When Omicron was discovered in the community late in January, All Aboard Aotearoa wrote to the Minister for Transport and Waka Kōtahi, asking them to expedite the temporary reallocation of a lane of the harbour bridge for active modes. Download the full letter here.

Emergency street reallocation to enable safe and healthy active travel during the pandemic is an approach many cities have benefited from. New Zealand has been slow to take up the opportunity, but as the benefits will last well beyond the pandemic, it makes sense to act now.

At the start of the Delta outbreak, we pulled together the half a dozen previous posts on street reallocation as a  public health response to Covid. Countries overseas had given us precedents we could grab and apply here and initially, the posts were optimistic.

Aotearoa’s rigorous early health response to the pandemic meant there was less pressure to commit to widen footpaths to give people a bit of extra breathing room, provide open streets where cooped-up kids could go and play, or install pop-up bike lanes to give people more safe options for essential travel.

There has always been a sense that we’ll get through lockdown and then things will go back to “normal”.

Meanwhile, friends from Europe to Australia told me about the multiple daily ‘pings’ they’d get from their covid tracing app, warning them that they’d crossed paths with someone who had gone on to test positive. That unavoidable exposure just hasn’t happened here… yet.

Other peoples’ pandemic streets

In places with thousands of recorded cases a day, when people’s worlds were being turned upside down in the most dramatic of ways, maybe it was easier to find the mandate to undertake street transformation projects that gave people a measure of relief and freedom from worry.

The pandemic has been an opportunity all over the world to accelerate the process already underway in progressive places, of taking some street space away from cars, and giving it back to people.

Sydney’s summer streets programme has been closing neighbourhood-centre streets for a day at a time, creating festival-like atmospheres where people wander, enjoying their local communities together.

‘Intergenerational play’ on a Summer Street in Sydney. Image via Twitter.

Paris has its network of Coronapistes, many of which are in the process of being made permanent.

London has its low-traffic neighbourhoods.

In the Philippines, where many people don’t have cars (because they are too expensive), and public transport was shut down because of the risk of disease transmission, hundreds of kilometres of temporary bike lanes were built.

American cities have experimented with Open Streets, Slow Streets, and Shared Streets. New York City took a lane on the Brooklyn Bridge from cars and gave it to people on bikes.

https://twitter.com/_popeo/status/1440034984174112768

Street reallocation is an idea whose time has come

When I was a freshly employed landscape architect, some years ago, working on fun urban design projects in Auckland, my dad said to me, Think about how much space streets take up in a city. Aren’t streets just a massive waste of space? What if that space could be used for other things, like parks or housing?

I remember rolling my eyes. Streets are essential, I replied, you can’t just get rid of streets. 

It took a pandemic for what my dad was getting at to become more mainstream.

We can call this ‘street reallocation’, and Heidi covered the topic in this excellent post last year: Yes we can do all those sorts of things.

I didn’t even know about ‘street reallocation’ a year ago. A year ago, I spent a lot of time wishing things could be better but not knowing how that could be done.

I wished we had more protected bike lanes, and that it felt a bit safer to ride my bike on the roads I’m often cycling down. Queen Street, Dominion Road, Ponsonby Road, Mt Eden Road, College Hill, New North Road, for example, can all be scary experiences by bike, even for a confident, determined and able-bodied person like me.

The view from a bike on Queen Street.

I wished that so many of my favourite bars and cafes didn’t look out onto 6 lanes of traffic.

https://twitter.com/H20FrntDsgn/status/1488967357234294785

I thought it seemed a bit weird that there aren’t dedicated bus lanes on the motorway, but I don’t know much about buses so couldn’t take that thought any further.

Bus stuck in a traffic jam, image source: The Spinoff

Thanks to hanging about in the background of Greater Auckland for the best part of a year, helping edit guest posts, compiling the weekly roundup and writing the odd post of my own, I’ve learned to see streets and roads differently. Instead of being problems that we have to figure out how to navigate safely along, through or across, streets are opportunities.

A street like Dominion Road, or any of the others in the list above, is a huge swathe of space that could be reconfigured to work any number of different ways. Streets are one of the greatest public space resources the city has to offer its people. And by giving streets almost entirely over to cars, are we really making the best use of them?

Level 4 revealed how much space on our streets is usually taken by cars. In September last year, Dominion Road was quiet enough for this dad to take his kid out on a bike.

