally mandated rigid separation of residential and commercial use. Houses go in one place; shopping and work goes in another.

Here’s an illustration from Pakuranga and Howick in Auckland’s Unitary Plan. The bright pink areas are “centre” zones that allow both residential and retail. Most of the rest – the cream and orange colours – is exclusively residential. While the cream areas are undoubtedly nice beachfront property, people living in them will face constraints as they grow old.

Unitary Plan Howick

However, this isn’t the only way to build a city. When I was visiting Paris in December, I was struck by the vibrancy of retail options on just about every block in the city. Due to the fact that Paris lacks single-use zoning, it’s possible to get most of life’s daily needs – groceries and company, in particular – met without walking more than 100 metres.

Typical Paris neighbourhood shops (Source: Wikipedia)

Typical Paris neighbourhood shops (Source: Wikipedia)

That leads on to a third issue for aging boomers: a lack of housing choices for young and old people alike. Post-war planning has embraced “exclusionary” zoning policies such as large minimum lot sizes or tight controls on multi-family dwellings. Unless these policies are unwound, they will have two negative impacts for aging boomers who are seeking to age in place:

  1. A lack of neighbourhood density means that local retail and social facilities are not economically viable. Mount Eden, where I live, is a great example of how a mix of housing choices can enable vibrant local retail opportunities. The much-derided 1970s “sausage flats” mean that there is a sufficient critical mass of customers within walking distance. This creates positive spillovers for people living in the suburb’s standalone houses.
  2. A lack of options for downsizing in place will force people to leave their communities as they age. Retirement homes alone are not a solution to this problem, as some people may prefer to move into a smaller dwelling before they need of aged car. A greater mix of apartments, terraced houses, and units are important for filling this gap in the market.

Comprehensively addressing these three challenges will obviously take a long time. The built environment is persistent, and as a result many of the places we built in decades past will continue to look and feel the same for a long while.

However, I would argue that people who are middle-aged today have a strong incentive to vote for change. Retrofitting the suburbs with better transport choices, more housing choices, and more social and economic opportunities will benefit people of all ages. But it is likely to be especially beneficial – and urgent – for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s who will soon face some hard choices about where to live. It will offer them the best chance of aging gracefully, rather than facing disruption in old age.

What do you think is important for a happy retirement?

How we treat pedestrians

This image has been doing the rounds on Twitter a lot recently as it so brilliantly shows how we treat pedestrians in so many of our streets. It comes from Daniel Sauter from Urban Mobility Research who was recently in the country to speak at the 2Walkandcycle conference as well as doing an IPENZ talk in Auckland.

Our Streets

As for cycling, that’s catered for somewhere on that vertical wall.

Steps to a more Walkable city

We’ve spent almost 60 years designing our cities and streets based on one overriding principle, the movement of as many vehicles as possible. This is seen not just on our roads but also in how we develop town centres and even our suburbs. It has become so extreme that in many cases it is virtually impossible to get around a place in anything but a car. Of course this isn’t unique to New Zealand with similar situations arising in many countries, but particularly the English speaking new world ones such as Australia, Canada and of course the US.

We have lots of examples of this in Auckland that have come to symbolise this car centric planning and some classic ones are Albany (left) and Botany (right) although there are many other places equally bad on smaller scales. They share a number of similar characteristics such as a huge volume of parking, buildings set back from the street and all surrounded by large roads that are difficult to get across. It’s not uncommon in places like these to people drive 150m to change carpark rather than walk between stores.

Albany-Botany aerial

Yet both of these two places are listed in the Auckland Plan as being Metropolitan centres which means they are meant to (or eventually meant to) accommodate a large proportion of the city’s future residential, retail and employment growth and be linked to the region through efficient transport networks. To achieve this we will effectively need to retrofit them to become much more dense and walkable urban environments focused on people rather than the movement of cars.

This isn’t going to be an easy task but thankfully it’s a challenge now being tackled in many cities around the world that we can learn from. Below are a handful of underlying principles distill down the key elements that make for successful and walkable urban areas courtesy of Design for Walkability which is from SPUR, a research and advocacy group out of the San Francisco Bay area. They are all points that we’ve covered off before but it’s useful in repeating them and of course they are not just useful for the likes of Albany or Botany but should be applied to any urban areas.

