“We can close the road, we can divert traffic, we can do all those sorts of things.”

That’s Auckland Council’s finance and expenditure committee chair Desley Simpson, speaking to Newshub on the Saturday of Labour Weekend, 2021. She’s right. These ages-old engineering measures are easy.

Councillor Simpson, interviewed by Newshub

Councillor Simpson is talking about using traffic diversion to enable wining and dining on the streets of St Heliers this summer – including on Tamaki Drive, as requested by businessfolk in the news story.

Street dining, New York. Image Credit: Instagram / @newyorkcity4all

The topic has been bubbling up recently. During Level 4, Councillor Richard Hills was keen “to get creative now” about repurposing car parks and footpaths for outdoor dining. He cited Whanganui and Nelson as places where parking outside premises had been put to good use.

Nelson cafe dining bumpout with built in bike parking

And Councillor Pippa Coom has been advocating for this for a decade! In 2012 she was discussing a report for the Heart Foundation, Good for Business:

As concluded in the report, retail vitality is best served by traffic restraint, public transport improvements, and a range of measures to improve the walking and cycling environment. There are many ways to improve the walking and cycling environment including lowering speeds, shared footpaths, reallocating space and taking a “complete streets” approach so that the design allows for safe access to all users. Possible streetscape enhancements highlighted by Dr Tolley can be low cost and easy to implement such as creating “parklets” on streets using existing car parking spaces.

So, good on Councillor Simpson for being confident we can use road space for dining. Certainly, taking over the footpath would make things difficult:

Charlotte, North Carolina.

Indeed, in almost any part of town with the volume of foot traffic needed to support cafes and restaurants, our footpaths generally aren’t wide enough for outside dining – not while also providing sufficient space for socially distanced passersby on foot, or with wheelchairs or prams. So using road space is definitely the way to go.

Heart of the City’s Viv Beck also seems keen on outdoor dining. But when talking to Stuff, she mentions the Viaduct, Vulcan Lane, and around Britomart. City centre eateries aren’t helped by space some distance away; their champion needs to be advocating for space to be made available right outside their premises, taken from parking and traffic lanes.

University Avenue, Palo Alto last June. Image credit: Lloyd Lee.

As public health researchers Kirsty Wild and Alistair Woodward have pointed out, this is about planning for the future as much as responding to the moment:

Moving more of our lives outside, creating an outdoor ‘ecosystem’ of open-air activities: from recreation, dining, transport, play, schooling, and social opportunities, will all be part of the new ‘urban hygiene’ to help us prevent as well as manage outbreaks. Many cities overseas have already moved to rearrange their public spaces to prioritise outdoor activities in response to the pandemic.

They make the case that ‘taking it outside to fight Covid’ is a virtuous circle:

A systematic review of outdoor transmission of Covid found that you are about 18 times safer outdoors than indoors.

… those who get outside regularly for exercise and have opportunities for safe social connection (‘social-bridging whilst physical distancing’), cope better with these restrictions.

… Those who feel isolated and ‘disconnected’ from their communities, for instance, have been shown to be less likely to follow public health directives… and more likely to believe conspiracy theories

Councillor Simpson’s words are inspiring. Since we

can close the road, divert traffic and do all those sorts of things

… we can, of course, do so for non-Covid reasons, too. For example, doing all those sorts of things will help Auckland Transport:

  • find that ever-so-elusive road safety,
  • reduce transport emissions, and
  • deliver healthy streets.

On this last one, the UN has recently recognised that we have a human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. (Just in case we need another reason to improve our city!)

Nelson is blessed with dining bump-outs

So hopefully, Council can quickly roll out ‘open streets’ all around the city, for wining and dining AND for socially distanced recreation, safety and an improved, healthy transport system.

