OPINION: Nobody ever expects to be involved in a car crash. But accidents happen, and for most of us, a car is the deadliest object we'll regularly handle or encounter.
That's why Auckland Transport wants to be able to set safe, survivable speed limits across the city, starting with places that are currently the most dangerous to travel through. It's also why you should support the proposed bylaw.
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- Bevan Woodward wants 30km/h speed limits on residential Auckland roads
- Drivers will ignore low speed limits - safety campaigner
Speed management is a straightforward evidence-based approach to fixing an unforgivably escalating road toll. Lower speed limits lead to lower speeds; plus better stopping distances, fewer crashes, and a higher chance of walking away if the worst happens. The ultimate result is more humane, healthy and equitable streets.
AT's proposal has strong support from many quarters, including the health professionals who pick up the pieces and a timely new alliance of advocates for liveable streets. But there's also been resistance. So let's address that.
The case for change
In 2017 alone, 64 people died and 749 suffered life-changing injuries. That's more than a funeral a week, and many months and years in hospital and recovery, with effects that ripple beyond the people directly involved.
And that's just one calendar year. In the last decade, roughly 500 people have lost lives and 5,000 have been seriously injured on Auckland's roads. And it's getting worse. Deaths and serious injuries increased by 48 percent, from 549 in 2008 to 813 in 2017 – and those related to speed increased by 45%, from 150 in 2008 to 218 in 2017.
Sadly, this is an Auckland thing. Deaths and serious injuries are rising three times faster than other New Zealand cities, outpacing population growth, registered vehicles, and distance travelled. There's a sharp increase in the number of young people dying. And while most casualties still happen inside cars, the fastest rise is among those outside them: people walking, on their bikes, using mobility scooters, and riding motorcycles.
We've painted ourselves into an awful corner, one white line and one hostile street at a time.
So bring on the bylaw. As a first step, AT plans to lower speeds on the worst 10 percent of the city's roads and intersections, including 700km of rural roads and 72km of city streets, including the central city and several town centres which are set to become 30km/h zones. It's a start.
Why 30km/h for city streets? Because physics. Thirty is less hurty. It's the impact speed beyond which things rapidly turn pear-shaped for human beings, whether you're inside or outside a car (effectively, we're designed to survive sprinting into things, but to survive vehicular impacts at speed we'd have to look very different indeed.)
Accordingly, 30km/h is increasingly the international standard anywhere people and cars cross paths: city centres, shopping streets, schools, local neighbourhoods.
So who could possibly be opposed to survivable speeds?
While it's easy to agree that many rural roads may be unsafe at 100km/h, the idea of taking it down a notch on city streets seems to grind some people's gears. Even those who agree that slower is smarter are inclined to haggle over exactly how slow we should go.
For example, while generally keen to 'bring the public along', the Automobile Association has queried the blanket 30km/h limit for the central city. On Nelson and Hobson Streets, for example – which funnel multiple lanes of traffic through the most densely populated part of the country – it's floated a potential 'compromise' of 40km/h which, in their view, will be more palatable for drivers.
The problem is that a 'compromise' usually involves both sides giving a little to meet in the middle. But the bargain the AA is offering isn't a fair one. In the last five years, 84% of road deaths and injuries in downtown Auckland – which is home to 50,000 people and rising – involved people outside cars.
Bumping the central city speed limit to 40km/h from the proposed 30kmh might give drivers a marginal sense of convenience, but only by tripling the fatal risk they'd pose to anyone they run into on the way.
That's not a compromise, it's a sacrifice. Would Aucklanders really toss their friends and neighbours into a vehicular volcano just to get there a few seconds faster?
Of course, the AA is right to point out that fixing the motorway-like design of some streets will help drivers stick to the new speeds (it'll also create nicer streetscapes for the tens of thousands of people who live in town).
But it's worth looking at how the proposed 40km/h compromise was arrived at. Because how you frame the question – in this case, through a windscreen – helps shape the answers.