1. Create fine-grained pedestrian circulation

Frequent and densely interconnected pedestrian routes are fundamental to walkability, shortening both actual and perceived distances. This can be accomplished by making city blocks smaller or by providing access through blocks via publicly accessible alleys, pathways or paseos (pedestrian boulevards) coupled with frequent crosswalks. A good rule of thumb is that a comfortable walking environment offers a choice of route about once per minute, which is every 60 to 90 metres at a moderate walking pace — typical of a traditional, pre-war city block. This not only allows pedestrians efficient access but also provides visual interest and a sense of progress as new structures and intersections come into view with reasonable frequency.

This kind of “permeability” sometimes meets with resistance from developers and property owners, who may cite security, property rights or site-planning concerns. But street networks are fundamental to walking. Walking five 60 metre blocks through Portland, Oregon, is easy and comfortable. Walking the same 300 metres on a suburban commercial street, past a single distant building and no intersections, is very uncomfortable.

A major statistical analysis found that intersection density and street connectivity are more strongly correlated with walking than even density and mixed land uses. Only proximity to the city centre has a stronger effect.

 2. Orient buildings to street and open spaces

In walkable urban environments, buildings are placed right at the edges of streets and public spaces, rather than being set back behind parking lots or expanses of landscaping. These built edges provide a sense of definition to streets and other spaces, which helps makes the environment more legible and coherent. At all scales, from big-city downtowns to small neighborhood centers, edges help reinforce circulation routes while allowing easy pedestrian access to buildings. Building entrances are on or next to sidewalks. Setbacks from the street are short and exist only to provide public space or a transition from public to private life.

Where buildings are set back behind parking lots or landscaping, pedestrians are isolated from uses and activities, exposed to traffic and forced to walk greater distances. Even if a walking path or sidewalk is provided, pedestrians and transit users receive the message that they are of secondary importance. Loading docks, service entrances, blank walls and driveways should be limited in size and located where they minimize disruption of pedestrian access.

3. Organize uses to support public activity

The way uses are arranged on a site has a major impact on the activity, vitality, security and identity of surrounding streets and spaces.

Active uses (such as retail, lobbies and event spaces) should be placed strategically along pedestrian routes to engage the public and should be designed for transparency and interest.

Secure, private spaces should be placed at site interiors, away from public streets.

Residential entrances should be designed to provide a graceful transition from public to private. Stoops, front porches, balconies and lobbies can all provide privacy while supporting sociability and greater security by increasing the number of “eyes on the street.”

Certain uses, such as garages and cinemas, should be tucked deeply away, but their points of access can be major nodes of activity.

Loading and utility spaces should be hidden from pedestrian frontages.

4.  Place parking behind or below buildings

In newer development, good places for people depend heavily on the artful accommodation of cars. Parking is an expensive, space-hungry and unattractive use — and it’s a key driver of site planning and project finances. It should be provided in multilevel structures where possible and placed where it will not disrupt pedestrian spaces. Well-designed garages can serve multiple buildings, draw people onto streets and allow parking to be managed efficiently. Once they have parked, every driver becomes a pedestrian, so pedestrian garage exits should be located to support and enliven public spaces.

5. Address the human scale with building and landscape details

People experience the built environment at the scale of their own bodies in space. Buildings should meet and engage people at that scale, with awnings, façade elements, lighting, signage and other features along sidewalks. Building forms can be broken down or subdivided visually to lighten the sense of mass. Even very large buildings can meet the human scale in a gracious and accommodating manner.

6. Provide clear, continuous pedestrian access

Wide sidewalks that include elements like trees, lighting, street furniture and public art are the city’s connective tissue. In great walking cities like Barcelona and New York, sidewalks 12 metres wide are not uncommon, but a well-designed 3 metre sidewalk can be adequate in some contexts. Sidewalks should form a continuous network connected by frequent, safe street crossings.

Sidewalks, while fundamental, are only one part of the broader public realm. They should be seamlessly integrated with walkways, paseos, building entrances, transit facilities, plazas and parks. In order for people to feel comfortable walking, the continuity of pedestrian access among major uses and amenities, including transit facilities, is essential.


7. Build complete streets

 Streets can accommodate a variety of travel modes while also serving as public amenities, sites of commerce and green spaces. Vehicular roadways should be no bigger than necessary for their function, and they should apportion space safely among private vehicles, transit, bicycles and parking. If they are well designed, streets can move significant volumes of auto traffic and still support other activities. Small streets are equally important and can limit vehicular speeds and capacity in the service of other functions, from deliveries to social activity.

