What is in New Zealand’s Future?

Earlier this year I was asked by Penguin Random to contribute to a book speculating about New Zealand’s future, and now it’s out:

There’s a fantastic range of writers/speculators, including Dame Anne Salmond writing brilliantly about the natural world, Rod Oram on Climate Change, Leonie Freeman on housing. Others on the future of technology and employment, Jacinta Ruru on Maori and our collective future. A brace of Jarrods, and so much more:

I wrote about Cities, Streets, and Transport, and well you can judge for yourself, as the publishers have kindly allowed me to reproduce it here, in parts, so here’s a taste, more to follow. Or, you know, you could get the book and enjoy all writers…

13

IS THIS THE FUTURE FOR OUR CITY STREETS?

Patrick Reynolds

A GREAT SPATIAL MIXING IS UNDER WAY: the suburbs are urbanising, getting fuller and more varied, adding more opportunities to work and remain there, and, where this is most successful, developing greater local character. Our city centres are humanising — becoming more pleasant, leafier, varied, filling with residents again — as they, too, expand upwards. The separate and monotonous character of each place that developed into an extreme during the last century is being complicated and unwound.

Supporting this, vehicles everywhere are electrifying: bikes, cars, buses, trains, ferries, even airplanes. Everything will automate (ditto — well, except the bikes). Everything will be shared, certainly all those vehicles, but particularly places, and especially the streets. Walking, biking, scootering will boom. The e-bike is the transformational vehicle of the moment.

The busy peopled city street replacing the fuming traffic-jammed road is at the heart of the solutions to the great environmental, economic, and social challenges of our age. The cities, and the parts of each city, that make this change best and fastest will thrive, and those that cling to the twentieth-century driving and sprawling pattern will stall.

The journey

We look back on the condition of Victorian city streets, all coal smoke and horseshit, carts and chaos, and marvel. It was really like that? Then in the early twentieth century, right up till after the end of World War II, it was different again; these same streets we know today were filled with people in old-style hats and coats, busy with jangly electric trams and just the occasional horse and cart. But now also a few, just a few, of those new-fangled cars. That change must have felt profound; it certainly would have smelt profoundly different.

Then very quickly after the uprooting of the tram tracks that marked every city or town of scale up to the 1950s, the current pattern of vehicle traffic domination — exhaust smoke, engine noise and pedestrian danger — totally took over. All streets became roads, and all belonged to the internal combustion engine.

This should tell us that our cities, even though the present may feel so concrete and permanent, are always changing. The rhythm of this change is not constant, however: both technology and society move on in a subtle interplay, largely incrementally, sometimes more suddenly. So, flipping this exercise, looking forward: what can we see?

It’s clear that our city streets, especially our city centre streets, are about to change profoundly again. We are at the beginning of the process of reversing the last big move; cars and trucks will be but guests instead of masters in this world. Those that are admitted will be silent, non-emitting electric machines, and will be in an environment entirely dominated by people.

Auckland will lead this street-level revolution, in a very unlikely turn of events for those used to the last half-century in this city; a more car-drowned and charmless place is hard to imagine.1 Our biggest city’s sheer size and strong growth rate have flipped it into a new state through the inescapable spatial logic of urban economics: the old sleepy, overgrown provincial town is dead. And although Auckland is now anomalous with not only its own past but also every other place in the country, changes there will help speed similar shifts in our other cities, simply by showing us all that different ways are possible, and work so well.

Below I will largely discuss the urban transformation coming in Auckland because there it is so marked and so clearly under way; but this is also happening elsewhere across the nation. And, while all our cities have their own specific conditions and directions, they will not be immune to the social and technological imperatives of this century.

Form follows transport

The whole Queen Street valley will be car-free, plied only by emergency and delivery and service vehicles, the latter at set times. (Most deliveries in city centres will be by e-cargo bike.) Tens of thousands of people will arrive and depart every hour by underground electric rail, by surface light rail, by ferry at the harbour’s edge, by 100 per cent electric buses, by bikes (both powered and not), and on foot.

Especially on foot. Because this century one form of mobility that’s making a huge comeback is proximity: being there already. The Auckland city centre is the fastest-growing residential area in the nation, expanding at six times the rate of the wider city. There are now around 50,000 inner-city residents, and new apartments are rising everywhere. You can feel this presence on the pavement; space given over to vehicle traffic last century will be taken back by people in this one.

Quite soon, say by the mid-2020s, we will be able to experience this future in good chunks of the city centre. Both Victoria and Quay Street are being halved widthways to expand people space, for walking and cycling, for tree and cafe-table space. Loitering is more valuable this century than motoring. The old fume-choked and vehicle-dominated order will quickly become as foreign an idea as the thought of streets filled with horses and carts.

