Auckland Transport’s plans to build light rail on the isthmus and to the airport will be one of the most significant and transformational public transport investments in the coming years. There has been plenty of positive talk and images released by AT but the real challenge is going to be in how well they’re able to implement the project. As such, and given the level of investment that will be made, we think it’s incumbent on AT to ensure that light rail is designed to the highest possible standard. This is particularly important on the Dominion Rd, which is likely to be the first section completed, to not only ensure that the local town centres are able to thrive, but also to give confidence in the extension to the airport, which has been an issue of much debate.
With that in mind, in this post I want to look an idea that may seem controversial at first but that we think merits some debate and investigation by AT. We believe that there is strong case to close the town centres along Dominion Rd to through traffic. Here’s why:
Share the placemaking love
One of the aspects I’m most looking forward to with light rail is in the city where Queen St will be turned into a pedestrian friendly transit mall. This will not only help light rail to glide through the city easier, but will also provide a lot more pedestrian space for the tens of thousands who walk along the street every day. It’s something that’s long overdue and could look similar to what’s being installed in Sydney on George St.
But why should the city centre to be the only location to benefit from such dramatically improved people space? The town centres on Dominion Rd would all benefit significantly from similar treatments by helping to make them into more unique destinations. Destinations that could also support a lot more people visiting and walking thanks to the building of light rail.
Parking is obviously going to be an issue that many focus on but it’s worth noting that it is likely to be removed whether there is vehicle access or not, there simply isn’t space for it. The road corridor through the town centres is too narrow and widening it isn’t an option.
The one major benefit that the current on-street parking provides is that outside of peak hours, it gives a bit of a buffer between the moving vehicles and pedestrians. With light rail having dedicated lanes and by retaining through traffic, it will mean moving vehicles right up against the footpath at all times. Not the most pleasant pedestrian environment.
As I understand it, there is one exception to this and that is where the stops are located. Due to the narrow corridor, at that those locations the plan is to build out the stops into the traffic lane. This is shown in one of the images from ATs light rail page. As you can see, the road is narrowed but then expands back out to accommodate the traffic lanes.
Give Light Rail the priority it deserves
AT have repeatedly said that light rail will be separated from traffic, such as this statement from their website.
- Service reliability. Light rail’s traffic signal priority and dedicated tracks make reliability close to 100%.
Light rail is like a tramway, but runs on its own dedicated right-of-way. This means it’s not affected by traffic speeds
This raises the question of how those statements are able to be squared off against the images above. As I understand it, the plan is for vehicles and light rail to share the space in the town centres but be separated by time. In other words, when a light rail vehicle (LRV) approaches the town centre/stop, cars will be prevented by lights from driving through. If you look closely at the image above, you can actually see this with a light pole and intersection limit line just to the right of the LRV.
We think this is a poor solution for two key reasons.
- Drivers don’t always behave like they’re meant to. One only needs to look at busy intersections to see impatient drivers entering an intersection and then blocking it when the light changes. Leaving the success of the project up to the behaviour of Auckland drivers is not something I’d risk.
- AT say there will be service every 5-10 minutes but over time, and especially after it reaches the airport, we’d expect this to increase. Even if drivers behave perfectly like AT expect, that will mean the town centres will be closed for a lot of the time anyway. It’s also worth remembering that unlike other intersections, the light rail isn’t just passing through but it’s also stopping at a station. All up it could well take a minute or more for the LRV to clear the section, during which time no through traffic is moving anyway, and another LRV might only be a minute or so behind to repeat the process.
This nicely leads to ….
But what about the traffic?
I feel like I can already hear the howls of outrage from locals, letter to the editor writers and talk back callers. That it’s some kind of attack on the freedom of drivers. But
I think drivers along Dominion Rd likely fall into three categories, each with a different potential solution.
- Long distance trips from the southern isthmus to town
- Local trips to the town centres
- Shorter trips from the central isthmus to the city
Let’s look at these.
Long distance trips from the southern isthmus to town
My gut feeling is that a large bulk of the drivers on Dominion Rd are travelling most of the length of it from Mt Roskill to the city. This is something that would be relatively easy to test by recording and comparing number plates at each end of the road. If they decide to continue to drive then the good news for this group is we’ve just spent over $1.5 billion to help make their commute easier. This comes in the form of Waterview and one of the purposes of it is to reduce traffic on local roads.
Local trips to the town centres
As mentioned earlier, parking in the town centres long Dominion Rd is planned to disappear once light rail is installed but the town centres will still be able to be accessed via the many side roads that join to Dominion Rd.
Shorter trips from the central isthmus to the city
Public transport use in the central isthmus is higher than most places in Auckland and we’d expect the introduction of light rail to boost that even higher. There will still be many who choose to drive though. One of the good things about the central isthmus, that many other locations in the region lack, is its grid patterned street network. Drivers could either travel not much further to use Mt Eden or Sandringham roads.
One small advantage is it would simplify intersections near town centres by removing turning options, thereby speeding up many trips. For example, because there would be no car access on Dominion Rd directly south of Balmoral Rd, it will have more time available for east-west traffic.
Is it done elsewhere?
Closing town centres to traffic to enable light rail isn’t uncommon in many overseas systems either. Over on the Gold Coast, traffic through Surfers Paradise has been reduced to one lane only in places. Traffic in the other direction needs to find another route.
Over in Seattle, their first light rail line has been hugely successful and following a recent extension is carrying more people than our entire rail network. Seattle’s implantation has many similarities with what’s proposed for Auckland. As well as further extensions on that line, they’re also building a line to the east. The schematics for one of the new stations highlights how the road network could work. Light rail in this case passes east-west though the image (light blue) and between 130th and 132th it is light rail only with a station. East of 132th the road has lanes in each direction. With westbound traffic not able to drive straight it can only turn left, right or do a u-turn
Overall we think while closing these town centres to through traffic will have some impacts, the opportunities and benefits doing it provides will likely outweigh those. We think that AT need to look at this option as part of their light rail investigations. How well AT are able to implement light rail will have a large bearing on how well extensions to the airport as well as other parts of the city are viewed.