From The City of San Jose’s Envision 2040 General Plan:

“A complete street provides safe, comfortable, attractive and convenient access and travel for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit users of all ages, abilities and preferences. The design of a complete street considers both the public right-of-way and the land uses and design of adjoining properties, including appropriate building heights and the planning of adjoining land uses that actively engage the public street realm.”

Obviously implementing all these recommendations straight away is a bit tricky but they are definitely something we should be working on too across the region.

h/t Wired

Flagging unsafe streets

There are some people who want to see cyclists decked out from head to toe in high viz along with other assorted measures in the name of safety. If that happens then perhaps pedestrians will be next and in some US cities are already trialling what could be the next, pedestrian flags. Wired reports:

Pedestrians in one Connecticut city might get around a bit more safely, if they don’t mind crossing the street carrying a bright yellow flag.

The city of Bridgeport has started leaving the flags at each end of one downtown crosswalk in an effort to cut down on the number of people hit while crossing the street. The idea behind the program is simple: Drivers are more likely to see—and yield to—pedestrians carrying the flags, which make it abundantly obvious that the person is about to cross the street. Similar efforts have been made, with varying levels of success, in cities around the country, most often on busy arterials that don’t always have traffic lights or crossing signals.

Pedestrian Flag

There’s surely no greater sign that streets have been designed hostile to pedestrians than the suggestion you would need to wave a silly flag while crossing the street all in the hope that a driver might see you. It would be a very sad day if we ever saw it suggested here.

Why we like heritage areas, and how this could help the rest of Auckland

This is a guest post from reader Liz

I have to start by saying that I grew up in Ponsonby/Grey Lynn, a ‘heritage’ area, and count myself as very lucky to have had this chance. I have stayed involved in the area even since moving to other, less expensive, parts of Auckland. In particular, I attended the Waitematā local board Unitary Plan meeting last year, and was frustrated to see it hijacked by a few loud people arguing that density and the Unitary Plan would damage ‘heritage’ areas.

Since then I have wanted to write a post about WHY we like ‘heritage’ and ‘character’ areas, and how focusing on the real reasons could actually benefit the rest of Auckland. I’ll be using the Ponsonby area as an example, although this will be a rough area and some of my examples or pictures may show parts of Freemans Bay, Grey Lynn, etc.

We all know that Ponsonby is desirable and unaffordable. But WHY is it desirable? Why did people want to live in old, cold, run down houses? Before the houses were renovated I can assure you that many were freezing and damp! Why do people pay millions for a small house on a small section? Sure, the neighbourhood looks nice these days, the houses are pretty, cafes are everywhere and Ponsonby Road is booming. But that came with gentrification, it wasn’t the driving force behind it.

The real reason can be seen in the pictures below. Ponsonby, and most other heritage areas, are WALKABLE. They are real, mixed use, functioning neighbourhoods, and this came about by designing neighbourhoods around the needs of people as pedestrians.

Tram built suburbs

The main aspects of this are not confined to Ponsonby, but can be seen in all the thriving and desirable heritage areas of Auckland.

  • Walkability
  • Availability of amenities
  • Ease of connection to other parts of the city.

There are secondary characteristics that fall under these:

  • Walkability and availability of amenities
    • Housing/building density
    • Permeable grid street network with small block sizes and pedestrian walkways
    • Easy access to local shops, services, parks, and other amenities
    • Safe pedestrian environment (footpaths, narrow streets, fewer driveways)
    • Activation and interest at street level (house fronts instead or walls and garage doors)
      • This last point is where the look of houses comes in, as part of the overall look of the neighbourhood. As you can see, it’s much less important than the other factors.
  • Ease of connection to other parts of the city.
    • Proximity to CBD
    • Good bus/train/ferry routes (assisted by grid networks)

It is frankly hypocritical to campaign against any densification in heritage areas, as density is one of the main reasons that heritage areas are so lovely to live in now. What we should be aiming for is ‘density done well’, and seeing how we can allow more people to enjoy the benefits of these areas.  We should also be taking the good examples set by heritage areas and applying these to other parts of the city.

