It’s really not a contest when one asks what are the two most horrible streets in Auckland’s CBD – clearly the answer is Nelson Street and Hobson Street. If one were to really choose between the two I would probably say that Nelson is just a little bit more horrible than Hobson Street – because there’s literally nothing on it of interest, whereas Hobson Street has a few nice buildings such as St Matthews in the City.

Both streets are effectively extensions of the Southern and Northwest motorways – and are high-speed (supposedly 50kph speed limit but I don’t think anyone drives at 50kph down Nelson Street in particular) one-way streets. They have at least 4 lanes of traffic all heading in the one direction (sometimes 6 lanes if you count turning lanes), and drivers tend to get involve in mass drag races off the line, making both roads extremely scary for pedestrians – and generally overall resulting in both streets being very very unpleasant. The photo below is of Hobson Street, and gives a good idea about its width and general pedestrian unfriendliness. The reason these streets are this way is because of what happens at their southern (or “top”) end. Nelson Street is effectively a continuation of off-ramps from both the Southern Motorway and the Northwest Motorway; while Hobson Street is effectively a big onramp onto both these motorways. Each road is wide enough to feel like a motorway, and as a result cars tend to drive along them as if they’re still on the motorway. I would be interested to know how many pedestrian, cyclist and vehicle crashes/injuries/deaths there have been on these two streets. Probably a fair few I would think.

So what can be done about it? In my opinion most of the problem arises from the simple fact that one-way streets this wide are a really bad idea. Sure, they help shift a lot of traffic very quickly, but this is the CBD we’re talking about! There are a lot of people living, working and undertaking activities in this area. The central city should be a place for people. Yet at the same time I am realistic, and realise that these streets play a fairly important role in the distribution of traffic in central Auckland – although with CMJ upgrades over the past few years there are now alternative ramps heading to and from the city to the south and the west from Wellesley Street, which is in the very heart of the CBD. So we can’t close these ramps.

However, what I think we can do is make both Nelson and Hobson Streets back into two way roads, and reconfigure the ramps at their southern end (only a relatively minor reconfiguration is necessary) so that Nelson Street becomes directly linked in both directions to the Southern Motorway, while Hobson Street becomes directly linked in both directions to the Northwest Motorway (this is far simpler than the vice-versa). The rearrangement would be done as shown below: The red coloured onramp – from Nelson Street to the Southern Motorway, would pass underneath the blue ramp and the retained Hobson to Northwest Motorway onramp. The blue Northwest Motorway to Hobson Street ramp effectively just needs to be straightened from the existing alignment that curves it to Nelson Street. As far as upgrades to spaghetti junction go, this is pretty damn basic.

What this would allow us to do is create two quite nice boulevards, perhaps with planted medians, wider footpaths and a generally more pleasant pedestrian environment. Furthermore, this might actually result in better traffic flows – particularly during the afternoon peak as all the outbound vehicles would be split across two different roads rather than all being concentrated onto Hobson Street. It would be pretty easy to ensure that both streets were two lanes wide in each direction, plus a median – as we do have six lanes of space to work within.

Obviously I don’t see such a change happening any time particularly soon, but at the same time I don’t think we can write off Hobson Street and Nelson Street as forever being as horrible as they are now. We should do something to improve them, and this is my idea for how that could be achieved.

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30 comments

  1. Agreed, these are the two most horrible streets to walk along and are also going to see a lot of development in the future with developments like Telecom’s HO and Rhubarb Lane. Out of interest how would you handle the other end of the streets, particularly Hobson Street which gets a bit awkward at that northern end.

  2. Ideally I would just end it at Fanshawe Street and demolish the lower Hobson street viaduct, which is a horrible piece of infrastructure. Alternatively it could be made two-way as well.

  3. Underneath the Hobson St viaduct there is an old ramp that could be reinstated to take traffic from Hobson eastbound onto Customs St.
    Ideally this could be done at the same time as removing some or all traffic lanes from Quay St and turning lower Hobson St into a simple two lane cul-de-sac to access Princes Wharf and the eastern Viaduct.

    The western quarter of the CBD really is quite a wasteland, sort of like Eden Terrace but without any of the vibrancy or street life. Those two arterials really are a big barrier to that part of the city ever taking off.

  4. Yup, that old ramp on Customs Street West was the last cobbled street surface in Auckland; I vaguely recall that it was asphalted over in the early 1970s. The cobbles are probably still there and if revealed could act as a very effective traffic calming measure!

  5. Your scheme has the added advantage of getting rid of that ugly ‘sculpture’ flower at the end of the Nelson St off ramp.

