We often deride traffic engineers for the road dominant nature of Auckland. Sometimes this can be a bit unfair as we know not all engineers are bad and the term is often be a bit of a catch all phrase for those involved in the road design process. So when I refer to traffic engineers I’m referring perhaps more to the people and processes that sees the focus on movement and storage of vehicles over a public realm that focuses on people, the type that an urban planner might try to deliver. This post from Greater Greater Washington highlights these opposing ideas perfectly. A freeway was closed along a section of the Anacostia River in Washington DC after a new and updated freeway bridge was built over the river and the old freeway bridge turned into a local road.

DDOT then conducted a 2014 study of options to replace the freeway segment. The study devised xis options, but all of them basically looked like near-freeways. While pedestrians and cyclists could cross to access the waterfront, and cars could turn on and off to nearby streets in some options, all of the options turned a huge expanse of pavement and empty grass into other huge expanses of pavement and empty grass, sometimes also with tour bus parking.

DDOT’s options still primarily focused around moving cars fast, and would all have created big empty spaces that would not create any actual sense of place and would be, at best, unpleasant to cross on foot.

Washington Freeway replacement Option 2

So basically a road and a few cycle lanes surrounded by likely a lot of not very useful green space (the option above even included underground parking under the road for almost the entire length). The other options were all variations of the same theme and this is exactly the same type of thing we would see here in Auckland – and are seeing with proposals to upgrade local roads e.g. Lincoln Rd.

Residents, led by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven, were not happy with the narrowness of DDOT’s analysis. Instead, at Councilmember Tommy Wells’ urging, the Office of Planning stepped in to do a more open-minded study of how to use the space.

OP’s options still look at four-lane boulevards and even four-lane parkways, but with much more appealing designs like a big park next to and partly on top of the road:

These are just some of the options they came up with and include various versions of parks, and development options.

Washington Freeway replacement Planner options

What’s worth noting is that the planners options contained just as many traffic lanes as the traffic engineers options did due to the transport engineers making it a requirement. The post questions the need for it to be four lanes but what is clear is that there are some quite different thinking going on between those just responsible for the movement of vehicles and those who also consider people and the city as a whole.

In Auckland if we could get more of the latter and less of the former then we could end up with a fantastic city that still allows for a wide range of movement even for those that want to drive.

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22 comments

  1. Yup, its the difference between the road being a god to pray to and therefore central to all designs versus the road being merely a conduit to allow movement and support more important uses of space

  2. We see this so frequently in Wellington. The NZTA are obsessed with widening and straightening roads going through the city. The Council are interested in providing a space and creating a solution that works for both the motorists and the people that live there.

    In the case of the road above, it appears that the initial design would have seen a motorway-like road that would send traffic rapidly in to the roundabout, creating traffic jams, rather than lowering speed and creating faster journeys.

  3. One of the problem is different government departments has its own projects and they rarely coordinate between each other.

    For example one of the road was being dig to upgrade the power connection. It was a big project and took a while to complete. Shortly after its completion, the road was dig and again, this time the telecom company is laying new fiber optic cables, then put back again. Unfortunately, I know this road will also be widened in the next year. So next year this road will be dig again.

    So basically they dig and restored the road three times for three different departments. This is a waste of time and money. They should coordinate and do everything together at once!

    1. It is a big problem, for sure. But perhaps less so today than even a few years ago. All agencies and companies involved are aware of the costs and impacts of digging twice and have very strong incentives to consolidate works. I don’t know of any that don’t participate in a before-you-dig programme with the road control authority. Programming digs in coordination has its limits too, though, as delays in one project might cascade down others, some of which might be complex sequences of works that can’t afford to be stopped, etc.

      The bigger problem for us in the public is what they dig for, and what they propose to implement when they reseal the surface. Are bus lanes, bike paths, walkability and placemaking part of this equation? Generally, no — not if “engineers” are in charge, as this blog shows.

  4. This reminds me greatly of your post on the Strand. NZTA want a full motorway through there at any cost, most people I think would prefer that Parnell be a place that connects to downtown.

    1. No, the first option puts an expressway right through the middle and leaves useless bits of green space either side. The other options treat the road alignment quite differently to give some usable city blocks.