Heidi’s post Liveable Arterials, published in October last year, examined how some of the big arterial roads in Auckland could be reconfigured if fewer people used cars to get around. What the post demonstrates, again and again, is that taking some of the space on a street from cars and giving it to people not in a car is frequently possible without having to build much new infrastructure at all.

Every disruption is an opportunity

A huge disruption like a pandemic is an opening, through which a determined population can squeeze a few new ideas. We can still make the most of that disruption, without having to  suffer the population-scale devastation that other countries have. How fortunate would we be if we could learn from the placemaking experiences of overseas cities, without the sacrifice that those places have made?

It’s also easy to overlook all of the other disruptions that are changing our city bit by bit. I can remember when I saw my first ebike in Auckland, probably in 2016 – it was a small folding model, ridden by a man in a suit, who overtook me on my acoustic bike, slogging up Franklin Rd.

Now I’ve got my own ebike, and so do many of my friends, and we’re all talking about getting rid of our cars.

I came across this column from the Northern Advocate about the arrival of beam scooters in Whangarei, where I grew up. The author, Vaughan Gunson, tries out a scooter for the first time, and concludes that although he might be a bit too middle-aged to use them himself, the scooters could signal a new way of thinking about transport. In Whangarei!

I’ve seen teenagers riding them. One memorable convoy of teenage girls, all dressed similarly for summer, wearing colourful eyeliner and sparkles on their cheeks, was particularly impressive. Everyone got out of their way, like they were nobility or Instagram influencers……

And we choose different modes for different reasons. Sometimes for fun and to make a statement — like the convoy of teenage girls I saw. Sometimes for the practicalities of getting to work and school.

…I concede these scooters could signify a mind shift.

We pay upfront when we want to use a particular transport option, like scooters or, one day, electric cars operating on a similar principle.

Or we pay our taxes so that we can get cheap or free public transport within our cities and between them.

Disruptions are coming in other forms too, like rising petrol prices, like the EV-subsidy, which is not the ultimate solution but does get people thinking about their emissions, like the sudden evolution of working from home (that’s one pandemic effect we have experienced.) New types of housing, too, can be disruptors. Denser housing typologies bring about other things, like easy access to shops, schools and parks, which allow people to live more locally and travel less.

It’s not too late for Omicron streets in Aotearoa

Will the Minister and Waka Kōtahi respond to All Aboard’s request for a walking and cycling lane on the harbour bridge? It would be the coolest pandemic street yet: a world-leading (or at least, headline-grabbing) covid street – bridge! – to complement our world-leading public health response.

So far, the Omicron variant is spreading much slower here than it did in most of Australia over Christmas. Case numbers haven’t yet begun the exponential rise that’s been predicted, and people are continuing their lives albeit with much lower activity levels. The more we can support this controlled health response by enabling people to travel actively, the better our health outcomes will be. It would be sad if we only see a public space response to Covid once we have more serious case numbers in the community.

It really shouldn’t have to take the widespread suffering, illness and death caused by a global pandemic to catalyse the transformation of our streets into something safer and more people-friendly.

The disruption of the pandemic is real, and we’re all feeling it, even here in Aotearoa. And the other disruptors are real, too. It’s not too late for street transformation through reallocation; in fact, the world’s pandemic streets are just a taste of what our cities could be. Street reallocation is a powerful tool in our toolbox, and I’m going to keep bringing it up.

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37 comments

  1. Nobody should be riding on buses in a public health emergency. Perhaps we could reallocate all bus lanes to bikes as a temporary measure.

    1. The “public health emergency” with almost no deaths or hospitalisations? Emergency is not the term I would use…

      1. Maybe, just maybe it could have something to do with the public health measures we have in place. Not an expert of course.
        https://ourworldindata.org/explorers/coronavirus-data-explorer?zoomToSelection=true&time=2020-03-01..latest&facet=none&uniformYAxis=0&pickerSort=asc&pickerMetric=location&Metric=Confirmed+deaths&Interval=Cumulative&Relative+to+Population=true&Color+by+test+positivity=false&country=USA~GBR~CAN~DEU~ITA~IND~NZL~AUS~DNK~FRA~IRL~POL~SWE~ESP

        1. Yes. They have a huge amount of data on demographics, poverty and general issues but also some really obscure but interesting stuff like lead contamination etc. A good site to bookmark. You can use it to figure out if you believe some of the stuff that gets published for being ‘cute’ or published for supporting what readers want to believe.

