Believe it or not, in mid-2014 Auckland was visited by one of the world’s foremost experts on converting streets to cycle lanes and public spaces. She did this successfully in one of the world’s densest cities and set out her experiences and lessons learned in a popular book and a hugely well-attended Auckland talk.
Since then, everything she said has been scrupulously ignored and Auckland Transport, in rolling out cycle lanes throughout the city, have made all the mistakes that we were warned against.
On the evening of 26 May 2014, I attended a talk hosted by Auckland Council from Janette Sadik-Khan, former Commissioner of New York City Department of Transportation from 2007-2013 under the Bloomberg administration. Her most celebrated project was a conversion of a segment of Broadway into a pedestrian plaza but this was part of a much larger body of work in which the Department of Transport would paint, measure results of, and then finalise street re-designs.
One of Sadik-Khan’s opening contentions was that “we’re not going to achieve healthy, safe, sustainable cities by planning just for cars.” Her experience in New York was that there is a “deep hunger” for public space and when a street is opened to people, they “materialise like in Star Trek.” New York is so densely populated that they experience “ped-lock” (pedestrian gridlock). A street performance group once painted lanes on some footpaths labelled ‘Residents’ and ‘Visitors’ as a response to the two-speed use of pavements. People actually used them.
There was huge opposition to the closing of streets and removal of parking. A lot of the initial concern was alleviated by the impermanence of installations; much of the work was done with orange barrels, paint and deck chairs.
Sadik-Khan noted that the speed with which she was able to free up public space so quickly was because of the paint-on-the-road, temporary installation nature of the changes. Conventional modelling and detailed design of more permanent, built barriers and installations would have taken at least 5 years to achieve the same result. Even so, traffic engineers often get it wrong. Once the temporary installation has been tested and proven to work well it can be made permanent. Post pedestrianisation of Times Square there was a 63% drop in motoring injuries and a 74% drop in pedestrian injuries.
Street seating is very important in a streetscape, not just for the obvious amenity but also to soften the line between pavement and street. Sadik-Khan’s team moved very quickly; 643 kilometres of cycle-lanes were created in just 6 years. A study showed that at any time, 10% of New Yorkers are lost hence a major focus on way finding. She said that planning regulations creating parking minimums and car-dominated streetscapes are the result of outmoded approaches: “If you were a businessperson and didn’t change your biggest capital asset for 50 years, would you still expect to be in business?”
Compare this to the disastrous installation in West Lynn which has been justly called a ‘fiasco‘ by Simon Wilson in a very thorough article at the Spinoff. Over-engineered, poorly executed and extremely difficult to fix. I can’t help but think that Sadik-Khan would be shaking her head at what has been done.
Retailers are often trenchant critics of the removal of parking spaces along streets; which is entirely understandable given the likelihood that customers will go elsewhere if they can’t find a park easily. Sadik-Khan advises starting a dialogue with locals and retailers to discuss with them the proven value of more walking and cycling along main streets but also to keep parking where possible such as through the use of ‘Copenhagen lanes’.
There is a glimmer of hope that these lessons are beginning to sink in as the designers of the Karangahape Road cycleway and street improvement are intending to begin the implementation with temporary barriers and road paint, with careful observation of the results and consultation with retailers before making anything permanent.
Her concluding words were: “You just have to find your streets. They’re hidden in plain sight.”