Concerts and couriers: The ongoing sorry saga of Queen St

OPINION:

Why does Auckland Transport want to stop concertgoers at the Auckland Town Hall from getting dropped off or picked up at the door?

One of the proposals in its Access for Everyone (A4E) plan is to prevent private vehicles using Queen St between Mayoral Drive and Aotea Square. That’s the block with the town hall, Q Theatre and the Comedy Club in it.

The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) is appalled, and rightly so.

So are the Auckland Arts Festival, Auckland Writers Festival, NZSO, Royal New Zealand Ballet, NZ Opera and the International Comedy Festival. Between them, they stage more than 400 events a year in venues in and around Queen St, with a combined audience of 400,000.

What’s the problem? There’s an underground car park behind the town hall, with a lift and stairs right by the building’s rear entrance. That’s a good option for most people going to a show.

But APO chief executive Barbara Glaser says a high number of orchestra patrons are elderly and quite a few are infirm. Often they don’t drive and therefore they don’t use the underground car park.

Instead, they arrive and depart by taxi or ride share, or they get dropped off and picked up by a relative or friend.

In addition, she says, people from aged care homes, school groups and many “APO Friends” use specially chartered buses.

Glaser told me that at one concert this month, her staff counted 147 audience members being dropped off. Some had walkers or were in wheelchairs, some were visually impaired. The previous week it was 145.

“Almost all of them were disabled in some way and needed help.”

There’s a splendid idea at the heart of A4E: if you heavily reduce the amount of traffic in the central city, the streets will be safer and more enjoyable for everyone, and more rewarding for retailers too.

“Everyone” is supposed to include people with special mobility needs.

To realise the idea, A4E proposes that non-essential vehicles not be allowed in. But no one has ever said essential vehicles will be banned too. Usually, “essential vehicles” includes those used by the disabled and the frail.

A city works best when it works for everyone. Did Auckland Transport just forget that part?

I asked Andrew Allen: he’s AT’s executive GM of service delivery. To be clear about that, he’s a member of the executive leadership team and he’s in charge of “the operational delivery and feasibility” of the Queen St developments.

It started well. Allen told me AT has “not made any decisions” but had completed its consultation process on the Queen St plans and was now analysing “more than a thousand” pieces of feedback. That was going to take “two or three weeks”.

“We need to make decisions that take on board some, if not all, of the feedback. Although that doesn’t mean we’ll do everything that’s been asked for.”

He also said they had met with the APO and had listened to its “really valid concerns” about patrons with mobility needs.

“We need to turn our minds to how we can … enable those users to still have access.”

That sounded good.

The town hall is part of Auckland Council’s “arts precinct”, including the Aotea Centre, the Civic, Q Theatre, the library and the art gallery. One day, with a lot of luck, it might even include the St James again.

I asked Allen how this had happened. Did AT think about the needs of mobility challenged audience members at those venues and decide the plan would not exclude them? Or had it simply forgotten about those people?

Allen said it was the former. “We believed there were adequate alternatives.”

Does AT believe that still?

“No.”

I said to him that in the process of formulating A4E, haven’t they always understood they would need to cater for essential vehicles? And didn’t those vehicles include those used by the disabled and the infirm?

“Yes,” he said. “It’s a case of how far you go.”

He said they had invited the APO to nominate two representatives to be involved in deciding what to do. Glaser said that’s great, but two weeks after their appointment those people had not yet been invited to a meeting.

I asked Allen, would they be involved when the feedback had been analysed, or later, when AT had already decided how to respond?

“That’s a great question,” said Allen. “I think we will get them in earlier.”

I said to him, I know you’re analysing the feedback, but you already know about the problem of access to the town hall. What are you waiting for?

He said there was a process to go through.

Accessibility should be a routine planning issue for public venues, not something you start to think seriously about only when people complain. Venues all over the world manage to get it right without too much trouble.

At the Sydney Opera House, for example, patrons with limited mobility can be dropped at a designated area, where staff help them into wheelchair accessible shuttle buses that take them to the door.

Auckland doesn’t need that, when an easy option already exists: it’s called pick up and drop off at the door. And it doesn’t need to compromise the larger vision of making Queen St a much better experience for pedestrians (see “10 easy ways to fix this now”).

ANDREW ALLEN also said AT has met with National Road Carriers (NRC), a trucking industry group, which is concerned about service and delivery in the Queen St valley. Again, he said, what they told him was “clearly a need that has to be met”.

True that. The NRC says one company – the Freightways group, which includes NZ Couriers, Post Haste and Big Chill – makes 800 deliveries and pickups in and around Queen St every day. Extrapolate that to all the other companies and you’ve got a lot of vans and trucks.

The solution, Allen thought, might involve after-hours or non-peak deliveries. But, he added, “the freight companies don’t mind, they say they can deliver at any time, but some of their customers believe they cannot run a business if freight is delivered after hours. They say it adds too much to the cost.”

I suggested to him that the AT approach, with restricted lanes for traffic and few places for stopping, was a compromise that creates problems for everyone. Wouldn’t it be easier to pedestrianise whole blocks and designate certain times for delivery vehicles to drive in? It works very well for Wellington’s Cuba Mall.