    In 1997, when the Central Area Plan was notified, Hobson and Nelson Streets were designated as zones of cafes and restaurants, with seating outside. Yeah right! Off to Council. Please may I speak with the responsible planner (who wasn’t available, but got instead a lovely woman). Errr, these are designated as a cafe/restaurant zone with seating outside? “Yep, we’re looking to create a boulevard effect, and the width of the footpath means that you can get lots of tables and chairs out there.” Errr, you do realise that these two streets are on and off ramps to the motorways, right? “No they are not. They are simply one way streets. And would be perfect for cafes/restaurants etc.”.

    Naturally enough I had to make a submission pointing out the stupidity of the idea, spelling out that to all intents and purposes, Hobson/Nelson are motorway on/off ramps no matter what the name on the map said. The zoning was dropped when the plan was opened up for hearings. Sigh. The only saving grace is that planners nowdays have less propensity to ignore real world realities.

  6. When was that viaduct built? I remember going to the Tepid Baths a lot as a kid (late 80s I think)and I think it was under construction at that time.

    Chris, I think council has effectively “written off” Nelson & Hobson Streets, choosing focus effort on improving other arterials. To me that’s not really good enough. These streets to have potential to be useful boulevards and it’s not good enough for them to be defacto motorways.

  7. I lived on Nelson Street in my first three-and-a-half years in Auckland, and agree something is needed to be done here. And quick – the area otherwise is at big risk of becoming an Auckland slum in 10-20 years when all those rabbit-hutch appartments degrade. Making it a more pleasant place at street level would make it more likely that owners and tenants care more about the place.

  8. This is a low-hanging fruit to improve the Auckland CBD. I wonder how much lower the rents are and how much higher the vacancies are along these streets. You would think that the property owners would insist upon making it back to a two way.

  9. The problem is many people just haven’t really given it any thought, the idea had never crossed my mind before. I wonder if any traffic modeling has ever been done for an idea like this?

  10. Matt L I know it’s on the council’s radar already. Convincing the 50,000 or so commuters (and associated talk radio knuckle draggers) that may be inconvenienced will be an issue. This is when/where we need leadership…

  11. Morecityplease – and hence the problem with politics these days, politicians are only worried about getting elected again and not on actually making a lasting difference. We need someone who is going to actually have some guts to stand up and say it is better this way and we are going to do it despite what the vocal minority are saying (in some ways this is what Rodney Hyde and Steven Joyce are doing)

  12. Matt, I guess the problem there is whose definition of “better” are we talking about? In terms of awareness of how we could improve Auckland, well that’s a big reason why I run this blog. To throw ideas out there and see what people think of them.

    As far as I know I was the first person to raise the idea of a Northwest Busway. It seems to be growing in popularity all the time now.

  13. I have to ask why none of this was considered when they spent all this money reconfiguring the exits of spaghetti junction – that would have been the time for this to have been done. Ironically, NZTA’s abundance of money for motorways is probably what could help this project proceed but it will need to be sold as a way of improving flows onto the motorway, as social considerations seem to count for nothing in Auckland’s motorway planning.

    Interesting about the offramp under Lower Hobson street, it’s clearly visible in Google Earth but I’ve honestly never noticed it in all my years in Auckland!

    ACC’s Waterfront 2040 plans did have the lower Hobson street viaduct being closed and turned into a pedestrian walkway, I’d rather it was demolished along with associated narrowing of Quay street – while they’re at it they could demolish the Viaduct running from the parking garage to Fanshawe street.

    These plans would be an significant way to revitalise this side of town, rents in the apartments around here are not only lower but finding tenants is more difficult than for apartments on the other side of the Queen street gulley – so it would be a win win for owners in this area as well. It’s no small wonder as the times I’ve walked around here I haven’t wanted to hang around; cars tend to drive right through red lights and using the pedestrain crossings is like russian roulette. The road feels so wide and the crossing signal from memory is pretty short.

  14. In terms of low-hanging fruit which doesn’t involve NZTA – their reluctance to allow cycle and pedestrian access across the Wellesley street motorway overbridge shows they won’t be interested in any of this. I would suggest that Queen street style ‘barn-dance’ (i.e people can cross in all directions) phasing is installed on all intersections along Hobson and Nelson streets – along with longer pedestrian crossing times. How about some countdown timers… Secondly ACC should extend their red light camera trial to these intersections (there used to be one at the intersection with Nelson street) and consider getting the police to install speed cameras in the area.

    Additional measures in a simiar vein would be traffic calming measure such as elevated crossing areas. But getting speeds down to below 50 km/h would already help a lot around here.

    1. Council has seen the error of their ways and have agreed to open up negotiations with NZTA for such links across the Wellesley overbridge.

      Additionally NZTA have committed funds to building a cycleway from this overbridge, up the gully and around somehow to the North Western Cycleway.

