This is a guest post by George Weeks, a chartered town planner and urban designer. This article originally appeared on The Spinoff and is republished here by kind permission.

Recent changes to planning legislation in New Zealand have enabled quite major changes to our urban landscape. What will we do with this opportunity and what can we learn from Europe?

Every New Zealand urbanist knows that all European cities are great because everyone in Europe is urbane, sophisticated and law-abiding. They’re particularly gracious behind the wheel, if they drive, which they don’t because cycling is in the European’s DNA and everyone cycles everywhere every day. All streets are shared spaces. Trams abound, universally retained since the 1920s, while roadbuilding had no impact on cities. Unsightly warehousing and heavy industry simply do not exist. Nor does shift work.

Our fantasy Europe is a peaceful place: centuries of choosing cooperation over conflict means people are robustly altruistic, always choosing to rent rather than own a home; there’s none of that crass getting rich through real estate and, anyway there is no such thing as a rotten European rental. Continent-wide socialism keeps public transport flush with cash and any cars that do exist are pocket-sized.

Our picture of “Europe” is a weird amalgam of Scandinavian design, French trains, Dutch bicycles and Swiss chocolatiers.

While that picture is clearly nonsense, it has a powerful hold on our subconscious, and it gets invoked whenever we try to improve New Zealand’s cities. “European people are different”, we are told. “This won’t work here.”

We humans are impulsively suspicious of the unknown; this helps to keep us alive, but it can stymie almost any good idea. Micro-scooters? Nope, too dangerous. Public cycle hire? Too complicated. City Rail Link? Well yes… but 100 years after the idea was first mooted.

A May 2022 render of one of the CRL stations, soon to become reality.

Above all, we love to forget that European cities were rebuilt for cars just as ours were, leading to suburban sprawl, parking problems and traffic jams. Look at Madrid’s motorway network for example. Or the bizarre Corbusian cityscape around Lyon’s Perrache station.

Paris isn’t perfect: parts of it are still full of cars. Image: George Weeks.

It’s the same with car parking. Recently I heard an American planner sigh that “it’s a pity we aren’t an historic European capital, where they don’t need to think about car parking.” I almost spat out my tea in astonishment. Had he ever had a conversation about car parking in Paris, he would have known that parking is the “third [electrified] rail” of urban planning — touch it for a nasty shock. Historic European cities? Yeah. Car-free utopias? Nah.

Since the 1970s, some European cities have chosen to reclaim their streets from traffic engineers in favour of people – but this has, in almost every case, required political bravery. A good example is Bordeaux, France’s sixth largest city.

Its centre is filled with narrow streets that are, for the most part, completely car-free. A comprehensive tramway network brings people over the bridges and down the avenues, interchanging in tree-lined squares. Streets are filled with life. Cars are parked elsewhere.

A tram, bicycles, and bollards in Bordeaux
Trams, bikes and bollards in Bordeaux, all new since 2003. Image: George Weeks.

“Well,” you say. “That couldn’t happen here! Auckland removed its trams in the 1950s. And shared spaces are always full of parked cars.”

I hate to burst your bubble, but this is recent. The oldest bits of the Bordeaux tramway system opened in 2003 and it has since been repeatedly extended. Like almost all French cities, trams were ripped out of Bordeaux in the 1950s in favour of buses. Sound familiar? Now remember that France has been a car manufacturing powerhouse since the invention of the car itself; Renault, Citroën, Peugeot, plus Michelin, Elf, Total, etcetera… plenty of vested interests in selling more cars to more people.

Bordeaux reintroduced trams under conservative mayor Alain Juppé, who saw public transport as part of a Haussmann-esque improvement programme to attract more people into the city. The trams aren’t just efficient; they are gorgeous, with a Scalextric style centreline pickup that negates any requirement for overhead wires. When your transport system actively makes a city look more attractive, it’s time to sit up and listen.

No one parks a car on the pavement in Bordeaux… because it is physically impossible to do so. Every space that a cheeky parker could occupy is meticulously defended with elegant fixed bollards. A system of rising bollards also keeps through-traffic out of the streets, freeing up more space for wandering, socialising, eating and drinking people. Bordeaux’s hot climate means that shade and shelter are vital – avenues and squares of trees keep the streets cool and encourage people to linger.

Such measures are far from Europe-wide, but where they exist, they create more beautiful, liveable, sustainable cities. But, remember, those cities are not “natural law” or some reflection of something innately European, they were hard-won.

