The Wrong Side of my Car

The blog that wants to go obsolete

4 Jan 2021

Imagining something else for Birkenhead

After the Harbour Bridge opened in 1959 Onewa Road became the main arterial to the city. To cope with the traffic from Beach Haven and Birkdale (presumably), part of Mokoia Road was bypassed. This presents us now with an opportunity.

Image: Auckland Council, Aerial Photography 1959. Note the sketch of the bypass road.


Birkenhead, also known as Highbury, is your typical average shopping strip in Auckland. Mostly optimised for cars (albeit a bit less than others), and also uninhabited — you won’t find a single apartment above the shops. It has a square but it is entirely covered in parking.

Birkenhead Square, now

It is doing reasonably well, with plenty of restaurants and other businesses in the centre. Coincidence or not, it has, unlike many others, a few zebra crossings across the main street, and you see already many people walking in.

But still, a bit of looking around will quicky confirm that driving is the normal way of coming in, and much of the potential here is wasted.

Same square on Google satellite view.

What if

It is not hard to imagine a different way to build this town centre. In fact you don’t have to imagine anything at all. A few kilometres away Northcote has had a pedestrianised street since 1959.

Pearn Place, Northcote. Image: Northcote Business Association*1

So what about Highbury?

The streets

The streets can feel a bit cramped, but this is only because we reserve so much space for cars. Parked or otherwise. However with the bypass road we don’t need to accommodate through traffic. We can cut it using a few bollards, which can sink to let buses through the town centre.

Related to this, parking. A viable shopping centre doesn’t need parking right between the shops. Mall operators have known this for decades. We don’t need to go all-in with that on-street parking either.

So we can get a street which is much quieter, in terms of both sound levels and traffic. And with more room for urban bells and whistles like outdoor dining and bike racks.

The square

Getting parking off the square will be controversial, but it will be worth it. It is a nicely sized square for a town centre. It is surrounded by shops. Once you have all that space, you have endless possibilities. What about a little playground to keep the kids busy while you eat or drink something? That is another thing that mall operators, and McDonalds, have known for a long time. Or just trees and grass, similar to the south half of Aotea Square.

Basically anything but parking.

The buildings

You wouldn’t tell from the existing buildings, but you’re actually allowed to have apartments above your shops. This is the default in most places that are not English speaking.

The square is a good place for somewhat higher buildings. 6 storeys perhaps, like the building on the corner with the bypass road.

These apartments will have quiet space (with maybe a playground), shops, restaurants, and public transport right on the doorstep. You have schools nearby. You’re genuinely a first-class citizen even if you don’t drive. This is how apartments were always meant to work.

But how will I get there?

You can still drive, and pay for parking. But it will also be much more sensible to come in on foot or on a bicycle. For those with kids, compare your toddler running off in the mall with your toddler running off into the road. Go to the mall and observe they don’t allow parking between shops even with a disability card.

Did you hear the birdsong while walking around during alert level 4? People talking? Kids playing? You’ll hear it every time you visit these shops. In those apartments, you’ll hear it every day.

One day, maybe. One day.


It is interesting that they describe this as ‘off-street shopping’. The concept of a street, as opposed to a road, has since long disappeared from collective memory.

They also call it ‘relaxed’, which is the key point.


More reading: I wrote a similar piece about a similar — and much more stupid — situation on Hobson Street before. Both that one and the one over here are privately owned parking lots, and I’m not sure how to give a private owner incentive to create a public space on their private property.

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