Auckland will face some new transport challenges during Alert Levels 2 and 3. The space required for physical distancing when walking and cycling will conflict with higher traffic volumes when more people start driving. Cities overseas have shown how to respond to these sorts of conditions, including Bogota way back in mid March.
To respond quickly to the emergency, Auckland Transport needs staff with skills in tactical urbanism and a good understanding of walking, cycling and safety principles. Unfortunately, the team specialising in these skills – the Walking and Cycling Team – was disbanded by Auckland Transport about a year and a half ago. The team has gradually departed leaving just a few noble souls. Yet having these skills is critical for the organisation.
Was the loss of this skillset flagged by Human Resources and put on the organisation’s risk register? What mitigation or back-up plans were made, especially to ensure the public would be kept safe during emergencies? Did Human Resources put in special support to help retain the remaining team members?
The Board knew about the disbanding. What risk oversight did they provide?
So far, in Level 4, we’ve seen traffic volumes reduce significantly. Many people have reimagined their streets.
One thing I’m noticing so hard on our currently car-free streets is *how much space* there is.
Each photo here contains more people (walking, biking, scooting) than vehicles. And yet: how Lilliputian we seem. How little space we need. How hard it has been to ask for mere crumbs. pic.twitter.com/YrSBWY3Zsf
— Jolisa Gracewood (@nzdodo) April 18, 2020
Our air is sweet to breathe. The city is quiet. Walking feels good. Cycling is a burst of freedom. Older people are reminded of times past. For children, this new feeling that the road is theirs is a delightful liberation.
But while the risk has dropped, it hasn’t dropped commensurately with the traffic volumes. High vehicle speeds, and insufficient space for people, have been the biggest problems. These increased risks could have been reduced had AT taken action.
Image credit: Bike Auckland
A nimble authority would have announced:
We acknowledge how difficult this situation is. Everyone needs more space to exercise than the city’s footpaths provide, and we expect that people will be using local roadways for this.
Today, we are beginning work to free up space for you:
- We are coning off road space to provide cycleways and wider footpaths, including entire lanes on the arterials.
- We are closing roads to through-traffic where possible.
- We are stepping up parking enforcement to ensure no cars are parked in the pedestrian realm, such as berms, vehicle crossings, plazas and pavements.
- We will work with Council to open up parks and golf courses for exercising without the danger of vehicles.
And we are making the system safer and more friendly for exercising:
- Speed limits have been changed by default to 30km/h on all local urban roads.
- Please drive only if you are unable to walk or cycle for the essential travel you need to do.
- If you must drive, please do so slowly and cautiously, as there will be many people walking and cycling on streets.
- We will seek a technical solution to the problem that people on bikes face of there being fewer vehicles around to trigger the traffic lights. We will also seek an emergency implementation of the Idaho Stop rule to enable people on bikes to treat stop signs and red lights as give ways.
Texas, Arizona has managed pop-up cycleways for Covid.
The transport sector’s low level of preparedness for the challenges of Covid has contrasted with our epidemiologists, who were studying the experiences overseas very keenly. One of my biggest bugbears with traffic engineers has been that they don’t seem to be aware of their professional requirement to keep abreast of developments in the field. This is a case in point.
Auckland Transport ignored the ‘whole system’ focus of Vision Zero, and put the responsibility onto the people at risk:
Make sure you wear helmets and always check for vehicles. If you’re heading out for a walk, remember to look out for people on bikes and try to stick to the footpath where you can while maintaining distancing.
Redrawing the cyclelanes in Berlin.
We’ve appeared on a world map of emergency measures:
Brussels has reduced waiting times for pedestrians by 20 seconds to 40 seconds at more than 100 traffic lights.
Low traffic volumes have been our saving grace in Level 4. But Level 3 could be very different. Overseas countries operating in a similar fashion to our Level 3 indicate we have good reason to be concerned. Without improved emergency transport planning, it looks like we will wave goodbye to calm streets. Level 3 might be a juxtaposition of two realities:
Some people could return to their usual occupation and habits, except perhaps driving more often because they avoid public transport. Those stuck at home (including most children and elderly people), will still be popping out for local walks and cycle rides, needing space for good physical distancing. What will disappear for them is the low traffic volume, which provided the safety to step out onto the road, and to cycle on arterials or with little kids.
20 km/hr emergency speed limits in Vienna.
NZTA recognises the risk, and has made money available for quick, cheap improvements through its Innovating Streets fund. Auckland Transport’s initial responses show that the amount of money was too small to tempt them, with their intention being to try to secure some of the funding for simply continuing with their current programmes. And the public were seen as a hindrance.
Which is ironic, because tactical urbanism was developed by citizens frustrated with the deficient environments that authorities like AT were providing.
This is a fundamental challenge to transport authorities, happening right now.
Now that the funding is more than $7 million, it appears Auckland Transport will get involved. Their message has become more progressive:
Additional funding would enable us to quickly widen more footpaths in busy areas and deliver more separated cycleways so people can enjoy their streets and keep a physical distance at the same time.
But there’s still a risk they will try to use most of that funding in existing projects (that they’ve been slowing down for years):
The funding could speed up the delivery of major projects like Access for Everyone in the city centre and the Safe and Healthy Streets programme in south Auckland…
Here’s hoping the “several” projects they apply for span the city and lead immediately into more and larger projects that mean everyone is protected:
AT will be applying for funding for several projects that we can get underway shortly after the lockdown ends.
Image credit: Bike Auckland
I might have kept quiet, but the CEO also said:
Auckland Transport and Auckland Council have successfully trialled tactical urbanism treatments like planter boxes and paint, in the city centre to create new cycleways and wider footpaths.
