Changing our city streets: reframing the debate

Changing our city streets: reframing the debate Changing our city streets: reframing the debate Changing our city streets: reframing the debate

In print and on-line, the discussion around changes to our city and suburban streets continues. Landscape architect John Potter considers the situation from a design- and people-based perspective.

Let’s start with the facts.

Since the first stage of the Nelson Street cycleway, the Lightpath, and the Grafton Gully cycleway were completed, there has been a 46% increase in morning inbound peak cycle trips around the city centre.  230,000 Aucklanders live within a 30-minute bike ride to the city, and 80% of Aucklanders agree that investing in cycling is important in order to provide people with more travel choices.

What’s more, significant funding from both central and local government to the tune of an estimated $123 million since 2015 has enabled the planning and delivery of a number of cycleway improvements under the Urban Cycleways Programme.

So, what’s not to like?

It would appear quite a lot, really.

Much has been written over recent months on the trials and tribulations of Auckland’s journey to introduce cycle lanes into the existing urban fabric.  Journalist Simon Wilson has been a notable observer of, and commentator on, the challenges faced by initiatives to provide segregated cycleways along K Road and through West Lynn Village centre.  It would appear that in the case of K Road, there is a concern from retailers that loss of car parking will adversely impact their business viability; and in the case of West Lynn, that the built outcome failed to meet both the project’s potential and the aspirations – indeed, the expectations – of the local community and business owners.

Where does this get us?

Well, if these two projects are anything to go by, it suggests a feeling of disenfranchisement for those local residential and business communities directly affected by the introduction of proposed cycleways.  With disenfranchisement can come antagonism towards both the organisation attempting to drive change (in this case Auckland Transport); and those who will benefit from the change, ie. people on bikes.

So, how can we do things better?

Who are the people we want to encourage to cycle?

Let’s be clear on this – we are not building cycle lanes for confident middle-aged white men squeezed into Pro Cycling Team lycra apparel. Those folk mostly know how to ride, and have a firm idea of exactly where they want to ride on the street.

Rather, we want to cater for the needs of those less confident – the mum of three making her regular trip to the local shops, the kid cycling to school with friends or a parent (20% of Auckland intermediate school kids cycled to school in the late 1970’s, today that number is 3.9%), and the commuter frustrated by sitting in gridlock and the hassle and expense of finding a carpark at journey’s end.

These are people from our local community, who are cycling to local places.  These are the people we want to encourage onto a bike by providing a safe, convenient and welcoming cycleway.

Reframe the message – it’s more than a cycleway project

Cycleway projects in Auckland do not happen in isolation.  It is important to understand that each new scheme is a single piece of a bigger urban design jigsaw puzzle that will collectively deliver significant benefits to us all in terms of providing real active transport choices, reducing congestion, supporting use of the public transport network by promoting cycling to station or ferry terminals, increasing our health and fighting obesity, and reconnecting us with our local community and businesses that serve us.

The clear message is that, whilst they may be funded by Auckland Transport and the NZ Transport Agency, these projects are more than the provision of a segregated cycle lane.  They offer the local community the opportunity to rethink how street space is allocated and how it can be used to the benefit of those who live, work and visit there.  Therefore, we need to clearly articulate the outcomes of these projects in the wider context of positive change and the new opportunities they present.

Deliver a holistic streetscape design driven by optimal balance, not compromise

From the rise of the automobile in the years following the Second World War to the early part of this century, the design of our roads has been predicated around the desire to maximise the speed, efficiency and safety of motor transport.

Recently, there has been a paradigm shift in our thinking around how we want to use our streets to support local communities and businesses.  An acceptance of the concept of local streets as rich, vibrant and vital components of our public realm means that we now have the confidence to dedicate less precious street space to the movement and parking of cars, and more space to those uses which will encourage and support more people to walk, cycle, use public transport, and spend more time (and, retailers note: money) in our village and town centres.

As a concept, this all sounds straightforward; but the reality is that the amount of space we have available in our streets is defined by the distance from building line to building line. Our suburban streets are simply not wide enough to cater for every spatial use from our potential wish list: providing wide footpaths; generous space for eating, resting and outdoor dining; car parking and vehicle loading; cycleways; bus stops and priority bus lanes; and general traffic lanes.

We need to make choices, and we can best inform these choices by clearly articulating the overarching aims and objectives of the project at the outset; and seeking to build a consensus with all stakeholders around the project vision before putting pen to paper.  Which brings us to:

Meaningful engagement with all stakeholders

Cycleway – or, rather, Active Transport or Healthy Streets — project stakeholders are all those who have an interest or concern in the outcome. By their very nature, stakeholders tend to be focused on a specific issue or concern, so it is inevitable that stakeholder engagement will result in sometimes-contradictory feedback in terms of issues and aspirations.  Meaningful engagement takes time: time to survey and talk to shoppers on the street, to retailers in their shops, to local residents and to those just passing through.

It is only through talking with the local business and residential community that the project team can develop a deep understanding of the issues that matter most dearly to people. The optimal project outcome can only be defined by spending time with the local community — exploring the possible design outcomes, and understanding what the design options are, and how these options best address the project objectives.

Understand that transformational change does not happen overnight

Beginning in 2000, London started its active transport journey through the construction of cycleways — many of which resulted in controversy; fuelled by a media that, at times, seemed intent on criticising progress and over-simplifying the discourse into a cyclists-versus-motorists debate.

By 2016, Londoners made 730,000 bicycle journeys per day, equivalent to ten per cent of all bus journeys, and 20 per cent of all tube journeys. And that number keeps rising. Those changes are being seen on a local level too.

In 2017, the City of London Corporation – the governing body that looks after London’s historic, financial centre – found that during the morning rush in the City of London the most popular vehicle is now the bicycle.

It’s clear that London moved past the initial change-related angst and went on to deliver a remarkable transformation in its cycling infrastructure and streetscape design — but this only occurred through a very public discussion about the role of London’s streets, and what kind of city Londoners wanted to live, work, and travel around in.

So, let us take heart and accept that the oxygen of publicity is good for the debate we need to have, as Aucklanders who want to see our city transformed for the better.

For further information please contact John Potter

13 August 2018