The car-free core of Slovenia’s capital city Ljubljana was vigorously opposed at its conception; now it is a great success. In Holland, opposition to Groningen’s traffic-free city-centre required police protection for the representative charged with its implementation. In London, Waltham Forest’s “Mini-Holland” opening saw a coffin protest down the high street, but has led to vibrant streets and increasingly strong election victories for the politicians that led it. And so on.

Not Holland, but Mini-Holland. Cycling safely home from school in London Borough of Waltham Forest. Image: supplied.

European cities are typically larger, more crowded, and more complicated than anything we have here. Think about the tonnage of goods moved into Paris per day, for example. Or the numbers of tourists crowding the streets of Salamanca. Or the logistics of collecting rubbish in central Milan. If we have a problem, chances are somewhere else has had it too… and has worked out how to solve it.

Free electric shuttles provide access to Ljubljana’s car-free city centre. Image: George Weeks.

So let’s think about the outcomes. Scooter parking causing clutter? Paris has painted parking corrals linked to GPS systems. Concentric systems of rising bollards? Look at Ljubljana or Bordeaux. How about people who can’t walk far? How about free electric mini-shuttles? Ljubljana again. Railway lines only partly electrified? Hybrid trains are your friend. Street trees and roots? Use a Stockholm tree pit. Think about what success looks like and if the logistics of achieving that seem too hard, then look overseas.

It is all too easy to say “that couldn’t happen here” and put it down to national characteristics. This is lazy; it’s also absurd. Imagine if we said that all Australians drive a road train? Surely every New Zealander goes to work by jetboat?

Rather than spiral into tedious cliché and ennui, let’s take a different perspective. People are people. We love to park for free, but don’t want anyone else to. We default to the easiest travel behaviour and are creatures of habit, resistant to change. As the habitat of more than half the world’s population, cities are the nexus of problems… and the source of ways to solve them.

Farringdon St cycleway, London, 2022. In 2008 this was just a tiny painted strip. Image: supplied.

Planning professionals need to recognise the universality of the human condition if we are to have grown-up conversations about urban planning and transport. Humans are infinitely adaptable. We all have hopes, dreams, desires and fears – and it’s up to the urban planning community to shape our environments in a way that best enhances our communal and individual lives.

All artists borrow. Great artists steal. Let’s borrow and steal from the best and aim for cities filled with liveability and joy – we deserve them too.

Paris: this used to be a motorway, and now it’s a place for people. Image supplied.
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60 comments

  1. Greater Auckland always supports good research, ideas and science.
    Sadly the car lobby, AT and WK don’t join our conversations and show why more roads, sprawl, cars and congestion is helping our economy. They should be more transparent and debate the topics. They support cars being the best way for city travel
    Are families and businesses benefiting from their policies and do they care about emissions, global warming and the health of us all?

    1. Speaking of ideas- Covid seems to have put a stop to the Council’s never ending line of silly old ‘Bow Ties’ from north America they used to bring in on junkets to tell us we are doing everything wrong.

      Maybe all the old men with initials instead of names died in the pandemic.

  2. You don’t have to Europe for examples. Northern Busway, Britomart, electrification.

    Build it and they will come.

    It ‘just’ needs vision and courage

  3. I,m not sure if it’s just wishful thinking,but l sense a turnaround happening. The AA have introduced a bike breakdown recovery programme,similar to car breakdown. This will be from pressure from their members,but they will now be considering bikes as part of their business. AT have specific bike people back in the mix,our new mayor hasn’t,t vehemently opposed cycle lanes. There is an outlier in the trucking lobby group,and our dear friend,Simeon Brown,who view everything through a windscreen,but ultimately l believe,even they can be convinced.
    The opposition to change is real,though,imagine a discussion about raised pedestrian crossings causing an impediment to ambulances with spinal patients,l suppose when the discussion gets down to this,you know the opposition for change is running out of ideas.

    1. “raised pedestrian crossings causing an impediment to ambulances with spinal patients”

      AT have just watered down the standards for collector road and arterial road raised tables to be much softer, because of bus passengers. 1:15 or even 1:20 gradients!

      Now I get where that comes from, but by Jove – even the 1:10 grunty bumps can be taken by a SUV driver at far too great speeds. Cars ruin everything.

  4. I noticed on my recent visit to London that a lot more people were cycling compared to twenty years ago when i was last spent time there. Demonstrating cities do change…

    1. Yes, they really do cycle more in London. The city has made big strides on cycling in the past decade and this shows in year-on-year growth.

