Roads or streets?

Written by      

During Auckland’s most recent lockdown, I got in the habit of going on a passeggiata. I called it this to make it seem more interesting; I went on a walk around the block. For Italians, a passeggiata is the stroll you take on a summer evening to see what’s happening in the town square and say hi to everyone else. For me, it meant putting a beer in the pocket of my cardigan and wandering down the road. I live in a suburb of Auckland known primarily for its giant spider sculpture and boy racers, and as I walked I found myself wishing there was somewhere to sit down and watch the world go past. Then I found myself wishing the world would go past in something other than cars, so that I could see it better. There’s a reason people-watching is a thing, and car-watching isn’t. I missed people-watching.

In other words: there’s a difference between a road and a street. A road is a space for vehicles to travel on. A street is that, plus everything around it: the freesias sprouting underneath the neighbour’s fence, the loquats ripening on the berm, the kids walking to school, the buckets of fresh flowers and the stacks of bananas and taro outside the dairy, the flamingo tree, the tradie who stops me to ask directions to the giant spider. “It’s called Dale,” I tell him, and his face breaks into a huge grin. These are some of the reasons that I like walking—you see all the details that you miss when you drive.

In this issue of the magazine, we explore what’s wrong with roads, and how we could start turning them back into streets. One of the biggest changes—and one with a lot of evidence in its favour—is to make it just as easy for people to walk or bicycle as it is to drive.

Our drive-everywhere experiment, which New Zealand has been running since 1955, has had a good run. It’s had some anticipated consequences (crashes, noisy roads) and some unanticipated ones (social disconnection, carbon emissions).

Cars have dominated our infrastructure spending and social habits for so long that we’ve really got no idea what our cities could be like if we made the other options just as good.

We’d never make a road that was too narrow for a car, or that had a staircase in it, but there are plenty of places you can’t use a pram or a wheelchair. We’d never build subdivisions that weren’t connected by roads to the rest of the city, but we make new developments that aren’t served by public transport or that are unsafe for bicycles.

Conversations about city transport often involve splitting people into teams. Drivers in this corner, cyclists in that corner. (Fight!) But I’m an advocate for dual citizenship. We’re never returning to some idealised state of prelapsarian carlessness—it smelled like manure back then—but we do have the ability to give New Zealanders more choices about how they move around.

It’s not just about movement. When a space is filled with people rather than vehicles, there’s a life to it. In this age of social isolation, it’s more meaningful than ever to see each other’s faces, to nod at the familiar strangers of our neighbourhoods, to remind ourselves that humans are always weirder and more surprising than we expect—and that while we live apart, we also live in our cities together.

More by