Terraces Norfolk St

Terraces Norfolk St, Ponsonby

Six Sisters John St

The ‘Six Sisters’, John Street, Ponsonby

Raycourt apartments

Raycourt apartments, Jervois Road, Herne Bay

Cottages Summer St

Cottages, Summer Street, Ponsonby

These are what we should be embracing and expanding to the rest of Auckland. The sad fact though is that it’s currently ILLEGAL to build a neighbourhood like Ponsonby. Our zoning regulations enforce low density areas, wasted space around houses, mandatory parking whether or not you have a car, single purpose zones that require you to get in a car to go to the shops or to a café or to work. I find it funny that we zone for all this unnecessary space around houses, and appear to have a phobia of density, and yet places like Ponsonby are the ones where the property values go through the roof – not the new spacious suburbs on the edge of the city. We should be concentrating on fixing our zoning regulations to prioritise people as pedestrians.

Tui Lodge

Look, no setback! (Tui Lodge, John Street, Ponsonby)

John St

No off street parking (John Street, Ponsonby)

Anti-density arguments are often also hidden in campaigns against demolition, change or development in heritage or character neighbourhoods. I do understand that there is a genuine desire to protect neighbourhoods, and that campaigning is seen as the only option because our heritage protection seems almost useless at times. But I worry about scaremongering and about residents’ concerns being co-opted to prevent ANY change or development.

I have to state now that I do not believe that old is always good and new is always bad. It’s not that simple. And I have a degree in Ancient History, for goodness sake. I LOVE old buildings, I love seeing the history in the fabric of a city. The problem is that if we get caught up in the old=good vs. new=bad dichotomy, we forget the reasons that those heritage areas WORK in the first place. We also forget that cities are all about change, and no development means no vitality or renewal in that area.

Terraces George St

Terraces, George Street, Newmarket

The Issac

It is also a mistake to talk only about the type of and ‘look’ of buildings. You could take the nicest villa and set it in an auto-dependent suburb like Howick, and I doubt it would be as desirable as an ugly house in Ponsonby. The fact is that although the heritage and character styles are nice to have in a neighbourhood, they are never going to do the trick if the neighbourhood isn’t functional and walkable already.

Ponsonby Mixed Use

Botany Unmixed Use

It’s also important to remember that the desirability of house styles changes, whereas a walkable, functional neighbourhood can be desirable independently of the house styles within it.

Renall St

Renall Street, Ponsonby. Once considered a slum and was planned to be demolished.

The draft Unitary Plan included increased density allowances and suggested mixed use zoning in many parts of Auckland, focused around town centres and transport links. Most local boards voted down this density, under the misapprehension that it would damage their neighbourhood and ‘heritage’ areas. We need to change this attitude, and encourage neighbourhoods that make it possible and safe for residents to walk to the local shops, walk to school, walk to a café and bump into their neighbours. A neighbourhood wiWe need to allow other parts of Auckland to be desirable through walkability, not just confine this desirability to a few inner suburbs.

We can make submissions to the Unitary Plan until 28 February 2014. Mine will be arguing in favour of walkable, dense, mixed use neighbourhoods for all Aucklanders, not just those who are rich enough to afford Ponsonby.

The Sneckdown

It’s extremely rare for Auckland to get snow and even if it does happen, it would never be heavy enough to give us some sneckdowns. So what is a sneckdown?

It’s a shorter way of saying snowy neckdown and a neckdown is another name for a kerb extension.

Kerb extensions are described well on the Streets wiki as (note: Americans use curb instead of kerb):

Curb extensions are extensions of the curb line into the street, reallocating a portion of street space to pedestrians or ancillary uses. Curb extensions are one of the most effective traffic calming tools, and can be used in a variety of ways, both at corners and mid-block. They can mostly be found in residential neighborhoods and downtown commercial areas. Also known as bulbouts, popouts, or neckdowns, curb extensions increase drivers’ awareness of pedestrians, decrease crossing distance, reduce pedestrian exposure to traffic, and reduce traffic speeds. They are also referred to as neckdowns because they create a narrowing of the street at intersections or midblock.

