The current tranche of Innovating Streets tactical urbanism projects are in various stages of progress. It’s pretty cool when they turn up on Google Earth images, as with this project in Nelson South:
The key thing about this year-long Innovating Streets programme is that Waka Kotahi funds projects to the tune of 90%. This makes them an irresistible opportunity for towns and cities to test and tweak small-scale interventions.
The pilot projects are designed to last anywhere up to three years, allowing plenty of time to shape them in response to feedback and data. The only proviso is that beyond 30 June 2021, councils will need to find ways to continue to deliver the projects themselves (which can include tapping into their long-term plans and creating a “path to permanence”).
The Innovating Streets projects I’m most interested in are the low traffic neighbourhoods, LTN’s for short. They’re going to be a key tool for decarbonising our transport system in the next few years, so implementing them should be straightforward.
But in the midst of the political economy of car dependence, change is hard. Our Local Boards need to feel empowered to keep gathering data, even if some people complain about having to change.
What is an LTN?
Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (also known as mini-Hollands) – are emerging as one of the fastest and most appealing ways to improve our transport network. They help decarbonise transport, reducing the social burden of the motorcar by… you guessed it, lowering traffic volumes, delivering real safety and improving access to transport choices.
Low traffic neighbourhoods keep through-traffic on the main roads, using a variety of filters, diversions, and parklets that are closed to traffic but open to walking and active modes. If several low traffic neighbourhoods are clustered together, they even reduce traffic on the arterial roads. And, by returning peace and quiet to local streets, they answer public demand for safe ways to walk, cycle, scoot, skateboard and even rollerblade. The data shows LTN’s reduce residents’ reliance on driving for local trips, improve public transport ridership, deliver more connected neighbourhoods where children can play and adults can socialise, and improve public health. The results from cities in the UK also show improved air quality, lower emissions, lower crime rates and, contrary to much of the social media, research shows they have benefited the most-deprived Londoners.
Despite some early concerns about how emergency vehicles would cope, the results are promising there too. Whereas speed humps present issues for fire engines, low-traffic neighbourhoods make little difference to emergency response times in the short term. In the longer term, the lower car ownership rates and lower levels of traffic can be expected to reduce emergency response times further.
Enter: Arthur-Grey LTA
One of Auckland’s Innovating Streets pilots is a LTN: the Arthur-Grey Low Traffic Area, led by the Maungakiekie-Tāmaki Local Board. It adds temporary traffic filtering and interim pocket parks to a residential area of Onehunga, in order to redirect traffic to the arterials, and create quieter local streets.
Ideally, we’d have had several LTNs (or LTAs) on the go, and they would have been arranged in clusters, as recommended by the experts overseas, to achieve the best outcomes. But one is better than none. Because it’s just the one, we’ve got a lot to learn from it.
This evening (Tuesday 11 May, 6pm at the Onehunga Community Centre), a meeting of the Maugakiekie-Tamaki Local Board will decide the next step. You can see the agenda for that meeting here, which also contains reports on the initial data.
The agenda lays out three options:
- Stop the Innovating Streets project altogether, removing it completely. This would also mean forfeiting funding for the Eastview LTA, a related project in Glen Innes.
- Stop Arthur-Grey, but proceed with Eastview, at the Local Board’s expense.
- Modify Arthur-Grey and keep going, allowing the Local Board to request support for Eastview as well.
Option Three is the most logical, and comes with three sub-options:
a) move the modal filters (but still keep through-traffic off Grey and Arthur Streets)
b) re-open Grey Street
c) re-open Grey and Arthur Streets
Option Three (B) is what’s been recommended to the Local Board. Effectively, this would create two smaller LTAs divided by Grey Street, and reintroduce a rush-hour river of traffic through the area – which would necessitate new raised crossings to slow the traffic and let people cross Grey Street safely. It’s a compromise option.
The most responsible choice for the Local Board is to keep going, which means adopting some version of Option Three – because alongside noisy debate, the project has been quietly delivering results since day one.
Looking at (and listening to) all the data
Locations T1 to T9 on this map show where two sets of volumes have been counted already.
The traffic volumes dropped in each location except the three that I’ve coloured in yellow. These are:
T6: Mt Smart Rd – an arterial road, which is designed to carry through-traffic. (A cluster of low traffic neighbourhoods can deliver reductions even on the arterials)
T3 and T4: Colonel Nixon St and Jordan Ave. These small local streets saw a rise, too, from a very small base. This seems to be working to direct some traffic away from problematic intersections – though the long term goal would be to improve those intersections themselves. But I haven’t looked at the rest of the data – you’d seek to understand the whole picture, as I’m sure AT and the project team are doing.
