Local urban streets should be geared towards walking and cycling increase liveability and social interaction among the community. In Perth, however, many streets are designed using standards better suited to major roads and highways. A Perth urban planner says a lack of engineering design guidance for local streets and a ‘vehicle-first’ approach is ruining the city’s suburbs. He believes that local street design standards require an overhaul and must prioritise people first to improve public health and respond to climate change.
Eric Denholm is a Perth urban planner at Hatch RobertsDay, an urban planning and design practice, and a Member of the Cycling Walking Australia New Zealand Design Innovations Working Group.
He says that while the Western Australian Government’s Liveable Neighbourhoods operational policy – which guides structure planning and subdivision of greenfield and large urban sites – provides good foundations for the creation of walkable communities, many critical design elements end up watered down or eliminated at the implementation stage.
“In particular, while the Austroads Guide to Road Design – a technical design framework for engineers developed by the transport sector – provides detailed guidance on high-speed roads and highways, it does not adequately guide street design at the neighbourhood level and does not align with the Government’s objectives of building a compact and connected City,” Mr Denholm said.
Mr Denholm noted that there are various examples of poor local design within Perth, and the effects of the pandemic have further exposed the shortcomings of suburban street networks, particularly as more people experience the world by means of walking and cycling and demand liveability.
“Roundabouts are often claimed to be a method to slow down vehicles, but engineers are designing them with overly large sweeps and kerb radii, to accommodate bus and garbage truck clearances, that end up encouraging speed and make it difficult and unpleasant to navigate on foot.”
“This is despite examples such as the corner of James St and Lake St in Northbridge demonstrating that a very tight ‘mini-roundabout’ can still accommodate large vehicles but requires motorists to cautiously approach at a perpendicular angle with good sight-lines,” he said.
“Similarly, the Liveable Neighbourhoods policy requires tight kerb radius at local street intersections, up to six metres, to ensure footpaths remain straight and vehicles navigate turns at safe speeds, but many local governments incorrectly require 12m kerb radii at corners – which are better suited for main roads.”
Mr Denholm said far too often, local government engineers and State Government agencies seek to accommodate the largest infrequent vehicle likely to use the road, such as a fire truck, garbage truck or removalist truck, without crossing the road centre-line.
“This means that we are complicit in accepting that less than 0.1 per cent of all traffic movements shall dictate the entire design of our built environments, rather than the needs of people to ensure they can cross safely without unnecessary deviations.”
Mr Denholm believes that the path to good street design and increased liveability in our local neighbourhoods starts with reform and an overhaul of urban street design guidance. He proposes four solutions on how to achieve this:
- Industry professionals to collaboratively create a manual for local street design
Street design guidelines specifically tailored to urban areas with a speed limit below 50km/h would deliver better living standards for residents.
Mr Denholm suggests a respected design organisation or industry body create a manual in collaboration with urban planners, designers and engineers to ensure detailed design guidance and strategic planning goals are aligned.
He recommends these guidelines downplay the importance of moving vehicles and base design decisions on prioritising walking and cycling to create a people-first approach.
Mr Denholm refers to the Roads and Streets Framework by Auckland Transport as a benchmark for comprehensive advice across all disciplines, which is complemented by an Engineering Design Code that provides suitable design guidance for lower-speed streets.
- Establish a committee that ensures local engineering design is consistent with State Government policy
The Western Australian Planning Commission (WAPC) could establish an internal committee that could audit the detailed engineering design of approved subdivisions.
It could ensure that local Governments are applying engineering standards consistent with the design requirements of the WAPC Liveable Neighbourhoods Operational Policy, and favour this policy over the widely used Austroads Guide to Road Design.
Mr Denholm said the formation of such a committee would see the rejection of design proposals not meeting the detailed policy requirements and would lead to more liveable and people-first neighbourhoods.
- Combining Main Roads WA and the Department of Transport (DoT) State Agencies
While the DoT focuses on all modes of transport, Main Roads WA holds more power, due to operating under its Main Roads Act 1930.
This is unfavourable for local street design as Main Roads WA can distribute funding directly from the Federal Government and bypass elected officials, use large budgets for mega projects with the ability to entrench car-orientated design into the future, has impossible-to-satisfy ‘warrants’ for pedestrian crossings that prohibit people from crossing roads safely, and has key performance indicators that are focused on network-wide performance.
By inference, this impacts local streets despite falling under local Government control.
As a result, the Minister for Planning’s vision to create compact and connected communities that prioritises walking and cycling won’t be achieved, unless the two agencies are combined, a single strategic transport model is created, and performance indicators are added that focus on increasing the liveability of streets.
- Introduce the Healthy Streets approach to WA
Current design practice focuses too heavily on easily measurable aspects, such as traffic volume and speed, to determine movement efficiencies.
A Healthy Streets approach – a human-centred framework that embeds public health in transport, public realm and planning – could assist in obtaining data on design elements important to people walking, cycling and using public transport.
Transport for London has adopted this approach, developed by UK health and urban specialist Lucy Saunders, that sees all Government agencies respond to 10 basic principles of good street design, with simple indicators such as shade and shelter, places to stop and rest, and streets that are not too noisy.
Mr Denholm adds: “If WA adopts this approach, it would address many essential design elements catered to the human experience – often omitted as part of standard WA street design practice.”