  15. Interesting ACC already are trialling red light cameras at this intersection.

    “The biggest improvement was recorded at the Nelson St motorway off-ramp’s intersection with Union St, where red-light offences fell 79 per cent from pre-trial days, turning it from the worst to the best of the six surveyed camera sites.

    Of total flows through the intersection of 759,285 vehicles on surveyed days during the trial, only 7445 ran the red – just under one in every 100.

    That compared with 4.78 red-light runners out of every 100 vehicles before the trial.”

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/road-safety/news/article.cfm?c_id=308&objectid=10577757&ref=facebook

  16. RTC, I certainly agree that unfortunately the only way to make this project happen would be if it was shown to improve traffic flows. Which really is the wrong way to deal with transport projects in the CBD.

    I far prefer the approach being taken on Queen Street with the doubled pedestrian phasing of traffic lights. These actually create vehicle congestion, and people slowly learn to avoid Queen Street as driving along it will take forever. I have very much noticed a reduction in traffic volume along Queen Street over the past year.

  17. Great blog again. It points to a whole host of issues, including lack of leadership and lack of co-ordinated strategy for this part of the CBD between all those responsible – putting cars before people or place.
    What do we want our CBD to be like? We have a transport strategy independent from “place” strategies, totally missing the point that the two are inseperable.
    Interesting Auckland City have looked at it a number of times, including a large staff workshop to generate ideas for Hobson Street when Rob Adams was last over from Melbourne. He chaired the workshop and commented on some great ideas. Nothing has happened since.
    Also interesting that Auck. City have now decided to engage Jan Gehl to do their usual city centre study, presumably having seen how good the Christchurch work is, recently published – http://www.ccc.govt.nz/cityleisure/projectstoimprovechristchurch/publicspacepubliclifestudy/index.aspx
    But i gather Auck. City are not prepared to pay what he normally charges (CCC’s cost over $300k), and so will only get a scaled down version! typical.
    These Gehl studies are great, but only package up stuff we already know and put an international label on. So many people know what needs to be done, as evidenced on this blog, but the problem is getting on and doing it, because the powers that be right at the top are clueless. So a Gehl exercise is valid if only it lends credibility to issues we raise constantly.

    1. Council staff only do what their managers tell them to do. The big managers are the problem. They absolutely know about Gehl, about how easy it is to do what he recommends, about the big payoffs, but they are scared. Of what, who knows?

  18. The pedestrian phases on the lights on Queen st are great. I often use the ones at shortland street and have noticed that cars on Queen st get a phase then pedestrians, then Shortland St then Pedestrians etc. The car phases are also short so it means that if I am walking with the intention of crossing there and I am not at the crossing yet, I won’t rush to get the light as I know it is only 30 secs to 1 min till the crossing is available again. This has to also make it much safer as people aren’t running between cars to cross.

  19. Wow I hadn’t heard that Auckland City had engaged Jan Gehl for a city centre study. He’s unbelievably awesome and will probably say that our CBD is a horrible car dominated place.

    I wonder if we’ll listen to him though?

  20. Also just thinking about it there may be traffic benefits from doing this, particularly in the afternoon peak. If there is a problem with traffic on the Southern it can affect all/most of Hobson St, people are wanting to get home asap so try to race up other lanes and then pull in closer to the motorway ramps. This then holds up cars trying to head west even though the NW might be clear. The result is everyone is held up rather than just the motorway affected (I’m sure the reverse also happens sometimes of the NW holding up the southern)

  21. Yeah that was my thinking Matt, that it could be very advantageous to split the traffic across two streets. A disadvantage may be the need for more right turns from Union Street into both Nelson & Hobson, and also the need for more light phases at intersections with Cook, Wellesley and Victoria Streets. But they may be relatively minor problems.

  22. King St in Melbourne is an example of what these streets might look like if they were ‘normalised’. It is a city centre street that connects two expressways, and it is designated at the main ‘bypass’ and I imagine it would have the highest traffic flows of any Melbourne CBD street.
    The form is quite simple, two lanes plus a third parking/peak lane each way, a hard median with a mix of planting and turning bays near intersections, wide footpaths and trees up each side.

    A good view here (notice the humans using the street in addition to the cars):
    http://maps.google.com.au/?ie=UTF8&ll=-37.817713,144.956344&spn=0,359.994319&t=k&z=18&layer=c&cbll=-37.817799,144.956382&panoid=V6wnCczjgUA1icZGUNnwBA&cbp=12,353.49,,0,-1.03

  23. Given the ramp change over is required wouldn’t NZTA have to be onside and fund that part of the idea..?

  24. Jeremy, yes certainly NZTA would need to be involved. But that would be the case anyway to some degree as you’d need to get some funding from them for the upgrade to the arterial routes.

  25. The ramps would fall inside their SH corridor so they would need to plan, approve and fund that entire part wouldn’t they..?

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