      2. We now have a vaccine that is very effective at reducing hospitalisations and deaths and a strain of the virus that is much less harmful. The emergency was over long ago, what we have now is day to day life, you will probably catch Covid at some stage.

        1. You could improve distancing and capacity by bolting a seat on the hood and maybe a couple on the roof.

          Pointless hypothesis as nobody uses a car for more than one person.

        2. That is a great idea. I have always loved those safari vehicles where the tracker sits on a seat bolted out front.

    2. I suspect you’re not joking..? Of course, if public transport is effectively shut down like this, school should be out, too, as there’s *much* more potential for transmission there. And if public transport is shut down, the need for a safe cycling network on bridges and arterials everywhere climbs higher…

      Bikes can already use bus lanes, so what you’re suggesting would only be useful for cycling if it kept buses out of the lanes and thus allowed a wider range of people on bikes feeling safe. This wouldn’t work though, because no one would enforce the rules if the lanes were intended for cycling. People on bikes are treated as “less than human” in the prioritisation for funding, enforcement and operations.

      Of course, it would be diabolical for people relying on public transport and would set our public transport network back significantly.

      Is anyone looking into opening windows for buses? Opening windows and an air flow ventilation system that ramps up when the bus is going slowly or stopped seems to be a good idea to me.

      1. Not really serious Heidi, just clumsily making the point that if things are so bad we need to reallocate space then it is probably PT we should be restricting rather than car use. I think schools are open so they can play there traditional role as vectors of disease. The thinking appears to be that the sooner it burns through society, the sooner the wave will finish. In my view if that is the approach, they may as well open the other vectors as well, churches and bars, as that will focus on getting it to the unvaccinated quicker.

  2. You mention Dominion Road. Now that LR is planned to go under Sandringham, can AT finally do something with Dominion? Its currently in a shocking state, it really could be a lot nicer and more cycle friendly. Are buses still going to run on Dominion after LR? Maybe they should wait until after the next election?

    1. More to the point they can actually fix up Queen Street now it isn’t going to be ruined by a light rail construction project.

      1. An interesting comment Miffy. “Ruin” is a very strong and emotive term. I’m not sure it’s possible to make Queen Street much worse with the continuing stream of traffic. It reminds me of George Street in Sydney with it’s continuing stream of busses, cars and trucks. It was a smelly, polluted nightmare. Although it was a painful transition, I don’t think you could say that the addition of light rail and the associated infrastructure works have “ruined” George Street.

        1. Did you look at Albert Street? They ruined that one for a good long time. Queen Street has suffered numerous ad-hoc projects of paint in every colour and weird wooden bits and plastic sticks all because they had to improve it without doing anything permanent. Now they can improve it permanently. It never needed two traffic lanes each way and it never needed parking. This is more pressing than Dominion Road. Best do it now to head off any ideas of light rail down the middle.

        2. “It never needed any traffic lanes each way and it never needed parking. This is more pressing than Dominion Road. Best do it now to head off any ideas of leaving any carsdown the middle”

          Fixed that for you.

        3. Yes I agree with you Sailorboy. Time to close Queen Street to traffic to get those noisy buses out.

  3. Unfortunately politicians will only do something, if there is a vote in it. With an opposition (National),that can only see more roads as the answer,Labour can just maintain the status quo,and still have a huge point of difference. Add in WK,s road enhancing blinkered thinking ,and you find its very difficult to encourage mode shift change.
    The change has to come from the people,sadly so called “leaders” are anything but. Finally though ,we have some councillors ,who are questioning,pushing back ,against some of the decision making. They could do with some better “leadership” instead of “steady as she goes Phil”.
    The world is slowly realizing that change is not only inevitable,it is vital,you would think,there would be enough egoist’s around ,who would really like to leave a legacy,rather than a time served,gold watch,stint.
    We have had these visionaries in the past,their time has surely, come again.

    1. Good video. I tend to agree that LR seems like a crazy option compared to Metro, particularly if it is extended to the ‘Shore in which case almost all of the line will be grade separated and the capacity will be significantly limited by the choice of LR.
      He may also be right about splitting it into multiple different projects, with LR over the isthmus and heavy rail to the North Shore. As for connecting heavy rail to the airport, just forget about the airport IMO. But he didn’t seem to mention Mangere etc which I think was a big motivator for the government.

