The fiasco in West Lynn: how did Auckland Transport get a shopping village makeover so wrong?

The council has been remaking the West Lynn shopping village on Richmond Rd in Grey Lynn, putting in bike lanes, calming the traffic and, they say, enhancing the shopper experience. What, asks Simon Wilson, could possibly go wrong?

You can’t laugh. It seems pointless to cry. But Auckland Transport (AT) has just spent a couple of months in the little West Lynn shopping village, digging up Richmond Rd, realigning the footpaths, carparks and pedestrian crossings, moving the bus stops and removing some carparks, adding a dedicated cycle lane on both sides of the street, and the result is… deeply disappointing.

The new contours cause some of the shops to flood every time it rains, so now they have to be protected by sandbags. The new cycle lanes are unsatisfactory. The planting is absurdly poor. The siting of the new bus stops is highly controversial and it’s questionable how much the traffic has been calmed. And as a recent story in the Herald made clear, shopkeepers say their customers have gone and they fear for their future.

Some of the complaints might not be well founded. The loss of customers, for example, largely relates to the construction period. Jacob Faull, who owns the Nature Baby organic clothing store and has just been elected co-chair of the Grey Lynn Business Association, puts his loss of customers during that time at about 20%. A bit down the road at Harvest, the organic foodstore, manager Somboon Khansuk is quoted as saying they’d lost as many as 50% of their customers during the weekends.

But the construction is largely over now. It’s poor that AT didn’t do more to help them during the disruption, but there’s no obvious reason to think customers will stay away now the road barriers and cones have gone.

But even if the shopkeepers’ fears of commercial failure turn out to be wrong, it’s clear this has been a bad experience for the local community. It’s not how the council should do business.

New bus stop complete with shopkeeper’s protest sign. (All photos Simon Wilson)

Did AT consult? Yes they did. Did they want to improve the experience of shopping in the village? Yes they did. Does it matter? It really does. It matters to the people of West Lynn, but it also matters to the rest of Auckland. This little village makeover should be an exemplar, a chance for AT to show communities all over the city how good things can be. Instead, it’s more like a warning.

As a simple rule of thumb, when the council or any of its agencies, like AT, undertakes a project in the community, the outcome they should want is for that community to say, “This is ours. With council’s help, look at the neat things we’ve done with it.” That’s the goal.

In fact, this does happen, and more often than you might think – especially with projects for kids, environmental work, entertainment programmes, help for new parents, family events – all sorts of successful initiatives are staged through council-community engagement in the parks and pools and libraries and gardens and community centres of this city.

But it doesn’t happen often when it comes to transport.

In Grey Lynn, of which West Lynn is a part, it should be easy to get this right. It’s a green and pleasant suburb full of liberal residents. Richmond Rd is wide enough to accommodate all the different transport modes and the cycling count is higher than in most other parts of the city. The West Lynn village itself is full of the kind of shops you might think were extremely compatible with pedestrian-friendly shopping and safe cycling: along with Harvest and Nature Baby there are boutique clothes stores and a boutique bookshop; and cool cafes, bars and restaurants.

How do the complaints stack up?

Early one evening last week, during peak traffic time, I met up with Kathryn King, AT’s head of traffic safety, cycling and walking, to watch the village scheme in action. We were there for over an hour, sitting on a bench in the village. The traffic was busy but not thick: Richmond Rd is a main road in Grey Lynn but it’s not an arterial road. There were cyclists, including some kids, but not many.

King told me the project had started “after a request to improve safety”. Pedestrians were not well protected at the intersections with the side roads, while the pedestrian crossings on the main road needed improvement too. It was identified early on that safer cycling should also be a priority.

King assured me AT understands the value of local shopping villages and wants to make them better places for people to be in. As we talked, she repeatedly came back to these points. Creating a safer environment enhances the shopper experience. Those were the goals of the project: make West Lynn better for shoppers and improve safety on the road, especially for pedestrians and cyclists.

She was sympathetic to complaints the work had not achieved those goals. Some changes to what’s been done will happen.

And, she stressed, the project isn’t finished yet anyway: we haven’t yet seen all the improvements because the road was reopened as quickly as possible, to help the retailers get their customers back.

So, looking at the key project elements and the complaints about them, how bad is it?

