The Auckland city centre street network is, at last, about to undergo some proper change. As with any change it will face resistance. A fair bit of that resistance will come from people who are simply used to how it is now.
So I think it could be a useful exercise to examine how it got to be like it is.
And interestingly, unlike the fairly varied and layered nature of the city’s architectural condition, the design of our city streets is not the result of some natural accretion of styles. But rather it is the outcome of sustained and coordinated planning, investment, and intervention over many decades.
From the 1950s engineers and planners took the city’s fairly organic Victorian street network, that filtered lazily out into the surrounding Isthmus, ripped out the Edwardian electric tramway, and imposed the extremely severe city containment of the motorway ring we know so well today. They then reordered almost every city street to serve the traffic that these motorways delivered. This is the city we now have.
It’s striking how disorienting it is looking at a pre-motorway map of Auckland, like this one from 1959, the year the Harbour Bridge was completed; the pre-motorway city. To our eyes now the southern edge of the city has no, well, edge, it just isn’t there:
This process that led to this is well documented and can be followed via these major steps:
1965 De Leuw Cather Report Highways
1965 De Leuw Cather Report Rapid Transit (unbuilt)
1972 Auckland Rapid Transit (unbuilt)
The 1955 Master Plan began the whole motorway programme, it was refined by De Leuw Cather a decade later, and the 1971 CAP report describes the consequential response in the city centre streets. The failure to fund and build either of the two rapid transit plans or anything like them, had a huge bearing on the pressure to fit buses into city centre streets, but it’s important to be clear that they still planned this car dominated city centre regardless. Here is the 1971 CAP street priority plan, which was still anticipating underground rapid transit to follow:
It’s clear to see how the tight noose of the motorway ring contains a city centre so small, and so constricted, that the off ramps from one side turn into the on-ramps on the other, without filtering down to city scaled lanes between. There’s barely any space for ‘city’ at all. This is city as off-ramp, rather than city served by off-ramps. All the streets shown in black above were considered primarily as conduits for the motorway system and not local access urban streets in their own right. Especially the direct on/off-ramps, but this ‘motorway serving’ condition is also continued through the very centre of the city on every major street too.
Additionally two big one-way couplets were planned: the north/south Hobson/Nelson one which we have long had, but also an east/west Wellesley/Victoria one including Kitchener/Bowen/Waterloo Quadrant. Of which only Kitchener was made one-way. The plan was to tunnel Waterloo Quadrant to Bowen to make an underground on-ramp for the Grafton Gully Motorway to match the Symonds St off-ramp underpass we all know at Wellesley St East. Thankfully the full circuit never happened. That truly would have made for a crazy car-go-round.
Though in late 1980s in an act of supreme Council mandated vandalism the lovely ‘Parisian’ lanes east of High St were demolished in order to straighten out Fields Lane to create the meaningless little stub clearly visible on the map above, designed to feed this drive-only plan. Mayoral Drive was forced through those city blocks to create the ‘distributor’ to link west to east so there was no point in the Queen St valley that a motorist couldn’t drive across.
This is what was done to the city centre directly as a result of that multi decade commitment a one mode transport policy. The motorways were directed and funded by the National Roads Board (the precursor to NZTA) and Auckland City Council and the other Councils had to just deal with the consequences of this policy, the building destruction, the severance, and, especially the flood of cars (and the loss of rateable property and therefore city income). But then, as this passage from the 1971 Central Area Proposals makes clear, it is not a case of the planners disagreeing with the engineers, everyone pretty much agreed that:
- The car flood was coming, and
- Without it the city would die, cos
- No one wants to use PT (which we aren’t building).
Yet they knew that the city already relied on public transit to function, they had the data:
Essentially they set out to dismantle this city and replace it with a car only one, accepting that it would wither, extraordinarily, in the name of dispersal. And wither it did. Public Transport ridership reached a nadir in 1994, with only 20% of people arriving in the am peak using the sorry PT services that survived the privatisation of the bus system, the decline of rail services and of course the removal of the trams. They also knew the costs:
The costs were on pedestrians, of course, which is to say the quality of the city streets for people, and precisely at the places where there is the ‘greatest numbers’ of them. But this was an anti-urban age, so the impulse here was to move the university out of town, and otherwise disperse economic activity, and get people off the streets. It’s all kind of mad; for of course without people there is no city. This period seemed to suffer from a collective amnesia about the purpose and form of cities throughout time. A kind if ‘this time it’s different’ all because of the private car.
These costs are however what transport economists like to call ‘externalities’, something external to the project, that is when they bother to count them at all. I would call them direct outcomes, and consider it entirely fraudulent to not count them against the value of the transport plan.
And we are only just now getting to grips with fixing this, much is currently being made of the fact that PT and Active journeys to the city centre in the am peak have now overtaken car journeys. Basically we have got back to 1963 (see above). We are still yet to undo the damage done to the city centre in the postwar era.
It is extraordinary what they were prepared to do in the name of progress after the war, literally moving whole hillsides and cemeteries, filling harbour bays, and flattening city blocks, as if there was nothing there before. Or rather they afforded themselves this; demanded the right to smash and grab pretty much anything, in order to get to a blank slate; the great desiderata of modernist planning; the bomb flattened city. The fresh start, the tabula rasa.
Such a radical and violent shift to impose on a city. Parts of the city, like Newton and Grafton Gullies faced erasure on the scale more like that of a natural disaster or carpet bombing. And others, like Karanghape Rd, then the city’s premier shopping district, had their entire economic basis pulled out from under them, condemning them to a near terminal decline. This was an extraordinarily bold change, imposed top down by public engineers and planners, with rather predictable outcomes. British engineer and planner Colin Buchanan said in 1966 the traffic in Auckland already made the central city ‘unpleasant, almost to the point of being uncivilised’, but on it marched.
So the great news is we now have the opportunity to fix much of this, and it doesn’t require destroying whole places, ruining the ecology of urban gullies, or severing communities from the city. This revolution is way gentler. Access For Everyone seeks to work with the radical change carried out in the modernist era, not upend it. Ameliorate its hard edges, its fixable failures; the city will still be served by motorway off ramps, but no longer be so dominated by them. It’s small but significant move is to return city streets, particularly in the core Queen St valley, to being more about people and place and not merely vehicle rat-runs. Vehicles that remain will be because they have direct business there, not because they are on the way to somewhere else, over the other side.
Drivers will be be able to get into town, but not across it. Instead more people will take advantage of better public transport services, new more spatially efficient micro and electric vehicle technologies, and we will have way better streets for that most powerful of urban modes: walking, to enable the city to flourish on the power of the timeless urban resource of; he tangata, he tangata, he tangata.