Auckland has erupted into furious debate over a proposal to adopt a 30km/h speed limit in the city centre. Hayden Donnell comes up with a solution sure to please everyone.
A few days ago news broke that Auckland Transport may lower the speed limit in Auckland’s CBD to 30km/h, in an effort to make fewer people die. The proposal angered several men named Graham. They wrote in to the New Zealand Herald, which compiled their thoughts into an article. Graham Alder said it was “madness” to drop the speed limit in the CBD. Graham Carter expanded more explicitly on Graham’s point, placing the blame on pedestrians (average 75kg, speeds of 5km/h) for being injured and killed by cars (1800kg, speeds of 50km/h). “Texting while walking, earbuds with loud music, running lights. It would be good to see something proactive in these areas. Extend dangerous driving [rules] to dangerous walking and cycling,” he said. The person in the headline who said the proposal was “absolutely ridiculous” was mysteriously absent from the article, but we can assume he was also called Graham.
The feedback made one thing clear: council is never going to get widespread support for running people over at slower speeds in the central city. The only way for it to put this issue to bed is to do what it should have done in the first place: get rid of cars from the CBD entirely.
Much of Auckland’s CBD is crying out to be pedestrianised. Start with Queen Street. The lower half of the city’s most famous road, from Customs St up to Mayoral Dr, is an obvious candidate to become a pedestrian mall. The speed limit is already 30km/h and has been for a decade. Cars are outnumbered by pedestrians on the road by a ratio of 4 to 1. There are no parking buildings; few businesses rely on car traffic. The area is also badly in need of a revamp. Pedestrianising the road would make it a proper tourist attraction, rather than a place to be simultaneously underwhelmed and overstimulated before boarding the ferry to Waiheke.
Move on to High Street, where efforts to pedestrianise have been held up by well-meaning but inexplicably dumb lobbying from local businesses. The street is meant to be Auckland’s premier shopping destination, but navigating it can feel like a mix of above-ground spelunking and cage fighting. The footpaths are barely 1m wide in places. Cars and parking take up 80% of the streetscape, despite being outnumbered by pedestrians by a factor of roughly 13 to 1. Even a small influx of shoppers can quickly cram all the available space. It would be vastly improved as a pedestrian zone, as envisioned in this picture by the now-defunct Eye on Auckland blog.
Move on to Quay St, from the Viaduct to the end of Queen’s Wharf. For too long, Auckland has had less access to its often-beautiful waterfront than Wellington has to its often-hellish and frostbitten waterfront. Auckland Council could open the area up like it did during the 2011 Rugby World Cup, only permanently and with less rugby.
It shouldn’t stop there. Council should be looking to steadily reclaim most of the CBD for pedestrian malls and shared spaces. Study after study has shown the economic benefits of pedestrianisation, including this one done recently for Auckland Council. The study points to the fact that more than 50% of commuters are already arriving in the city centre by public transport, while the local resident population has grown to 50,000. It estimates delays to pedestrians in Auckland CBD cost $11.7 million per year, and models the economic benefits of moves like pedestrianising Queen St and remaking Karangahape Rd as a pedestrian and public transport corridor.
“This proves the self-evident fact that walking means business and that great walking environments and great public spaces are an economic elixir,” said the study’s project manager Darren Davis.
But don’t just take Darren Davis’s word for it. Think about the streets in your city you’d most like to show to a visiting friend. Many of them will be pedestrianised or pedestrian-friendly. In Wellington, it might be Cuba St. In Auckland, the Fort St precinct or Wynyard Quarter. In Dunedin, it might be the beautiful countryside near Dunedin.
Pedestrianisation doesn’t even mean traffic times are dramatically worse There’s recent evidence in Auckland itself that cars can adjust to these kinds of changes. Despite parts of Albert St being all-but inaccessible due to ongoing work on the City Rail Link, journey times have actually gotten better in many parts of the CBD.
Remember also that it’s not some kind of law of physics that 90% of street space has to be dominated by cars. Our streets weren’t always this way, and they don’t have to be in future.
There are rumours and news stories emerging that an updated CBD masterplan being developed by Auckland Council will propose a suite of pedestrianisation initiatives, including on Queen St. That can’t come soon enough. Auckland has two transformative public transport projects in the works, with both light rail and the CRL set to open within the next half-decade or so. It has a chance to create a modern city centre before then, rather than a large road network with some shops and bars. We should stop debating whether we could kill fewer people with a speed limit of 30km/h and just kill none at all. The new world is on its way, and it’s making the journey on foot.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.