This is a Guest Post by regular commenter Patrick Reynolds and was originally published in Metro magazine

Queen St, from the water to Mayoral Drive, has an unusual and unexpected feature for a city street in Auckland. It’s easy to miss but it’s true: There is not one vehicle entrance to a building from Queen St. Not one car parking building, not one loading bay, not one ramp to an executive garage under a tower block. The only way to enter a building from Queen St is on foot. There are a few very short term road side parks among the bus stops and loading bays, but really every car in Queen St is on its way to and from somewhere else. And so slowly.

People often talk about traffic with words like ‘flow’ as if it is best understood as a liquid, when really what it is actually like is a gas. Traffic expands like a gas to fill any space available to it [which is why it is futile to try to road build your out of congestion]. There are cars in Queen St simply because we let them be there, like an old habit we’ve never really thought about. l think it’s time we did.

No traffic moves well on Queen St, certainly not the buses, it is usually quicker to walk from the Ferry Building to the Town Hall than to catch any Queen St bus. Emergency vehicles get stuck, deliveries battle their way through. It is clear why there is traffic on the four east-west cross streets of Customs, Victoria, Wellesley, and Mayoral. These are essential through routes to and from motorways and parking buildings. But they too get held up by all the turning in and out of the intersections with Queen St. Because as it is now the lights have long and complicated phases to handle every possible car movement and the growing volume of pedestrians.

It seems likely that simply by removing the private car from the three blocks from Mayoral Drive down to Customs St the city will function so much better. The intersections of Customs, Victoria and Wellesley, will be able to have much better phasing for both pedestrians and the cross town traffic, as well speeding the buses as they would effectively be on bus lanes all the way up Queen St. Air quality in the Queen St gully would improve immensely. The bottom of Shortland and the newly refurbished Fort streets will become the sunny plazas they should be. Inner city retailers should see the benefits of the Queen St becoming a more appealing place to be in and the cross town traffic flowing better will make car use more viable.

And there will the space to convert the smoky diesel bus routes into modern electric trams to really make the most of this improvement and speed even more shoppers and workers to and from the rest of the city.

If we’re brave enough to take this all the way up to Mayoral Drive we get the real chance to link the new Art Gallery, the Library, and St James area across the Queen St divide to Aotea Square, the Town Hall and the new Q Theatre. A chance to really build a cultural heart at this end of town.

Furthermore it could all be done with a few cones, signs, traffic light changes and a media campaign. At least to start.

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  1. “There is not one vehicle entrance to a building from Queen St.”

    Well spotted. Why have I never noticed that before? It rather gives the lie to the business owners claim that removing traffic from Queen street will reduce their customer numbers.

    Logically, since everyone in Queen Street must have walked into it from somewhere else there should be negligible change to the number of pedestrians.

    1. My guess is it will increase the numbers of pedestrians- CBD retailers are fools if they think they can or indeed should even try to compete with the suburban malls for shoppers wanting car convenience. If they had any sense they would encourage the growth of PT and target those people by offering free delivery of big stuff but mainly by building on the CBD as a unique and high quality experience. The council is trying for them but they usually only complain.

      1. Yes a lot of small retailers are their own worst enemies in this respect. It’s why the installation of a pedestrian crossing in the middle of Glenfield (Nth Shore) where 1500 people jaywalk each day( and I use the term advisedly, it’s quite hazardous) to get to and from the local shops opposite the Glenfield Mall was effectively vetoed because it would require removing two car parks from the small shops. There are ped Xings up and down the road, but not right next to the shops. They think they are competing with Albany and Glenfield Mall for car parking, and of course, they are not.

  2. Thank you, Patrick: this is really superbly written and argued. Maybe expand it a little and fire it off to the Herald op-ed pages? Can’t hurt, and just might help…

  3. This makes so much sense, and is written very well. Andrew will like the letter published in latest Metro agreeing with you: “Cars on Queen St are a menace.”

    It would be interesting to see some analysis done on the economic value of each metre width of footpath on Queen Street to counter the ‘but the cars are crucial to NZ’s economy!’ arguments.

  4. “Traffic expands like a gas to fill any space available to it” What an excellent post. My observations in Sydney have seen this expansion effect occur on our Harbour Tunnel, Eastern Distributor, M5 East and the F3 freeway just to name a few. They were all built to alleviate congestion and are all chockers. Governments just cannot understand that the answer is public transport. As for Queen Street I would love to be able to travel it on a tram. Hopping on and off wherever I wanted with an all day fare courtesy of a HOP card would be great.