      The central London cycleways are both useful and symbolic. Riding past Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament to the Tower of London along the Thames…how much more London can you get?

      There was an immense amount of hostility and sceptiscism when these were being planned and built (2014) – a successful campaign called CyclingWorksLDN showed that cycling is not just a marginal activity; it is supported by blue-chip businesses of the type on which London depends.

      https://cyclingworks.wordpress.com/

      Similarly, the Mini-Holland schemes were dismissed. “We’re not Holland” said the naysayers. “They have a cycling culture, but we don’t”. Again, these claims turned out to be rubbish. Why? Because when streets are more appealing for walking and cycling, people are more likely to walk and cycle. I wrote a GA article about Mini-Holland in 2019 and the work has continued since then.

      https://www.greaterauckland.org.nz/2019/07/26/mini-hollands-in-nieuw-zeeland-a-global-template/

      Build for the traffic that you want and need. Clue: It ain’t cars.

    2. Yes, I had the same experience. When I lived in London in the ’80s and’90s, using a bicycle was suicidal. Now, with bike lanes, there’s a steady stream of cyclists in quite congested areas. Impressive.

    1. The Stuff article has the same overall message as this post.

      ‘Lord did not agree with those who say Auckland is not the same kind of city as, say, Copenhagen or Dutch cities, which have big cycling populations.’

      “I lived in West Yorkshire which is more ridiculously hilly and steep than Auckland…for the past five years there’s been a rapid investment in cycling infrastructure, with an increase in cycling for everyday journeys,” he said.”‘

  5. It is not a smooth ride in Brussels at all. Which is understandable since it is hugely disruptive to a lot of people. The pedestrian zone on Boulevard Anspach was opposed a lot (and I think still is). A few months ago one of the low traffic neighbourhood schemes in Brussels failed and was rolled back. So it happens not just to Auckland.

    It does seem more difficult now than in the 1970’s. It is notable that despite the ongoing energy crisis there are no car free Sundays this time around.

    1. My personal opinion is that that is because we now have an older generation (= the one in charge) that to a large degree has never known wide-spread bike riding. A “lost generation” or two, you might say.

      Unless they lived overseas in a cycling country, it’s very hard to convince them that bikes are anything but an outdated mode of transport that just “naturally” went away like horse-and-cart. Sad face.

    2. Belgian cities can be very car-centric. In 2017 I took a cycling study tour from Liège to Eindhoven via Maastricht. Part of the idea was to compare the cycling environments of Belgium and the Netherlands.

      Liège is a large historic city (and one I like very much) but you can hardly see its streets because they are filled with slow-moving cars.

      1. Brussels has a lot of car tunnels (apparently an excessive amount for a city its size), and in the past decade it was quite a struggle to keep all of them in good state.

        A lot of people working there commute in from a large surrounding hinterland, whereas Brussels itself has areas with chronic high unemployment. It is said that a quarter million cars are driven into the city every working day. Check out the tangle of motorway ramps (the R0 orbital road) surrounding the city. At least they were smart enough to not pull any motorways through the city.

        A lot of these cars come from the infernal exurban sprawl in Flanders. There is a word to describe it, “lintbebouwing”, it doesn’t really have an English equivalent but it kind of means linear sprawl. Impossible to serve with public transport. However, it is also much easier to ride a bicycle over there because you are not in busy city traffic, so it isn’t necessarily more car-dependent than Auckland.

  6. However take a city like Frankfurt which is similar in size as Auckland it has had good public transport inferstructure since at least 1995 which is the first time I visited. Rail to the airport sbahn and ubahn and light rail and buses. I don’t remember biking except on the trails along the river but I expect its picked up in recent years. We are no where near matching that in Auckland. But no I haven’t used the autobahn even though I have being to Germany four times so I show my bias.

      1. Yes I was last in Frankfurt about 10 years back – there was a good number of people riding bikes in the city even then- so much so that there was a thriving bike market (2nd hand bikes and parts) every Sunday alongside the Main River right in heart of city

      2. I do remember walking along the river past a coal fired power station there was a barge unloading coal. I then walked around to the back of the plant and there was a train of what looked like coal wagons. So I suppose that is how they fuel all those lovely electric trains. Many happy hours spent wandering along side European rivers. They provide cycleways short cuts for pedestrians under the bridges as well as a highway for freight and tourists. I have seen eels in the Seine and Trout in the Rhine. I wonder how they have survived the drought. It might be time to go back and have another look.