      1. Not sure the LRT capacity on the shore is an issue because its pretty clear there will need to be at least 2 routes down the main trunk so the load will be shared.

        In saying that, HR could eventually go through to Wellsford and up to Whangarei in a much shorter travel time than now, but Regional rail in the north wouldn’t/shouldn’t be the driver of that choice.

        1. Not sure the capacity would be significantly limited by the choice of LR. The ALR papers say that light rail has the capacity for 15,000 passengers per hour.

          The buses over the harbour bridge carry about 6,000 an hour, so adding an LR crossing would mean an increase to almost four times the current capacity across the harbour.

        2. Kraut, its not total duplication but WK are proposing two lines eventually. One on the current busway and one via Takapuna and Smales farm, both going onto diferent routes once over the harbour.

          I thought that was because of capacity on a single line topping out about 2048.

        3. That is, different routes once south of the harbour. There would be duplication from Smales farm north, but they probably would eventually part ways again. (e.g. Whangaparaoa vs Orewa).

        4. Heavy Rail to the Shore is a giant waste of time. You can’t force freight through the CRL and there’s no heavy industry on the Shore itself. The NAL is the route to the Port in the North and the Western Line is already being refurbed with that in mind.

  4. NZ needs to:

    1) Implement congestion tolls. We build more and more road capacity for travel demand that is only there for about 10% of the day. The rest of the time most roads are well below capacity. Congestion tolls would substantially enhance our ability to reallocate road space permanently for walking, cycling & micromobility, PT + slow/shut more local streets.

    2) Fully charge for all on street parking (its a user service and should be paid for). This will allow the true demand for parking to be determined and many parking spaces reallocated to walk,cycle, micromobility, PT, cafes etc

    3) Consider slow one way streets where appropriate. This allows reallocation of substantial space away from vehicles

  5. The problem we face with our main roads is road congestion, also what we face is not enough buses operating along inner city corridor routes or even delayed cause of the buses merged with general traffic. As we already know ‘Light metro’ is far too expensive for this city or even the government to afford. If we were to switch to cheaper alternatives, we would be able to achieve our climate initiatives more faster. If we keep using expensive value methods of transport every time, people who are going to lose out are low income and ethinic groups, since government would be required to hike up tax rates which means needs a raise in wages in a time where many are struggling financially, also on basic needs and we businesses financially struggling to pay workers more hours cause their struggling to pay for stuff that keeps them alive. If we continue this trend of big money spending value over basic things first, where going to have massive consequences intern’s of transport choices in-future.

    Problem with Aucklands main roads such as Sandringham Rd, Dominion Rd, Great South Rd, Great North Rd, New North Rd, Remuera Rd, Mt Eden Rd and Manukau Rd is that there’s too many traffic during the peak hours or even on weekends and they can’t accommodate a busway into these areas cause its not wide enough. So they would require to re-gentrification measures towards low income people/business who live in the area. If Waka Kotahi tolled vehicles who use these main roads, then it would reduce amount of vehicles going on them for sure.

    Also problem with constructing a ‘light rail’ line is that would be really expensive constructing each of these inner city main roads in future due to material for constructing, compensation for businesses disrupted, requiring to acquisition properties (business/private) possible inflated cost in-future and possible disruption/extra cost, which can affect low income peoples lives for the worst and won’t make any time efficiency that people are asking since it would make travelling more enticing and attractive than using car. Another problem we have is not enough bus routes in the inner city area where its not very convenient for commuters to transitioning to places like St Lukes mall, Ellerslie, Western Springs, Eden Park/Kingsland cause of not enough investment being put into new routes and also why we see a lot more people choose private vehicles over public transport. Also if we use light rail on our main roads, where’s the bus stop space going to be for buses who’ll need to use these roads to get to other places in inner city area for transfers?

    To reduce congestion, Waka Kotahi should install toll road cameras to track vehicles registration just like what they’re intending to do with Penlink and what they already have on SH1 between Millwater – Puhoi. We need to similar concept by follow the tolling price of the Penlink, where you create zones and pricing on far you drive on the road. The toll price should be ranging from $1 – 2 per zone you cross depending on how far you drive on the road and the money would go towards to funding other transport projects around the city or even around the country.