  5. I do like this idea but it does make me wonder how this will change the surrounding area. If the lower half of Queen Street does become pedestrianised what would happen to the upper half of Queen Street as a result? Will Mayoral Drive become more busy as it becomes a T intersections? Also will Wellesly Street and Victoria street become faster as they will go straight through Queen Street with only pedestrian lights preventing continuous access. Can we accurately predict the change in driving behavior as a result of pedestrianising part of Queen Street, and if so what will that look like?

    1. Well fear of change is always an issue, but I struggle with any analysis that suggests that how central AK is now structured is in any way optimal. Mayoral Drive was forced violently though an existing street pattern, demolishing a great number of buildings and creating new intersections and complexity with the justification that it would alleviate traffic in the Queen St valley. Of course this hasn’t happened because like all new roads it simply generated new movements, so to get any benefit out of this sorry imposition we will need to restrict the movements we want to reduce- ie in Queen. So yes, it may increase traffic on Mayoral, but that is what the thing was built for.

      Ultimately, of course, I see traffic numbers falling in the very centre of the CBD as we get round to building real alternatives and as the intensity of occupation continues to increase and the restrictions on driving become more evident. There is still too much subsidised parking in the CBD but this land use will change and some buildings will get repurposed as the car numbers reduce, but it is best that this is managed. Offer real options and people are already moving to them, apply a gradual increase in restriction, which is happening naturally and this will compound. Again this is already happening. And the great prize is already evident; the recent improvements to urban form can just keep continuing and we can get the great quality city that AK can be.

      Restricting drivers will always cause the entitled to lash out, the way to do it in my view is boldly, complicated time of day changes and partial restrictions like on Grafton Bridge just invite arguments where motorists seem to be happy to claim stupidity and blindness in the cause of their right to drive everywhere. Physical barriers are best. As well as simple rules: ie no private cars ever. But note I am not suggesting a pedestrian mall, but a shared space with transit, taxis, delivery [perhaps at certain times] and of course lots of access for emergency vehicles, no curbs, lots of shoppers/workers.

      There is an argument around temporary closures; some say try it out, I am mindful of a risk here. Surprising drivers with a partial blockage for a limited time is no way to change behavior; more likely to invite angry ranting and a determination to fight for how it was.

      But remember the gas analogy; it works the other way too; drivers will adjust to new routes or new modes.

        1. Yes that’s an interesting issue- Universal access is the answer I guess, still Smith + Caugheys for example can be accessed from Wellesley and Elliot…. but how about the Town Hall? There is one hotel in the middle of Queen too… just one though, shows how this really is the easiest street in the world to do this to. I wouldn’t allow any taxi stands in Queen, and in fact the cut off streets like Wyndam would make ideal places for taxi ranks. Taxis do offer a valuable service and remember the retailers will always fight this as they image that cars buys things…. so they’ll need placating. But if you think of London, the taxis are a vital part of the mix there… I dunno I’m not fixed on this… but some people cannot be expected to walk far at all especially with luggage.

        2. Sure, if someone actually really needs a taxi for mobility that’s ok but we are only talking about closing queen st, not the side streets, so anyone should be able to get within half a block of where they want to go. The town hall has access down the back of grey’s ave (or via the parking lot under Aotea sq). Are people who have really serious mobility issues going anywhere near queen st currently? I doubt it.

          As for London taxis, they make the shared cycle/bus lanes even more treacherous for cycles…

        3. It will be interesting what will happen to CBD carparking when cars are reduced in the CBD. There is an interesting article in the vancouverobserver called “New life for unused parking lots”

      1. I agree entirely. Yes traffic in the long term will decrease in the CBD especially as we gradually close off side streets and turn them into shared space. There is a really interesting article in the Vancouver Observer called “New life for unused parking lots”. It talks about how carparks in the CBD have become increasingly vacant due to the increase in people choosing to take public transport. This can be directly attributed to Vancouver’s investment in public transport and cycling infrastructure in recent years.

        I think this is a great opportunity to investigate what we can do with potential empty CBD parking in downtown Auckland. If in the next few years we remove cars and put in a light rail line it will dramatically reduce the need for carparking in the CBD. Such spaces in Auckland could be sold off to developers creating an opportunity to maximise density and gather revenue for turning other empty carparks into public space. Privately owned carparking might get turned into backyards or social space for those businesses at lunchtime. Auckland could end up with a massive opportunity in dramatically increase public space as a result of seriously improved cycling and public transport infrastructure.

