/Changing Queen St in the news again

Changing Queen St in the news again

Getting the cars out of Queen St and making it a more pedestrian friendly space is one of the most supported projects around. In 2018 the mayor and councillors unanimously called for it to happen as soon as possible. During the consultation for the City Centre Master Plan (CCMP), the plans for the Queen St Valley received 84% support.

As a quick reminder about what the CCMP says about Queen St, it calls for it to become:

A vibrant pedestrian priority shopping street at the heartof Waihorotiu / Queen Street Valley – Queen Street willsupport centre-running transit (starting with buses)and become the centrepiece of a greatly expandedpedestrian priority and low emissions zone

And on putting pedestrians first it says:

Queen Street will continue to evolve over the life of the masterplan, becoming a vibrant pedestrian-priority walking and shopping street and quality transit corridor at the heart of Waihorotiu / Queen Street Valley.

The full potential of these elements will be unlocked through the creation of the central zone of the Access for Everyone (A4E) concept, which will deliver a pedestrian-friendly, high-amenity, safe and vibrant core to the city within a zero-emissions zone.

How this would happen

Increasing pedestrian priority

Creation of a transit mall condition along Queen Street over time, with eventual removal of all general traffic, to be implemented through a series of pilots and incremental network changes to be implemented in parallel with major city centre construction works and traffic management plans.

Further streetscape enhancements to Queen Street to increase pedestrian priority, with a highly accessible, level surface design accommodating increasing pedestrian volumes and ability to cross the street freely supporting a vibrant, two-sided retail street.

Now, on the cusp of these changes starting to be made, the herald and a few others are complaining about it.

Auckland Transport is drawing up plans to remove through-traffic from Queen St within six months – banishing cars from stretches of the city’s once busiest street.

Changes to the city centre’s only remaining north/south route, which once got 12,000 cars a day, will result in “two bus-only sections, which will remove end-to-end through-traffic”.

The plans have been heavily criticised by local retail traders, property owners and the Automobile Association which says confidence with Queen St’s “dishevelled state” is at a “low ebb” with “significant unanswered questions and disgruntled stakeholders”.

Despite this, consultation on Auckland Transport’s (AT) plans will begin in March and the implementation of the no-car zones is expected in the middle of this year.

The move by AT and Auckland Council builds on the controversial Queen St Access for Everyone pilot which in June, 2020, fast-tracked a pedestrianisation trial by taking advantage of Covid-19 social distancing barriers.

Since April 2020, Queen St has been reduced to a single lane each way, with plastic pylons and 300kg white blocks sectioning off the curbside lanes for pedestrians.

“The measures proposed in the [2021] network plan will discourage private vehicles travelling the entire length of the street at certain times of the day. The times of operation will be part of the consultation,” an AT statement said.

“More importantly the two sections of bus lane ensure reliable bus travel for the thousands of daily users.”

It is not yet clear what stretches of Queen St will be car-free, which will be determined in the consultation process.

Firstly, the author of the article seems to have quite a personal bias against Queen St. In social media posts he calls it “the pro-pedestrian agenda at Auckland Council“, which is interesting given a day later the climate commision came out saying we need to get a lot more people walking. In other posts he also says “there’s barely any shops left in business on Queen St to go to” which he puts down to the “ugly” changes made in the wake of COVID to give people more space.

Putting aside the subjective views of the changes, the biggest issue with them from my perspective is that they’ve reduced bus reliability because buses are getting held up by all the cars that don’t need to be there.

Getting rid of vehicles who are just using Queen St because they can, leaving it to the buses and deliveries and service vehicles will go a long way towards improving reliability and reducing emissions. AT even seem to have come up with a good first step to do this by creating two short sections of bus only lanes at each end of Queen St which will discourage through traffic.

The stated goal of the 2021 through-traffic ban on Queen St is to quicken bus movements which were moved into the same lane as cars with the initial pedestrian trial in April last year.

“More importantly, the two sections of bus lane ensure reliable bus travel for the thousands of daily users. Each day 47,000 people start or end their bus journey on Queen St,” an AT spokesperson said.

There will also be other improvements to the design of Queen St.

Other confirmed changes to the street include a pocket park in at the intersection of Fort and Queen Sts and greenery and trees along the eastern side of Queen St between Victoria and Wellesley Sts.

An artist’s design impression of the Fort St pocket park by commissioned landscape firm LandLAB shows substantial changes to the streetscape with trees and central benches completely baring car access through the currently shared pedestrian/vehicle space.

The pocket park essentially formalises the temporary one that was put in place as part of the COVID works
Some of the proposed changes on Queen St itself

However the article also focuses on the negative response from a few stakeholder groups, namely Heart of the City (HoTC) and the AA.

I’m frankly surprised to still see HoTC still using words like “dishevelled” to describe the street. Sure, the COVID works aren’t as nice as those in the image above but they’re not terrible and cities all around the world are seeing similar kinds of installations. Even more of an issue is that by talking like this about the street this way, along with their previous complaints about road works etc, I’ve heard anecdotal comments about it actively putting some people visiting who otherwise would have. In other words, it seems HoTC are actually contributing towards making the situation worse for their members. Surely a better strategy would have been embrace the changes but then push for AT and council to have moved towards images like above quicker.

Meanwhile the AA use classic concern trolling, essentially saying we support the project, but not just yet. They also question why do it at the same time as we’re experiencing disruption from the CRL construction – when that’s actually one of the reasons it needs to happen now – as more buses need to be diverted to use Queen St when Victoria St closes.

Finally a few numbers.

While lower than before COVID, pedestrians still dominate Queen St. For example, last week, on average over 30,000 people were recorded walking just south of Customs St and this is about 66% of what it was the same time last year – it varies from 60% to 80% depending on the week. We don’t have any recent traffic counts but the last ones prior to COVID counted fewer than 9,500 vehicles per weekday.

These numbers will be lower as a result of changes in working patterns in the city, but also because of the lack of tourists.

On that, HoTC also put out some interesting information on spending in the city centre (up to June-2020). One of those is where spending is coming from based on where the card used is registered. Prior to COVID, as much as 40% of spending was coming from people outside of Auckland, either from other places in NZ or from overseas.

Note, this is an annual figure and only captures one full quarter of the COVID impact

By comparison, other ‘competitor’ areas see just 10-15% of spending from cardholders outside Auckland so it’s no surprise that the city is feeling the brunt of the changes more.

I’m looking forward to AT and the council getting on and delivering changes to Queen St.

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