A Tale of a Split City

Ōtepoti Dunedin is getting a new hospital. As well as replacing an ageing facility, this new building (or two) will result in major changes to how Dunedinites get around, live in, and experience their city.

For readers unfamiliar with the shape and transport network of central Ōtepoti, I’ll walk through how the modal networks exist in their current form. I’ll then discuss why the new hospital will require a change to the status quo, and what that change could look like.

The Present: A Split

About three kilometres long and half a kilometre wide, the central city area mainly consists of regular rectangular blocks. The exceptions to this order are the Octagon and the snaking SH1 one-ways. These one-ways are the cause of much frustration among urban planners in Ōtepoti. They represent a division between the east and the west: on the east side of the highways there is the University of Otago, Forsyth Barr Stadium, the railway station, Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, Lan Yuan Dunedin Chinese Garden, the waterfront (a recent area of interest), and a lot of student accomodation; on the west is the business district, the retail and hospitality precinct, the Octagon, the bus hub, and the hospital. In-between the one-way roads is the up-and-coming Vogel St in the Warehouse Precinct, more business, and, importantly, the site of the new hospital.

Existing layout of central Dunedin, showing main activity areas with blue splotches. Click for full size.

The issue is that there’s a big split down the middle of Ōtepoti.

Walking

On the face of it, it isn’t so bad — it’s not like there’s a multilane freeway dividing the city, it’s just two two-lane one-ways. The problem comes from the sheer amount of traffic that comes down these roads, the percentage of it that’s heavy freight, and the proximity of these roads to key activity spots in the city. It means you can’t walk down the one-ways with a friend and have a conversation without shouting over the trucks — creating two long dead zones that have no chance of being destination streets. It means there’s no natural pedestrian connection from the Octagon to Vogel St — an area where many new offices are opening. It means that despite having separated cycle lanes down them as the backbone of the cycle network, the one-ways remain unsafe for people unused to crossing two lanes of heavy traffic on a bike in order to get into or out of the dedicated lanes.

Basically, in terms of creating a destination city centre, the one-ways suck.

Driving

Off-peak, the one-ways provide a quick journey from either end of the central city. They each have a green wave along the traffic lights, which, if you catch, is like an expressway. During peak times there’s usually congested streets, making journeys slow and frustrating (although I’m sure the ’congestion’ is something Aucklanders would scoff at).

A recent independent study commissioned by the DCC into parking availability found that the central city reaches 80% occupancy during peak times, including on- and off-street parking and non-council parking buildings. Any Dunedinite you talk to about this will heartily refute that claim — whenever looking for a park it’s near impossible to find one.

Cycling

Existing cycle infrastructure in the central city. Splotches of main activity areas are kept from the last map. Click for full size.

The spine of cycling in the central city are the two northern sections of the one-ways, each with a separated cycle lane (although about half of the intersections require cyclists to merge with turning traffic). As you can see in the above map of the network, cycling provisions aren’t particularly well-connected. There are many isolated sections that could do with joining up. Also, it doesn’t help that to actually get on or off the separated lanes requires some trickery and skill — there’s no hook turn boxes or wayfinding detailing the ‘correct’ way to use these lanes, so they’re not very good at attracting people concerned with the safety aspect of biking.

Also, the lanes are — for the most part — on the right hand side of the road, making it extra difficult to get on and off them.

Public Transport

Existing bus network — see the footnote about numbering. Click for full size.

The Dunedin bus network went through a redesign a few years back, and then another smaller redesign when the new central Bus Hub opened in March 2019. It’s a pretty neat network layout. By utilising shared corridors, it reaches some very impressive frequencies between major activity areas for a city of its size. Some highlights of these frequencies include, at peak, buses:

  • every 10 minutes between the Gardens to the Hub
  • every 5 minutes between South Dunedin and the Hub
  • every 15 minutes between the Stadium, tertiary precinct and the Hub
  • every 15 minutes between Kaikorai Valley and the Hub

Some twiddling with the timetabling could potentially allow all of these routes to be on, at most, 7 minute frequencies during peak and 15 minutes off-peak (I say this because at many places there are double ups of buses, e.g., the 37 and 63 both run from Uni to the Hub at 24 and 54 minutes past each hour).