You see, I’ve heard a story about planter boxes. In fact, I’ve heard stories about all sorts of tactical urbanism elements and concepts. Here’s a list of some that Auckland Transport have refused to implement, but which will be required for these Innovating Streets projects. May the upskilling – and cultural transformation – commence!
Auckland Transport wrote in mid-2018:
The use of planter boxes … cannot be supported due to the following factors:
- There would be reduced night-time visibility of such devices compared to standard devices which are more conspicuous and thus easier to highlight (e.g. with the use of houndstooth markings on speed humps). This would become a significant safety issue.
- Based on experience in other parts of the city, these are easily damaged especially in areas where there is a presence of [Heavy Commercial Vehicles]. These would become an on-going maintenance hazard for Auckland Transport.
- Maintenance of plantings is generally undertaken by Auckland Council. To maintain the aesthetic value of these, agreement with Auckland Council would be required.
Filters that allow people through, but stop vehicles
Recently an AT design team took to management the suggestion of adding one single modal filter to a streetscape design. It was needed where a bidirectional cycleway crossed a side street; a risky situation in a risky spot near a primary school. The safety benefits of closing vehicle access to this entrance of the sidestreet were clear.
It was the legal team who said no, yet the solution was clearly legal. Auckland Transport list these techniques they can use but then the legal team stops their designers from using them:
- Converting an intersection into a cul-de-sac or dead end.
- Boom barriers – restricts through traffic to authorised vehicles only.
- Closing of streets to create pedestrian zones.
Removing car parking
Parking induces traffic. Reducing parking supply is a key parking mechanism to achieving the Council’s goal of encouraging modeshift away from driving.
Yet the removal of a single carpark requires sign-off at the top levels of Auckland Transport. Last year I questioned why a minor safety project on Central Park Drive, requiring 9m of parking restriction, required consultation, which delayed it by several months:
I asked them to explain the consultation requirements so I could understand why the far more disruptive Redoubt Road Dynamic Lane project didn’t require consultation. Auckland Transport quoted legislative requirements that essentially said it was their choice to do so. Summary here.
Reducing traffic volumes is a key concept for tactical urbanism and network planning alike. On one major project, I wrote to the design team:
We’re in the process of trying to design a good cycleway. But good cycleway design always involves ensuring the traffic volumes are sufficiently low first. Otherwise, unintended consequences can include rat-running, and increasing danger wherever cycles and cars cross…
I believe the multi-criteria analysis should not proceed unless it includes at least 2 different options that involve traffic reduction measures. This doesn’t commit anyone to any path. But it does give AT and the CLG options to discuss that will probably be superior to any options that do not involve traffic reduction measures.
I never received a reply.
Opening Streets to People by Closing them to General Traffic
AT have resisted implementing the Council’s 2012 City Centre Master Plan, which really should have been finished by now. Queen St has still not been opened to safe walking and cycling. Excuses I’ve heard are that access must be maintained to private lots and that they can’t ban certain users from roads and not others.
These arguments are fallacious. Road controlling authorities ban certain users from roads all the time. And access is impossible to maintain if it doesn’t currently exist – which is the case for safe all-ages cycling access on Queen St. AT should be prioritising this neglected mode. There are no driveways in the areas where vehicle access restrictions are proposed. And the plan still accommodates access for deliveries by vehicle during some periods of the day. So the plan doesn’t seriously impact any existing vehicle access to private lots, but it certainly improves cycling access. Which is a mode the Council wishes to prioritise.
AT has had about 7 years more than it needed to sort out any legal barriers – imaginary or otherwise – to restricting general traffic.
Low Traffic Neighbourhoods
Auckland Transport would not consider using a low traffic neighbourhood for a streetscape project, when suggested. The plan would have served local residents, the network and even AT’s reputation, by mitigating one negative effect of the project: extra rat-running.
Auckland Transport is more open to installing new pedestrian crossings than it was, although it probably won’t like reducing their cost with innovative designs.
They continue, however, to design intersections with missing pedestrian legs, because the organisation is still prioritising traffic flow over safety (despite their claims otherwise). Missing pedestrian legs contribute to deaths and serious injuries, and have no place in a safe transport network. Contributing to the situation is a serious flaw in the modelling which directs the engineers to leave crossings out of intersection designs.
Tactical Urbanism outside the centres
In refusing to implement tactical urbanism in a project, Auckland Transport claimed it is suitable for centres only:
In general, trials are more effective in achieving their objectives (i.e. raising awareness and/or changing behaviour) in more densely populated areas such as the City Centre or other centres, where exposure can be maximised.
Auckland Transport have destructively stopped events for spurious reasons.
The Great Upskilling
Whereas the councils in some smaller towns and cities of New Zealand have retained skills to do things cheaply, quickly and well, Auckland has to relearn them. With climate change on its way, our road controlling authority needs to understand the importance of tactical urbanism. It will keep our costs down and allow us to more nimbly test new ideas as we move into a more difficult future.
I hope plenty of Auckland Transport staff will have the opportunity to work with NZTA on this Innovating Streets for People programme.
But some of the senior staff at AT clearly have some misconceptions to overturn for the programme to be successful. Some of these senior staff are also presiding over backwards-looking projects that are making our system worse, and at great cost.
At this stage, I believe the Council and the AT Board may need to actively take control to cut through the problems. The CEO has had over two years to move people around into better positions for their skills and levels of understanding. The progressive, competent staff in Auckland Transport hidden by the oppressive culture need to be promoted so they can shine.
After decades of community disempowerment, it’s taken a pandemic to reignite hope that we can create healthy streets. If Auckland Transport’s internal barricades to progress can be removed through a great upskilling in response to the emergency, Auckland’s future will look far rosier.