Studies show curb extensions combined with a marked crosswalk increases yielding of vehicles to pedestrians waiting to cross the street. [1] Curb extensions also have a number of other purposes:

  • Providing a prominent area for landscaping, public art, lighting fixtures, or freestanding A-frame signs.
  • Providing an area for newspaper vending boxes. Cities or merchants sometimes want to remove vending boxes to de-clutter the sidewalk, but newspaper boxes are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and must be accommodated. A large bulbout can provide a good compromise location.
  • Corner bulbouts carefully constructed to neckdown a street also eliminate high speed turning movements (particularly right turns), increasing safety for all users of the street.
  • Providing protection for vehicles parked behind the bulbout.
  • Providing an area for street trees, other landscaping, or a groundwater recharge area, also known as a “bioswale

We actually have a few kerb extensions in Auckland, for example there was one in the Lorne St photo yesterday but they are not widespread. Where they do exist they are usually added as part of a wider streetscape upgrade. I think AT should be looking to roll this type of treatment out across a wide area of Auckland as they can be great for slowing cars down in residential areas however if they were to do that I could see them being forced into conducting numerous traffic studies, multiple rounds of consultation and subject to protest from some residents and local businesses worried about a loss of on street parking or having to drive slower.

What makes the sneckdown so interesting is it because it is caused by weather it happens without consultation and there is nothing that can be done to stop it. When the snow is ploughed it moves it to the edge of the road where it forms in piles creating temporary kerb extensions that people quickly adapt to. The snow also helps highlight just how much space is on our streets that is generally only used to allow vehicles to corner faster. In effect you could argue that a sneckdown is nature’s way of slowing down traffic and making more pedestrian friendly and liveable streets. Clarence Eckerson Jr who runs the awesome Streetfilms told the BBC “The snow is almost like nature’s tracing paper,” and “It’s free. You don’t have to do a crazy expensive traffic calming study. It provides a visual cue into how people behave.”

The image below shows helps explain the sneckdown

And here’s a video from a few years ago showing them in action.

I imagine that if Auckland were to get a massive dumping of snow we would see huge numbers of intersections that could be easily narrowed down. As the chance of that happening is remote, perhaps it’s time to start trialling this with traffic cones?

Auckland’s missing pedestrian crossings

The prioritisation of car movement over other modes has had a major negative effect on Auckland’s urban landscape. Streets have become focussed on their movement function, to the detriment of their place function. This has negatively affected the ability of anyone not using a car to get around. One area this can be seen is the minimal amount of pedestrian crossing facilities on any road deemed an ‘arterial’. I have discovered few especially bad ones recently to highlight this.

The section of the Strand from Parnell Rise to Tamaki Drive has no crossings. While this is the major truck route to the port, there are several large apartments on the north side of the road, and major office and retail on the south side near St Georges Bay Road. Also Gladstone Road (right side of picture) leads to Fred Ambler lookout and the Rose Gardens which are the local parks for people living in the area. So walking down here do see quite a few people rushing across the road dodging the busy traffic.

 The Strand

Manukau Road between Ranfurly Road and Greenlane West is a 900m long section with no crossings.

Manukau Road

The Coast to Coast walkway even passes along the halfway point here, heading east from Mount Eden, down Puriri Drive towards Cornwall Park. This is supposed to be a major tourist attraction to show of Auckland’s varied suburban landscape, so lacking a pedestrian crossing here is totally hopeless.

 Ellerslie Panmure Hwy

Along this 2.4km section of the Ellerslie Panmure Highway there are only 2 mid block crossings, giving a 800m spacing between crossings. Making things even worse is there isn’t even a painted median along here. On the two roads above the braver citizens could at least wait in the median hoping a car wouldn’t choose to use the median at the same time. However on Ellerslie-Panmure it is almost impossible to cross without major danger.

Clearly there are several reasons why our roads need to be more pedestrian friendly. The purpose of these roads shouldn’t just be to move traffic across town as fast as possible. They are also walking and cycling routes to local shops, schools, parks and community facilities.  Not having any crossings makes it more difficult to access these shops. While some more agile people can run across the roads, this is rather dangerous. However for children, those with limited mobility, such as the elderly, wheelchair users and those with prams, not having crossings is a terrible barrier.

Access to public transport is also another very important factor. Both Ellerslie Panmure Highway and Manukau Road are major bus corridors, and key parts of the future frequent bus network. Every bus passenger is a pedestrian, and will need to cross the road when either leaving or arriving at their origin and destination points.  Not having any safe crossing points could put people off catching the bus, and could prevent parents allowing children using the bus for example.

So what needs to happen? Auckland Transport need a major programme to identify areas where there are large gaps. The ideal bus stop spacing is often seen as around 400m, and each bus stop really needs a pedestrian crossing nearby. So this spacing could well work as a rough guide to spacing along major bus routes. However this of course could change dependent on local conditions, such as to allow access to schools, shops and parks.

