“In the historic structure (a), arteriality is geared to the local street – a ‘people place’ – whereas in the modern structure (b), arteriality is geared to the national road traffic network.” – Stephen Marshall, Street and Patterns

Peak car. Photo: Patrick Reynolds
On-ramp. Photo: Patrick Reynold

Using new spatial software I recently tested a local district to reveal its theoretical spatial integration. The results correlate strongly with what appears to be highly functioning, walkable, historic, neighbourhood centres – ones that most people would consider good ‘places’ and also likely fetch a real estate premium. Many of these places with good bones unfortunately, also now serve more modern uses as anciallary motorway support systems.

Calculation of spatial integration in Auckland suburb.

In the early 20th century street movement was slow due to the nature of the transportaton so that the spatial integration of the streetcar suburbs was naturally higher. Today all of these rare (and valuable) people places are compromised by poor street design. In my earlier post, many commenters stated that while nice places, the neigbourhood centres need “traffic calming”. This is an understatement.

From what I observe there are few streets in Auckland that are not entirely over-engineered for the benefit of long distance travel (Grids Gone Wild, Slow Down, Finding Lost Space) to the detriment of local movement. The historic isthmus neighbourhoods and streets have been masterfully re-designed (via Canberra) to privilege the long trip, shaving seconds, maybe even minutes off commute time. So if you live in Avondale, you can get to the CBD a minute faster. If you live in Titirangi, you’re blessed,- your winding car commute to the CBD through several town centres, and residential neighbourhoods is as efficient as a local expressway. Cut through Franklin Rd and you will be slowed only by fearless pedestrians who are subjugated to a mid-20th century legal status. If you’re trying to walk across your local street, unfortunately, you are out of luck.

As part of the modernistic planning era that atomised the value of the city across the landscape, traffic designs have bastardised the local grid system to a level that today would be unrecogniseable to our grandparents. High speeds, lack of pedestrian crossings and even gaps in vehicle traffic that would be introduced by normal intersections create auto sewers severing the traditional “movement economy” intrinsic in pre-1950 suburbs.

The physical connectedness, links and nodes, that I calculated theoretically actually represent the ability of people to move around in particular by foot, but also by bike, PT and even short car trips. The connections form the structure of city-ness. Where this structure is more reticulated and connected-up in layers of networks, mostly based on people movement, you find the highest real estate values and productivity. One place that stands out as very red (high) in my analysis is the Ponsonby Road corridor. The road is highly connected with smaller blocks and is privileged by a historic street constitution (streets lead to it in a connected-up heirarchy). Thankfully, the distance from the motorway allows it to retain it’s neighbourhod centrality compared to places like Great North Road and New North Road that sit within the motorway’s border vacuum and have since been transformed to lower value, auto-oriented uses such as drive-throughs, storage yards, and antique stores.

As lively as Ponsonby Road is today, its current design does not leverage its natural advantages. Today the street functions more closely to this diagram (via Nikos Salingaros).

A set of urban nodes looks neatly grouped on plan — but the connectivity is so badly designed that one has to go all the way around to get to an adjacent building. Words and figure by Nikos Salingaros.
A set of urban nodes looks neatly grouped on plan — but the connectivity is so badly designed that one has to go all the way around to get to an adjacent building. Words and figure by Nikos Salingaros.

Here is another graphic depiction of what has happened to our streets and neighbourhoods, this one by Patrick Kennedy of Walkable DFW who has written several must read posts over the last few weeks, including my favourite blog post of the summer: Why Grids Matter and We Should Recreate Them at All Costs (strictly for the ROI) where he writes:

The dendritic system concentrates the bad, while dispersing the good.  The reticulated, network approach concentrates the good, in densely connected, walkable areas while dispersing the bad (like high speed traffic or low intensity industrial uses to the periphery)

Pretty much every street in Auckland.
Pretty much every street in Auckland. Doodle by Patrick Kennedy

Ponsonby Road is a great example of the urban inversion or “cataclysm of modernism”. The traditional neighbourhood structure has been radically changed from a network of connected up streets all leading to the most important streets (tradtional arteriality) to a modern heirarchical conception of arterials that function as tributaries delivering users to access roads or other subordinate places typically devoid of street life.

