21 Jul 2019

Toby Stoff: Baldwin Street is still the world's steepest

From Sunday Morning, 11:29 am on 21 July 2019

The question of whether or not Baldwin Street in Dunedin is the steepest street in the world is still ongoing.

Baldwin Street

Baldwin Street Photo: / Public Domain

Did the Welsh measure their new champion thoroughfare fairly? And how thoroughfare is it, seemingly being one way over a stretch of it?

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Photo: RNZ / Tim Brown

Should the Guinness Book of Records accept what appears to be a way of measuring a gradient, which the Otago University School of Surveying tells us sits outside normal engineering standards.

Toby Stoff is a self-described “roading android” and when the Otago-based surveyor with Clark Fortune McDonald saw pictures of the Welsh survey team measuring Ffordd Pen Llech he “smelled a rat” he tells Jim Mora.

He says the Welsh team measured around the inside of the road on horizontal curves … a surveying no no, Stoff says.

If you're comparing streets, you need to equalise straights and curves and you need to assess them equally, he says.

The Guinness Book of records confirmed his suspicions about the corner-cutting Welsh measurements.

“They measured it on the inside, which is currently allowed under their rules, but it gives you a very misleading result.

“They've been allowed to measure on the inside curve of a winding road.”

So how should you measure the gradient of a road? Straight up the middle says Stoff.

“They cherry picked a bit and look, to be honest with you, I think Guinness World Records have got it half right you know, that's why we have a 10-meter length criteria. You know, you can't just have it over a metre or two metres - we've got to keep the tire kickers out of it.

“But what they haven't considered is the effect of horizontal curvature and laterally what happens to road gradient around curves.  You measure the inside, you measure the outside, you measure the centre line and you take the average.”

And he says the average is nearly always the same as the centreline measurement. Baldwin Street would “crush” Ffordd Pen Llech if the latter had been measured properly, he says. “It's a mathematical certainty”.

The Welsh team employed the services of a mountain surveyor ….a mistake says Stoff.  

Ffordd Pen Llech in Wales, which took the steepest street Guinness World Record title from Baldwin Street in New Zealand.

Ffordd Pen Llech in Wales, which took the steepest street Guinness World Record title from Baldwin Street in New Zealand. Photo: Google Maps

“The surveyor that took the measurement is an expert in measuring mountains, well, I'm sorry mate, but I'm an expert in measuring roads. That's all I bloody do, I mean I do nothing but measure roads, design roads, get roads built, draw plans of roads, I’m a roading android mate.”

Not that Stoff begrudges the Welsh their success.

“I want the people of Harlech the people of Wales to enjoy their success for a while and they look like a real good bunch of people.”

However, Ffordd Pen Llech is entirely unsuitable for gradient-related pastimes, he says.

“If you turn up at the world's steepest street you expect something impressive, something that you could successfully roll a Jaffa down.

“I mean, Ffordd Pen Llech is entirely unsuited to things like Jaffa rolling competitions and things like that. So we need to keep the whole thing good natured, we need to keep up the good banter otherwise, it's gonna appear like sour grapes.”

He hopes to convince Guinness their gradient measuring criteria are flawed, but in the meantime he envisages on ongoing roading rivalry between Wales and New Zealand.

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Baldwin Street in Dunedin. Photo: RNZ / Tim Brown

“I’m really glad that they've got it and I want them to enjoy some success for a while. But now what we need to do is we need to work on the people at Guinness let's modify the criteria then we go and we take it back.

“Then I would like to see maybe the people of Ffordd Pen Llech try and take it back and maybe we could start this intercontinental good-hearted rivalry.”