    1. “compliant population”??

      That’s a red herring; everyone objects to change. Read the article, miffy.

      “…opposition to Groningen’s traffic-free city-centre required police protection for the representative charged with its implementation.”

      1. Compliance: do those overseas examples devote more resource to enforcement? To public comms campaigns? Or is there a baseline general culture that we are lacking here?

    2. Ahh yes, the ultra wealthy, ultra complaint country of *checks notes* France?? They’re marginally poorer than NZ. And I’m sure you don’t need to be informed about french protesting / revolution history.

      1. Yes but they also have protected industry run on nuclear power. That gives a tax base to spend on making cities twee.

        1. Yeah, nah. Due to climate change, i.e. draught and rising river temperatures, France’s nuclear plants had to be shut down for long periods over summer and nuclear energy is heavily subsidised with taxes.

    3. Did you read the article or links? All of these cities did NOT have compliant populations, what they had was bold civic leadership willing to go against the tide. I wonder if Wayne “fix-it” Brown is willing to put his neck on the line with almost all the people who voted him in (as they are predominantly car-driving older folks)

    4. FFS Miffy. We have an enormously compliant populace in NZ.

      For example, I almost always drive, because where I live, there’s no safe way to walk or cycle, and buses are crap and rare. So I comply with the car manifesto, despite not wanting to.

      A real country offers choice, my friend, not “Aucklanders like to drive” mantras.

      And as for the cost of driving…. oh my god if you think cycling (infrastructure) is expensive, do I have a Harbour Bridge (or a tunnel!) to sell to you, man…

  7. Yet eventually they fell into line. Perhaps you have hit on the answer on the head though. All we need is to create some really big industrial polluters who can turn fossil fuels into finished goods. Then with the higher incomes we receive we will have enough money to reduce the number of cars in our cities. Is increasing our fossil fuel use up to the Dutch level enough or should we be aiming at the fossil fuel usage of Germany? I mean we could set up major chemical plants the length of the Waikato river and import gas to fuel them. Think of how lovely our cities would be.

    1. You missed Norway. North Sea oil/gas -> electric cars. But Norway isn’t the only country that has trolls. If we want a city that doesn’t kill its people, we should try stuff.

      1. France does it all with lower usage of fossil fuels. But they have nuclear instead. I would rather deal with 2-degrees of warming than a nuclear meltdown.

        1. But they have nuclear instead. I would rather deal with 2-degrees of warming than a nuclear meltdown

          Fuck I wouldn’t. 2 degrees would be killing vastly more people every year than if the world had a Fukushima level disaster every year (which, if we don’t put backup generators in the basement in a tsunami area, we won’t).

        2. The risk with nuclear energy exists, but it has been blown so badly out of proportion that you can consider the pop culture version of it to be a myth.

          Chernobyl rendered some area uninhabitable but that will probably be dwarfed by the amount of area rendered uninhabitable by an extra 2° increase in temperature.

        3. Yes nuclear is great. so long as you never have an earthquake, tsunami, eruption or incompetent operator. I mean its not like we have a track record of doing things on the cheap in the country. Oh shit, strike that.

        4. Disasters happen for every type of energy production. Dams can fail. Oil can spill into the ocean during transport. Coal is by far the deadliest due to air pollution.

        5. I’m with miffy that nuclear is a different level of danger to each of the other energy sources. But the solution isn’t to accept climate change as the lesser of two evils. It’s to switch to the least polluting energy sources while reducing our energy demands. There are so many ways to do this.

        6. In New Zealand the point is kind of moot because we have a large country to collect energy and relative to that area, a very small population. And we have both hydro and geothermal. This is an uniquely good position.

          Many other countries don’t have that luxury, and it seems the choices there are: either keep your nuclear power plants open, or replace your nuclear with gas, or accept that you will have rolling blackouts in winter. There will be a large amount of wind and solar power but these are not on 100% of the time.

          Even New Zealand, in its uniquely good position, is thinking about pumped-hydro storage.

        7. Sorry Heidi, I’m not in favour of energy poverty. For example, as it is the air pollution from wood fired stoves (for example) in NZ will kill far more than any nuclear accident would ever would, if that were to happen.

          Nuclear is not dangerous. If we made a habit of building 1970s plant designs in tsunami zones while putting all the backup generators in the basement, then I would agree. But that’s not the case.