And then there’s the qualitative data. As traffic noise drops, community noise rises. Cities that have been doing this for a while know that the grumbles drop again as people see the benefits of a better transport system and realise their friends are happy with it. The discussion in Onehunga has been regrettably intense, personal and toxic in places. Yet the most common grumbles about the changes help underline what it is that really needs to change:
Yes, public transport needs to be even better. Yes, when streets jam up, it’s true that we might as well walk for local trips. Yes, if this project works – by directing traffic to the arterials rather than through residential areas – then we are going to need to expand LTNs and do proper circulation plans. Yes, Onehunga’s not going to cope if everyone in the new housing drives cars at the current rate.
In the end, these are all reasons for LTNs, rather than arguments against them.
The place surveys are worth reading; they offered people a chance to share their thoughts on-site (and away from the highly-charged atmosphere of local social media pages).
These are just a sample of the wide spectrum of opinion gathered on-site:
Why Auckland as a whole needs Arthur-Grey LTA to keep going
With its mandates for road safety and carbon reduction, and plans for streamlining arterials for active and public transport, Auckland Transport should be piloting heaps of LTNs right now, to give people a glimpse of what’s possible. Among the reasons and the payoffs:
- Auckland needs to decarbonise transport by 2030 and it needs to use every tool it has.
- LTNs will redress decades of broken promises to Aucklanders that they’ll be able to bike and walk safely around their city, especially for the short local trips that make up some 60% of all journeys.
- LTNs will be an essential complement to the Connected Communities programme (the plan to optimise arterials for buses and cycling/ scooting) as they’re the most effective way to prevent that programme from embedding rat-running. Especially when satnav apps aggressively funnel traffic down quiet streets.
- LTNs will also be key to rolling out AT’s Safety programme, which is making change on the ground before they swap 50km/h speed signs for 30 km/h ones. Up till now, these have been things like raised crossings, and area-wide speed bump treatments.
The AT’s Safer Speeds team has expressed confidence that future work in the safety programme would be informed by LTN work underway at the moment. I’ve also been told by AT:
AT intend to use the learnings from these schemes for future projects, however as they are yet to be implemented they are not yet at a stage for inclusion into projects which are close to delivery. We will also use the learnings from these LTN trials to understand how effective they are in meeting the ambitious Vision Zero road safety outcomes for Auckland.
The outcomes and learnings of the innovating streets programme will not only influence project teams but the wider industry including potential changes to regulatory controls from Waka Kotahi. At this stage, we are also anticipating that the path to permanence for these projects may still require infrastructure to reduce speed and traffic volumes to meet a mix of outcomes.
This does sound like AT values the pilot programme in Onehunga and will learn a lot from it. But so far they’ve had Waka Kotahi paying 90% of their costs. Will they fund the project’s continuation? The amount required to support this trial will be far smaller than the amounts AT regularly shifts around between various work programmes.
But for AT to use ideas like LTN’s, they are going to need a clearer communications framework around change. Instead of getting tripped up on the niceties of “easing the transition” for people averse to change, it’s important for AT to stand by its duty of delivering safety.
The Onehunga LTN is a perfect opportunity for AT to explore this. They already have a rich data set of majority support and vocal minority resistance – including vandalism, claims of bullying and dollops of misinformation. Continuing the trial will show how people adapt over time, despite this initial noisy opposition. As well as the communications and engagement aspects of bringing change, we’ll also gain longer-term data about the technical aspects of traffic evaporation and modeshift.
We can all take courage from the recent local elections in the UK. We’d already watched the UK media change its tune on LTN’s from scathing to effervescent, as the research emerged, and the popularity became obvious. The local elections wound up being something of a referendum on the topic of safer streets and LTNs. Opponents were soundly defeated, and proponents and champions re-elected with a strong mandate to deliver more.
Can Auckland quietly side-step the pitfalls faced in the UK, and provide far better funding and practical support for the people pioneering the much-needed change?
Much talk of democracy and LTNs… well last night Sadiq Khan received an enormous mandate to continue his work on cycle lanes, low traffic neighbourhoods and school streets right across London – a green infrastructure that will support our declared climate emergency in Enfield. pic.twitter.com/bwXG2n67MO
— Ian Barnes (@Ianbarnes2001) May 9, 2021