Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Patrick was originally published in October 2012.
We know that for cities clever investments in Transit systems are the best way to keep their road system working efficiently. By adding additional capacity for movements of people these complimentary systems can save us all multiple billions of dollars in deferred or unnecessary additional roading projects. This saving can be described as a dividend from that investment. But there are other paybacks as well. For example because all Transits systems increase the amount of walking people do cities with better Transit systems also consistently report better health statistics, another of those amazing stats where a lot of little changes add up to one significant improvement. But there are other returns on the Transit investment too and that’s what I want to discuss here.
Recently I was in Melbourne and had another opportunity to visit some of the Laneways that this city is famous for: Tight little service lanes converted to vibrant alleys of food and specialty stores that are never anything other frantically busy. Here’s a list to show just how extensive they are. Melbourne is fortunate to have such a resource in these narrow lanes which result from the original planning and settlement of the central city known as the Hoddle Grid. However they were not always used as well as they are now and there is largely one person to thank for this change: architect Rob Adams. From Wikipedia:
In 1985 the city centre of Melbourne was in need of revitalization, with retail trading and cultural activities lagging behind its counterparts elsewhere in Australia and in Europe. Adams helped to write, and to put in place, the first comprehensive urban design strategy for the City, based on the idea of creating a vibrant and well populated street-scape profiting from the city’s multi-mode transport system.
He guided the strategy’s implementation in several projects, which took place as the city recovered from economic recession in the late 1980s and was prepared to invest in the built environment….He has also overseen the installation of kilometers of detailed bluestone paving across the city, opened up laneways for retail use, redesigned the Yarra River frontage with walkways and new pedestrian bridges, installed street furniture and art, new lighting, signage and extensive tree planting….Comprehensive urban design programs over two decades has seen a reversal in the way the city, and particularly its center, is perceived.
Ok so Melbourne is a much bigger city and it does get hotter than Wellington [though just as cold] but the really compelling thing is that this inner city real estate in Wellington is totally given over to the storage of cars, and is therefore dead and unpleasant. This network of lanes had only two purposes, car parking and to lead to the huge car parking building seen in the shots. Low value land use.
Back in Melbourne where do the Laneways lead to? Surely all those people must have got into town and parked their cars somewhere to provide all that business in the city centre that even back alleys are crammed full of flourishing little businesses…. [even on a miserable day]
I get to Melbourne annually and everytime I go it seems they have removed the cars from yet another principal CBD street. This time it was the biggest of them all: Bourke Street. clearly visible in this shot are tram tracks and pedestrians: Transit and people mixed together make for an intensity of financial and cultural vitality. What isn’t visible is the underground rail lines and stations that also feed this vitality and connect the urban and cultural centre to the far flung suburbs [Yes Melbourne sure does do suburbia too]. Sure there are also carparking buildings but nothing like number in proportion to our much smaller cities.
Central Melbourne is a much better place to be in not because it is at the heart of a bigger city but because the priority given to investment in Transit has enabled it to thrive commercially and culturally much better than our cities. So these vibrant streets can be described as a Transit Dividend; one of the returns on the investment in a widespread Transit network. The pay-off in quality of place and in commercial and social transaction from creating access without dissipating that intensity with massive car parking structures and giving over all those streets to the circulation needs of driving: A very inefficient and low value land use.
A bit out of date but here is a summary of the changes undertaken in Melbourne:
Now it may be that Wellington is still just too small a place to really expect much more intensity than it offers now, although I would argue that there are many ways that transport in Wellington could be considerably improved, especially small and cheaper ways like a cycle network on those broad boulevards and by improving pedestrian priority at intersections, but there can be no argument that Auckland is certainly of sufficient size and growth to warrant much more attention to this.
Of course there is a certain ‘chicken and egg’ to this process; the vitality of urban life is dependant on the numbers of feet on the street which in turn depends on just how vital and attractive and accessible that place can be. This interaction is a matter of life and death for businesses and cultural services and adds up to nothing less than success or failure for a place. So it is in fact quite fragile and must be consciously chosen and worked towards.
So clearly when it comes to urban success accessibility and vitality are joined at the hip. So how are we faring in Auckland? It is clear that the city centre is a way more lively place than say a decade ago, and we know that many more people are now entering the city everyday, yet it is important to see that not all accessibility is equal; Auckland’s improvement over the last decade has been paralleled by a drop in the number of cars entering the city as the rise in the quality and frequency of Transit has improved.
According to the Council’s longitudinal Screenline Study between 2001 and 2012 the proportion of people entering the city centre in the morning peak on Transit grew from 35% to 50%. But the number of private cars entering the city at this time fell by around 5000 each day. This may seem counter-intuitive to shopkeepers but there is a clear inverse correlation between car numbers in the central city and its vitality. Both Britomart and the Northern Busway opened during this period so more people choosing Transit isn’t an accident but a response to policy and investment. Interestingly that drop in vehicle numbers parallels the growth in numbers arriving by train at Britomart in this two hour period each morning; around 6000 in 2012. So there is a good example of how Transit investment pays off for vehicle users; clearer roads; but a fuller CBD.
So urban renewal is dependant on investment in good Transit systems in order to reap those very real and positive financial and economic outcomes. Because of the interdependence of these factors the best approach is to invest in them in parallel. And this is also a way to ensure we cash in this dividend from our Transit investments, we must reclaim the streets for people; for commercial and social exchange, in short for life, as we improve the provision of Transit.
In Auckland this process can already be seen in the Council’s work like the new Shared Spaces, Wynyard Quarter, and promising plans for Quay St, and the private sector chiming in with the Britomart Development and Imperial Lane, both done with close co-operation with the Council:
But there still is a long way to go:
I hope that the council doesn’t lose its nerve with these areas and listen to every retailer who imagines that cars buy things and not people, or delivery companies used to total use of all streets at all times. Because it is only by restricting and removing cars that both more people can be attracted and that Transit systems will have priority on main thoroughfares to deliver them in greater concentrations. After all delivery vehicles using space like this is nothing other than a habit and because we allow them to. Those Lanes in Melbourne somehow get supplied with everything they need to undertake their high volume trade so clearly this is not necessary in Auckland either
But there is also a much bigger issue than the Council spending on Shared Spaces or pricing parking properly. And that is the regional and national transport priorities. Because if the government and its unelected agencies insist on investing the vast proportion of our transport tax money on mega motorway project all over the city, then the central city and other sub centres will only be able to become low intensity places with commercial and cultural amenities spread out between huge parking systems connected by low value multilane roads and charmless alleyways, like the Wellington example.
So until we demand of the mandarins at NZTA say, that they can’t just ignore the place effects of their desire to overbuild for imagined future traffic growth I guess Auckland will struggle to realise its dreams as a prosperous and exciting little city.
We need to transfer significant transport investment from motorways to Transit because the quality of place outcomes are vastly different. How much more vibrant the heart of the region will become once the City Rail Link is running can be seen here.
Then, of course, the nation as a whole can reap that other great Transit Dividend and begin to save the billions and billions we have hitherto been unable to stop spending on ever more urban motorways in a futile pursuit of providing roadspace for all the cars that those very same motorways generate. As we move more people with the complimentary new Transit systems the already lavishly built motorways will become more efficient for the traffic that still needs them.
Transit = Quality of Place = Return on Investment.