One of the few benefits of COVID-19 is that it brought forward the plans to change Queen St and make it more pedestrian friendly. Not long prior to the country locking down, the council approved the updated City Centre Masterplan (CCMP) which “seeks to bring new life into the heart of the city with a revitalised, pedestrian-priority Queen Street. The laneway network would be expanded as the centrepiece of a new zero emissions zone, which is free of through-traffic“. The CCMP also included the Access for Everyone (A4E) concept which would prioritise pedestrians and reduce vehicle movements through the entire city centre. Both the CCMP as a whole and A4E were widely supported in public consultation, with 76% support for the CCMP as a whole and 82% support for A4E.
The council had initially intended to start piloting changes to Queen St later this year but COVID-19 threw a massive opportunity in the council’s lap. With the need to provide more space to enable physical distancing, the council quickly rolled out some temporary measures including bus stops built out into traffic lanes and the flexi sticks to provide that wider footpath space. But in addition to providing that temporary space for people, it showed that change was possible, it highlighted some of the ‘hidden’ public space in the city and it also helped in making Queen St easier to cross as there were fewer lanes to navigate.
Not everyone was happy with the implementation, with some wanting it removed. Particularly lately there has also been the issue of some drivers ignoring the space and using it for free parking. Ripping out all of the Covid works only to put it or something similar back in a few months time would have been rightfully ridiculed by the public and media, especially with the Council under so much pressure with its budget.
So we were pleased last month when sanity prevailed and the Council said they’d start piloting changes from this month.
The highly anticipated ‘Access for Everyone’ pilot for the Waihorotiu/Queen Street Valley will begin next month, signalling the start of pedestrian priority for the heart of Auckland.
Auckland Transport and Auckland Council will use a co-design process with Queen Street users and stakeholders to test low-cost ways to lay out the street that can be quickly adjusted, adapted, improved or removed through the process. This approach has successfully been used in High Street, where it won an award from Living Streets Aotearoa.
The first of those changes are now starting to take place with the council upgrading the current installation.
The temporary COVID-19 works installed in the northern end of Queen Street will undergo some refinement over the next week. These improvements are based on feedback received from businesses and residents to make the purpose of the new spaces clearer for users and improve the overall appearance of Queen Street.
A portion of the plastic sticks on the northern end of Queen Street between Shortland Street and Customs Street will be removed and replaced with concrete safety separators (pre-cast traffic islands).
The plastic sticks around loading zones in this section of roadway will remain so that the space can continue to be used by those servicing Queen Street businesses and residencies.
The northern end of Queen Street is being prioritised for these enhancements because it has the highest volumes of pedestrians.
Early next week the expanded pedestrian area created during the COVID-19 works will be painted to make it clearer to pedestrians that the area is theirs to use.
There will also be minor changes in other areas of Queen Street to improve signage, enhance the loading zones and increase the visibility of bus platform edges.
A diagram of the changes is shown below and the concrete barriers would certainly be welcome. I do wonder though why the tree planter is indicated to sit in Queen St and not further back on Fort St to help in blocking traffic from getting that far – or do both.
One aspect that does concern me though is the subtle change in language from the council. Here’s what they said in the June announcement, with some added emphasis.
Access for Everyone will work towards the removal of non-essential car traffic from Queen Street. This prioritises pedestrians and frees up road space for public transport, deliveries, emergency services and for people with limited mobility.
Yet in this weeks announcement they say
Later this month, the ‘Access for Everyone’ pilot for the Waihorotiu Queen Street Valley will begin, which will test new ways to lay out Queen Street prioritising space for pedestrians. Access for buses, emergency and service vehicles will be retained, while non-essential traffic will be discouraged.
To me, simply discouraging non-essential traffic will likely mean drivers will continue to use Queen St simply because they can whereas removal of that traffic means they actually have to take steps to stop people driving.
One of the reasons this is important is that since things started to ‘return to normal’ after lockdown, the buses that use Queen St have become increasingly delayed by other vehicles due to the now lack of bus lanes. As an example, during the evening peak last week, buses were taking on average 6-8 minutes to travel the section between Customs and Wellesley St – on some previous weeks that average topped out at 10 minutes. At the same time last year those same buses were taking on average 4-6 minutes and during lockdown that was just 3 minutes. Those few extra minutes might not seem like much but adds up and results in a poorer user experience.
You can see this on the graph below.
Even just stopping vehicles from using the Customs to Shortland St section it would likely make a big difference as it helps stop Queen St from being a rat run in an attempt to get home a few minutes faster.
As I understand it, getting the cars out will become even more important next year when the City Rail Link works will see Victoria St closed to traffic so they can build the station under the intersection. That will necessitate even more buses on Queen St and if we don’t do something, what ridership we do still have will likely start to dry up because buses will be too slow.