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Auckland Transport says the universities support its controversial bus plan. But is that true?

AT has defended its attempt to keep buses on Victoria St – thus sabotaging plans for a park along that road – by claiming the support of both the University of Auckland and AUT University. What do the universities say?

Remember that plan to turn Victoria St into a limited-access roadway with a park all along its length? The plan that comes out best when measured by Auckland Transport’s own criteria, including cost and business case? The plan AT is trying to stop happening because it wants to keep running buses on that route? It has claimed that both the University of Auckland (UA) and AUT University, as “stakeholders”, support this. But do they? What do the universities say?

We asked them both and received rather different answers. Neither is opposed to the park as such. But they’re both worried about the bus routes through and around the two campuses and both have been negotiating with Auckland Transport for some time.

UA doesn’t want buses coming up Wellesley St from the west, up the slip lane by the new science building and onto Symonds St. AUT’s position is harder to read but it seems worried about buses coming near the campus at all.

The Wellesley St slipway looking west. Photo: Google Maps

The University of Auckland position

UA summarised its position with two points.

1. Keep the bus stop outside the Music School?

UA wants to keep a bus stop outside the School of Music on Symonds St because, said a spokesperson, it “offers best outbound coverage for the University”. This is the university’s favoured option and means keeping the route as it is on Victoria St. No new park. (This option is known as 4D and is also AT’s favourite.)

But if you know Symonds St, you’ll know that the Music School stop is right down at the northeast corner of the campus. Fewer people use it than the one further up Symonds St, near the top of Wellesley St. Even though it’s handy for students and staff going home from that end of the campus, the inbound buses don’t run along that route – they go down Wellesley St.

So if it’s OK for inbound passengers to get off further up Symonds St, as they do now, why isn’t it OK, at the end of the day, for those same passengers to get back on the bus there too?

2. The intersection won’t cope with the extra demand

UA also says that if its most-preferred Victoria St option is not acceptable, it would prefer Wakefield St was used for eastbound buses, rather than the slip lane on Wellesley St. That’s because the Wellesley St option “would impact traffic significantly on Symonds St, as well as pedestrians and University operations”.

It’s worth stressing this. The University of Auckland does support the option (known as 1D) that comes out second-best in AT’s own analysis, even though AT itself does not support it. The details and analysis are here. This option would allow the Victoria St parkway to be built.

(It is a bit odd that UA’s second-best option ignores the rationale it used to support the first – those students in and around the Music School would have even further to walk – but hey. Larger issues prevail.)

Under one of the options being considered – favoured by transport advocates but rejected by Auckland Transport – the bus station would be at the Symonds St underpass, in the centre of the so-called ‘Learning Quarter’

But is the university’s problem with the slip lane itself credible? It’s true that the intersection of Symonds and Wellesley Sts is already dense with pedestrians throughout the day. That is not a place you would seek to complicate with traffic coming from more directions. Also, the slip lane has a service entry to university buildings feeding off it.

These are not insurmountable problems. AT will need to redesign the intersection to a) keep pedestrians safe, b) avoid gridlock on Symonds St, and c) move the buses expeditiously from slip lane to street. Is that too hard?

Just thinking aloud here, but how about getting the pedestrians off the roadways entirely? Maybe with a new walkway beneath Symonds St.

Remember, there’s already a big traffic underpass beneath that intersection. Why not hang a wide walkway under Symonds St, in that underpass, for everyone who wants to walk from one side of Symonds St to the other at that point? And why not dig out short wide tunnels under each slip lane, for people walking north/south on the city side of Symonds St?

It’s not a new idea: there’s already a small pedestrian underpass further down Symonds St. These ones should be much better, though: bigger, brighter, more like sunken plazas than tunnels.

(And, just by the by, if they do this, those commuters from in and around the Music School won’t have to walk all the way to Wakefield St.)

The intersection of Symonds and Wellesley Sts. Photo: Google Maps

The AUT position

What about AUT? It has expressed concern about all the routes. It’s almost like they don’t want buses near the campus.

AUT gave us a submission filed in December 2015 which it said represented its current position. That submission identifies several concerns.

1 Pedestrians and cyclists are at greater risk of being injured by buses

The stretch of Symonds St running down to and alongside the universities is a dangerous piece of road, no question. Vehicles are required to change lanes. People jaywalk all the time. There are always many buses and at peak times they can clog the road.

In the five years to 2014, 45 crashes involving pedestrians and cylists were reported, nine of them involving a bus, most of them between Wakefield Street and Wellesley Street.

The first thing to say about that is: this road needs some safety attention anyway. Why is jaywalking still possible? Why isn’t there a proper cycle lane? Perhaps putting more buses through the intersection will force Auckland Transport to take pedestrian and cycle safety more seriously?

The suggestion above new pedestrian plaza walkways applies here too.

2 Increased noise and air pollution

More buses means more pollution, wherever they go. The solution is to fast-track a tram system (light rail), and in the meantime to make the buses as energy efficient as possible. It’s not to keep them away from the campus.

3 AUT campus will be cut off from Albert Park.

This is a bit weird. They do know there’s already an overbridge there, right?

4 AUT’s only visitor carpark is off Wellesley St.

AUT adds that visiting “dignitaries” in particular will be affected. See next point.

5 The crèche is off Wellesley St

Short term pick-up and drop-off is needed by staff and students using the crèche.

It’s worth noting that buses already use the downward slip lane, on the AUT side of Wellesley St. Nothing’s going to change, except over time there will be more buses. But if that became an issue, is it really suggesting the city’s bus plans should be compromised because it doesn’t think it can rethink its short-term carparking needs?

6 A terminal at Symonds St is problematic

This, finally, is a good objection. Some of the options propose that buses from the North Shore should terminate at the university location. It’s a nutty idea. Terminals create congestion and that endangers pedestrians. Buses should run to the campuses and then continue out to the east, or if they have to finish, do so at a nearby holding site in Grafton Gully. Honestly, how hard is that?

In summary

It’s not accurate to portray the “stakeholder” universities as being fully in support of Auckland Transport. AT itself acknowledges this in the detail of its draft report to NZTA on the issue, although not in its general thrust. But it is unfortunate the universities haven’t taken a lead in trying to get AT to accept those Victoria St plans for a parkway, given that they will so obviously benefit the city.

All of the objections (except the terminal one) listed above boil down to the same thing: preference for the status quo. It’s easier to keep what’s there than to imagine something better. Even though what’s there is unsatisfactory in so many ways.

Both the universities profess a commitment to creative future-focused thinking. AUT makes that its very brand. You’d think they had some bright minds – staff and students – who could do better than this.

Both also have a deep vested interest in making the inner city a better place to live, work and play. That’s what the Victoria St parkway is all about. It’s time they showed they understand this in real terms.

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