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It’s good for business, us and the environment. So how can we make Auckland more pedestrian-friendly?

Auckland’s latest pedestrian count figures from the last quarter of 2017 show a nearly 5 percent (4.8 percent, to be precise) increase in “walking trips” in the city centre from the same period in 2016. In fact, about half a million people walk in the CBD each weekday. That’s good, right? Sure, but consider this: poor pedestrian flows are still costing the City of Sails about $186 million. In fact, delays at the intersection of Queen Street and Customs Street alone are costing an estimated $2 million per year – and even that’s less than the estimated $2.2 million in delays at both the Victoria Street and Queen Street and Wellesley Street and Queen Street intersections.

Source: Auckland Council

Translation: there are a lot of positives – but a lot can still be improved.

The rise could partially be attributed to more people living in the CBD. After all, the “Investigating the Economic Value of Walking in the Auckland City Centre” report says the number of people living in the city centre has doubled in the past 10 years to almost 50,000 (44,880 according to Infometrics).  Similarly, the number of jobs has hit 114,264, with 11,856 businesses. Tourism to Auckland has been rising, too, which could explain part of the increase in pedestrian traffic. All told, pedestrian traffic on Queen Street alone has doubled since 2012, according to the “Investigating the Economic Value of Walking in the Auckland City Centre” report.

Source: Infometrics

Source: Auckland Council

Alright, things are growing. More people living, working and visiting a place = more people walking around and buying things and paying for stuff. But how do we not lose that aforementioned $200 million? Think about it: that’s practically enough to build a big, fancy new stadium. Or a lot of houses. Or fund many, many programmes to help make people’s lives better.

Ok, fine. But how do we go about that? Can we design a better city to encourage more people to walk, and generate more revenue for businesses and the local economy?

The design set out for Skypath, a pedestrian and cyclist path that will run alongside the Harbour Bridge.

There are some interesting proposals. One idea is to turn Queen Street – currently practically bumper-to-bumper with vehicular traffic seemingly all day, every day – into a “pedestrian mall” that would have expanded walkways, cycle lanes, and light rail lines. The “Investigating the Economic Value of Walking in the Auckland City Centre” report claims this would result in a 200 percent increase in the number of people walking in the area, $702,000 in annual economic benefits, and about $15.15 million in “lifetime benefits.” Pretty cool, right?

Potential proposal for Queen Street. Source: Auckland Council

That’s far from the only idea. The report also claims that, by widening sidewalks on Karangahape (K) Road, there’d be a 320 percent increase in annual footfall, not to mention $261,000 in annual benefits. Another proposal for K Rd, which would not make changes to the current width of sidewalks, would net $73,000 in annual benefits.

Potential proposals for K Rd. Source: Auckland Council

All this might sound a bit complicated/not likely to happen in the near future, but here’s the thing: according to Statistics New Zealand (and cited in the “Investigating the Economic Value of Walking in the Auckland City Centre” report), a 10 percent increase in the number of people walking to jobs close to where they live results in a 5.3 percent increase in productivity – or pump about $222.6 into Auckland’s economy (with the estimate that a one percent increase in the number of people walking to jobs close to where they live adds $42 million to the economy). No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of money.

O’Connell St’s transformation after removing cars.

As anyone who peruses local editions of Facebook and Twitter can attest, some of the Auckland-related questions most commonly thrown around social media are around cars: “why are cars still allowed in the CBD? Why aren’t we working towards a vehicle-free city?” As local design champion Ludo Campbell-Reid told Idealog last year:

“What I commonly say is we are pro-pedestrians, not anti-car but many like to polarise the issue because it makes a good story. At the end of the day, pedestrians are the economic powerhouses of the city, not private motorcars. But this is a journey.

“Cars are still allowed into the city centre because they are currently a vital part of the transport network, the economy and the life of our city. Until there are convenient, cost-effective, comfortable options available, it’s a transition.

“But reducing discretionary and through traffic trips is the goal, which will free up space for those necessary car trips.

“It’s not a matter of whether we like having car trips passing through the city or not, there just isn’t the space for them as the city grows. Discretionary trips congest the roads and take up space needed for people walking, living and doing business in the city.

“’Virtually car free’ is probably a longer term goal but there is certainly a lot of capacity we can reduce right now and still have  a well-connected and freer flowing network.”

A visualisation of Auckland’s trams.

But things can’t be done for free, and let’s face it: all of these proposals for fewer cars and more walking about would cost a lot of money up front. Then, of course, there’s the issue of where to move the traffic that would be displaced – sure, some care would be taken off the road entirely, but others would just go somewhere else. And, you’ll probably need to build car parks (so people from outside the city coming to Auckland could park their cars and then walk around) and/or public transport infrastructure – and we know those aren’t cheap (just ask Portland, Oregon, where adding a single line to its Metropolitan Area Express light rail line cost about US$1.5 billion for 11.7 kilometres of rail, took about four years to build before opening in 2015 – and even then was cheaper to build than was budgeted).

There are some less-expensive alternatives. For example, the Bankside Boardwalk in London expands sidewalks and “injects playfulness into the urban realm of the area” by essentially having brightly-coloured boards that jut out slightly into the street that people can walk on. “It creates space for people to walk comfortably along the street and has places where people can sit and talk,” claims Peter Piet, associate director for Steer Davies Gleave, the company that designed the boardwalk.

Bankside Boardwalk in London.

Bankside Boardwalk.

Could something like the Bankside Boardwalk work in Auckland? Perhaps. But regardless, the business case is at least pretty watertight: more people walking around means more money for businesses and the economy, and a jump in productivity (which also, of course, helps businesses and the economy).

As Campbell-Reid also told Idealog: “Walking is unique as at the same time its transport, but it also encourages the sorts of social and economic exchanges that grow a city. Put simply, being able to walk easily around a city is the foundation of its social life.”

The proposed Victoria Street Linear Park.
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