This is another Guest Post by Kent Lundberg and originally appeared on the Isthmus Group blog. It is reproduced here with Kent’s permission.
Recently I wrote about the streetcar genesis of Auckland’s suburbs. All of the historic tram line streets still serve as key movement infrastructure primarily providing central city access.
It’s intriguing to imagine what city life would have looked like 100 years ago. While it may not bear much resemblance to city life in these videos of San Francisco or Barcelona, it is likely that there was more public life along the streets and plenty of movement from one side of the street to the other.
The streetcar fabric is inherently spatially integrated since it was designed primarily for a transportation system based at least in part on pedestrian movement. Below is a test of the ’centrality’ of the Auckland suburbs using the recently developed Urban Network Analysis toobar for ArcGIS, by MIT’s City Form Research Group. The software developers explain the concept of centrality studies “[as helping to] explain, for instance, on which streets or buildings one is most likely to find local commerce, where foot or vehicular traffic is expected to be highest, and why city land values vary from one location to another.”
The red dots indicate a higher score of “closeness”, basically places are close to other places via connecting streets within a given distance threshold (in this case 400m to model walkability). The black outlines show streetcar lines, revealing the natural relationship of closeness with the underlying street grid and street car fabric. Note too the how the motorway development appears to defeat closeness.
This map gives a false impression, however. I believe that there is not nearly as much closeness or spatial integration occuring along these arterials today. Over the last several decades the priority of movement has been given to through traffic to the city center, at the detriment to local trips, especially those made on foot. In addition to high traffic volumes and excessive speeds when congestion doesn’t prohibit it, there are several other design conditions that limit local connectivity: poor pedestrian design at intersections, limited protected crosswalks or traffic signals, and insensitive public transport conditions (namely speeding buses along street edges).
Take the example of pedestrian crosswalks. Along a comparable streetcar arterial in Vancouver such as 4th Ave there are traffic lights and/or pedestrian crosswalks located every 140m; in places along Granville Avenue they are even closer, about 90m. Here is a map showing the historic tram lines of Auckland in red. The green segments show places with pedestrian crossings or street lights at distances of less than 200m. (The ITE manual Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares uses the metric 200m as the upper end range for the distance between pedestrian crossings. )
Below is an example of a particularly bad intersection that exemplifies the priority through traffic is now given in the streetcar suburbs. The traditional street geometries balloon out here to fill what might have been a roundabout. For much of its length Sandringham Road carries two lanes of moving traffic, but it explodes out here to six lanes, and an incredible eight lanes on the Balmoral side. Pedestrians crossing here have to navigate a dangerous free-flowing slip lane, wait again for pedestrian signals, cross travel lanes, and then finally cross the remaining slip lane. Altogether this trip covers about 45m and takes about two minutes. Is it any wonder that few people walk to school or to St Lukes Mall?
So why does it matter? Two hundred and fifty thousand people live in Auckland streetcar suburbs. Many of these people living in this streetcar fabric could easily walk to local services for their daily needs. Increasingly evidence shows that people who live in close proximity to shops and services walk more, as transport experts from the University of California Transportation Center recently confirmed:
Our results show that the number of businesses per acre is the single most robust indicator of whether people are likely to walk in their neighborhood. We find that people living in neighborhoods with more business establishments per acre conduct more of their travel within their neighborhood and are more likely to travel by walking.
In my opinion, the easiest way to leverage and improve this highly desired AND low-energy lifestyle would be to increase access to amenities (eg. businesses, transit stations, parks) by providing the convenience and safety for people to get from one side of the street to the other. This would effectively double the number of places people have access to as well as provide double the number of customers for businesses.
This concept recalls the classic urban design study conducted by Donald Appleyard that examined the personal relationships of residents located along streets with varying levels of traffic volume. He concluded that residents living on busier streets had fewer personal contacts and used the sidewalks only as a pathway, whereas streets with lighter traffic had increased social interactions and presumably better business environments for local stores.
Without getting too design nerdy about it, the goal here should be to stitch these streetcar neighborhoods back together so that these places are once again connected and more spatially integrated. Reducing traffic speeds and volumes is a start. Other interventions should include additional pedestrian amenities such as crosswalks, ‘context sensitive’ public transit, and thoughtful urban intensification.