    We need to get rid of many intersections on our main roads that go towards to the city, makes much of an impact since there would be very few vehicles trying to intersect and people using vehicles. If we looked towards installing toll road cameras along with It also happens to be a really cheap option and wouldn’t require such less extensive works, since it would minor work and take less time to work. Also if you took out entry ways/exit ways intersections on our mains roads, use the former roads for infrastructure projects such as building apartments or commercial busniesses. People would have other alternative free road routes but if they choose not to use them, they should look towards using public transport. If there was tolled roads on our main roads already, we would be seeing transitional change from private vehicle to public transport for once and for all. If people don’t want to be tolled on Auckland main roads too and choose to take a longer way or opted for public transport instead you’d be saving our carbon emissions.

    For example Dominion Rd, what they should do is get rid of the most road, avenues and streets that intersect through since that’s contributing to Dominion Rd’s traffic woes and make journey times towards the city slower for the buses which go through. The only streets and roads we should be allowing vehicles to intersect through with toll fares should be Walters Rd/Valley Rd intersection at $1.20, Paice Ave/Milton Rd $1.40, St Lukes Rd $1.60, Calgary St/Shackleton Rd $1.80 and Mt Albert Rd $2. The toll should start from Ian McKinnon Dr and end it all the way through to where it intersects with Denbigh Ave.

    If you were to create a busway just like with the Eastern Busway it would result in a lot re-gentrification since Dominion Rd has a lot of old stores and homes dating back from the 1920s – 1950s would be gone and hardly of preserved hostly would be there. We should looks towards preserving the history there. Sandringham Rd, Great South Rd, Great North Rd, New North Rd, Remuera Rd, Mt Eden Rd and Manukau Rd should be included into this idea too since they currently experience the same amounts of traffic and amounts of buses which travel through the corridor.

    Our main Auckland road should be tolled so we can get more people transitioning into buses and onto other modes of transport around whole reigion instead of using private vehicles especially if people are heading to work 5 days a week to the CBD. Along with think to using cheaper/reasonably good quality alternatives instead of thinking expensive double gold standard every time, otherwise we will never accomplish our climate goals or even have funding for other transport across the country!

    1. So you’re concerned about the costs being loaded onto struggling workers, but want to toll urban arterial routes… and you think public transport is a perfect substitution?

      So after everyone is either poorer cash-wise or has lost huge chunks of time trying to make the same journeys on public transit, are we going to magically be better off? Can’t see our kids after work and have to leave before they’re awake to get there, but I’ll be richer in spirit?

      1. Road toll would be a perfect substitute for people who are looking to travel towards the CBD since they would have better choice of taking the bus or taking the alternative long road route via car, which will definitely reduce amounts of vehicles in Auckland since most people wouldn’t be bothered and decide to take the bus instead, if they look to introducing similar concept in Wellington and Christchurch too it would definitely reduce amounts of vehicles and also CO2 being emitted.

        From a cost point of view, implanting toll along our main roads would be cheap and less disruptive compared to LRT or LMT. For people who are on low incomes, it would not impact them financially at all since implementing this would be cheap. Public transport will be cheaper for people in the future cause of fuel prices are surging and likely it will go inflate even higher and higher to a point where’s not even affordable for low income anymore, alternative choice you would have is taking public transport and also means less emissions being produced.

        Not only that, fares for public transport for each zone you cross has become more cheaper than ever, if you to choose public transport right now you’d be paying $20 a week vs $50-$150 a week paying for fuel, also possibility of paying for parking which is another $50-$100 more. Back when Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) was running Auckland at the time, transport was expensive as ever, you’d pay for each state of a bus route which ranged from $2-$12 depending how far you travel on the bus, not each zone your crossed. When ‘AT’ replaced ‘ARTA’, fares were still expensive, but it still made a slow progression from stage to zones, where fares are far more cheaper compared to 5-10 years ago now.

        People who take inner city buses which travel through main road corridors and take the 25 for example, would be paying $2.20-$3.90 each way to work compared to 5-10 years ago now. Going on public transport is becoming more cheaper than ever over cars. If ‘AT’ looks to lowering the fares abit, it would definitely be more attractive alternative for people to transition from cars to public transport.

    2. Tim, you are right that the current system needs to change at a local level. Rates are a flat mechanism to collect money for transport. Rate paying pedestrians and cyclists are paying a particularly high cost for roads that they have little impact on. Public transport users the same.
      It seems equitable that if people choose to drive long distances for a more highly paid job that they pay some of the cost of the infrastructure that enables that drive.

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