Welcome back to Sunday Reading. The City of Toronto recently launched this “pilot project” creating a transit street on King Street. Before, streetcars were mired in traffic.The pilot project pulls most of the traffic out of the corridor by removing through traffic. Drivers can access sections of the street, but they can’t pass through or turn left across traffic. The project has been running a week and it’s improving travel times from 5 to 13 minutes on the short corridor. The  relevance of this project is most obviously Queen Street, Auckland, but it is also a good demonstration of how effectively transport and urban improvements can be achieved by simply reallocating road space for spatially efficient modes.

King Street Transit Pilot Overview, Toronto“, City of Toronto.

The King Street Transit Pilot between Bathurst Street and Jarvis Street aims to improve transit reliability, speed, and capacity. The Pilot is changing how King Street works by not allowing private vehicles through intersections and instead giving priority to streetcars. The King Street Transit Pilot will explore ideas for how to redesign King Street in order to achieve objectives to:

  • Move people more efficiently
  • Support economic prosperity
  • Improve place-making

Yonah Freemark, “In a simple move, Toronto transforms a streetcar line into something far more useful”, The Transport Politic.

This pilot has significantly reduced space for cars along the street, eliminating parking spaces, adding public art, installing planters, creating small new public plazas, and—perhaps most importantly—prevented people from driving on the street for more than one block or taking left turns.

It’s therefore not a full car ban; some vehicles will still travel in the streetcar right-of-way, a less-than-optimal situation. But it is an effort to ensure that drivers are only using the portion of the street they need. As a result, most of the street is reserved for trains, bikers, and pedestrians.

We’ve yet to see the long-term results of the project, but initial public reaction suggests that the changes have significantly sped up what was once a very slow streetcar line. Riders are saving five to 13 minutes per trip, a massive improvement for such a short trip. Streetcars are running more quickly and less likely to get stuck at lights. Cyclists are riding more safely. And traffic doesn’t seem to have been pushed onto surrounding streets.

Globe editorial: A little transit miracle grows on King Street“, The Globe and Mail.

The cost of this big change on one of the busiest transit routes in the city? Small. Instead of being measured in billions of dollars and decades of construction, it involved the exorbitant expense of trucking in a few concrete barriers, changing a handful of road signs and buying some yellow paint. Construction period? Counted in days.

Because if King Street really does see faster travel times and rising ridership, and if the strategy is extended to other routes where car traffic can paralyze streetcars – we’re looking at you, Queen Street – then downtown Toronto will become an easier place to commute to, and an easier place to travel within. And that, not giving politicians something to tout, visionaries something to dream on or international pension funds something to invest in, is what public transit is for.

The streetcar along King Street carries more than 3 times as many people as in cars. Of course, people still freak out about the changes. Shawn Micallef, “King St. pilot project does what big cities around the world are doing“, The Star.

The amount of angst expelled over a project like this is a continued sign of Toronto’s teenage state — caught between accepting it’s a proper big city and behaving like a provincial town trapped in a 1955 dream. No big city worth living in is easy to drive in, but because Toronto is a North American city, largely built after the Second World War, the idea that you can drive anywhere and park out front is baked into the psyche here, even if doing so easily is not the reality or even possible. Even if we gave the roads over to cars entirely, there are simply too many of them. Getting public transit moving quickly and efficiently is the only rational future.

As Micallef describes above, many cities around the world are removing cars from their city centres by proactively managing traffic (out).  Here is a closer look at Barcelona’s “Superblock” project which removes traffic by restricting through traffic and re-directing it around certain blocks. Check out the YOUTUBE video too.  Mark Wagenbuur, “The Barcelona Superblock of Poblenou“, Bicycle Dutch.

Barcelona is a city of 1.6 million people; totally different from any city in the Netherlands and yet there are similarities. The city wants to be more for people than for cars. Cars pose the same space issues to Barcelona as they do to any city, simply because cars are so terribly space inefficient. This universal problem leads to a universal search for solutions. Barcelona has a very specific street pattern. A straight street grid with the corner of every block ‘cut off’. This leads to octagonal spaces between the blocks that are as big as a town’s square. This grid was designed in the mid-19th century, before the car existed. These spaces between the blocks were meant as neighbourhood squares where people could meet each other. All that space is now used for motor vehicles, which means a staggering 85% of the city’s space is dedicated to the car.

The city would like to bring back the original purpose of the city space by dedicating some of the octagonal intersections to people again. This is the core of the Superblock plan from the Urban Mobility Plan of Barcelona for 2013-2018.