As we have mentioned Auckland Transport has being going through a process of preparing Route Optimisation. However unfortunately this has been focussed on increasing throughput of vehicles, sometimes to the detriment of pedestrians and buses. A much broader approach needs to be taken that is truly multi-modal which will increase accessibility, safety and overall help make our streets better for all users.

Walkability to improve health

A good Ted Talk from the Mayor of Oklahoma about how the city the city managed to lose weight in part by making the city more walkable.

How off-street parking is hurting our neighbourhoods

Brent Toderian has written an interesting piece on Planetizen about the massive impact that garages (or perhaps more specifically off street parking) – has on just how walkable neighbourhoods or auto dependant our neighbourhoods are. The piece is quite timely with formal submissions on the Unitary Plan closing at the end of next month.

Many years ago, a suburban ward councillor in the city I was planning for, asked me for some unusual advice. Residents had been calling about speeding on the roads in their neighbourhood, and the councillor was wondering if posting lower speed limits might be a way to address the problem.

After looking at the circumstances, I told the councillor that the root problem was too many front drive garages.

What do garages have to do with speeding? In suburbs all over North America, front drive garages are causing ripple effects that change the design and nature of our neighbourhoods in many ways that we don’t initially realize.

Think about it. When you have a two, or even a three car garage in the front of your house, that usually creates a large “curb cut” driveway out to the street. That makes it hard, or even impossible, to park cars on the side of the street, because you can’t block driveways. Thus many suburban streets have little, if any, on-street parking.

How does that lead to speeding? Municipal streets are designed with a “design speed” in mind – a sort of rational speed that a reasonable person would want to instinctively drive at, based on the width and other conditions of the street design. I’ve heard it suggested by transportation experts that the actual design speed of most streets is actually higher than the posted speed limit, leading to an instinctive urge to want to drive faster than the speed limit. This has led in part to the growth in recent decades of the “traffic calming” movement, where new street designs or alternative design standards seek to create “friction” that slows down speed more effectively than the posted speed limit does.

But in these garage-filled suburbs, it gets worse than this regular design speed challenge. That’s because the width of streets across our suburbs is based on the assumption of on-street parking, usually on both sides, or at least one. So the streets are wide enough to accommodate very comfortable drive lanes, plus the on-street parking room. But as I’ve explained, the front drive garages and related driveways prevent that on-street parking, leading to extra-wide driving lanes with even higher design speeds. So its not surprising that people speed on these roads – the design is essentially tempting them to!

Of course many of the newer suburbs in New Zealand have exactly the same issues as being described above and it’s worth remembering that the outcome of garages and off street parking is not just something that was purely about people choosing it but that off street parking was enforced through minimum parking requirements.

In my suburb the prevalence of off street parking means that very few people ever park on the street itself leaving many roads very wide and conducive to speeding (which many do). Luckily in my suburb the frequent curb cuts that do happen are not the style where the footpath suddenly drops in a bid to make it easier for cars but makes for a quite uneven footpath and definitely not one friendly towards people in wheelchairs.

Perhaps one upside of the unused parking spaces is it should be fairly easy to implement the likes of cycle lanes on many streets – although probably not protected ones due to the need to allow for frequent driveway access.

But it’s not just speeding that is an issue; it’s never nice to hear about kids that get run over in driveways by family members who didn’t realise they were there. Safekids NZ says:

Every two weeks a child is hospitalised with serious injuries received from a vehicle driving on a private driveway in New Zealand. A further five children are killed annually, on average, in the same way. Most children injured in driveway incidents are toddlers, aged about two years old and when death does not occur, the injuries they receive are often severe. The driver is usually a close family member. The devastating impact of these events upon families cannot be overstated.

But the off street parking often creates additional problems with how our houses and streets are designed. Brent continues:

On top of the speeding, multiple garages mean that the house is set back deeply from the street, usually at least 6 metres with no (or at best small) porches, separating the house from any easy social interaction with the sidewalk. The setback and blocking garages (often referred to as “snout houses” if they pert rude closer to the street than the actual house) also mean there’s no “eyes on the street,” which makes the street less safe and social. Such houses even fail the “trick-or-treat test” at Halloween! Can you find the door bell, or is it hidden from street view? It can sometimes feel like there’s no house at all, or at best that it’s a house attached to a garage, rather than a garage attached to a house.

