A better life in the big city

If Aucklanders are going to heed the call to get out of their cars, urban planners need to start thinking about making their walk or cycling trip more pleasant for them. 

Ditching cars and promoting "active" ways of travelling is a key strategy for more sustainable systems of transport, and it's becoming increasingly urgent as the city intensifies. Auckland is starting to get the cycleways and walkways it needs to get people looking at healthier ways of moving around the city. But now we're getting on with the big infrastructure changes, an expert in population health wants city planners - and commuters - to look at the little changes that will make our journeys around town more pleasant, and less dangerous. 

The University of Auckland's Associate Professor Kim Dirks has been investigating how we get around, and how our transport infrastructure can impact on us - in particular, the air we breathe. Her studies on pollution suggest we need to put more effort into providing separation between vehicle traffic and people - and not as much separation as you'd think. Even moving from the roadside of a wide footpath to the other side - one or two metres away - will help. So would a line of trees kerbside. 

Dirks says factors that influence our choice of transport mode include parking and traffic congestion for car travel; timetabling and connectivity for public transport; safe and separate cycle lanes, the weather, and a place to lock up your bike for cyclists; and if you're travelling by foot, the "walkability" of your route. She says for cyclists, clean air to breathe along the route was relatively low on the priority list. "One of the things people don't focus on is air pollution," she says. But making cycle lanes safe by separation would also improve their air quality. 

"Often the easiest place to put in a cycleway is alongside an existing motorway - the north-western cycleway is a great example of this," says Dirks. But it's important in such cases that barriers are in place to protect cyclists from exhaust fumes and noise. Her team's research has shown that even a wooden fence, located in the right place to buffer the prevailing winds, will cut down the effects of pollution. "There are a lot of things we can do in terms of infrastructure improvements at minimal expense," she says.

Unfortunately the cost-benefits of doing many of them are hard to quantify.

"It's really tricky when you're talking about accumulation over a lifetime," she says. 

One of those improvements - for no cost at all - is simply a matter of awareness and a change in habits. Dirks is keen on encouraging walking school buses, saying they not only get those young legs going, they encourage children to socialise and make them road-aware and more independent. But in many cases they could cut down their exposure to fumes by simply crossing the road.

"Obviously not at the expense of safety" - but if children are walking alongside rush hour traffic, they should choose the less busy side of the road. This is more important in the morning when school and work rush hours dovetail - in the afternoon the wind has picked up and the air is likely to be cleaner. In the same vein joggers are advised not to pound the main roads at 5pm if they can help it ... and cutting through parks is far healthier. But Dirks says many avoid parks because of a perception that they're less safe. 

Changing the way we position bus stops is another low-cost improvement that could be made. Dirks says while the logistics may sometimes be difficult, placing them away from busy intersections would be a good move, and we should perhaps look at reversing them on main roads - so there's a barrier between fumes and commuters. "It would help stop the situation where people suck all that polluted air onto the bus with them."

Public spending on walking and cycling, by both Auckland Council and NZTA, has gone from under $10 million in 2007, to $80m last year - the bulk of it from central government. But while splashy projects such as the pink cycleway and the yet-to-be-built Skypath are drawing attention, Dirks asks for a light to be shone on the little things as well. She gives the Queen St/Wellesley St intersection in the central city as an example. Foot traffic there now has two pedestrian phases every cycle rather than one because the traffic light phasing has changed. It's not a complicated change, but it's an important one - walkers being prioritised at the expense of cars. You can still drive through there if you want to, but it's slower.  

Associate Professor Kim Dirks holds the first of four lectures in this year's University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor's Lecture Series entitled Life in the Big City: human and environmental health in the face of urban intensification. Her lecture, Getting around town: Impacts of transportation on health and well-being, takes place on September 4 between 12 -1 pm at the Business School's Owen G Glenn Building. 
 

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