          NZ will likely not need or build nuclear, geothermal is very promising right now, combined with existing hydro, and massive wind resource. And we just don’t have the scale to need to build 1000+ mw plants. So it’s all a moot point until I have my way and we become a re-industrialised, 20+ million pop country.

          But the safety concerns are straight out of the late last century playbook of greenpeace and the like. And the world is a worse place because of this fear mongering.

        8. One of the worst consequences of the fossil fuel age has been building unrealistic expectations of energy use.

          The only reason the nuclear power stations were built was because it made sense for the military decisions being made. It’s unbelievable that you will believe misinformation about levels of risk trotted out by that industry.

    2. And I’m sure the yanks give the Europeans a good bit of competition in the fossil fuel usage stats but they can’t afford to get rid of cars for some reason.

  8. In terms of policy initiatives that we should borrow, how about the e-bike subsidy scheme in Denver?

    ■ Standard Rebate: As a Denver resident, you can save up to $400 on the purchase of an e-bike or up to $900 on the purchase of an e-cargo bike.

    ■ Income-Qualified Rebate: If you meet our income-qualified requirements, you can save up to $1,200 on the purchase of an e-bike or up to $1,700 on the purchase of an e-cargo bike.

    https://www.denvergov.org/Government/Agencies-Departments-Offices/Agencies-Departments-Offices-Directory/Climate-Action-Sustainability-Resiliency/Sustainable-Transportation/Electric-Bikes-E-Bikes-Rebates#:~:text=Standard%20Rebate%3A%20As%20a%20Denver,of%20an%20e%2Dcargo%20bike.

  9. Just got back from six weeks in the UK, France and Spain walking everywhere. Only twice did I see e-scooters on the footpath but back in Auckland I’m in danger every time I go to walk. Loved Santander, Valladolid and Santiago de Compostela which all have pedestrianised centres of their cities which were full of people enjoying themselves. I agree that we need to learn from what has been successfully been done elsewhere.

    1. E-scooters are not the main danger when walking in Auckland. Cars and poor pedestrian infrastructure like missing traffic lights are way more dangerous than stray scooters. On my routes, I often have to walk on the streets because rubbish bins or cars block the sidewalk, the sidewalk is missing or people cannot be bothered to cut back trees and bushes that grow onto the sidewalk (often while berms are kept perfectly mowed). While scooters in the middle of the path are definitely annoying, I have not yet had to walk on the street because of them.

      1. Let’s deal with the real sources of danger first. The other day I was almost run over at the Carrington Road foot/cycle crossing by a kid driving a Toyota Corolla. He was glued to his phone and utterly oblivious of his surroundings.

        Thankfully it was slow-speed traffic, a raised crossing and a smallish car. A bullbar-festooned ute being driven by a phone-addict at high speed could do a lot more damage.

        Parked scooters aren’t the problem.

      2. Cyclists and escooter users in NZ have little respect for pedestrians, it’s a huge deterrent for me and now drive more often than on the past when I would walk and use public transport (which is getting worse)

        1. And creating more cycleways works wonders for pedestrian safety (from) scooters as well. Bikes and e-scooters have quite comparable speeds and space envelopes. They work well in (proper) protected bike lanes, and that gets them out of the hair of pedestrians too. As a Bike Auckland infra person I’ve occasionally had pangs of jealousy when scooters were treated like the big new thing, as if bikes were old news – but really, the two modes can assist each other in making the city work a lot better.

  10. The irony of the “choked” headline is that every major European city has worse air pollution and a higher air pollution mortality rate than Auckland. That’s primarily because they are more dense, which increases the density of polluted air even if its per-capita source is lower. And let’s not forget Auckland consistently rates higher than most European cities in the “most livable” contests.

    1. Don’t get me wrong – Auckland is a great place to live. It could be even better, with the cleanest air of any million-plus city. There is a very good proposal to this end called Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway (TERP): https://ourauckland.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/news/2022/09/terp-auckland-s-drive-to-drive-less/

      Transport-wise, Auckland *is* choked with traffic. This is due to decisions made in the 1950s (and a certain amount of path dependency) which generated and embedded a very high car mode share in a fast-growing city.

      This short documentary ‘Auckland, City of Cars’, while a few years old, tells the story pretty well and I recommend it to you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCKDBHT3i74

  11. Fantastic. I read in stuff Auckland has both a head of cycling and a cycling project director. TERP suggests they will be busy, our sinking dollar, and now imported refined fuel suggests the quicker we mode-shift short trips the wealthier we’ll all remain.

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