The useless awful slope: unless it’s sandbagged, water floods the shops whenever it rains.

The weird new slope outside Frieda Margolis 

There is now a wide slope of asphalt outside the first small block of shops on the north side of the street: the left, as you go up Richmond Rd. Those shops include the Big Sur café and the bar Frieda Margolis. The slope performs no useful function. It’s ugly, it can’t take tables and chairs because it’s a slope, and it hasn’t been planted. If you’re in the café or bar, you look out and up at a row of cars parallel parked at the top of the slope.

But that’s the least of it. When it rains, the water runs down the slope, straight across the narrow channel they hoped would carry the water to a drain, and into the shops. Sandbags are now used to stop the flooding.

King said they know they got it wrong are going to remake this section of the project. AT has been consulting on what to replace it with; to the surprise of surely no one at all, the cafe and bar would like decent planting and flat ground they can put tables and chairs on.

But how did that even happen? King said there were “issues with the design drawings”, which I assumed was her way of saying that between the idea and the implementation something got really buggered up and she wasn’t going to tell me who was responsible.

What’s important now, she said, was that they would fix it, and in a way the community approved. “We don’t walk away when people aren’t happy.”

Good to know. But it’s hard to think how AT could have signalled its own incompetence any more clearly. That slope’s got it all: not a result of meaningful consultation, lack of sympathy for the needs of the retailers and their customers, inept design and construction, lack of aesthetic sensitivity.

Reduced carparking outside Harvest.

They cut the carparks and moved the bus stops!

Most carparks in the village were angle parks, which meant drivers had to back out into the flow of traffic. That creates risk and uncertainty for everyone: drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. There were two bus stops at each end of the village.

AT has removed many of the angle parks, added some parallel parks and replaced the four bus stops with two, both right in the village. In total, eight carparks have been lost.

Putting the bus stops in the village is meant to send a powerful signal: one of the advantages of catching a bus is that you can now use the shops more easily. This is especially relevant in West Lynn, where the new stops are outside the dairy on one side and the liquor store on the other.

Both those shops are convenience stores: they depend on quick-stop customers. They’re getting more of those customers from the buses, now, but they’re at risk of losing more from drivers. If car drivers don’t think they can park outside the shop, they’ll find other convenience stores where they can.

Whether you think the new stops are sited well or badly probably comes down to your view of the way the city is growing. Is it right to put bus stops right in the shopping villages, especially to put them close to convenience stores, or is it better to keep prioritising the ability of car drivers to nip into the shop on the way home? Over time, are so many of us really going to continue using our own private motor vehicles in that way?

What about the other retailers – do they need parks right outside their shops? In shopping villages options like clustered parks, parks around the back and so on are invaluable if you’re trying to create a pedestrian friendly shopping precinct.

When I met Nature Baby’s Jacob Faull last week he was worried his customers would not think they could park right outside his shop, and it’s clear that’s how others think too. The liquor store has a sign out saying it wants the bus stop moved away.

But it has another sign telling customers they can park just around the corner. Nature Baby and Siostra, in common with a fast-growing number of shops and restaurants in villages all over Auckland, have signs directing customers to parks around the back. We’ll get used to this, won’t we?

King said part of the plan is to introduce time limits for parking in the village. Not metered charges, just time limits. That shouldn’t impact on shoppers at all, but it will deter shop staff from using the parks, not to mention commuters from elsewhere who park and take the bus for the last part of their trip into town.

She said that when a place works well for pedestrians, and the foot count goes up, that’s good for the shops. She added that she knows many retailers disagree with this but removing some parks from the streetfront does not harm shopping and the evidence all over the world is clear. “Fewer parks right outside does not lead to fewer customers.”

She also said if they had moved the bus stops a little further up or down the street, they would have lost more than eight parks. They did try to minimise that particular disruption.

The floating island bus stop with cycle route running behind.

The bus stop sticks out into the street

It’s called a floating island. The bus stop is on a raised level, protruding into the street. The main value of this is that the cycleway runs behind the stop, so cyclists are not tempted to make the dangerous ride around a stationary bus.

Some people have complained that the floating island means that when a bus is at the stop, cars driving around it are forced across the centre line into incoming traffic.

That’s not actually true, said King. They could wait for the bus to start moving again. These days, with HOP cards, that’s invariably only a few moments.

