Auckland drivers and pedestrians will have to get to know each other a lot better as footpaths are removed from some busy city side-streets.

Urban designers have won approval in principle from the city council's transport committee for developing a suite of streets into "shared space" where pedestrians will be free to roam as long as they do not unduly hold up motor traffic.

Footpaths will be removed, as will parking spaces and most street signs, leaving the onus on drivers to act on visual cues and clues to nose their way carefully past pedestrians.

Four thoroughfares centred on Elliott, Fort, O'Connell and Lorne Sts are being proposed for trial treatment in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, although the public will be consulted before the council decides whether to approve designs on a case-by-case basis and expand the concept.

The trials will fall within a 10-year $71.7 million programme for upgrading inner Auckland, to be paid for mainly from the targeted rate on CBD property owners.

"The concept is all around the psychology of space, understanding that personal responsibility is something we all need to have," urban design group manager Ludo Campbell-Reid told the committee. "It is pro-pedestrians but not anti-cars. It is innovative and very much an idea around democracy - it will be a good fit with the New Zealand psyche, so we'll all grow to love it."

A report by Mr Campbell-Reid and CBD projects group manager David Jones said though vehicles would be legally obliged to give way to pedestrians, their passage must not be unduly impeded.

In cities where the concept had been successfully introduced, including London, New York, Copenhagen and Brisbane, streets had been "reclaimed" as high-quality spaces for people without having to ban traffic.

Mr Jones told the transport committee of reduced road injuries to pedestrians, and an increase in street activity such as outdoor dining even in inclement British weather.

Committee chairman Ken Baguley said the concept "could be fantastic", though he wondered how easily New Zealand drivers would adapt without putting pedestrians at risk.

Mr Campbell-Reid said the designers were taking advice from disability groups and were confident of improving accessibility for all. He acknowledged they might have to explore the use of tactile strips to delineate areas of comparative safety for the visually impaired.

Although some retailers are nervous about the concept, especially after the disruption during the $43.5 million Queen St do-up, Heart of the City business association chief Alex Swney believes it will inject more life into the retail centre. "Shared space will have a calming effect on cars and people will be able to intermingle more."

City arts, culture and recreational committee chairman Greg Moyle said he had seen examples on a visit to Chile and Peru, where shared space tended to generate more activity for retailers than traditional streets.

* Sharing the space

The trial will involve these zones:

Elliott St-Darby St (likely to be first).

Fort St precinct, including Lower Shortland St, Jean Batten Place, Fort Lane, southern sections of Commerce and Gore Sts.

Lorne St-Rutland St (in front of the city library).

O'Connell St.