An emerging trend in cities is to increasingly go car-free, primarily in city centres. This is primarily related to being able to provide more space for pedestrians, cyclists and transit while also reducing emissions and improving the health of residents.
In some cases it’s limited to certain vehicle types, in others certain streets and one of the most ambitious is in Oslo where they plan to ban all cars from the city centre in 2019.
Given the trends starting to build around this, it feels only a matter of time before the question gets asked about making Auckland car-free. This isn’t to say we should be going car-free in the next few years but the desire to do so in the future is a possibility and so something we should remember when thinking about the future. If we decide we want the city centre to be increasingly or fully car-free, it will be for the same reasons that these other cities are.
While we tend to focus on the how we deal with the tens of thousands who travel to the city centre each day, and who can be relatively easily counted as they cross the motorway moat that surrounds the city, what is often overlooked is the rapidly increasing population of people living within the city itself. The city centre is the fastest growing location in Auckland, and possibly all of NZ with Statistics NZ estimating that as of mid-2016, the population had increased by over 11,000 in just two years to reach almost 47,000 people. That’s more than was expected in the Council’s City Centre Master Plan by 2032, what’s more, with all the development underway in the city right now and on the horizon, that number is only going to continue to increase.
The people living in the city have been a critical factor in helping the city to become a more vibrant and interesting location, a far cry from the 6 o’clock ghost town it once was after all the workers scurried home. More people living in and around the city centre in the future will only help to further improve the area but we need to support these residents by providing more public space and making easier for them to get around. Addressing how we use our road space will be critical for this
On top of the resident population, the city centre is the single largest and most dense cluster of employment in Auckland, home to over 111,000 jobs while the universities and other education providers are estimated to account for over 60,000 students.
I don’t know the exact most recent numbers but indications from Auckland Transport suggest that normally, over 80,000 people cross the motorway noose to enter the city centre every weekday during the AM peak (7-9am). Of this just under 40,000 do so either driving or as a passenger in a car. Interestingly this number has remained relatively static for at least the last 15 years while the total number of people arriving has increased significantly, meaning that all the growth to the city every morning has come from growth in transit and active modes. What’s more it means those non-car modes now account for over 50% of all trips to the city each morning. Of course, many more people enter the city centre at other times of the day too and it’s been estimated in that past that over 200,000 people visit the area every day.
Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t suddenly expect everyone to stop driving to the city centre. For one thing, we know from the likes of March Madness that there simply isn’t the capacity yet on our transit networks to cope. The City Rail Link will undoubtedly help with this but that alone won’t be enough and so we’d also likely need other projects too, in particular the core of the proposed Rapid Transit Network including vastly improved links to the Dominion Rd/Airport, the Northwest and the North Shore. In our view, we really need to get this core network in much faster ATAP proposes.
Along with or after building out the RTN, there is always the question of how fast we might change our streets. Do we go for the ripping the plaster off quickly method like Oslo and do the entire city centre in one go or do we incrementally work towards that.
The good news is know there is plenty of opportunity and capacity to make significant changes to how we use our streets without having to wait for a lot of big projects to be completed. For example, the City Rail Link has seen significant amounts of road capacity removed from Albert St and parts of Customs St and yet Auckland Transport’s monitoring shows almost no impact to travel speeds. That raises the question of whether we actually need to return these roads back to the way they were or even to the scale proposed post-CRL and also just how many other roads could we scale back to being more people friendly.
One on that list would of course be Queen St which would be made a transit mall with the installation of Light Rail (although it could be done before that)
Another would be on Victoria St and the linear park which is vital for moving the massive numbers of people exiting the City Rail Link but which Auckland Transport wants scrapped and four traffic lanes retained.
While there will always be a need for some vehicles in the city, we could and should be taking steps to make it more pedestrian, bike and transit friendly at every step. Along the way, the process of doing so will increasingly make the city more car-free and make it easier in the future to go fully car free if we ever wanted to.