Imagine it’s 2030.
Tāmaki Makaurau has a safe, low-carbon and healthy transport system.
Talia lives with her parents in Papatoetoe, works in East Tāmaki, and studies at MIT. She cycles, for fitness and to save money. Whether setting out from home, work, college, or anywhere else, Talia starts each journey in a safe, low-speed and low-traffic area. The main roads provide fully protected cycling all the way to the area she’s going. Leaving them, she again returns to a low-speed and low-traffic area until she reaches her destination.
Hari lives in New Windsor, and divides his days visiting his adult children in Mt Roskill and Green Bay. He helps out with jobs around their homes, with childcare, and does a bit of shopping for them on the way. Being on medication means he can’t drive. He’s happy to take the (electric) bus, and particularly enjoys walking to the bus stops, greeting people along the way. The many new street trees are delightful to watch as they grow, it’s quiet and there are plenty of shaded and sheltered seats along the way.
Sound idyllic? Accessible, clean, healthy, equitable… with freedom for the whole community, including children.
A residential street in Montreal designated as a low-speed free-play zone.
But if it sounds unrealistic, think again. We will need to work strategically – smarter, faster, cheaper, and we’ll need a strong leader to make it happen. But this is not an expensive undertaking.
Consistently reducing traffic – using all levers at our disposal – improves the outcomes of all our transport projects and increases their value-for-money. Two key changes needed are:
- Low-traffic neighbourhoods, and
- Reallocating space on the main roads.
This post explores the first of these; applying the low-traffic neighbourhood concept to Auckland.
Tactical urbanism in Seattle Photo: SDot Photos, CC 2.0
Since low traffic neighbourhood projects enable people to get out of their cars, the main roads see lower traffic volumes. The process to reallocate road space there becomes politically easier. With less pressure to keep traffic lanes, it can also mean the difference between needing expensive drainage work, or not. And keeping trees, or not.
Treating the main roads alone doesn’t work. Trying to “add” more modes by squeezing them into congested, space-constrained main roads simply pushes drivers to rat-run through local streets, unless the low-traffic neighbourhoods preventing this are in place first.
The UK Low Traffic Neighbourhoods guide advises:
Low traffic neighbourhoods must be planned as an entire continuous area bounded by main/distributor roads. Attempts to reduce traffic in part of an area without regard to neighbouring streets can often result in the same traffic concentrating on fewer streets and/or a backlash at consultation stage.
Ponsonby’s Collingwood Ave is a recent example of the problems that arise when main roads are improved without a complete neighbourhood plan. (It also highlights the resistance we face to community-initiated tactical solutions.)
What is a low-traffic neighbourhood?
It’s a low speed people-friendly area that allows vehicles access but prevents them from dominating or using the area as a short-cut. Any through-routes are interrupted by “modal filters”, which allow access for people (with wheelchairs, skateboards, prams, scooters, bikes, trikes, mobility scooters, and cargo bikes) but stop motor vehicles. The devices can be inexpensive and relocatable – planter boxes, bollards, large pieces of concrete or tree trunks – so a tactical, experimental approach can be used. One way systems can also be helpful in places.
This is an effective modal filter in Auckland, but if it had been designed as such, would’ve had slightly wider gaps for double pushchairs and cargo bikes.
People walking, scootering and cycling, on the other hand, are able to navigate freely throughout the neighbourhood.
The neighbourhoods work to fulfill this unmet aim of Auckland’s Regional Public Transport Plan:
We will… enhance customer experience for all parts of the door-to-door journey, with a renewed focus on the first-leg and last-leg parts of the journey.
When getting to the bus stop is safe, taking the bus is more appealing.
Low traffic neighbourhoods bring safety, clean air and social life to the streets. They lower traffic volumes, improve public health and increase public transport ridership. Alongside the congestion free network, improved local bus and cycling networks, and intensification, they create the built environment necessary to meet our climate, safety and health goals.
As George Weeks said in his post Mini-Hollands in Nieuw Zeeland:
Waltham Forest Mini-Holland has, in its design, delivery and execution, brought about a substantial mode shift towards active travel at a rate of change that is unmatched anywhere in the English-speaking world.
Auckland’s first design for a low traffic neighbourhood is the city centre’s Access 4 Everyone. Perhaps some peninsulas or Kainga Ora redevelopments will be considered next.
But I was inspired by this video from Bath, where they looked at applying the concepts to the whole city.
Here’s Bath on Google Maps:
And here’s a map produced by Cycle Bath with a design for low-traffic neighbourhoods:
Clearly Auckland is larger than Bath, but so is our need for a transport transformation.
Some important principles:
No-one should be left out. The benefits need to be felt by all.