This move towards healthy streets has been an international movement for decades. Check out these photos of Utrecht, from 1982 and 2020. Image credit: @edwinlucas:

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It’s not just a Euro thing. Montreal is one of several cities making the shift:

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… and is planning for more, including Avenue des Pins:

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Famously, Paris has been making a rapid wholescale transformation of its transport system. And Parisians are finding that once a street becomes liveable, cars start to feel out of place, and space-greedy:

We can see what’s possible on a really wide street in Liverpool:

Pier Head. Image credit: Simonobtv, via Twitter.

A wide street in Pilsen:

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And on a narrow street in Dublin:

Dublin. Image credit: Robert Burns, via twitter

Computer Graphics are helpful for visualising what’s possible, both with images:

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And videos.

Seeing the space clearly

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to see our road corridors differently. Particularly in level 4 but even now, at level 3, you can see that when cars are only used for essential purposes, there is plenty of space.

We can fit walking and cycling and buses and trucks and essential car journeys in the corridors we have.

As Dave Walker has illustrated, what happens next is up to us.

So the planning question becomes, how do our streets provide all the human access and movement of goods that we need – but keep the same low level of car travel that we experienced in Lockdown Level 4?

This will be the subject of some future posts, but essentially it is achieved by planning in a people-focused instead of car-focused way:

Some solutions for Auckland are already right under our noses. Introducing Full Cycle, for example, a bicycle courier service:

So thanks, Councillor Simpson, your leadership and confidence is very welcome. Please keep reminding Auckland Transport that:

We can close the road, we can divert traffic, we can do all those sorts of things

We can do them for street dining.

We can do them for children’s safety and freedom.

We can do them to create a more liveable city for more people.

We can do them to give people more space as they walk, cycle and gather, so that family and friends with underlying health conditions or poor immune systems don’t have to stay cloistered safely at home, excluded, while the rest of us head out to enjoy ourselves.

We can do them to create low traffic neighbourhoods and a comfortable and connected cycling network, to tackle our emissions this decade.

And if Auckland Transport resist cracking on with it, you can remind them that our businesses would be all set to go, if AT had responsibly kept last year’s pop-up space reallocation, and built upon it, scaling up the programme over time.

Instead, Auckland Transport ripped everything out as soon as they could; not for good reason, but because that had been their intention from the get-go. Their words to Council in April last year were:

In terms of how long these measures would stay in place, there are some downstream considerations that would impact this decision:

• New Zealand is performing strongly in controlling the disease. Our case numbers have dropped significantly and continue to fall;

• While there is public support now, there is potential for concerns to be raised about parking loss and lane capacity, particularly as businesses and freight activity increases during AL 2;

Politics was not their business.

No transport authority should ever cite “potential for concerns to be raised” as a reason to remove safety or social distancing measures, let alone when their research showed majority public support for the measures (including for removal of parking).

In other words: St Heliers businesses could have been enjoying a street environment ready for socially distanced entertainment for over a year now. And the rest of us could’ve been enjoying safer and healthier streets, too.

Let’s not fall into such a trap of timidity this time.

We can close the road, we can divert traffic, we can do all those sorts of things

This is climate action, on the ground. It’s also a kindness to struggling businesses, and a confidence-building gift to the people of our city. With the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 getting under way this week, let’s remember: the sooner we can see and feel how good decarbonised streets are, the more progress we will want, and the easier it becomes for our leaders to keep leading the way. Win-win-win.

It’s going to be wonderful.

A new streetscape of light rail, bikes and pedestrian space in Amsterdam. Image credit: Thomas Schlijper, via Twitter.
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  1. A St Heliers with no traffic between The Green and Cliff Road is good, but a St Heliers with Light Rail there instead of cars is better.

    And yes, you would still need access for cars to Vale Road/Glendowie but perhaps it’s time to sort out the dog’s breakfast that is Polygon Road and Yattendon Rd, instead of having idling buses and parked cars between the cafes and the waterfront.

    Just another reason why a far more ambitious Tamaki Drive master blan is needed.