This is the centuries-old power of the city that got lost in the second half of last century, in the automobile-powered anti-urban sprawl era. The city is well and truly back. And the total removal of the internal combustion engine is going to transform the urban experience. It will return the human voice and the scent of the sea to dominance. Citizens will encounter new and old sounds and smells; there will be much more variety; ‘unplugged’ buskers will be effective again; food providers will advertise by their aromas again. This is the return of streets as public places, not simply as traffic funnels.

This also means there is more space for trees on every street, because as the city re-intensifies and more of the street is returned to pedestrians and bike riders, the opportunity to green the streets must be taken. We need the environmental heavy lifting that street trees perform — shade and air purification, combating the urban heat island effect — and also their glory and beauty, and the reminder of our natural selves that only a green city can provide.

Because, and in a complete inversion of thinking of the last period, one of the major drivers of urban re-intensification is the urgent need to lower the environmental burden of human living. We have to live more compactly, move around more gently, consume much less of the earth’s surface, and stop burning its buried carbon. This can be achieved only by returning to the compact city, stopping the outward spread of recent centuries, and retrofitting current suburbs with more local amenity, while decarbonising our buildings and the travel between them.2

For those living with a lovely garden in the suburbs this may seem hard to understand; isn’t that greener than living in an apartment? The problem is not at the individual level but when it scales. It is a sad fact that the environmental positives of that individually owned greenery are all undone by the massive waste that is the suburban driving commute, and by the vast, countryside-eating spread of the city that enables us all to live in such a dispersed way. One city block can house as many people as an entire small suburb, and with a much lower carbon footprint. This doesn’t mean that existing suburbs will become just like city centres, but rather that both will grow a bit more like each other; suburbs must become more mixed-use with local walkable employment and amenity, and centres must grow leafier and more appealing while getting taller and fuller. And both will be efficiently interconnected with electric rapid transit.

This transport revolution — literally another turn of the wheel, with the addition of a citywide rapid transit network and a full cycleway network to our existing and largely complete road networks — is vital not only to unclog and purify the city, but also to ensure that access to opportunity is equitably shared among all citizens. So that anyone in any part of the city has equal access to all the employment and education possibilities citywide. If all anyone needs is a train fare or a safe cycle path to access the entire city, we will have both a thriving economy and a fairer one. Richer in every sense.

Forecasting the physical landscape of transport infrastructure, the city’s hardware, is relatively easy because these budgets are already set; we largely know what our cities will be like over the next decade. I will paint this picture later, but first let’s look back on the last major transport revolution in our cities: the birth of the car-centric city after World War II. Because we can understand this pattern better if we see how we got to this point and what, specifically, we are leaving behind.

More to come…

Notes

1 Paul Mees & Jago Dodson (2001). An American Heresy: Half a century of transport planning in Auckland. Presented to NZ Geographical Society & Australian Institute of Geographers conference, University of Otago, Dunedin. 

2 David Owen (2009). Green Metropolis: Why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are the keys to sustainability. New York: Riverhead (a Penguin imprint).

3 Mees & Dodson (2001).

4 Ibid.

5 Jeff Speck (2012). Walkable City: How Downtown can save America, one step at a time. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

6 Alan Ehrenhalt (2012). The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. New York: Knopf.

7 Charles Montgomery (2013). Happy City: Transforming our lives through urban design. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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29 comments

  1. I have the book. Good contribution by you on cities Patrick – I read it sitting in a pocket park in Queenstown a couple of weeks ago. A good place to contemplate urban form while overlooking the lake. A lot of other interesting reads in the book too – would recommend to others.

  2. Great read thanks Patrick. I will seek the book out. The message to people with a lovely garden is one I will take to quoting. 🙂

  3. “Forecasting the physical landscape of transport infrastructure, the city’s hardware, is relatively easy because these budgets are already set; we largely know what our cities will be like over the next decade.”

    If we look at the budgets already set, we’ll be seeing more traffic on our streets, not less. The only place this might not be true is in the centre city where more might be done to exclude private cars and reclaim streets. This will be a good inspiration for the suburbs – but coming too late. The suburbs need to see this transformation happening in the next ten years too, and they won’t while SH1 and SH20 are widened and all the other road expansion projects in the RLTP and ATAP are happening.

    My worry is that progressive talk will sound hollow when the realities for most people will be more cars and loss of natural and pedestrian amenity while we try to squeeze more modes in.