Unfortunately very little of the Dunedin population know this! With more wayfinding and street-level marketing of these frequencies we could see a serious uptake in bus users who, at the moment, are put off by the need to timetable and schedule themselves around the bus.

But frequencies aside, the buses are still slow and at times indirect. Not even the bus hub (where all routes bar four converge to deliver a bus almost every minute in each direction) has any form of bus priority. Buses have to wait for that one generous motorist out of ten in order to actually pull out from any CBD bus stop during the peak. And despite recent changes, the network is still weird and confusing at points. For instance, every route from the south travels along Princes St to the Hub except 44 and 55 which take the northbound one-way (but they take Princes St on their way back). Routes 14, 37 and 63 provide 8 buses an hour between the tertiary area and the Hub, but only 63 goes via the hospital while the other two take the one-ways. Small differences like this add up to mean that people don’t recognise the amazing frequencies between areas, as each bus line seems to be its own route that should be treated independently.

Another thing to consider is changing around some termini:

A quick note about the tertiary area — the official map shows a different network to the one I’ve displayed here. That’s because the routes were changed a tad over a year ago to account for bridge repairs but their map was never updated. Since then the bridge has been fixed but the temporary diversions were retained.

The Future: Unification?

The site for the future hospital is right in the middle of two fast-moving, dense one-ways. If nothing were to change, it wouldn’t be very safe to access the hospital. The one-ways have to be rethought. This also gives a chance to rethink and future-proof the city’s transport network.

Connecting Dunedin, a partnership between Waka Kotahi, Dunedin City Council and Otago Regional Council, has announced two proposals for the future of transport in central Ōtepoti under the name of Shaping Future Dunedin Transport (SFDT). Check them out here.

Proposal 1:

  • Upgrade the existing one-ways to provide a better experience for cyclists and pedestrians, and retain parking along each road.
  • Add more crossing points across the one-ways.
  • Upgrade perimeter roads to provide an alternative route around the central city avoiding the hospital site.
  • Improve connections for freight around this perimeter route.
  • Extend the current 30kph zone.
  • Simplify the bus network and upgrade stop infrastructure.
  • Add some missing links in the cycle network.

The other proposal is, in my mind, a bit more exciting.

Proposal 2:

  • Provide one main two-way arterial through the city with minimal parking, replacing the two one-ways — this would be the current southbound road.
  • Change the current northbound road into a slower local road with parking.
  • Add more crossing points across these two roads.
  • Upgrade perimeter roads to provide an alternative route around the central city.
  • Improve connections for freight around this perimeter route.
  • Extend the current 30kph zone.
  • Simplify the bus network using the new local road, and upgrade stop infrastructure.
  • Move the major cycle spine to the new local road.
  • Add some missing links in the cycle network.
A proposed roading network with one main north–south arterial and a perimeter eastern bypass. Click for full size.

As shown in the above map, the two-way proposal does a good job minimising bisection of activity areas.

I believe that creating a two-way arterial system will open up more opportunities for placemaking and active connection across the city, as well as allowing the bus network to morph into something much more direct and convenient.

Walking

The potential of the two-way proposal for walking connections can be seen immediately. I’ll list some off.

  • The Warehouse Precinct would no longer be bisected by SH1, and its new main street (Crawford St) could become a destination street.
  • An enhanced link between Vogel St, Queen’s Gardens and the Octagon.
  • The new hospital won’t be cut off from the CBD. (Which is the whole point of these changes!)
  • The health sciences area of the Uni campus can be better linked to the main campus (although a crossing across SH1 will still be required).

Both proposals will require some sort of bridge to link the steamer basin.

Driving

I haven’t seen any modelling data, but I can imagine a two-way arterial system would be better for quick movement through the city by car. The arterial would have almost no parking (the one-ways currently have parking on either side of the road for the most part) and a solid median, so traffic movements through each block would be pretty speedy — no need to wait for turning traffic or cars pulling into or out of parks.