    1. I mean a properly profiled Polygon Road would allow you to have a functioning Turua St which would preserve access to the Takeaway bars along it. Although one side of Turua has been built up, it looks like the old yard from Paul Fahey Honda is still there on the other side. Maybe we can use that road for something else now, decades later?

        1. Why be surprised? Nelson is decades ahead of Auckland for active transport support. The CBD of Nelson was more “anti car” in early 1990 than Auckland CBD is now. Also bike Nelson is probably has a similar number of members to that of bike Auckland.

    2. I agree that light rail on Tamaki Drive would be superb. I think, though, that because half the catchment area is the sea, it’s never going to be one of the first lines.

      Stepping stones towards a decision like that include:
      – getting light rail somewhere else, so people see on the ground how good it is
      – improving the bus priority along Tamaki Drive.

      1. Agreed. Bus priority on Eastbound lanes has to be the place to start. Boardwalk the sea wall out 5m or even 10m to create a proper walking space on a promenade, remove the parked cars and then reshuffle the road corridor + existing footpath space for cycling, bus lanes and watch the area take off.

        You’d get complaints from Mission Bay eateries but they’d get access to a far larger pool of customers. At the moment I avoid the area due to it being a congested mess, and many others probably do too.

        1. Remember, too, that we need an efficient bus (and freight) system throughout the whole city. Plus we need cycling and walking to be improved: safe, comprehensive, pleasant. Which I mention because we need to improve these things in corridors where there is no “boardwalk” option; where “property take” would lead to a worse city outcome. Thus, while a bespoke approach might be possible on Tamaki Drive, it’s more helpful to think of an approach that will work everywhere – and then see if that also works on Tamaki Drive. If it does, it’ll be cheaper.

          Which comes down to the Bruntlett’s advice: Design your street for the traffic you want, not the traffic you have. It’s a simple change with far-reaching effects.

        2. IDK, it’s a pretty special space, I’d say it warrants its own special treatment. At the moment our understanding of what it is (road, bike lane, parked car, sea wall, sea) locks us into particular ways of thinking.

          We should be challenging ourselves to come up with something truly amazing for such a space. Will that work in Glen Innes town centre? No, probably not, but it doesn’t mean either one is worth doing properly.

        3. “remove the parked cars” …is exactly what’s needed.

          I’d start with the waterfront side of Tamaki Drive. There are not actually that many car parks within walking distance of the bars, restaurants and shops. There’s not even that many along the entire length of Tamaki Drive.. 300 maybe?

          You could also remove the flush median. Squeeze the lanes a bit if necessary (make them the same width as west of Ngapipi).

          That would get maybe 5 m more width the length of Tamaki Drive.

          Over the 5 km from Ngapipi to St Heliers that’s 25,000 m2. At a conservative $ 4k/sq m, that’s $ 100 m of prime real estate right there.

          That’s $ 100 m of public assets currently used free of charge by people to store their private property, causing risk and actual harm to others spoiling one of the best north facing waterfront views in the southern hemisphere.

        4. Yup – once you commit to activating that space along the water’s edge, it changes the way you think in terms of how we interact with it. There’s nothing that says we have to stop where the sea wall currently does.

          It’s hard to imagine anything different so long as we have the wall of cars there that we do now, but cafes in St Heliers opening out onto the street and boardwalks along the bits without the beaches in front of them along the waterfront could be a real game-changer for it as a destination.

        5. and they could start to get their ideas together for those who say “but what about in winter?” How about light displays on floating barges, fireworks etc whilst all the cafes etc offer up winter treats and hot chocolate/gluwein .

        6. I agree. So much potential. Frustrating ‘cos I can see how to do it, too, in an affordable and glorious way, with far superior transport options for locals as well as visitors… and still keeping vehicle access… but not vehicle priority

  2. Very informative article thanks very much Heidi.
    The draft Emission Reduction Plan has set clear goals and some estimated carbon emission reduction achievable by moving away from car-centric society. What I see lacking is political will, leadership and a proper roadmap to get there… and I would encourage everyone who desires a better, healthier and greener living environment to submit a response. If we don’t put enough pressure, we cannot collectively overcome the inertia/resistance to change.