“Correct,” he said.

I asked, why was AT thinking about this issue only now?

He said, “I’m not sure how to respond to that.”

I pointed out that A4E has been council policy for a long time and it has always been known there would need to be good solutions for delivery vehicles. Why has it taken AT so long?

“I’m saying the detailed work now has to be done.”

A4E was unanimously adopted as policy way back in November 2018, when council asked for trials to begin to see how it might work.

But heels were dragged. It wasn’t until July 2019 that the first trial was announced – wider footpaths and less parking on High St – to start in November that year.

At that time, Heart of the City’s CEO Viv Beck welcomed the trials and the consultation that went with them, but said, “Servicing and delivery still has to happen in streets where there’s less access for vehicles. We need smart new ways to do that.”

Yes!The talk was of electric cargo bikes, designated delivery times, small depots for businesses to collect parcels and more. But none of that has happened.

There is no evidence yet that anyone – including AT, council, Heart of the City, the delivery firms and the absurdly named Save Queen Street Society – has spent even a moment planning “smart ways” to deliver goods in the central city.

Those 800 Freightways trips a day point to an urgent need. Not to clear the streets for delivery vans, because that can only end badly. But to devise new ways to deliver goods. So why the lack of progress?

I asked Andrew Allen: What has AT been doing all this time? He had no answer.

Later, another spokesperson advised that “Auckland Transport regularly meets with logistics and delivery firms” and they even have a name for the process: they are creating a “Kerbzone Optimisation Strategy”.

He also said A4E “clearly contains a workstream for the better management of servicing and loading”.

It was a little surprising that Andrew Allen, who is the AT executive in charge of all this, wasn’t able to tell me that. And the question remains: what have they been doing all this time?

I asked Allen about the “pilot” now being installed on the bottom block of Queen St. What are they actually trialling?

“A better public realm,” he said.

Yes, I said, but what?

They already know delivery needs to be addressed. They know they don’t have a lane for bikes and e-scooters. The know the better the planters and street furniture, the more it will be liked. They know the diesel buses are a menace. They know there’s no value in allowing non-essential vehicles through. They know full pedestrianisation, or e-bus only access, will probably work better than leaving in some of the vehicle lanes.

I asked Allen: What don’t you know?

He said, “I can’t answer that for you right now.”

There’s a striking contrast between the “pilot” and “trials” of Queen St and the philosophy adopted for the makeover on Karangahape Rd, now almost complete. There, the concept is “do it once and do it well”. And it’s going to be splendid. The same applies on Quay St and especially in the Wynyard Quarter, where boldness and creative vision have ruled the day.

The weirdest thing about the Queen St plans? Although there’s been an angry, frustrated and sometimes bitter dispute, there probably isn’t much disagreement about what the solution should be.

Shock news: Chris Carr, speaking for the National Road Carriers, says he supports “the removal of private cars from Queen St, to free it up for buses, cyclists, pedestrians and delivery vehicles”.

If we agree on which buses, and on concert drop-offs and when those delivery vehicles are allowed in, we’ll be good.

10 easy ways to fix this now

Here’s a package of proposals for Queen St. Is it too much to hope Auckland Transport will be thinking along these lines as it gets into its “detailed work” and catches up with what half the world has been telling it for months and months?

1. Block Queen St to private vehicles from Mayoral Drive to Commerce St.

2. Allow passenger pick-up and drop-off between Mayoral Drive and Wakefield St at designated times, for patrons of shows at the town hall. Provide patrons of the Civic with similar pick-up and drop-off on Wellesley St. If they can have “special event” traffic arrangements at Eden Park, they can do it when required in the arts precinct.

3. Ban all buses north of Wellesley St, except e-buses. (From June, this street will become the main crosstown bus route anyway.)

4. Allow service and delivery vehicles on Queen St at designated times and make space available for them to park.

5. Help freight and courier companies transition away from big vans and trucks in the central city. (Maybe that underused “car storage” building Ports of Auckland has plonked on Bledisloe Wharf could become a depot where courier vans unload on to e-cargo bikes …)

6. Put in a dedicated lane for bikes and e-scooters from Karangahape Rd right through to Commerce St. Connect it westwards to the Nelson St cycleway and eastwards to the universities.

7. Trial this for the rest of the year, using temporary materials.

8. Employ an exceptional urban design team to make this look terrific, at low cost, and empower them to unleash their best ideas.

9. Be ready to revise the plan as it goes, because, you know, it’s a trial.

10. Start planning a magnificent permanent solution.

And one more thing. Since November 2018, in council and in AT, it’s clear that some senior officials have done their best to obstruct, delay and sabotage a solution that might work well for everyone.

The CEO of AT, Shane Ellison, has failed to prevent this so the board needs to step in. So do mayor Phil Goff and the CEO of council, Jim Stabback. They need to take these officials gently by the hand and find them new work, doing whatever the equivalent of counting paperclips is in the modern office.

Counting road cones, perhaps.

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