    1. I agree, I am frustrated at the (lack of) pace, and frustrated at the creativity of resistance to change, that seems so hard to harness in the other direction, in some important quarters. But. I am a big believer in momentum and tipping points, and as a keen student of both cities and history, I know that’s how these hinge moments turn. We are, as I argue in the book, at another of those junctures of departure….

    2. As a city centre resident I’ve given up on Auckland at large – will be working hard to keep cars out and make the city for people again. Low speeds, congestion charging, reduced lanes and closed streets. It’s the one place we can make it happen (though almost all spending is still happening at the harbour edge rather than where the majority of people actually live and work…)

      1. You keep doing what you’re doing, dr. It’s an inspiration to the rest of us. Meanwhile the suburbs need the attention of many. The joke is watching people in positions of power nod at the slides of improved streetscapes from overseas, such as one-way systems, pedestrianised streets, dead-end systems, superblocks, while doing nothing to allow such radical ideas here.

        What gives me strength is seeing in places where Vision Zero and C40 has been implemented (instead of just given lip service) the huge support that emerges from the public, despite the media naysayers in these places. Auckland will be the same. We just have to start, and make it huge.

      2. That’s your targeted rates dollars at work. Investment in an area is proportional to the amount of rich people in that area. The contrast between different parts of the CBD is almost comical.

        1. Mmm. I’d say the Big Question for the cbd is also: How do we get NZTA and AT to give up on traffic flow through areas like Hobson St? It’s causing such damage to the urban social fabric. It’s one of the Big Questions, like how to stop increasing road capacity, and how to stop greenfields growth.

          Pedestrian amenity and good walkability aren’t too threatening to those big behemoths until they start seeing they have to change their basic premise.

          1. Yes. One day we may make Hobson and Nelson Street two way. But not yet. You can look for all the old post from a chap called “admin” from when this was still known as transportblog.

            Also, dug up this prediction from 2014, about how what would eventually become Lightpath would cross Union Street.

            Easy. Why? Because the current Nelson Street off-ramp, to the west of the old one, doesn’t allow right turns into Union Street. So whenever that ramp runs, you can also run a signalised walking / cycling crossing in parallel on the right-hand side – no long discussions with the traffic control people about whether we can afford to lose precious car capacity. We simply sneak through in an unused part of the signal cycle!

            That prediction turned out to be true. Except for one thing, that pedestrian leg is still missing. Apparently that’s not considered deeply embarrassing.

            Or maybe that helps to keep the riffraff in their little apartments out of that cycleway.

  4. Congratulations Patrick on the book. I will definitely buy this one. I wonder if Unity Books on High Street will have it?

  5. The busy peopled city street replacing the fuming traffic-jammed road — yes indeed.

    I think that’s often a missing piece in discussions about intensification.

    Apartments or any other high density living doesn’t make any sense in a context where streets are just meant to be traffic sewers. Especially not families. Think about how you would raise kids in an apartment on Hobson Street. I can already imagine people telling their grandchildren that “back in our day, most kids could play outdoors“. Followed by the kids gasping in disbelief.

    It will be a case of “show, don’t tell”. We had better get developments like the Takapuna town centre or the Unitec site right.

    1. I notice that one of the chapters is ” Is New Zealand the best place to be a child?” Andrew Becroft. I wonder if he goes into the streetscape environment?

    2. This is what I was trying to get across in the petition I was running earlier this year – when i sent it to Mr Twyford it was in the context of “you want people to urbanise, but this is what people see when they think of that – if we fix this then your job will be an easier sell. We understand all the problems Auckland has on this front and we have some insight into how to avoid making those mistakes and what other laws need to be considered (noise, etc)”

      Never got a response, Mayor sidestepped, AT was already working with me on Cook Street and and Transport ministers (+associate) didn’t reply (until recently, but nothing is confirmed or planned around meeting)

      https://www.ccrg.org.nz/petitions/victoria-quarter

      1. Yes. And its true in the suburbs where intensification is coming too. No-one is coordinating the purchase of land for small parks. I’m not even seeing the provision of pedestrian crossings on the (existing but soon to be heavy) desire lines. The process of intensification should have these issues resolved as a matter of course.