Back down to street level, Ponsonby Road suffers from it slavish work for long distance movement- it is primarily now a motorway on-ramp. In addition to squeezing every inch of real estate to provide vehicle capacity on a road that was once a simple 2-lane with streetcar, there is also a lack of intersections or even proper pedestrian crossings, the things that provide the actual spatial integration by which real estate value is created, and urban accessibility is facilitated.

This is a typical scene on Ponsonby Road where people cross on their own accord. This is how people naturally want to  move about, but are now forced to wait for the rare gaps in the flow of traffic, and commit to a level of risk that would be unacceptable for children or less able-bodied people.


Here is a photo of a woman and a baby perched on a mid-block crossing amongst 4-lanes of traffic.  In Auckland these mid-block crossings are considered a pedestrian amenity.

Ponsonby Road designed for movement of one type in particular
Ponsonby Road designed for movement for one type in particular

And to add my own doodle – here’s the theoretical connectivity of Ponsonby Road compared to the way I think it works. The street connectivity is severely constrained by the lack of safe pedestrian crossings and of course the tremendous volume of through traffic. The simplification of the network , one that begins to resemble super-blocks, is a disurban creation leading increasingly to a real estate “race-to-the-bottom” as Patrick Kennedy calls it.

Ponsonby Road network connectivity
Ponsonby Road network connectivity.

Ponsonby Road may not be the easiest example of how sensitive land use is to pedestrian accessibility since it still retains some semblance of urban functionality and value. There are more stark examples of streets beyond repair such as everyone’s favourite  basket case Nelson Street and about a dozen more leading to and through the CBD. Increasingly it is becoming evident how much value we can capture if we return to a traditional understanding of how streets work in an urban context. Of course many of these principles rub up strongly against the modernistic transportation planning objectives of capacity and efficiency.

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  1. Aside from a few improvements that would be pretty easy to implement (like more pedestrian crossing points) Ponsonby Road seems to be quite successful in terms of attracting investment and managing that really tricky balance between “place” value and “movement” function. Because of disconnections throughout the rest of Auckland’s street network there are a lot of trips which get funnelled through Ponsonby Road – but it seems that the slightly “chaotic” nature of the road actually works.

    1. Could it be that Ponsonby works “relatively” compared to other places in Auckland? Still, it could be so much better.. maybe even with the same traffic flow rates, just by improving the pedestrian and cycling amenity.

  2. Fully agree with your analysis Kent. I guess the question is just how much can we wind the auto-dominance back? My answer, supported by the few examples that have been tried in Auckland- shared streets etc, is that every amount of de-privileging of traffic supports and improves place, no matter how small. so let’s begin where ever we can.

  3. Great post PR. Could I use it as an intro to a “What do we do with Pons Rd?” post that we’re working on?

    Maybe Ponsonby Rd works because it HASN’T been touched by planners and designers i.e. It has developed and evolved on it’s own?

    1. Not so much a lack of planning per-se, more a lack of zoning over the years unlike what has happened to much of Auckland. A mix of residential (med / high intensity), retail, food, and other uses. How a town should form and exactly the opposite of what’s happening out west right now.

      1. I think ponsonby’s history gives alot away, for decades was a very poor suburb, so would not have been a priority for public works by the Council.
        Being a poorer suburb was left alone by developers, so no auto dependent development was built along here. Then there is a history of comparatively good PT services, due to historical tram routes.
        And also it is not an extended motorway on-ramp at all so is roads arent as bad as they could have been. Of course the environment is still awful, does it really need to be 4 laned? A tram line down the middle would be fantastic.

