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.
We have asked the Minister (@michaelwoodnz) and Waka Kotahi (@WakaKotahiAkNth) to expedite the temporary reallocation of existing road space on the Auckland Harbour Bridge to enable walking, cycling and active transport.
cc @phil_goff @adrienneyc @_chloeswarbrick @shananhalbert
— All Aboard! Decarbonising Auckland's Transport (@all_aboard_akl) January 31, 2022
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.
Paris has its network of Coronapistes, many of which are in the process of being made permanent.
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.
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.
I wished that so many of my favourite bars and cafes didn’t look out onto 6 lanes of traffic.
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.
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?
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.
Blimey. Car ownership in @CityWestminster continues to plummet. Young people don’t want/need to own cars anymore.
2001 – 44%
2011 – 37%
2021 – 28%
(% of households with access to a car, source: Westminster Council)
— Geoff Barraclough (@w9maidavale) January 14, 2022
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.
— Henk Swarttouw (@copenhenken) February 6, 2022
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.