    2. Lachie,

      In one sense, yes: the abstract quantity of space in square-metres is given a more detailed treatment in the last four sketches.

      However, structurally, the latter plans are completely different:

      – The spatial layout of the carriageway is diffused into a sort of boulevard, which yields differently shaped clusters of of space to develop — not just thin, linear strips in the shape of a highway, but rather in blocks or runs that are human-scaled, and capable of hosting more accessible frontage or landscaping.
      – The network layout is vastly different, if you notice how the boulevard-like roads sensitively link with side streets and the waterfront, baking fine-grained permeability into the DNA of the new plan (helps walking, cycling and placemaking) — rather than introducing severance and blight that might then be mitigated one day if resources allow.
      – The land use aspect that proposes blocks, including one with perimeter blocks, exemplifies consciously integrated transport and land use planning — not as an optional extra — which makes for more durable and successful urban zones.
      – The intersections proposed are of a different character, with fewer mega-junctions, and with human users taken into account, considering the subtle changes to the geometry of the approaches, turns, dividers, etc.
      – Trees are no small matter.

      The tone of the plans provides a contrast too: by only focusing on the carriageway for motoring, and leaving the boring “details” for later, the engineers’ diagram makes a bold statement about what the space is for, and what values matter. The planners’ sketches are more inclusive: they elevate those “details” to first-class features that cannot be ignored, which is a bold statement in a different direction. As McLuhan wrote, “the medium is the message”.

  5. But surely speed of movement is essential?

    Where do I generate utility?
    1. At home
    2. At work
    3. At places of entertainment and exercise

    Minimising transit times between 1, 2, and 3 ensures maximum utility generation in minimum time. Yes, you could say that slowing down cars to create new parks could create new 3.s (places of entertainment and exercise) but surely you then have to ensure you can get there as quickly as possible.

    1. Lord Maths,

      As often happens in these discussions, you’re partly right, but there is plenty more to it than that.

      There are three ways to build upon your argument: first, to extend the list of utility generators; second, to re-examine the ones you listed; and third, to take it to its logical conclusion.

      You may also generate utility at these places:

      * At some public commons — such as a street or plaza, where you opportunistically bump into people, become exposed to new things, understand the world around you, and so on, while travelling. This is beyond trifling entertainment, short of work or exercise, and outside the home.
      * At some (semi-)private commons — such as a pub, cafe, church, volunteer group, social club, which is similar to the above, except with the added value of partially directed activity or filtering of participants.
      * At a non-typical private amenity — such as a friend’s home, a branch office, a new place of entertainment, etc., all of which are perhaps unpredictably distributed across town, in a way that cannot be specifically optimised (i.e. we need to cater for travel from all points to all points).

      These situations require good public streets and spaces, resilient grid-like connectivity, and dense development that taps into agglomeration benefits. Also, part of the practice placemaking is to create transitions and gateways between movement and being still at a point (launchpads and landing strips), which is very much about servicing slow movement. All taken together, the micro-optimisation of motor vehicle speed on one particular way is a much lower priority than it would seem.

      Now we might re-examine the utility generators you listed, and see how blurry things get considering that utility can be generated on the way to a place, and not only while stationary at a destination:

      * The distinction between home and work is not necessarily useful. Obviously, for any given person, there is a small chance that they are in exactly the same place. But besides that, identifying an individual’s home and workplace tells us nothing about what sort of network to build: it’s only useful in aggregate. In a quality, mixed-use environment, the aggregate form would require travel from all points to all points; if not, we’re left with the failed experiment of dormitory suburbs and daytime CBDs.
      * The nature of work itself may vary the utility of travel. For some types of work, given wireless and mobile technology, a train or bus ride can be perfectly productive. Another aspect to consider is freight movement, especially distribution at the last mile, or taxi or trades services, which again require something like robust all-points travel.
      * Likewise, an active mode like walking or cycling might bundle exercise and entertainment, so optimising travel time might not be the sole priority.

      Finally, also consider that the best way to cut travel time is to eliminate the trip altogether, and sufficiently dense and development and mixed land use is what does this best. When building for such a compact urban form, localised travel speed is necessarily a low priority.