    3. Lots of kids around the world grow up in apartments and turn up perfectly fine. What is missing from the CBD is lots of good playgrounds so city living can become an option for people with young families, lots of spaces for people to stop and watch the world go by. We need to do better at blurring the lines between the CBD, which has been for office ants and students, and suburbia where mums and dads live with the kids and a dog. The CBD needs to do a lot better at catering for all people – the young, the old, the disabled…

      1. Yes lots of children grow up in apartments around the world but they are within very different contexts. Grow up in Amsterdam or Vienna and there are parks everywhere and children are allowed to access them without supervision. I grew up in an apartment in London near busy roads and I was not allowed out alone until I was 12. Research in Auckland suggests that the majority of children who live in Auckland central currently rely on their parents taking them out to play until they are 11 or 12. If the weather is bad, parents are tired/ busy, they don’t get out. Outdoors becomes the balcony. It sucked for me and it sucks for them. The form of the streets and a mind shift towards making a space for kids in the city is required. As things currently stand as a parent, having a garden is absolutely essential because it is the only outdoor play space that my kids at 5 and 7 can access without depending on my permission/organisation/supervision and they enjoy their play more.

        1. Auckland Council has got it all wrong. Not enough consideration for the very young or the very old. Public transport is next to useless for the elderly who find the nearest bustop a step too far. And then there’s the long wait for the bus. There will be more families living in apartments with no gardens or back yards so large parks and towns squares catering for all ages should be provided throughout developed areas. Instead Council is selling all the public spaces it can, saying they are surplus to requirements. Takapuna is a good example where high rise apartments are going up all around the town centre, while the council has been trying to sell various pieces of green space in the area, as well as the central car park – for development. There’s a promised town square which won’t be anywhere near big enough for the increased population generated by intensification. So short-sighted.

          1. Ann, your point about selling off assets is really important. We need to run a campaign, I believe, that Panuku should not have been tasked with finding ways to improve Council-owned assets “at no cost to the ratepayer”. This is taking the wealth built up by previous generations and milking it for the current generation’s needs in a way that means the future generations have fewer choices.

            The problem has been the push to keep rates as low as possible. That needs to be challenged. We have so much infrastructure that hasn’t been maintained due to this mindset, such as roads that are pouring runoff into our waterways instead of having treatment first, and sewers that overflow into the harbour when it rains because the cost of separating stormwater and sewerage was deemed too expensive.

            Public transport, on the other hand, is the preferred transport mode of the elderly in most well-planned cities around the world. We just need to spend more money to get the pedestrian amenity and comfort right.

          2. Sorry what green space is being sold by the Council in Takapuna.

            Good riddance to the car park and I can’t wait to see the development happen. It will vastly improve Takapuna. Despite the best efforts of NIMBYs to drag us back into the 20th century.

      2. Yup. And space for these improved people spaces, for all ages, are the streets. We need to take them back from the vehicle. This will happen (with a rush and a push)

    4. The fuming traffic jammed road? Just had to spend a few days working in Queen St and there was traffic but certainly not jammed and the air was easily breathable. The worst polluting vehicles were buses.
      Electric vehicles eventually replacing IC vehicles, isn’t that just replacing current exhaust gasses with air polluting ozone?
      Even closing the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter could the Grid provide enough power if all transport motorised modes were electric? Likely not so we may need to look to nuclear electric generation.
      What an interesting transport future, just need some quantum mechanics application to get the transporter invented (Star Trek type)

      1. Could the Grid provide enough power if all transport motorised modes were electric? If not, using less cars would be a smart move.

        And electric cars are going to kill you just the same if you get hit by one.

      2. Closing Tiwai wouldn’t be much use as their power comes from Manapouri, which is next to useless for the North Island as the line losses would be huge.

        There is plenty of consented geothermal generation though, just waiting for the market to be right to go ahead and build.

        There will never be nuclear power in NZ, it could never be done at the scale that would justify the amount of expertise needed to run it.

      3. First you need to understand that electric engines are 90+% efficient and Internal Combustion ones are around 30%. So only roughly 1/3 of the primary energy is needed to power all current liquid fuels machines with electric ones.

        Second. That Transpower says yes the gird can handle it.

        Third. That NZ has more than enough potential renewable sources to meet this need, at about 1/3 of the cost of Nuclear, ie US5c per kWh to around US15c/kWh.

        So what are we waiting for? Do we prefer sending billions to Saudi princes every year, rather than investing in our own energy production?

  6. So what are we waiting for?

    The upfront capital costs of electric cars are still higher than fossil fuel cars. People tend to focus on the upfront cost & discount future costs (like buying a house with mortgage payments)

    To get around this one could consider:

    a) Ideally there should be an air pollution excise tax on fossil fuel vehicles proportionate to the health costs of the vehicle fleet air pollution. The total health cost of the vehicle air pollution should be worked out.

    b) Instead of applying this health cost as an excise tax it could be applied as a sales tax cost added to all new fossil fuel vehicles based on expected engine emission rates.

    c) The revenue collected would then become a subsidy to the cheapest new or imported electric vehicles on the market with the aim of maximizing the uptake rate or electric vehicles.

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