For a second time we’re working our way back down the COVID alert levels towards some sense of normalcy but that also means we’re once again missing a huge opportunity to change our streets for the better.
During the first lockdown, Auckland Transport reluctantly implemented some temporary measures to enable easier physical distancing and all but one, Queen St, was removed as soon as we reached level 2. AT were going to remove the Queen St stuff too to in a bid to appease a few retailers and it took a took a huge effort from dedicated Councillors to stop this – and this is despite the council having voted in late 2018 to get cars out within a year, it being supported by a multitude of council family strategy and policy documents.
This second lockdown, despite Auckland Transport having told us they had reflected back on the first time and learned lessons, we’ve seen nothing. Perhaps they thought it wasn’t worth doing anything if the lockdown was only going to be for a few weeks, perhaps they were concerned about the impact any measures would have on an already tight budget, or perhaps they just didn’t really care.
Hayden Donnell wrote a fantastic piece about this topic on Saturday for The Spinoff.
Dozens of major cities are building cycleways and pedestrianising streets as they adapt to the post-pandemic world. Hayden Donnell asks why Auckland hasn’t experienced a similar level of transformation.
All over the world, cities are transforming as they adapt to an age of lockdowns and social distancing. London’s Soho district has been almost completely pedestrianised, its carless roads now filled with restaurant tables. Dublin has twice pedestrianised its entire city centre. Oakland is closing 120km, or 10%, of its streets to cars. New York is closing 160km of streets. Hundreds of kilometres of quick-build cycle and footpaths are being installed everywhere from Melbourne to Athens.
In Auckland, Waitematā local board member Sarah Trotman filmed a video of herself complaining about the road cones marking a temporary bike lane on Ponsonby Rd. Partway through the video, a man called Glen appears to encourage people to steal the cones. He shouldn’t have bothered. They were removed just a few days later by Auckland Transport.
Trotman’s video from May is a bleak illustration of Auckland’s missed opportunity. Other major cities are already seeing the benefits of increasing the space for cyclists and pedestrians using fast, cheap, tactical urbanism. The changes have allowed restaurants and shops the room they need to stay open, while still doing the vital work of keeping customers apart. They’ve enlivened stagnant urban environments amidst the ongoing economic and social fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the changes aren’t extensive by global standards. That may partly be a symptom of New Zealand’s success achieving Covid-19 elimination. Our transition to alert level one came with a powerful pull to return to normal. People got back in their cars, and the Trotmans of the world started whining about having to look at our makeshift active transport projects. Little progress seems to have been made in the almost four months between the city’s first and second lockdowns. People got complacent. Perhaps local authorities did too. If the return of Covid-19 and another lockdown as proved anything, it’s that complacency was overly optimistic.
One thing that stood out to me was a thread in reply to the article yesterday from Councillor Pippa Coom. I’ve included the text below but click though for the images and links associated with it.
In the search for Auckland's post-covid transformation a few things to highlight:
1. It has been slow going but there is strong political support to do things differently and re-imagine urban streets. There have been some wins https://t.co/4hbzDjZmnE
— Pippa Coom (@pippacoom) September 6, 2020
2. The emergency measures rolled out during the first lockdown provided the catalyst for the Innovating Streets project Ponsonby Road Te Rimu Tahi “returning P’rd to the people”. It’s now funded and has full support of the business association (win)
3. The extra pedestrian space on Queen Street is providing an important stepping stone to the wider city centre transformation coming via Access for Everyone (pic taken in Level 3)
4. Traffic road closures for vehicles on the lower section of Queen Street is now live in Google Maps. This was first suggested to AT almost 2 years ago as part of a package of measures to improve air quality
5. In addition to the new fast track applications for outside dining licences, AT is working on a process for businesses to be able to make use of on-street car parking spaces for parklets
6. There are still many frustrations. AT wasn’t ready with any plans for quickly creating additional space on the return to Level 3 restrictions even though there would have been obvious safety benefits on popular routes
7. The Cornwall Park Trust Board moved quickly to open up roads to walking & cycling but the same approach hasn’t happened in council managed parks. Auckland Domain would be a good place to start
8. AT was asked to “elaborate [in their SOI] on the potential for innovative & low-cost techniques to be deployed to achieve council priorities. Areas where this may apply include … active modes (building on recent momentum in walking and cycling).” No sign of this yet
Overall the transformation is work in progress and I’m hopeful the opportunities aren’t going to be squandered but Auckland sure does need to get a wiggle on. Thanks @HaydenDonnell for going on your search
It’s great that Pippa is highlighting the good stuff and trying to celebrate it. Yet at the same time it also highlights that to some degree, Councillors are having to play the role of advocate and cheerleader as opposed to decision maker. Of course some of that comes down to the structure of the council family but also as the recent CCO review found the lack of council oversight.
The review has also criticised political oversight of the CCOs, and found fault with the remaining agencies Auckland Transport (AT), Panuku Development, and Watercare.
The review, chaired by Miriam Dean QC found AT did not collaborate enough with council on transport strategy, and that its handling of smaller projects was far from satisfactory.
The review found the council’s role overseeing the five agencies was also problematic.
“There is insufficient face-to-face discussion and meaningful dialogue, between CCO’s and the (council) Governing Body,” it found.
One of the issues we’ve noticed is that often the council will made a decision or statement about an issue but it barely gets in the door at AT and most staff working on stuff don’t know about it.
We can only hope that as the council responds to the CCO review, it also helps in pushing AT to be more responsive to opportunities and change.