      So there’s a slightly fuller picture, but that’s still only scratching the surface. What I’m getting at is that we’re well beyond the quaint model that utility is only generated at destination nodes while being effectively stationary, and that travel is generally a sunk cost to be minimised above all else.

      1. Great reply. I agree entirely. I don’t think it’s incorrect that utility is only generated at destination nodes (almost all of your points, except for the mention of PT productivity, reinforce that view, because public commons, semiprivate commons, and nontypical private amenities are still destination nodes), but your note that given the inability to predict all potential travel routes, to minimise time between nodes requires a “grid-like” transport structure. I still don’t understand why local travel speed still isn’t important for compact urban forms, however – I don’t want my cycle trip to be delayed by staples, nor do I want my walking trip delayed by a slow-moving herd of schoolkids.

        So, we don’t disagree about the goals, really, and now that I’ve been better informed about potential solutions by you, we probably agree about the solutions!

        The only counter-point would be equity; do we owe it to those who already live further out to ensure the minimal disruption to their travel times (note – this would NOT be the case if there was a compact urban form being motorwayised like happened with our CMJ, but only in this specific example).

        1. Lord Maths,

          >> except for the mention of PT productivity, reinforce that view, because public commons, semiprivate commons, and nontypical private amenities are still destination nodes

          Public commons can be nodes (e.g. non-linear parks), or they can be links in the graph (e.g. walkable streets and plazas). While such a street can still be treated as a destination for some analytical purposes (e.g. suppose Queen St is hosting a festival), in other circumstances it is better treated as a link in a wider network of ways (for walking and cycling permeability or even basic car access). When it is considered as a link which has significant place value, the optimisation of travel time cannot be the top priority.

          Semi-private commons are nodes, but have boundaries of consequence with the street network — i.e. streets, still links, host them and their frontage. So these nodes interact with the public commons in a symbiotic way (e.g. a cafe with street-front seating), necessitating and supporting a walkable environment with low speeds, high congestion and so on around their threshold.

          Arbitrary amenities, considered in aggregate, introduce global constraints on travel time, overriding any local segment of a trip. This just goes to show that scope matters, and given the very localised context shown in this blog post’s plans, it can be impossible to meaningfully optimise for travel time even if you wanted to. But if you could, you’d still need to converge on a mutual optimum, which might mean lower speeds at a local scale again. Also, if you account for induced demand, it will likely mean prioritising non-vehicular modes anyway.

          >> I still don’t understand why local travel speed still isn’t important for compact urban forms, however – I don’t want my cycle trip to be delayed by staples, nor do I want my walking trip delayed by a slow-moving herd of schoolkids.

          I guess there are two unstated premises in my argument:

          * Optimising for travel time cannot be generalised across modes: what’s good for a motor car may be counterproductive for cycling or walking, etc., often mutually exclusively.
          * Optimising for travel time cannot be generalised across scopes: beefing up a local road segment may do no good for the wider network, or for the process of travel over time (given feedback loops like induced demand).

          Bike staples may be annoying — perhaps the wrong detailed treatment to apply ­— but calming bike traffic can be a proper intervention in some circumstances. Schoolkids might be annoying too, but perhaps the value of including them in the same public space can be a net benefit (social safety, community-building, exercise for kids, boosting local businesses, etc). That’s not to say it’s always right to design it that way, but you can’t begin planning by separating out all traffic prematurely.

          What that means is the root priority in planning should be something else, and only when you’ve determined what modes and scopes matter as a consequence, can you optimise for travel time (which is certainly a very important criterion).

          >> The only counter-point would be equity; do we owe it to those who already live further out to ensure the minimal disruption to their travel times (note – this would NOT be the case if there was a compact urban form being motorwayised like happened with our CMJ, but only in this specific example).

          With the premises given above, clearly there cannot be a straightforward answer to the question. Their travel time depends on their mode choice, and exactly what that implies for any particular example depends on the wider network plan anyway. Their mode choice depends on exactly where they choose to live, even if further out — they might be in a dense, PT-serviceable centre that’s “on the way” of a frequent line, or they might be in a sparse, motor-dependent suburb that is difficult to support. Likewise, scope over time matters, as people’s choice of residence is dynamic; you have to ask what sort of network will encourage virtuous cycles of development that builds a compact urban form, and what won’t? The equity aspect is well worth pursuing, but you’d just need to arm yourself with some nuanced analytical questions first.