I wrote last week about Utrecht’s latest intervention to shift traffic to the outer ring road “City Boulevard, ’t Goylaan, Utrecht“. The city has been reducing space for cars for several decades now. Here is a classic Bicycle Dutch post documenting the change at one city centre location (Nuede Square).  Mark Wagenbuur, “Cycling as a key to better cities“, Bicycle Dutch.

The New Economy notes that the city is very compact, but that many functions in a small area has the downside of a lot of pressure on existing infrastructure. They also note, however, that the Dutch do not focus on trying to make it possible to move traffic from one part of the city to the other as fast as possible. On the contrary: “For city officials, mobility is not the goal in and of itself, but a tool for creating a city where people are proud to live, work, start businesses and meet new people.”

If you follow my blog you will almost be able to predict my next line. It hasn’t always been this way at this location! And yes that is true again, here too.

Neude is a square alongside of the main East-West corridor through the historic city centre of Utrecht. The entire corridor has been transformed from a main motor traffic area to a place for people. Motor traffic can still get to the city centre from the ring roads around the city, but it always needs to go back out the same way it came in. This means you can still get to the centre from all directions, but you can no longer go through that centre.

(Picture Utrechts Archief via Bicycle Dutch)
(Picture Bing Maps via Bicycle Dutch)

Another reason cities are moving to restrict traffic is the vulnerability of people in crowded cities to vehicle attacks. Laura Bliss, “These Cities Are Building Downtowns Safe From Vehicle Attacks“, CityLab.

Of course, the Dutch determination to fend off motor vehicles is famously unrivaled. But check out Oslo, Norway, where biking’s mode share is lower than many major U.S. cities. The city has staked a path for an (almost) car-free center by 2019. They’re not quite at the bollard phase yet, but in some ways that’s more instructive: block by block, the city is starting to scrape out parking spaces and broadening bike lanes to build a people-first downtown.

Switching over to housing, here is an excellent article by Enrico Moretti the economist and author of The New Geography of Jobs, where he discusses the California Bay Area’s failure to build enough housing to keep up with the booming economy: Fires Aren’t the Only Threat to the California Dream, The New York Times.

The lack of supply means that rents and housing values increase faster than necessary. For homeowners, this is a boon, as their assets keep appreciating, For renters, this means an ever-increasing cost of living and for some, an impetus to pack up and leave.

One way to think about it is that the enormous increase in wealth generated by a tech boom is largely captured by homeowners in the urban core who bought before the boom. By fighting new market-rate housing, Nimbys and Bay Area progressives are de facto making the housing shortage worse. Ironically, given residents typically progressive political leanings, this has regressive consequences, because it helps rich insiders at the expense of everyone else.

The second negative consequence of the region’s restrictive housing policies in the urban core is environmental degradation on the periphery. Good environmental stewardship suggests that we should build more in the urban core near transit and jobs and less on the fringes. Yet because of cities’ strict housing regulations, we build more on farmland on the region’s outskirts and less int he city centre where demand is higher.

Seattle is another big city struggling with housing supply since most of the city is strangled by single family zoning restrictions. Alan During makes the case that cities with responsive housing industries, including supportive land use policies, can build enough housing to keep prices in balance. Alan Durning, “Yes, You Can Build Your Way to Affordable Housing“, Sightline.

“You can’t build your way out of a housing affordability problem.” That’s conventional wisdom. I hear it all the time: Prosperous, growing, tech-rich cities from Seattle to the Bay Area and from Austin to Boston are all gripped by soaring rents and home prices.

But what if you can build your way to affordable housing? What if, in fact, building is the only path to affordable housing? What if cities around the world have been building their way to affordability for decades.

You can. It is. And they have.

Uber recently published a visually compelling ad (below) about how cumbersome cars are in dense city centres. Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog USA takes a closer look at the absurdity of Uber as the messenger. “Excellent Uber Ad Distills the Problem With Uber in Crowded Cities“. StreetsblogUSA.

It’s a great ad for transitways or bike lanes or any transportation mode more spatially efficient than cars. But Uber suggests that its service — which mostly ferries around single passengers in automobiles — is somehow the solution to the problem.

The more we learn about the effect of Uber and similar services, the clearer it becomes that these claims are misleading. Uber is exacerbating congestion in the most crowded parts of New York City, and recent research indicates that ride-hailing apps in other major American cities divert trips from transit and increase the number of cars on the road.