This goes to the heart of that larger issue: should cars have the right to drive unimpeded through the shopping village, or is it reasonable to ask them to accept an occasional short wait, because the safety needs of other road users now have a higher priority?

Looking back at the same bus stop, with the pedestrian crossing right by it. If a bus is at the stop and a car tries to go around, it will cross the centre line and run straight onto the crossing.

And yet, even if you think the answer to that is clear, there’s another problem with this bus stop: it’s right by a pedestrian crossing. If you’re driving up the road, encounter a stationary bus and decide to go round it, you will find yourself coming back onto the right side of the road at the same time as you arrive at the crossing.

It’s all very well hoping drivers won’t do it, but it’s dangerous to assume they won’t.

Sitting there with Kathryn King last week it was interesting to watch how drivers negotiated the new road. No one was speeding, in the sense that they weren’t going faster than the legal limit. But most of them were up against it. They weren’t going as slowly as they might, given it’s a shopping village with a high risk of unexpected hazards like small children. They were going as fast as they could to get through.

That plays absolutely to AT’s desire to introduce traffic calming to the area. Drivers won’t do it on their own. AT has to make them do it. That’s why, to take just one example, the pedestrian crossings are raised and on each side there is a walkway protruding out to them from the footpath. Drivers are now more likely to slow to get over the bump, and more likely to see pedestrians waiting to cross.

The ugliness of a makeover: this village would be so easy to make so much nicer.

The road is covered in white paint

There are more road markings to come. King said because retailers were complaining about lost business during the roadworks, they put extra delivery crews on and got the bulk of the job done as quickly as they could. They took out the cones and barriers and reopened the road before the work was finished.

Upside: the shoppers are coming back.

Downside: although it’s not finished people assume it is and complain about things that will be improved or fixed anyway.

One example: parts of the road will have the sandy-coloured non-slip surface used by AT near pedestrian crossings and in other places where they want to signal drivers to take special care. Another example: the bike lanes will get their green paint (which can’t be done on new asphalt, which explains the delay on that).

The cars drive at each other

The two lanes on which the vehicular traffic runs (known as the carriageway) are now relatively narrow and have just a single white line separating the traffic going in each direction.

Dangerous? Actually no. King said it was deliberate. When they paint a “flush median” on the road (that section of striped lines, often heading to an intersection) drivers take it as a signal to speed up. Having just a single line of paint separating the oncoming lanes from each other sends a stronger signal to slow down.

But, I asked, why don’t they just reduce the speed limit to 30km/h?

King said that may well happen. New regulations now make it possible for local communities to request special speed limits: local boards, schools, the retailers in a village, community groups and others can all apply to AT for a special speed zone.

A proposal for the West Lynn village is expected, probably from the local board, and there’ll be community consultation before any decision.

Bike rider risking not being doored by a forgetful driver.

The cycle lanes are weird

Despite the supposed priority given to cycle safety in this project, the outcome is very unsatisfactory. The cycle lane on the south side and much of the north side run outside the line of parked cars, so cyclists risk being hit by forgetful drivers opening their car doors without looking.

It’s bad enough when this exists on ordinary roadways; in a shopping village, where drivers are constantly getting out of their cars, it’s very high risk. You’d be safer riding your bike on the main carriageway.

On the north side, during the main part of the village, where there is still a row of angle parking, the cycle lane dog legs around the front of the cars. It feels awkward, especially as on one section the road slopes down to the cycle lane: if you’re riding a bike, you’re almost below the cars.

This dog leg route, by the way, clearly incenses some drivers. Cars have been seen parked with their noses right in at the curb, blocking the cycle way. To do this, the drivers have to go up and over the road barriers marking the front of the carparks. It takes a bit of effort to be that disruptive.

It’s hard to see that the bike route component of the project will please many cyclists, drivers or retailers.

The dog leg in the bike route, around the front of angle-parked cars. Some cars just drive right up to the kerb.

Why is it so ugly?

The argument about the relative priority you give to cars, cyclists and pedestrians may never end. But there’s hardly any disagreement that the makeover of West Lynn is ugly. There are four reasons for it.

The first is that they’ve covered everything in asphalt. King says this is in line with AT policy that when they reseal roadways they “replace like with like”. It used to be asphalt, so it is again.