          1. I have always thought it needed a tram too. And I’d make that a circular outer CBD Loop (and this one would be a loop) – From Britomart along Customs St East to the old Strand Railway Station (reborn as a railway station terminus for Hamilton and Tauranga trains) – Parnell Rise – Parnell Road- Broadway -(close enough to walk to Newmarket) Khyber Pass Road – Newton CRL station (+ link to Queen St-Dominion Road tram) – Newtown Road – Ponsonby Road – then whatever route is best to Fanshawe St (interchange for North shore rail stop) (+link to Wynyard Quarter tram) and back along Fanshawe St to Custom St East and Britomart.

            The inner ‘burbs of Ponsonby, Newmarket and to a lesser extent Parnell are just way nicer to hang out in than the central CBD streets and I think it’d link well with the CRL at 3 stations. North shore rail at possibly 2 – Wynyard Quarter and maybe the Strand if that was how it was rated, and the Queen St – Dominion Road tram at two places, Britomart and Newton.

            Should I draw a map, get it up as a post and let you all tear it to shreds/tell us what you think?

      1. Patrick, easy mistake to make that you did the post.

        I thought it was a PR post at first too – as the first photo had a PR credit, it wasn’t until I checked the poster that I saw it was from Kent.

  4. This is where the “triage” approach of “Walkable Cities” in quite interesting in terms of where we should focus our efforts to improve pedestrian amenity. Don’t pick the places that are going to be OK anyway or the places that are impossible to fix, find the ones teetering on the edge and focus there. I guess with Ponsonby Road it’s a place that works pretty well, but perhaps with some minor tweaks could work a lot better.

    And by minor tweaks I really do just mean minor. Some repaving at intersections to further slow traffic down and some additional pedestrian crossing points. The chaotic nature of everything else actually works quite well.

  5. If you’re familiar with urban streets worldwide that really work, then Ponsonby Road is barely functioning for people, and is dominated by the car. It’s good for Auckland, but that’s not saying much. For much of its length there are only retail/bar/restaurant/cafe facilities on one side of the street. That’s because the street from a pedestrian perspective, as Kent’s sketch diagram suggests, is really two streets separated by a barely-calmed major arterial.

    1. This one-sideded phenomenon can be seen on many streets in AKL. The best sign is historic buildings that are now antique stores or takeaway shops- indicating that something has changed with the neighbourhood structure. In most cases half of the pedestrian catchment has been severed.
      Something I’m working on is comparing Ponsonby Road to other “great streets” from North America that I’m familiar with.

  6. Generally every 4 lane road is a huge barrier for pedestrians. I do not see much improvment for Ponsonby Rd. tho, as even the new transport plan makes only connections to Ponsonby by going via the city, e.g. i live in Kingsland, and i have no direct connection, to a neighboring suburb.

    1. There is a direct Kingsland-Ponsonby bus in the new transport plan. PTOM 18, Mission Bay to Wynyard via Orakei Station, Remuera, Mt Eden village, Kingsland and Ponsonby Rd. It’s a bit hard to see on the map but I think it goes up Walters Rd by Eden Park, up Sandringham Rd, over the Bond St Bridge and down GNR and Ponsonby Rd to College Hill.

      It’s not part of the 15 minute frequent network for 2016, but it will be in 2022. In the meantime it’s every 15 mins weekday peak, 30 mins offpeak and weekends and 60 mins in the evenings.

  7. In such areas we need to decouple ‘capacity’ and ‘speed’.

    A motorway feeder road like Ponsonby Road may unavoidably have a high traffic load, but that does not mean it has to be engineered for some arbitrary ‘arterial road standard’ speed in complete disregard of pedestrian amenity.

    Given that it has traffic lights, the actual capacity cannot be more than half the theoretical free flow capacity. So it doesn’t need more than one through traffic lane in each direction (with extra queuing space at the lights).

    Replace ‘two lanes plus parking’ with ‘one lane plus parking plus bike lane/widened footpath/ adequate median refuges/ landscaping/ whatever’. Put in a 40kph speed limit, build median refuges & footpath bulges at appropriate intervals, perhaps with chicanes or raised tables, and you have greatly improved pedestrian amenity without in any way limiting traffic capacity.(since the chokepoints will continune to be the signalised intersections).

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