Actually the interaction with the sidewalk may be moot, as there likely isn’t a sidewalk anyway…that’s another thing the curb cut often replaces. No continuous sidewalk, no landscape green strip, and often most disappointing, no street trees! Add to these losses the previously discussed absence of on-street parking, which can actually play a valuable role as a buffer separating pedestrians from moving cars, and you have a significant impact on the quality of the walking experience, the walkability, of the neighbourhood. When the walking experience is less inviting, more people choose to drive, with all of the health, expense, environmental and social/quality-of-life implications that come with that choice.

In many things it’s often what seems like small insignificant issues that can end up causing massive problems. Off street parking in itself isn’t the only cause of auto-dependency but it certainly contributes towards it. Further as Brent points out these issues are ones that can get significantly worse with a greater density of housing unless the building/neighbourhood is well designed to deal with it.

Parking Curb Cuts - Stonefields

At the roads in Stonefields have been narrowed down

Back in Auckland the Unitary Plan will be setting the rules about parking and garages in the future. It’s generally an improvement over what exists now as the plan removes parking minimums from most Metropolitan, Town and local centres (some rural ones excluded), from the Terraced house and Apartment and Mixed Use zones and from the City Centre Fringe Overlay area. However they will still apply in single and both mixed housing zones which are the ones that make up the majority of Auckland. There are no controls proposed to deal with the issue of how off street parking interacts back with the street and the only requirements around garages is to try and reduce the visual dominance of them in dwellings.

ADM Parking issues

I’ll leave the last word to Brent

Obviously garages aren’t the only issue and challenge effecting our suburban street designs, or even the biggest. Outdated engineering street standards, designing for fire truck sizes, snow storage expectations in winter cities, and the whole underlying disconnectedness of typical subdivision design, all play huge roles in our history of car-dependant sprawl. But don’t underestimate the role that garages have played. As we strive to build smarter, more walkable suburbs, while undertaking “sprawl repair” on those we’ve already built, it’s time for a more candid and thoughtful discussion about the ripple effects of, and alternatives to, all those front drive garages. They matter a great deal to the design and enjoyment of our neighbourhoods, well beyond that garage door.

Three Quick Wins for Auckland Walkability

This is a guest post by Brent Toderian & Darren Davis. Brent was recently in the Auckland. They have requested we post it although it originally appeared on the Shape Auckland site.

After six packed days working with staff from Auckland Council and Auckland Transport last month, it was very clear to our international urbanism consultant, and co-author of this article Brent Toderian, that there are a lot of great things happening in Auckland city-making! From a growing shared streets and spaces network and double-phased scramble intersection crossings on Queen Street, and the revitalization of the Britomart area following the return of rail to the downtown, to the high value, low-cost placemaking in the harbourside Wynyard Quarter, and the innovative redevelopment of a former airbase into the Hobsonville Point new urban community, Auckland is building great momentum around a culture of strong urban design. But that’s not to say that tremendous work isn’t still needed! If Auckland is to achieve its ambitious and admirable aspiration to become the world’s most liveable city, another level of achievement is necessary.

Brent’s work with staff covered the gambit of city-making issues large and small, from their new Unitary Plan and City Centre planning and implementation, to housing, transport, design, density & culture. Still, some of the most interesting work focused on how a liveable city for people often comes down to walkability. The following “top three” relatively quick wins for a more walkable city, written below from the perspective of Brent’s observations, reflect some relatively low-cost opportunities toward a more liveable & successful Auckland.

1. Create “eye candy” for pedestrians!

Brent Toderian - Motorway landscaping

Lush motorway landscaping: Eye candy for car drivers

Auckland’s motorway system has some of the best and lushest landscaping I’ve seen anywhere – what I call eye candy for car drivers! Unfortunately, I saw a lot less evidence of such attention and effort dedicated to improving the walking experience. It’s time for more attention to the pedestrian at eye level, such as addressing all those blank walls, including all the glazing at street level that is misappropriated for advertising (which defeats its intended purpose of having eyes on the street, and providing something interesting for walkers to see).

The key to walkable streets is providing an interesting and engaging pedestrian experience. Although the horizontal details of public realm design are important, as discussed in the next section, the vertical view at eye level along the street wall is particularly critical to get right.

This could start with conducting a visual walker’s audit of the downtown and inner-city, perhaps engaging the public to participate through a photographic competition, and committing to quickly address the 10 worst offenders.

