We know that for cities clever investments in Transit systems are the best way to keep their road system working efficiently. By adding additional capacity for movements of people these complimentary systems can save us all multiple billions of dollars in deferred or unnecessary additional roading projects. This saving can be described as a dividend from that investment. But there are other paybacks as well. For example because all Transits systems increase the amount of walking people do cities with better Transit systems also consistently report better health statistics, another of those amazing stats where a lot of little changes add up to one significant improvement. But there are other returns on the Transit investment too and that’s what I want to discuss here.

Recently I was in Melbourne and had another opportunity to visit some of the Laneways that this city is famous for: Tight little service lanes converted to vibrant alleys of food and specialty stores that are never anything other frantically busy. Here’s a list to show just how extensive they are. Melbourne is fortunate to have such a resource in these narrow lanes which result from the original planning and settlement of the central city known as the Hoddle Grid. However they were not always used as well as they are now and there is largely one person to thank for this change: architect Rob Adams. From Wikipedia:

In 1985 the city centre of Melbourne was in need of revitalization, with retail trading and cultural activities lagging behind its counterparts elsewhere in Australia and in Europe. Adams helped to write, and to put in place, the first comprehensive urban design strategy for the City, based on the idea of creating a vibrant and well populated street-scape profiting from the city’s multi-mode transport system. 


He guided the strategy’s implementation in several projects, which took place as the city recovered from economic recession in the late 1980s and was prepared to invest in the built environment….He has also overseen the installation of kilometers of detailed bluestone paving across the city, opened up laneways for retail use, redesigned the Yarra River frontage with walkways and new pedestrian bridges, installed street furniture and art, new lighting, signage and extensive tree planting….Comprehensive urban design programs over two decades has seen a reversal in the way the city, and particularly its center, is perceived.

So when in Wellington last week it was hard not to reflect on the difference between how we order our cities compared to Melbourne’s repurposed urban alleys:

Ok so Melbourne is a much bigger city and it does get hotter than Wellington [though just as cold] but the really compelling thing is that this inner city real estate in Wellington is totally given over to the storage of cars, and is therefore dead and unpleasant. This network of lanes had only two purposes, car parking and to lead to the huge car parking building seen in the shots. Low value land use.

Back in Melbourne where do the Laneways lead to? Surely all those people must have got into town and parked their cars somewhere to provide all that business in the city centre that even back alleys are crammed full of flourishing little businesses…. [even on a miserable day]


I get to Melbourne annually and everytime I go it seems they have removed the cars from yet another principal CBD street. This time it was the biggest of them all: Bourke Street. clearly visible in this shot are tram tracks and pedestrians: Transit and people mixed together make for an intensity of financial and cultural vitality. What isn’t visible is the underground rail lines and stations that also feed this vitality and connect the urban and cultural centre to the far flung suburbs [Yes Melbourne sure does do suburbia too]. Sure there are also carparking buildings but nothing like number in proportion to our much smaller cities.

Central Melbourne is a much better place to be in not because it is at the heart of a bigger city but because the priority given to investment in Transit has enabled it to thrive commercially and culturally much better than our cities. So these vibrant streets can be described as a Transit Dividend; one of the returns on the investment in a widespread Transit network. The pay-off in quality of place and in commercial and social transaction from creating access without dissipating that intensity with  massive car parking structures and giving over all those streets to the circulation needs of driving: A very inefficient and low value land use.

A bit out of date but here is a summary of the changes undertaken in Melbourne:


Now it may be that Wellington is still just too small a place to really expect much more intensity than it offers now, although I would argue that there are many ways that transport in Wellington could be considerably improved, especially small and cheaper ways like a cycle network on those broad boulevards and by improving pedestrian priority at intersections, but there can be no argument that Auckland is certainly of sufficient size and growth to warrant much more attention to this.