In late 2018, AA members were invited to take a survey about expected speeds on selected streets shown in selected Google Streetview images. The results, while not a representative sample, were unexpectedly revealing. For example, shown a picture of a relatively empty Queen Street, 86.4 percent of respondents reckoned the speed limit should be higher than it currently is.
Oddly, this didn't prompt a call to bring back higher speeds on the golden mile. Which is just as well, because since the 30km/h speed limit on Queen Street was introduced in 2008, crashes have fallen by 39.8 percent, and deaths by 36 percent. It's a textbook example of how lowering the speed limit lowers speeds with or without changes to the street environment, whether or not people feel it should be faster.
The point is, positioning survey-takers behind the wheel, the AA's survey only revealed half of the story. Extrapolating speed policy from driver reckons misses two vital facts.
Firstly, the power differential. Comfort and safety inside vehicles increasingly come at the expense of everyone else, something not easily captured by Streetview surveys. The larger your car, the more likely it is to hurt or kill someone else, and our steadily enlarging fleet of big-arse vehicles is raising the stakes.
Secondly, although many Aucklanders are stuck in cars for significant chunks of every day, we aren't just drivers and passengers 24/7.
We walk to and from our cars, and many other places. We jog, push strollers, ride scooters, and run for the occasional bus. Many of us ride bikes, and many more wish we could. We have non-driving family members – youngsters on wee scooters, teens on bikes, elders on mobility scooters – who cross streets and brave driveways every day.
The point is, we experience our streets in myriad ways. So, for example, if you re-ran the AA's survey again with the same Streetview images – but asked people how fast cars should go for them to feel comfortable on a bike or let a child cross the street alone – you'd get different answers. Likewise, if you used peak-hour Streetview images showing busy footpaths or the congestion that already slows traffic down to 30km/h or less at key times of the day.
To ensure good policy, we need to embrace both the evidence and a diversity of perspectives, something that's nicely captured in this video by Auckland Transport and is rightly being shared and praised for moving the conversation from behind the wheel, to a bigger vision.
Saving lives would be reason alone for action. Every death is a tragedy that should never have happened. But tough conversations about how to fix the things that are hurting us also bring opportunities for broader and lasting transformation. By talking about what our streets are like and what they could be like, we stand to gain a city that's not just survivable, but truly liveable, and even lovable.
Six great reasons to support safer speeds, besides saving lives:
1. Bring on the bikes
As the sweet spot for feeling safe around traffic, 30kmh zones open the door for people who'd love to ride around their neighbourhood. Case in point: after Berlin introduced 30km streets the city experienced a bike boom. Turning Berlin into a cycling city was an unintended by-product of comprehensively lowering the urban speed limit.
2. It's basic health and safety
As you travel around the city, take note of how often we're asked to drop our speeds to 30km/h for the health and safety of people working alongside the road. As is right and proper. But wouldn't it be great if every one of us deserved the same degree of care and protection?
3. Self-transporting children
The parental holy grail! With slower neighbourhood traffic, more families can walk and bike to school, helping kids rediscover the confidence and fun of navigating their world. Next thing you know, you're hanging up your chauffeur cap. Concerned that school zones aren't part of AT's initial action list? That's your cue to say 'make school zones 30kmh please' in your feedback.
4. Hear yourself think
Auckland is made for outdoor dining, but the background traffic roar dulls the appetite and eardrums and raises stress levels. Slowing traffic from 50km/h to 30km/h drops the decibels, making for a calmer, more village-like vibe. Plus you'll be able to hear the latest goss and the daily special.
5. Pets that lived to a blessed old age
Paddles, we hardly knew ye, and you're sadly one of many. It's a rare human who hasn't lost a pet to traffic or knows a close family member who has. Slower speeds give you and wayward animals a chance to dodge the worst, so everyone gets home happily.
6. Fall in love with your city again
Underneath all that traffic, Auckland's pretty gorgeous. If we can shift our thinking from 'drive it like you stole it' to 'drive it like you live here', we'll experience the journey differently. Let's widen our focus, slow down, pay attention – and see what we've been missing.
Jolisa Gracewood is an Auckland writer and communications manager for Bike Auckland.