Measuring pedestrian traffic volumes and helping walkers to traverse the city faster could boost Auckland's economy by millions.
For the first time since the 1950s there are more people commuting into Auckland's city centre by public transport, walking, and cycling, than by driving. The resident population of the city is 50,000 - it's doubled over the last 10 years. There are now 110,000 jobs in the CBD and an estimated half a million walking trips around the city every week day.
Yet while we count cars and buses, and plan for the future based on how many we see, there's no systematic way to estimate future walking volumes.
The Auckland Council's city centre design unit has been working on changing that. Transport and Landuse Integration Programme Manager Darren Davis has drawn up a business case for walking - subtitled Counting Walking to Make Walking Count. The figures he's crunched so far guess at increases in productivity - and therefore a boost to the economy - worth millions, by introducing simple measures such as making sure pedestrians don't have to wait too long at traffic lights.
His report was presented to the council's Auckland City Centre Advisory Board on Wednesday.
Davis is working on developing a fuller picture of walking in Auckland's city centre (defined as the area bounded by motorways on three sides) through a more sophisticated pedestrian model than the basic steps he's used so far.
For now he's used current data enhanced by a calibrated one-day, one-off walking sample to build a block-by-block estimate of pedestrian volumes. Ten Queen St intersections from Karangahape Rd to Quay St were looked at on a fine day during the 12-1pm lunch hour. The estimated cost of walking traffic delays was worked out at $11.7 million a year.
At the Victoria/Queen St intersection researchers counted more than 7700 pedestrians (and 1200 cars) going through. The average delay per pedestrian was 27 seconds, or 161,115 hours of delay a year. So the annual wasted time due to delay costs was worked out at $2.2m. The Wellesley St intersection came out with the same result. Quay St and Customs St came out at $2m. Fort St and Wakefield St, which have both been partly pedestrianised, came out the cheapest at $500,000.
Obviously walking has health and environmental benefits, but measuring the economics of it enables the council to justify more pedestrian projects based on quantified benefits, not just on vague ideas that improvements would look nice. In an era when every dollar counts, that's important.
"We always struggle to put a value on "nice" things," says Davis. "Amenities such as seating, or a nice sunny place to eat your lunch." The more we can do that, the more nice things we get - and they can move up the priority list. Often they're not that expensive to put in place - traffic calming measures for example that make it easier for pedestrians to cross roads.
Another example is the new cycling and walking bridge over the Waterview tunnel. "That's useful for connectivity but not only is it functional, it's beautiful. But we struggle to put a value on that. We live in a society that wants to put a dollar value on everything." Once you have a formula for measuring the value of foot traffic you can present a cost-benefit argument similar to those used to justify transport projects.
Karangahape Road is being redeveloped now, and this work can be used to argue in favour of wider footpaths. Under the scenario where the existing width is retained, a 320 percent growth in footfall is predicted, bringing $73,000 in annual benefits and $1.6m in lifetime benefits. If the paths were widened however, using the same footfall estimates, the annual benefits blow out to $261,000 and the lifetime benefits climb to $5.6m. Normally when decisions such as this are made, the quantifiable aspects - which previously has meant measurements of the costs of transport delays - provide more heft than the idea that wide paths might be better for us. Pedestrian delays are rarely taken into account.
Also not taken into account until now are the numbers of people who live within the city boundaries and who walk to work. Counting previously has been done using the city screen basis - how many people cross into the city from outside its boundaries. If you take into account the walkers who are already within the screen, your numbers change dramatically. Just over 20 percent of city residents drive outside the city to work, but 50 percent walk in. Those 25,000 people have until now not been captured by commuting figures.
Davis' research shows that walkability within the Auckland city centre is likely to make a positive contribution to economic productivity. It also suggests that public spaces and walkable streets "create a platform for business and social exchange and support the spread of knowledge". In other words, it may look like two people are sharing $4 coffees in a cafe, but they could be networking some big ideas where the payoff comes down the line. Intangibles like that can be measured with the same formulas used for traffic - by making calculated guesses at where people are going and what they're doing.
Fanshawe St is an interesting case of who these changes might help. When it was redesigned in 2008 - 2009 it was seen as part of the Northern Busway, so making things easier for North Shore buses and the Inner City Link were priorities. There are dedicated bus lanes on both sides of the street but pedestrians must wait twice - pushing the cross button again in the middle of the street. "My personal view is that pedestrians got a little bit forgotten in the process," says Davis. "Let's say that bus trip saves you two minutes of travel time through priority lanes. Then you get to Fanshawe St and wait two minutes to cross the road. You've just cancelled out your priority gains. There's a super-tricky balance that you need to access. It's always about getting that balance right."
Pedestrian over-bridges or tunnels tend to be spurned so that's not a likely solution. Ironically, Auckland Transport's new headquarters is on the corner of Fanshawe and Halsey Streets, so planners are now literally looking at the problem. "Their staff will be crossing that road to get to work," says Davis. There's no doubt where this study believes that delicate balance of wheels and feet should lie - its front page says "He aha te mea nui ki tēnei ao?' Māku e ki atu, He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata. What is the most important thing in the world? I would reply that it is people, people, people."