Of course there is a certain ‘chicken and egg’ to this process; the vitality of urban life is dependant on the numbers of feet on the street which in turn depends on just how vital and attractive and accessible that place can be. This interaction is a matter of life and death for businesses and cultural services and adds up to nothing less than success or failure for a place. So it is in fact quite fragile and must be consciously chosen and worked towards.

So clearly when it comes to urban success accessibility and vitality are joined at the hip. So how are we faring in Auckland? It is clear that the city centre is a way more lively place than say a decade ago, and we know that many more people are now entering the city everyday, yet it is important to see that not all accessibility is equal; Auckland’s improvement over the last decade has been paralleled by a drop in the number of cars entering the city as the rise in the quality and frequency of Transit has improved.

According to the Council’s longitudinal Screenline Study between 2001 and 2012 the proportion of people entering the city centre in the morning peak on Transit grew from 35% to 50%. But the number of private cars entering the city at this time fell by around 5000 each day. This may seem counterintuitive to shopkeepers but there is a clear inverse corelation between car numbers in the central city and its vitality. Both Britomart and the Northern Busway opened during this period so more people choosing Transit isn’t an accident but a response to policy and investment. Interestingly that drop in vehicle numbers parallels the growth in numbers arriving by train at Britomart in this two hour period each morning; around 6000 in 2012. So there is a good example of how Transit investment pays off for vehicle users; clearer roads; but a fuller CBD.

So urban renewal is dependant on investment in good Transit systems in order to reap those very real and positive financial and economic outcomes. Because of the interdependence of these factors the best approach is to invest in them in parallel. And this is also a way to ensure we cash in this dividend from our Transit investments, we must reclaim the streets for people; for commercial and social exchange, in short for life, as we improve the provision of Transit.

In Auckland this process can already be seen in the Council’s work like the new Shared Spaces, Wynyard Quarter, and promising plans for Quay St, and the private sector chiming in with the Britomart Development and Imperial Lane, both done with close co-operation with the Council:


But there still is a long way to go:


I hope that the council doesn’t lose its nerve with these areas and listen to every retailer who imagines that cars buy things and not people, or delivery companies used to total use of all streets at all times. Because it is only by restricting and removing cars that both more people can be attracted and that Transit systems will have priority on main thoroughfares to deliver them in greater concentrations. After all delivery vehicles using space like this is nothing other than a habit and because we allow them to. Those Lanes in Melbourne somehow get supplied with everything they need to undertake their high volume trade so clearly this is not necessary in Auckland either

But there is also a much bigger issue than the Council spending on Shared Spaces or pricing parking properly. And that is the regional and national transport priorities. Because if the government and its unelected agencies insist on investing the vast proportion of our transport tax money on mega motorway project all over the city, then the central city and other sub centres will only be able to become low intensity places with commercial and cultural amenities spread out between huge parking systems connected by low value multilane roads and charmless alleyways, like the Wellington example.


So until we demand of the mandarins at NZTA say, that they can’t just ignore the place effects of their desire to overbuild for imagined future traffic growth I guess Auckland will struggle to realise its dreams as a prosperous and exciting little city.

We need to transfer significant transport investment from motorways to Transit because the quality of place outcomes are vastly different. How much more vibrant the heart of the region will become once the City Rail Link is running can be seen here.

Then, of course, the nation as a whole can reap that other great Transit Dividend and begin to save the billions and billions we have hitherto been unable to stop spending on ever more urban motorways in a futile pursuit of providing roadspace for all the cars that those very same motorways generate. As we move more people with the complimentary new Transit systems the already lavishly built motorways will become more efficient for the traffic that still needs them.

Transit = Quality of Place = Return on Investment.

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  1. Brilliant post, Patrick. I have just spent an evening wandering around the cobbled lanes and squares of Freiburg in southern Germany, where the only things on wheels are trams and bicycles. Obviously all the shops are about to go out of business since there is not a car park or delivery van to be seen. Yet strangely the shops, cafes and streets are humming with life as I write this on a cold October evening. Exactly what I have seen in recent days in Bruges, Trier, Copenhagen and Geneva.