The two-way proposal has one lane in each direction, compared to two lanes on each existing one-way — this may be an issue if busy city streets cause queuing down SH1. However, having a single lane in each direction would be amazing for city accessibility on foot, assuming it isn’t filled with a solid stationary queue. I’ll note as well that the total number of lanes up and down the city wouldn’t be reduced — the new local road would still retain a lane in each direction. People that currently use the one-ways to search for parking or to drive a couple of blocks would be better served by this new local road, while people who traverse the city would be better served by the two-way SH1.

More parking buildings are proposed as well, on the edges of the extended 30kph slow speed zone. These are planned to be placed to cater for commuters from the south (the majority of vehicle commutes).

Cycling

A potential cycle network under the two-way arterial proposal. Click for full size.

The proposals for the cycle network are roughly the same for both a one-way and two-way system. Both have the addition of a separated facility along Albany St, linking the tertiary area to the Harbourside Pathway. They also feature direct links from the spine to the separated path outside the Dunedin Railway Station. The major difference is having the northbound and southbound routes a block apart or together on the same road. Having the lanes together would certainly make it easier to get on and off the cycleway spine, as they’d finally be on the left side of the traffic. There is, however, the issue of the Uni. Many people using the cycleways are travelling to and from the main Uni campus, so if the spine were to be a block west from campus there would need be good connections heading off to the east.

The proposals include sensible links, and I hope the Connecting Dunedin team considers the development of the network as a whole rather than in pieces. There is a desperate need for cycle wayfinding and signage, and better linkages between different parts of the network.

Public Transport

A potential bus network under the two-way arterial proposal. Click for full size.

The above map shows a rough idea of what the network could look like with the two-way proposal. The major change is continuing northbound buses from the Hub along Great King St without doing any funky deviations around the s-bends or onto George St, allowing for much quicker and more direct services on the Gardens–Hub and Uni–Hub connections. This also avoids George St, which will be undergoing a major shared-space redevelopment next year. I really hope the redevelopment accounts for this possibility of a major bus corridor — there’s no mention of its provision in the latest urban design report.

The consultation map shows a major bus corridor travelling down Frederick St rather than Albany St. I can only assume that’s a mistake because of the DCC’s recently announced intention for a trialled bus ‘super stop’ on Albany St outside the OUSA Clubs and Societies building. Keeping a main corridor through the tertiary precinct makes much more sense — it’s an area dense with students, jobs and housing. I’ve also shown the route taking a bend to use Union St East, returning to the original route pre-deviation. This would enable direct access to the Polytechnic Hub and the College of Education. Union St East could be developed into a transit and people-based street to support this move — a prospect already being looked into: the other proposed trial, in Union St East, would reprioritise how that street was used so there was more space for the large numbers of pedestrians who used it daily to move between lectures and meetings (Otago Daily Times).

South of the Octagon, bus routes could be consolidated onto Princes St or the redeveloped Crawford St. Either street could be upgraded to support the high frequency corridor, giving much better connections into the Warehouse Precinct.

I also hope there’s been some thought into a future frequent bus connection to the waterfront development (should that go ahead).

Conclusion

With some changes to how we get around, Ōtepoti Dunedin is ready to become one of the world’s best small cities. Whether we get a new two-way arterial or retain the one-ways, it’s exciting to see increased consideration for active transport and public transport infrastructure. Placemaking also seems to be a key theme in these proposals, giving hope to the creation of more destination streets.

If you want to have a say in the future of Ōtepoti’s transport network, please fill out the survey with your thoughts here.

The reuniting of the East and the West is soon.


Footnote 1: no one here actually refers to ‘East Dunedin’ or ‘West Dunedin’; just me bring pretentious when writing a blog post. There was, however, a division between East and West Dundas St during the bridge reconstruction.

Footnote 2: buses 5, 10 and 37 are numbered separately for their return routes (6, 11 and 38). I’ve ignored that and just used the first number in the bus route map. It’s a dumb relic in the numbering that needs to change.