    2. If you lived, worked or played in one of the new buildings the planners schemes allow, you’d be there already… So speed of movement isn’t always paramount.

  6. Of course traffic engineers are not bad people. They, however, have a narrow job description – ideally, make everything flat and straight. Anything else is a compromise. But they generally do the actual job quite well. What is missing from the analysis that may explain why so many engineering solutions are implemented v. planning solutions is the intense political pressure to build roads. It’s easy to promise congestion relief or higher speeds or jobs, jobs, jobs, and on the day of the ribbon cutting everyone believes it. When the reality turns out to be different the engineers get the blame, though they were only giving the decision makers what they wanted.

      1. Agreed. The large majority of people commute as single occupant drivers but the most organized political voices are from the bike and pt activists. Of course, there’s a lot of money in auto lobbying, so money is still very influential in transit decision making.

    1. “They, however, have a narrow job description – ideally, make everything flat and straight. Anything else is a compromise.”

      Speaking as a traffic engineer (even if my business card says “transport engineer”), I call rubbish on that. Our job description is a lot broader, even if some people don’t work like that.

      However, we often get a very narrow project constraints, and we also often get told by politicians and Council (in various ways) that we aren’t allowed to deviate from the de facto consideration that car is king. I so often wanted for Council to come in on my side when arguing for better designs for a development or road or intersection, and instead see a total disinterest or even opposing push. Oh, and calls for more on-street parking. I get that one in spades from way too many directions, and it’s 2014.

      1. Max,

        >> we also often get told by politicians and Council (in various ways) that we aren’t allowed to deviate from the de facto consideration that car is king.
        >> I so often wanted for Council to come in on my side when arguing for better designs for a development or road or intersection, and instead see a total disinterest or even opposing push.

        Really? If true, this could be a serious allegation, because many politicians and Council staff make the opposite representations to the public, and we don’t know if they are involved in what you’re describing. Do you never encounter politicians, Council staff, and other stakeholders, who ask for good designs?

        Let’s not forget that AT and NZTA engineering staff are often involved too.

        >> we often get a very narrow project constraints

        Sometimes supply has an effect on demand.

        >> Oh, and calls for more on-street parking. I get that one in spades from way too many directions, and it’s 2014.

        Every city has this problem. What matters is how we respond to it.

  7. But who teaches transport planning in New Zealand? Seemingly nobody, whereas the universities continue to churn out idiotic traffic engineers.

    1. As one who teaches those “idiotic” current/future transport professionals at university (engineers or otherwise), I call rubbish on this notion. We might be in an engineering dept but that is basically historical accident; students are taught the effects of transport on people/environment/etc and presented with consideration/analysis of different modes. But of course I can’t speak for all the people already in the transport industry (I’ve only been teaching for 10 years), or those who migrate from other parts of the world. And as Max has already alluded to, sometimes there are constraints imposed by clients, politicians, and the general public that can make it very hard for good “transport planning” solutions to see the light of day.

  8. Of course if we could see schemes for this site without the mandating a four lane road first then the divergence between planning and mere traffic prioritising would be even more obvious.

    Traffic engineering is by definition narrow and just a subset of planning. It is a big problem that traffic prioritisation somehow got in charge of city making. Hopefully the entire idea of the traffic engineer will dissolve and be replace by some other broader role, like ‘movement engineer’ or ‘access engineer’. Actually now the better ones already understand the wider issues but the persistence of the narrow ‘moving tin’ role although our institutions persists and is regrettable.

  9. Can a pedestrian be “Traffic”?
    In the denser populated areas, is the traffic between parking and the 3 nodes “Lord Math’s”
    describes to be considered? In a village situation they are all usually close by.
    In most localities the pedestrian/cyclist seems to be isolated each of the nodes described!
    Particularly in my town/city; but I feel we need to think in terms of changing the configuration. The locality scale needs to be “engineered” for slower traffic and quieter communing/commuting and for the arterial surrounding not to be a barrier to the interaction/change between villages. If your village is not where the other nodes are then the means of getting to the village where that node is should not interfere with other villages along the way.

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