This is incredibly short-sighted. The makeover of a shopping village happens only every two or three decades: why would you not take the chance to upgrade? The concrete AT uses now to reseal footpaths is much softer on the eye than asphalt and would have added immeasurably to the appeal of the new village.

King says it’s a budget issue. The concrete is more expensive.

The second problem is that they really didn’t think about planting. Yes, there are a few non-asphalted bits with a few brave native grasses in them, but no trees, no shrubs even: nothing to suggest they were thinking they had a duty to plant for the future the way previous generations of planners did in Grey Lynn.

Tell me about the planting, I said to King.

“There is no planting,” she said with a sort of sad snort.

Third, there are lots of white lines all over the road. It will look a lot better when the tan surface goes in, but it sure is awful now.

The fourth reason the West Lynn makeover is so ugly is a thing that links all the other three: they just didn’t think about it. There’s no evidence a designer – a professional place-maker with any sense of aesthetics – has been near the place. This is a little hard to believe, given that AT has shown itself capable of creating aesthetically magnificent projects when it wants to: Te Ara I Whiti, the Lightpath or pink cycleway, and the Taurarua footbridge over Tamaki Drive to the Parnell Baths both spring to mind. But there’s a lot of very routine stuff too. Maybe design aesthetics are only important for the showcase work.

The thing is, West Lynn should be a showcase. Every project they do should be a showcase. Each successful local development leads to the next, because it builds trust, from one community to the next, that council knows what it’s doing.

This is the Len Brown theory of urban development: just make the rules good enough so we can start, the former mayor used to argue, and we’ll show the doubters how good we can be. We’ll make the people trust the council because they’ll see how worthwhile it is to do so.

Auckland Transport doesn’t appear to have got that memo.

How did this happen?

I asked Kathryn King what went wrong. She said the project was created two or three years ago, near the beginning of the period of local community street makeovers we’re seeing now. They did consult, she said, but she accepted the consultation did not produce a constructive outcome. They just didn’t know enough about how to do this kind of consultation.

King herself has been at AT for three years. She’s recently been given responsibility for road safety as well as cycling and walking, but she is not in charge of delivery. Projects like this might begin in King’s office but their construction is in completely different hands.

Consultation is better now, she said, and cited the example of Karangahape Rd, where a community reference group has been fully engaged in development proposals. That wasn’t done in West Lynn. “When we got to K Rd, we learned lessons from here.”

The council has other consultations underway, too, including, right now, over residential parking in Grey Lynn and Arch Hill.

I asked her what else she thought they would do differently if they were starting again now. She said, “We started with a budget not conducive to the outcome people would have expected.”

They did it on the cheap. And now they have to redo parts of it, because it was too cheap. And add planting, because that wasn’t in the budget either.

King also wanted to stress that the cycleway through West Lynn is part of the larger programme of cycleways though Grey Lynn and Westmere, which in turn is party of AT’s very large commitment to developing cycleways in the city. “We’re building a connected accessible network,” she said.

And that’s true. It’s very different from what happened in Wellington, where the council built a section of cycleway in Island Bay that didn’t connect to anything: it created a firestorm of complaint. AT’s strategy is to build out from the centre, and to build connecting networks around schools, so that whole bike journeys will be safer and more appealing.

The thing is, though, West Lynn should be a model for how well all this can work, and it isn’t. The cycleways won’t convert many sceptics and they may not reassure many supporters either. The village is uglier, not more pleasant to be in. The retailers feel alienated and aggrieved. It’s just not how you do it.

Three kids out for a bike ride. One of them, in green top, is negotiating the awkward dog leg to get around the front of the parked cars.

What should they have done?

How do you do it? It’s not really hard to answer that. You consult properly from the start. You create a really good, creative, life-affirming plan to improve the place, so everyone can see and imagine how good it will be. You listen carefully to local concerns and you address them – by changing the plan, adding specific features to set minds at rest, showing them you care. And then you execute with skill, monitoring progress closely so if things go wrong they can quickly be fixed. And while you’re in construction, you help those affected to overcome the disruption. And then you celebrate.

AT has other cycleway construction work going on right now in Grey Lynn and Westmere. Is it also a fiasco, as some are claiming, or have they learned how to do a better job? We’ll report on that very soon.

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