  2. Great post. The real problem is that NZTA only value speeding up cars when dishing out their cash, ignorant of the negative impact that may have on place value or things like retail spend. It is stupid silo thinking that destroys cities.

  3. Just to set the record straight, Bourke St has been a mall (with trams running through it) since the 1970s.

    The change since your last visit is that Swanston St along much of its length has been converted to trams-cycles-pedestrians only. But as it carries many more tram routes than Bourke St, it is not a pedestrian mall as such. Unlike in Bourke St, pedestrians are not allowed to stroll on the tram tracks, which are deliberately lowwer than the widened footpaths.

    Your readers might be interested to learn that until 1955, Bourke St was served by two bus routes, which were converted to trams in 1955-56. The East Preston route (86) so converted to trams has been extended several times since the 1980s and is now 25 km long and carries some 50,000 passengers a day. The East Brunswick route also so converted was extended from its city end in 1987 over a former run-down railway line to St Kilda (96)and now carries some 40,000 passengers a day.

    The 96 is an ideal blueprint for what could be in Wellington– convert the Johnsonville railway line to trams and extend it through the city and Adelaide Rd to Newtown.

    1. Ah, you’re quite right Dave, Swanston is the more recent carless street. But just to clarify, it’s not in pedestrianisation that I am saying the value is to be found, but in the reduction of auto-domination, leading to increase in accessibility and higher value exchange and land use value. In fact I’m pretty dark on ped malls without transit. The evidence doesn’t support them on major streets, and even for smaller streets, shared spaces should always be considered first.

      As to your Wellington idea; yes, like Auckland Wellington suffers from having a terminus at the heart of its transit system. Like AK WGTN need to through route this obstacle, but unlike AK it probably doesn’t suit doing this with heavy rail… Light Metro or trams are probably just the thing. Without studying it directly WGTN would seem to have the available road space for Street Cars which offer great accessibility and much lower cost than grade separate systems. Even got wires in the sky in a lot of places. And through routing at the station is agreat plan.

      I would love to see some more detailed plans for this…

    2. Indeed, slight naming error from Patrick there. The great thing is that the Swanson St upgrade will eventually extend from Princes Bridge/Flinders St Station/Federation Square all the way the the University of Melbourne, with the majority of it being car free and the rest with pedestrian and tram priority. Its a good model of what we could do with Queen St (but I’m still not sure they have the cycle situation worked out right).

  4. Melbourne was great when I was there around 5 weeks ago. The trams really make the city air much more breathable as opposed to many polluting buses- although our buses are definitely getting much better.

  5. The proposed busway was a oneway peak direction system with counter peak running on street and midday reversal. Would’ve competed with the Melbourne City Loop for illegibility…

    1. It was the preferred option by both the public, and by analysis, before it was stopped by railfan central government pollies. It would have provided amenity to a much larger area of North Wellington than the rail line does.

      1. You realise buses already carry 2/3rd of the people to the CBD from the northern suburbs right? And the projected growth in the area is in areas not served by rail? Its called working with what you have got. This corridor currently carries a grand total of a little over 1000 people a day.

        1. So you have a bi-directional electric powered transit ROW and you think the better way to improve its effectiveness is rip up the tracks and turn it into a weird half loop commuter only bus system instead of seizing the opportunity to through route the city end with a compatible rail technology as suggested by Dave above?

        2. Rubbish. My point is that even though it might be “weird”, it is a better option because it will have greater tangible benefits for a lower cost. This is what the studies in 2006 found, until Dunne put the kaibosh on it by lying in parliament..

        3. Once you’ve got a railway line there it seems pretty dumb to spend a heap of money to turn it into a different form of rapid transit with lower capacity. I’m curious why this was even considered a possible option.

