“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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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!)
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:
It’s not just a Euro thing. Montreal is one of several cities making the shift:
… and is planning for more, including Avenue des Pins:
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:
Images qu’on ne voit pas dans une pub auto, pourtant ça donne le temps d’admirer le modèle. pic.twitter.com/yDhMb81h8A
— Emmanuel (@EmmanuelSPV) October 16, 2021
We can see what’s possible on a really wide street in Liverpool:
A wide street in Pilsen:
And on a narrow street in Dublin:
Computer Graphics are helpful for visualising what’s possible, both with images:
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.