One of the most important projects Auckland Transport has on its books right now is Connected Communities, formerly known as the Integrated Corridor Priority Programme. This is something we’ve talked about before but here’s a recap of what the Regional Public Transport Plan says about it:
Auckland has constrained arterial corridors and there will be trade-offs to be made around competing uses including general traffic lanes, cycle lanes, parking and median strips. AT will design and deliver whole-of-route bus priority on the FTN where:
- current and planned services experience inconsistent travel times due to congestion
- where travel-time savings and patronage levels justify the cost of delivery
- where capacity exists, or new services are planned that can leverage priority infrastructure to deliver patronage growth
- if reallocation of road space is required, where expected patronage gains are sufficient to ensure that bus priority implementation will increase overall people throughput along the corridor.
The integrated corridor programme will be critical to deliver the next wave of patronage growth for Auckland’s bus network and instrumental in providing the next major improvement in customer experience. It will also be a major mechanism by which placemaking initiatives can be instituted – leveraging the changed environment generated by the corridor programme into urban design elements that will reflect local identity and character.
The maps below show the corridors they’re working on.
The project is incredibly important to get right but we are deeply concerned about the delivery of it. It was first mentioned as being underway in a board report in October 2018 and not much has really happened since then – as per an update they gave us and a number of other groups in mid-March. They still have no concepts for how they’ll deliver what’s mentioned above, no frameworks for how they’ll make decisions on what to prioritise and don’t appear to have even basic information about things like inconsistent bus travel times, such as Wellington did here. While the project team did say they had some goals/outcomes they want to achieve, they wouldn’t say what they are.
Further concerns stem from the fact they’ve split up the corridors and dished each of them out to more than half a dozen different consultants to do business cases on, raising the risk we get many different approaches and interpretations of what’s needed or even what’s possible. So instead of coming up with one or two common designs that can be used across all corridors with only minor modifications, we could end up with 11 different designs. My prediction back in August that we might be five years before we seen even mild improvements is looking optimistic.
It’s the idea of trying to come up with a common design that gets rolled out as widely as possible that I’ve been thinking of, with a particular focus on the central isthmus streets of New North, Sandringham, Mt Eden and Manukau Roads – although possibly useful elsewhere.
As mentioned earlier, there are competing priorities for these corridors so it’s useful to start by thinking through the lens of the strategic priorities of draft Government Policy Statement. In short, we need to:
- provide better transport options
- improve safety for everyone using these corridors
- do both of the above while also reducing emissions
So what does this look like.
Improved walking and cycling infrastructure
We need better and safer pedestrian infrastructure. This includes things like raised tables on side roads, more and safer options for crossing roads – particularly around bus stops, and we need to declutter our footpaths from things like poles, signage and even bus stop shelters.
If nothing else, the impacts of Covid-19 showed a desire from the public to cycle more – not to mention the increasing attraction of other micro-mobility devices. We need to safe cycleways/micro-mobilityways on our main streets so that people can safely cycle to work, school, local shops or to visit friends.
Better public transport
The corridors on the central isthmus are already some of the most used in Auckland but that doesn’t mean they can’t be better – and we can tell this because many people still choose to drive. To get better buses the biggest opportunities are to improve the speed and reliability of them. To do we need a combination of better spaced bus stops and better bus priority – ATs own aspiration for all frequent routes is that they have ‘whole of route bus priority’.
We also need to electrify them and make them more attractive to use. One of the ways to make them more attractive, other than what’s mentioned above and improved frequencies, would be to make bus stops more attractive and having a higher profile.
To put it simply, if we’re to make a meaningful impact on reducing emissions we need fewer people driving. Implementing the improvements mentioned above will help encourage some people to change how they travel but it won’t be enough we will need to look to ways to actively discourage some travel.
Now, discouraging travel is not the same thing as saying we don’t need cars at all and we absolutely will still need access to properties so space for vehicles will still be needed. What we can do though is to discourage longer distance trips from using these corridors. Afterall the, one of the justifications for building motorways like the Waterview Tunnel was they would “also free up local roads by transferring traffic onto the state highway network“. We shouldn’t have to accept congested and unsafe local roads simply because people want to keep using local roads for these longer distance trips. If the motorway is too congested and the local roads are less convenient to drive, that will encourage even more people to consider either not travelling or using another mode.