  3. The electric trains are really quite stuffy bring back the ADK’s at least you could open the windows and blow away the virus. A few open double decker bus would help as well. I certainly won’t be sitting in crowded restaurant or bar this summer. I quite like the table at the door being offered at the bakeries and bottle shops around South Auckland it just feels much safer than entering the premises. I look at one of the local dairies which specialises in cheaper cigarettes always addicts lined up at the door waiting to go in for the fix one at a time you won’t catch me going into that one. Other pluses are a bottle of sanitiser and people that go away and get what you want rather than you having to search the shelves much better service. I think all shops should do the same but can you imagine staff at Warehouse doing that they might loose some weight. And finally much less shop lifting. Maybe it is not all bad.

  4. It is all very well for Councillor Simpson to say to Auckland Transport that “we can close the road, we can divert traffic, we can do all those sorts of things”. But there is not really a “we” because she can talk that talk but AT is the road controlling authority and is bound by a hundred years of law that is written with cars in mind. Laws which seem to go out of their way to say that roads can’t be fully obstructed in ways that blocks traffic.

    Section 334 of the Local Government Act 1974 allows for various things to be done in a road but only “provided that no such construction, erection, laying out, or planting shall be carried out, unless in the opinion of the council the construction, erection, laying out, or planting will not unduly impede vehicular traffic entering or using the road (not being a road or part of a road that has been declared a pedestrian mall under section 336).”

    And schedule 10 allows for temporary road closures but only for a limited range of things and ones like events or markets or creating an “eat street” type of locations but only for 31 days a year so as to not be an impediment to traffic.

    So to do “all those sorts of things” the Councillor will first need to motivate the Government into changing some of the laws to allow road controlling authorities enough powers to actually ‘control the roads’ rather than merely maintain them for vehicles.

    1. AT have various laws and regulations they have to follow, and manoeuvring amongst them takes skill, professionalism and a willingness to do the right thing even if that means testing it in court. To fulfill their responsibilities this is exactly what’s required of AT.

      Impeding vehicle traffic entering or using a road is not “undue” if:

      – it provides safety
      – it furthers the goals of the city and the GPS
      – it speeds us towards a people-friendly, low-carbon transport system.

      If “in the opinion of [AT]” this constitutes “unduly impeding” vehicle traffic, that’s only because AT’s layered a value system over the top; a value system that is regressive, polluting and life-destroying.

      We can close the road, we can divert traffic, we can do all those sorts of things.

      These things have been done many times since the 1974 – AT have only concocted excuses against doing so more recently. The organisation will need significant overhaul for these practices to become as widespread as is required.

    2. You are right. Unambiguous lead shoul come from Government, just like it has just come in city intensification.
      Without it you just get get senior staffers in Waka Kotahi, the Ministry of Transport, Auckland Transport, and Auckland Transport just indulging in endless playing one off against the other, and in turn being played by endless consultants and lobbyists.
      Lots of effort, and expense, but bugger all progress.
      Maintaining status quo, and resisting change is de rigueur and the basis of maintaining too many careers.

  5. The irony is dripping out of this, given the opposition at St Heliers. Slowly but surely,the penny is finally dropping,that we have to change our habits . We will have the situation where the business operators are campaigning for car/ carpark removal,in direct contrast to 12 months ago. As they say,never let a crisis go to waste. Who would have thought, two groups, (businesses and active transport ) would be challenging each other for the space freed up by vehicle removal. Either outcome is preferable to the status quo.
    Leave me some space to park my bike,and a safe route to ride it there,and you can have my dining dollar.

  6. Desley Simpson was quite conservative. I am quite surprised now she proposed such initatives.

    It is good to know conservative people are finally realising the benefits.

  7. It’s great to visit your blog again after a prolonged absence. Since a while ago, I’ve been eager to work on this endeavor.

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