Factory workers and big box retail staff need options for safe sustainable transport as much as office workers and school kids do. Instead of focusing just on the city and town centres, schools, and some favoured residential areas, our people need to be able to walk, scooter or cycle (including to the bus routes and train lines) in every sort of neighbourhood: industrial, residential, recreational, cultural, commercial, retail, educational, conservation.
Scaling it up quickly to the whole city needs a tactical approach. Having to move gutters and kerbs – or consult with a proposal that removes trees – slows the work down. Just how cheaply can we do it? Strawbales and small planter boxes?
A tactical project in Dallas (not a full low-traffic neighbourhood)
We’ll need to tailor the concepts for our urban form, and to areas where there are more truck movements, for example. Compact Barcelona uses neighbourhoods that are typically only 400m by 400m. In the less dense areas in the UK, they recommend about 1 km2. For Auckland, although tempted to go larger, we shouldn’t alter the key concept, walkability:
You should be able to walk across a neighbourhood in fifteen minutes at most. Larger, and people start driving inside the neighbourhood. We suggest an ideal size of about 1km2.
Treating the whole city would amplify the benefits. It would enable many trips by many people to be taken by sustainable transport. It would increase access and safety to the point that local businesses using sustainable transport for delivery and operations can thrive.
The substantial traffic evaporation we could expect would eliminate the need for expensive road widening projects to ‘fix congestion’, reducing maintenance costs in the future, too. And at the same time, walking and cycling could save billions in healthcare costs.
So what would be involved in treating the whole city?
I thought I’d look at a section of Auckland and see what I could learn from dividing it into roughly 1 km2 neighbourhoods.
My attempt here is very much a springboard for ideas, something to mull on, not a finished design.
I chose an area that has a range of land use types, and that stretches between the Waitemata and the Manukau Harbours: the Rosebank Peninsula to Green Bay area, which includes New Lynn and Avondale. The colours mean nothing except that they differentiate neighbourhoods from each other.
Looking at the map with the street network laid over the top shows which streets would be used by drivers taking a shortcut, and in need of ‘modal filters’.
In other neighbourhoods, there aren’t any through-routes and the main focus will be on establishing a better walking and cycling network. Negotiating access through properties, securing land for alleyways when development occurs, and improving paths through parks will all take time.
The current bus network is shown below:
Clearly, I wasn’t able to keep the bus routes just on the main roads dividing the neighbourhoods. So a critical part of the process when looking at the whole city will be to highlight these situations. In each place where the current bus routes dissect a neighbourhood, locals and bus network experts would need to determine whether adjustment is needed in:
- the bus network – will locals prefer fewer routes with far better frequency once the walking amenity is radically improved and there are sheltered seats along the way;
- the neighbourhood boundaries; or
- the concept – so a bus route can dissect a neighbourhood.
Can Auckland Council commission a low-traffic neighbourhood map for the whole city? The tactical design of each neighbourhood could be led by local people or local boards, using elements important to people in the area, like planter boxes, artwork, playgrounds, furniture and trees.
Auckland Transport is trying to calm traffic to make our streets safer, but rarely use modal filters, despite their benefits. I fear that in resisting this technique, they’re using dated methods: too many speed humps and cyclist-unfriendly pinch points. These devices are less effective at reducing through-traffic, and will meet public resistance.
The Transport Design Manual lists advantages and disadvantages of traffic calming, but since a low traffic neighbourhood works in a fundamentally different way to speed humps, most of these “disadvantages” dissolve away, leaving just the advantages:
Using the UK Low Traffic Neighbourhood concept could bring Auckland Transport up to speed with best practice. The quality of the scheme has certainly been acknowledged in the UK:
Waltham Forest Mini-Holland has won 18 major awards since 2015 and has been shortlisted for over 50. In 2018 the scheme won the “people’s choice” award at the Institute of Civil Engineers, cementing its status as London’s most popular infrastructure project. Other accolades have come from the Healthy Streets Awards, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Urban Design Group and Pineapples Award for Contribution to Place.
After the main roads have also been treated, the city could then tweak the neighbourhoods, and make the changes permanent. Here’s a four-way intersection fitted with modal filters in Vancouver:
And here’s the 52nd modal filter going in to the UK Mini-Holland scheme:
I’ll address the main roads in a separate post.
Modal Filter at Strasbourgh, from 20 Amazing Public Space Transformations by Urb-i.
Sound impossible? What’s impossible, in truth, is meeting our goals if we continue to focus on building roads, “reducing congestion” and “optimising the network”.
Innovative thinking is something humanity is good at. We have the ability to take concepts that are working, and apply them to Auckland, even though our urban form is challenging. At this scale, Tāmaki Makaurau could become a world leader in how to lower transport emissions in sprawling cities.