On top of all of this we also need more street trees.
Fitting it all in
The challenge in designing streets capable of achieving the improvements needed for better walking, cycling and public transport are about space. Those central isthmus streets were generally built one chain wide, that’s 20.1m. Within that we get streets that look like the image below, which is Sandringham Rd.
We’re clearly missing safe cycle infrastructure, good quality PT stops and of course we’re missing street trees.
In the graphic below I’ve mainly just used the defaults in Streetmix but it’s clear that if we were to take more traditional traffic engineering approach, everything simply doesn’t fit and to deliver these outcomes about another 7m of width. Essentially on every single one of these corridors we’d need to be buy up and demolishing all the houses on one side of the road. That’s what w’re doing for the Eastern Busway and has taken a decade to get going. We don’t have the money to do that on every corridor and I don’t think we’d wouldn’t want to or need to. Ideally we need a solution that will fit within the existing corridor and without having to move existing kerb lines.
Something’s got to give and is essentially the issue the Connected Communities project needs to solve.
A potential solution
If we could reduce traffic by a significant enough level, we could probably get away with not needing bus lanes at all as traffic would flow freely without holding buses up – thereby freeing up heaps of space. As that seems unlikely, one of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is something that AT seem to have had a real attraction to lately, dynamic lanes. AT have been focused on using the idea to get more car lanes on a road but I’ve been wondering if we could the idea for bus lanes.
Under this scenario, the roads would be reduced to three vehicle lanes, one lane in each direction and in the middle, a peak direction bus lane. On the surface it may look like we’re sacrificing an existing bus lane but in reality, they only operate in the peak direction during peak hours. Outside of that they are used for on-street carparking – which would disappear completely in this idea. Like they do now, counterpeak buses would use the general traffic lane.
I discounted the idea of having the cars in the middle lanes to try and avoid large gantries and other infrastructure to tell them which lanes to be in so the biggest challenge comes with how to deal with bus stops. How does a bus travelling in the middle ‘peak’ lane pick up or drop off passengers? Here’s my idea.
We upgrade the humble bus stops to create more formal bus stations. This serves to both improve the quality of them but also to make them more prominent. We would also ideally space these slightly further apart than current bus stops which would help speed up buses.
At the stations we then reduce the road to one lane each way. Buses using the dynamic lane would have priority in accessing the station area and any vehicles in the general traffic lane would need to give way to them and then wait while they load/unload passengers. After the station buses could then move back into the dynamic lane.
By making it so cars are no faster than the buses, it also helps to discourage driving and encourage the use of other modes thereby helping to reduce emissions.
Below is a model I created to get the concept across visually. I’m not a road engineer so fully admit some of the features/dimensions will not be 100% correct but the road is 20.1m wide, just like those isthmus corridors and things seem to fit. The green parts between the bike/vehicle lanes are raised buffers/kerbs.
One concern I’m sure some people, and especially locals, will have with it is that it will likely mean that outside of a few set locations, such as immediately after a station where the bus ‘is in the lead’, it’s likely no right turns would be able to be permitted. This may be frustrating for locals but would be a positive for safety as people turning right across traffic are often looking for oncoming cars and don’t see pedestrians or people on bikes.
I was also inspired a bit by this idea from Indianapolis. They’ve built something similar using a dynamic median bus lane and in places it has median islands. One of the things I quite like about it is I think it makes the station even more prominent by allowing for one higher quality platform. The downside is it does require buses with doors on the opposite side of the bus to what they normally would.
So I also whipped up this version with a median island platform idea. One potential advantage this could have is it might allow for u-turns after the station, thereby eliminating the need to accommodate right hand turns and further improving safety. It might also help improve acceptance from locals. Work would need to be done to investigate if this was feasible.
What this would deliver us is essentially a BRT lite solution without the huge infrastructure costs of a full busway. It would also provide vastly improved walking and cycling infrastructure and from what I can tell, could be possibly to do without the big cost of having to move kerbs and services.
An idea to throw in the mix at least.