Posts about how badly Auckland treats pedestrians tend to generate a lot of really heated discussion – which is quite interesting and perhaps surprising at first glance. There’s seemingly quite a fundamental debate over how vehicles and pedestrians should interact with each other – how ‘legalistic’ the approach should be, whether cars should have a fundamental ‘right of way’ anywhere other than pedestrian crossings, whether we should structure our street design to encourage separation of uses or their mixing, and many other debates.
I think there are a number of reasons why this debate happens and why it gets so heated. From a pedestrian point of view, when we are treated badly through street design – particularly in the creation of very unsafe situations – we feel personally affronted because our lives are almost literally not being valued in the design of the street. Or we are forced to detour or wait forever to cross a road – taking far far longer than seems fair. On the other hand, I think as a driver many of the changes seemingly demanded by ‘pedestrian advocates’ seem quite scary: imagine if we were found at fault of running someone over if they darted out across a road randomly? The uncertainty of shared spaces is also extremely different to what we’re used to. To be slightly provocative, as drivers we’ve been molly-coddled by traffic engineers for so long in the design of streets that we’re used to being able to drive while only half paying attention. We also have a lot of money at stake when driving around (even with insurance you know you’ll end up paying for an accident through higher future premiums) plus of course our own lives and wellbeing.
Perhaps what this all means is that we’ve gone so far down the path of separating pedestrians from traffic, prioritising the through function of our streets and roads for vehicles and – bit by bit – making driving easier and easier that we’ve dumbed down our drivers, that it’s really hard to ‘turn the boat around’. Unless we’re extremely careful about how to push things back the other way: to mix things up a bit, give pedestrians the right of way over traffic or other seemingly ‘extreme’ changes, the problem is that we’ve made driving so easy chances there may well be safety issues.
However, this is a wholly unsatisfactory situation. Despite decades of focusing on achieving road safety through increased ‘separation’ of uses, we still see hundreds of people a year dying on our roads. We see huge chunks of our city dedicated to just shifting traffic around – land that makes up the vast bulk of ‘public’ space in our urban areas. Often the prioritisation of traffic degrades the land values around it and also makes life extremely unpleasant for anyone not in a car – even though we’re supposedly trying to encourage people onto modes other than driving. Despite the consequences of a pedestrian/car accident being far more severe for the pedestrian, we continue to give them no legal protections other than the extremely occasional pedestrian crossing (and half the time at traffic lights we make the pedestrian wait forever for a green man, then only give them about two and a half seconds of green man before flashing red at them forcing a mad scurry across the road to avoid the horror of horrors – a car having to wait a few more seconds).
I suppose the point of this post is to both highlight why I think issues of pedestrian safety generate so much angst, but also to ask some questions about what we should do about this. I have a few suggestions:
- We need to stop treating drivers like idiots and start designing roads which force them to think more when they’re driving. This means narrower lanes, narrower streets generally and fewer signs everywhere.
- Slower speed limits on non-arterial local roads. A 40 kph blanket limit would slowly get drivers used to travelling at slower speeds, which might get away from the “50 but actually 60” speed limit that seems to exist at the moment.
- More pedestrian crossings. Lots more.
- Giving pedestrians some legal protection. It’s mad that you’re legally at fault if you drive into the back of the car in front of you but not if you squash someone trying to cross the road.
- Auditing every signalised intersection and ensuring there are pedestrian crossing legs on every single side.
I’m sure there are a few more…