It seems everyone loves to talk about the future of transport with automated vehicles and mobility services.  Meanwhile, ride hail services are already clogging Auckland streets. At some point someone will figure out that kerbside space will have to be allocated for passenger pick-up, and drop-off.  Streets like Ponsonby Road and Shortland Street come to mind. It’s starting to happen in North American cities now. Matt McFarland, “Cities warm up to designated Uber, Lyft pick-up spots“, CNN tech.

Some of the hottest real estate in cities right now is curbspace.

It’s in such demand that cities including Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Fort Lauderdale, Florida have unveiled test programs that rethink this precious resource.

The cities are replacing commercial parking spots with reserved pickup and dropoff areas for Uber and Lyft.

Mimi Kirk, “The Soviet Military Secretly Mapped the Entire World“, CityLab.

English retiree John Davies has been smitten with maps his whole life. “I was drawing maps of my house as a toddler,” he said. Though his career in software didn’t allow regular forays into cartography, he would visit map shops on his travels.

On a business trip to Riga, Latvia’s capital, in the early 2000s, he hit the mother lode. Davies happened upon a shop that held bundles of Cold War-era maps of British cities, created by the Soviet military. The maps were so detailed that they included such elements as the products factories made and bridges’ load-bearing capacity. “I was just amazed,” Davies said.

That’s all for this week. Please leave your links in the comments section below.


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      1. Well I think these people have learnt their lesson. Next time they should start a business inside a shopping mall where Auckland Transport can’t come along and shaft them.

        1. I guess if your business is dependent on parking you probably need to make sure you have guaranteed access to them rather than expecting the public to supply them for you. Maybe these businesses are better suited to malls.

        2. Yes. Harvest Wholefoods is essentially a small supermarket that doesn’t provide parking. Rather than complain about the removal of on-road parking, they should put up dozens of quality bike racks. Foot traffic and cyclists is who you see when you shop there, and in that location you’d be a fool not to realise this is the future of its customer base.

          Businesses are always hit by the construction period – that’s why small and slow solutions are better (a permaculture principle). Something AT could learn.

          Harvest had better be careful not to annoy its cycling customers by complaining about the cycleways. Me, for example. Their shop is a pain to get to by bus from Pt Chev. I cycle there, but given that I have children along with me, I’ve been hanging out for the cycleways.

          Harvest, if you support the changes, you’ll tap into a whole new market of people who until recently couldn’t cycle and didn’t come to Harvest because parking is a nightmare. Conversely, you could go down the same path as Garnet Station: boycotted by the local cycling population because of the bikelash vitriole from one of its owners. Better decide which side your bread is buttered on.

        3. Or they could hang onto their wigs and wait for the facts of the matter to emerge once the scheme is built and the changes settle in, rather than short-sightedly fearing the unknown. Heck, they might even see business improve as a result of their street address improving:


          And worth noting – hardware stores (his store is the UK market equivalent of our Hammer Hardware local stores) are one of the businesses oft-quoted as “needing a car” to attract customers. What a load of tosh; shops and business don’t need to target the stereotype of urban-loving, latte-sipping hipsters to make money out of cycleway improvements in their centre.

        4. “hanging onto your wig” is a lot easier for people who aren’t watching their cashflow dry up. Perhaps it would be easier to ride out if AT had a track record of their projects being completed on time.

    1. Oh my god, Harvest Wholefoods customers are highly reliant on cars? It’s almost as if buying hideously expensive greenwashed products is a token gesture made by people who don’t want to change any other aspect of their behaviour…

      1. Hit the nail on the head Logan. I know several people who shop there because “it’s the right thing to do and is good for the planet” yet they all drive what is less than a 15 minute walk and can’t see the irony of it. Perish the thought that they may have to park somewhere other than right outside the door.

        1. Takapuna has 2200 car parking spaces, all available at nominal cost and yet a local business closes every month or so. Could it be possible that the key to a successful business is something other than just having a multitude of car parks in close proximity?

  1. Comments above about pick up and drop off make me think of the current habit of taxis PARKING half on cycleway, half in vehicle lane, between the islands near the ferry building.
    Also those taxis that do use the designated area beside the ferry building not bothering to check for cyclists when crossing the cycle lanes.
    Similarly people taking photos and abruptly deciding to step backwards onto the cycle lanes presumably in order to get a better shot.
    And random pedestrians…
    All the above just making the decision harder to not use the car

  2. Surely the King St transit concept is more appropriate to Dominion Rd than to our Queen St, where cars should just be banned?

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