The blank walls could be seen as a canvass for artistic expression (and by this, I include commissioned or sanctioned graffiti). Another thought I’ve shared with staff – when the cut and cover section of the City Rail Link is built along Albert Street, why not let artists and kids loose on the inevitable construction hoarding, turning it into an arts project, and turning an eyesore and source of scowls into a creative and cultural opportunity and source of smiles?

Brent Toderian - Street Art

Street art near Karangahape Road

2. Fix up the sidewalks!

Even in the city centre, the quality of the walking environment is very much hit and miss, with some excellent pedestrian and “shared” streets in a rapidly connecting network, but plenty of mediocre areas and shoddy stand-out spots. Further out, walking through areas like Eden Terrace exhibits “billiard table” smooth road surfaces combined with narrow, uneven and poorly maintained sidewalks. On top of this, slip lanes with no provision, let alone priority, for pedestrians, reinforce the feeling that pedestrians come last in the mobility food chain.

Brent Toderian - Eden Terrace

It should be the other way around, putting pedestrians at the top of the hierarchy. Even balance will not do, as this is frequently code for business as usual. To be more specific, the prioritisation should be walking, biking, and transit, in that order, which makes the city work better for all modes of travel, including driving!

I’ve suggested walking audits of the pedestrian networks, building out from the most heavily walked streets in the city centre, to areas on the edge of the downtown, and then to the second tier centres, so that investment can be targeted at the most heavily walked areas. This could be in the form of an action plan of pedestrian improvements to be implemented within six months.

Brent Toderian - Elliott St

Elliott Street shared space, City Centre

3. Activate & Get More Out of Streets!

Many streets in Auckland seem scaled for peak hour traffic (and sometimes apparently well beyond peak traffic, on streets such as Hobson & Nelson Streets). This means that for 20 hours a day (and perhaps 24 hours a day on weekends) they are over-scaled for the volume of traffic using them.

A simple way to strategically make use of such surplus car space for place-making and walkability is to convert it to other uses when not needed for peak car movements. A good example of this is the Saturday farmers market, which takes one city block at Britomart downtown, and positively contributes to the vitality and people-friendliness of the whole Britomart area. Such ideas could and should be used more widely – for example, activating parts of Queen Street on weekends.

Brent Toderian - Britomart Market

Britomart Farmers’ Market

New York City, a favourite city of mine, has powerfully shown what you can achieve with simple things like green paint and basic street furniture, in converting dull car-dominated areas into lively people-oriented places. The counter-intuitive irony of such improvements along Broadway in New York, is that they’ve delivered better outcomes not only for the people using the great new public spaces, but for all road user groups, including car drivers (and only 25% of Manhattan households own a car).

Vancouver has embraced this approach as well, through our “Viva Vancouver” street activation program that I formerly co-chaired. Building on the observation during the 2010 Winter Olympics that streets closed for civic celebration don’t translate into the world ending, seasonal and pilot street installations, “parklet” transformations of parking spaces into public places, and other placemaking approaches are becoming common around the city. The streets have become our civic living rooms, our stages for civic life. It’s nothing short of transformative.

Auckland has shown it already understands this “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach (as New York’s Project for Public Spaces calls it) with many of its simple but powerful pilots and designs on the Auckland waterfront.

“Lighter, quicker, cheaper” in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter.

“Lighter, quicker, cheaper” in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter.

Similar treatments could start in streets such as Victoria Street as a precursor for the planned linear park in this street. Some may be put in as pilots, and others as “bridges” to a more permanent redevelopment. If they don’t work for whatever reason, they can simply and inexpensively be pulled out. If they succeed, which frankly they usually do, they can be made permanent with more investment in the lasting design, when funding becomes available.

While my six days working in Auckland hardly qualify me as an expert on your city, my suggestions here are somewhat universal in idea (if not in application), and based on proven successes in cities around the world. Efforts to enhance walkability are being prioritised in many global cities as a key way of making them more people-friendly, while positively contributing to both liveability and economic success. My fervent hope is that Auckland will make some quick positive steps in these directions, amongst your many important city-making efforts!

Brent Toderian is a global expert and consultant on city planning, design and advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, the former Chief Planner for Vancouver Canada, and the founding President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian.

Darren Davis is the Principal Public Transport Planner: Network and Service Policy at Auckland Transport with 20 years experience in transport in Auckland, including being a public transport lobbyist, planner, strategic advisor and consultant. Darren hosted Brent’s recent visit to Auckland on behalf of Auckland Council. Follow him on Twitter @DarrenDavis10