      2. “There is an argument around temporary closures; some say try it out, I am mindful of a risk here. Surprising drivers with a partial blockage for a limited time is no way to change behavior; more likely to invite angry ranting and a determination to fight for how it was.”

        The normal traffic light patterns wouldn’t work if you closed the street temporarily. You’d need a normal mode and a closed mode. I don’t know if you can do that with traffic lights. If you can, then I don’t know whether the mode can be set at some control center, or a technician needs to visit each light.

        1. I think you can mess with traffic lights fairly easily. I remember the Queen/Victoria lights being held on green for Victoria Street for ages once when a dignitary’s motorcade went through.

  6. Great idea. Would have been great to have implemented this before world cup due to the increase of foot traffic. Also need to realise how hard it is already for out of towners finding their way around Auckland, One way streets and all the traffic lights are a lot to handle, very likely for people to go down the side streets that lead to Queen Street so opportunity for u turns or some way out needs to be available and lots of CLEAR signage. We dont want fining those with private cars on queen street to be taken advantage of like some of the other money revenues the Council has, like the Bus lanes for example (with not so clear signage re: FairGo 2010).

  7. Great post. When I read the herald article yesterday pedestrianisation was said to be too expensive. I assumed this must be due to having to compensate for access to existing properties. If this is not the case, why is it considered so expensive?

    Phasing on the through roads would be so improved you could almost have default pedestrian crossing, and maybe 30 seconds per 2 minutes for cars.

    1. I figure we can drop the Barnes Dance at those cross street intersections in favour of NYC style crossing with the traffic flow. This is possible because of the removal of, or at least great reduction in, turning traffic. So this means that there would always be pedestrians moving across in one direction at all times; either North/South or East/West. This would work even better if buses are not turning into Q-St; If Vic and Wellesley St buses only cross over. This would work well with admin’s North Shore Buses on Wellesley St idea too.

  8. I know this is not the post to be having a rail/tram vs bus argument, but I wonder how technically difficult it would be to implement the following: Have a diesel hybrid bus that has a switch that allows it to run electric only for a designated part of the route, say for 5-10min at a time. So busses heading up Queen St (or anywhere in the CBD) could switch to electric, and then back to normal running once they get on to their main arterial. Avoid fumes where the people are basically.

  9. I’ve always wondered why this isn’t so. On the few occasions that I’ve driven along Queen St, I’ve always felt like I want to be driving somewhere else. It’ a terrible road to drive up, so closing off car traffic would have to be a three-way win.

  10. Im sure with the introduction of shared space on Queen Street people will see the benefits of removing cars. Sometimes a slow staged approach is necessary to change peoples minds about such things

  11. Thats probably one of the clearest arguments I’ve seen for removing private cars from Queen St.
    It’s a no brainer really isn’t it.
    Not one vehicle entrance. And yet we still allow cars, unbelievable.

  12. Regarding traffic signals, there would be some difficulty in controlling the lights that run through Queen St. You can lock one direction green, but that won’t work long term. You can legally turn them off temporarily, but you need a police pointsman on site during that time. You can’t turn lights off temporarily for more than a few hours unless you have a TMP and can shut off access to the intersection. I think you can control what phases run, so you could just have them swap between Barnes Dances and the side road (Victoria/Wellesley/Mayoral) Controlling Customs or Mayoral will be difficult and probably need to rewrite the software.

    Having said that, even as a traffic engineer in training, I fully support this plan. We should shut a block section of Queen St for a week, then another block the next week, until the whole section is shut. We would have to trial it with temporary traffic control measures as it is cheaper. But we would have to run it for several weeks to see how traffic patterns change and what problems it causes on other streets before we make it permanent and decide whether people want it or not. For me it is about greatest benefit for most users. The majority of people using queen st are pedestrians, so we should cater for them and I’m sure most people would prefer to fully pedestrianise Queen St. It would be a much more welcome environment. The minority of vehicles who use it have plenty of other options. A tram up Queen St would also be a great, obvious extension too.

  13. Patrick- Excellent essay. I bet the Herald will print it (if you say your name is Michael Barnett).

    I had the displeasure of trying to bus from Queen to Ponsonby. It can’t be done!

    Two weeks ago, 4 bus routes did that. Now none. Zero. Arse.

    If only there were a clean electric Tram running up Queen, if only there were a petition

    If only there were a Facebook page!/pages/Auckland-deserves-a-Tram-System/217282094980382

    Thank you Patrick, and Admin for inviting him.

  14. Thank you for a great article – Please share your top 3 things that an ordinary Aucklander can do to help make this happen?!

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