        4. If you don’t understand the situation, why do you assert it is stupid? Or are you just being dogmatic?

        5. You have a legible higher capacity existing route and you want to downgrade it to a nutty one way commuter only high labour cost lower capacity technology at considerable expense [tunnel widening etc] and you’re saying we don’t understand?

  6. A tiny minority of Melbourne’s lanes resemble the one in the photo, most resemble the photos from Auckland and Wellington. However there is a crucial difference between the Melbourne and NZ lanes. There are an awful lot of URM buildings lining Melbourne’s lanes with a some modern skyscrapers completely dominating some lanes. In the 1970s most of Wellington’s URMs were knocked down and replaced with skyscrapers. The large footprints needed for skyscrapers means that service lanes often disappear. Unfortunately even if Auckland and Wellington were able to emulate the successful Postcode 3000 program of converting empty office buildings and warehouses into apartments (I suspect Auckland did that before Melbourne) the CBD streetscapes will still largely lack the character of Melbourne’s CBD. The bigger problem is neither Auckland nor Wellington have old tram systems that can be modernised to create the same connectedness between the new CBD residences and the older inner suburbs. The CRL will make it easier for workers and event attendees to commute in and out of the CBD but it wont connect the CBD as a residential area with its immediate neighbouring residences. More and more billions will have to be spent on an endlessly expanding list of transit improvements in exactly the same way that the roadies always have just one more project to complete the full network. Melbourne is a better place not because of the priority given to transit but because of the priority given to people..the people living there rather than people owning offices there or partying there. Of course, giving priority to the right people means you instinctively take away priority from accomodating the cars of the executive office workers. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the CRL is going to deliver a vibrant city because it wont. But if followed up with an aggressive plan to rid the streets of cars and deisel busses (and drunk teens) then it will become a living city centre.

    1. Errr Kevyn? Isn’t that exactly what my post says, although not quite so negatively:

      “Because it is only by restricting and removing cars that both more people can be attracted and that Transit systems will have priority on main thoroughfares to deliver them in greater concentrations”

      “So clearly when it comes to urban success accessibility and vitality are joined at the hip”

  7. 4 years after leaving Melbourne to come to live in Auckland I still remember the tram numbers there. The 96, the first tram I ever took. The 112 going through Brunswick st and the beloved 8 that was taking me from my place in Elgin St Carlton to my girlfriend in Toorak rd. Or I could take the 1 or 16. In Auckland after almost 4 years I still don’t know which bus is going where. And I never will.
    Then in the evening you could hop off the tram somewhere in the city, go to some laneway places like the St Jerome or Robot or Section 8 to catch up with the friends and then without paying anymore you could all hop on the tram again an go to a concert at the Esplanade in St Kilda or wherever you wanted. 6.40 $ at the time meant full day ticket, no parking problems or drink driving. Sometimes I wonder…

    1. Wahh Robot and Section 8 were my old haunts. I paid $27 bucks a week for unlimited travel anywhere in Melbourne (well, zone 1 that is. Zone 2 is full of sea monsters) and never once missed having a car.

  8. Wellington of course has buses that run 100 pc on electricity but they are barely used outside of peak hours, hardly ever at night and never on weekends or holidays. On the city’s busiest route, Karori Park, they haven’t been used since February.


    1. Aren’t the operators always trying to ditch them? Anyone know what is going on there?

      But also a long legible route through the Station as you suggest would surely be transformational, would really go a long way to stitching WGTN together as a transit town?

      1. Expensive to operate, lower capacity per vehicle and big maintenance issues. No other right hand drive trolley buses in the world, and trolleys are expensive to buy and maintain to begin with.

  9. Patrick, remoe th word “only” and I can agree totally with your argument. Also, thanks for the link to the Rob Adams bio, two really excellent references at the end of it showing how the ‘systems thinking’ approach beats the old compartmentalised town planning/transport planning approach.

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