Image credit: Alec Tang, via twitter
Throughout the world, the pandemic has changed street environments – for better or worse, depending on how they’ve been managed.
It’s clear we’ve been extremely lucky with our Government’s response to the public health situation. But it’s easy to look overseas and dream we could have had a more clever response in transport, too; to wish emergency measures had been used to provide social distancing, and to slow and restrict traffic. Where speed limits, pop-up cycleways and play streets, “filters”, street dining, intersection diets, and widened footpaths delivered quieter, nicer and safer streets. And where the process is consciously used to lead to the permanent changes we’ve been needing for decades.
Instead – last year and this – the streets of Tāmaki Makaurau have become less safe. Streets designed to ‘ease congestion’ and ‘improve throughput’ have been left in this deficient state, without emergency measures, during lockdown. The emptier streets have encouraged reckless driving, and bad driving habits have continued even as traffic volumes returned to normal.
We knew speeds had risen here, and we knew from the US that the pattern could easily lead to increased deaths and serious injuries despite a reduction in miles driven. So it was no surprise when yesterday, the Herald reported on Tamaki Makaurau’s rising death and serious injury (DSI) statistics:
The sharp rise in road fatalities reverses the trend of steadily declining figures from about 65 deaths in 2017 to the mid 40s before it hit a low of 29 last year…
The rise comes after Auckland Transport adopted a Swedish road safety plan called Vision Zero where not one death is acceptable…
Ellison said the 56 deaths on Auckland roads in the last year is disappointing, but denied it was a setback for Vision Zero.
Deaths and serious injuries had been dropping, so this was a sad development.
After the first 2020 lockdown, Auckland Transport (AT) reported to the Ministry of Transport that:
the road safety performance of the network did not deteriorate materially during lockdown.
Yet by September last year, AT’s safety team were worried. Worsening crash statistics on top of a longstanding safety crisis meant trouble, so they commissioned the author of the AT Road Safety Business Improvement Review 2018 to review their progress and advise on the next steps.
A deep dive into Auckland Transport’s programmes followed, with extensive interviews and analysis by the author of the original, confronting safety audit that moved AT towards Vision Zero in the first place.
The results were released in July this year. The AT Road Safety Business Improvement Review 2021 (which I’ll refer to as ‘the Review’) laid out some statistics:
there does not appear to have been any notable improvements to the relative safety of Vulnerable Transport Users on foot, bike and motorcycle since 2017, while there has been some improvement to the DSI for people inside motor vehicles…
For the 2021 year-to-date (YTD) to April, fatalities are tracking at almost double the level at this time last year, and at the same level as in 2017.
(In the light of these chilling statistics, AT also commissioned an independent analysis of the crash statistics for January to June this year, supplied in an Insights Memo dated the 20th August.)
One post cannot cover all the strands of safety looked at in the Review – vehicles, streets, public transport, motorbikes, footpaths, cycling, regulations, enforcement, licensing, deterrence of poor driving behaviour. I plan to come back to these subjects later:
- Public transport
- Deterrence of poor driving behaviour using penalties and demerits
- Enforcement of drink and drug driving rules
- Camera enforcement and enforcement levels overall
Nor can one post tell the story of all the different players involved:
- Auckland Transport (AT)
- the Ministry of Transport (MoT)
- Waka Kotahi (WK)
- the Police
- and others.
The successes and suggestions for change within Auckland Transport merit their own dedicated post.
What I want to talk about in this post is a central finding of the Review, that Central Government has failed Auckland:
Many of the recommendations from AT to the Road to Zero strategy process were not adopted in the published action plan… Ministry of Transport need to be engaged in discussions for AT to better understand why certain issues have not been addressed at this stage and what can be done to close this disconnect in the next action plan…
There are a number of critical intervention issues… which are the direct responsibility of the regional/central government partners and which are unable to be impacted upon due to inadequate policy or legislative or funding or… enforcement capability…
Sensible good international practice measures are not being implemented and many New Zealand lives annually are being unnecessarily lost.
Road to Zero is the Government’s name for their Vision Zero Strategy. It seems there’s a risk that the Ministry of Transport, Waka Kotahi and the Police could repeat their earlier mistakes:
Our previous road safety strategy was Safer Journeys, which had made some progress but was not implemented as intended. Although it was based on a sound approach and compelling evidence, it did not have sufficient buy-in, investment, leadership and accountability to achieve a significant reduction in deaths and injuries.
Government has a lower level of safety ambition than AT has. The different 2030 interim targets for reduction in deaths and serious injuries (DSI) are:
- Auckland Transport: a reduction of 65% but
- Government: a reduction of only 40%.
There’s no good reason for Government’s lower level of ambition; it arises because the safety programme was limited – through choice – to just those actions with the ‘greatest impact’. Actions with a strong, moderate or slight impact on reducing DSI were not included in the programme, even though they would deliver on other goals – like reducing noise and pollution, improving children’s independence, improving transport choice or reducing emissions. We have a safety crisis, we’re spending record levels of money on transport, so frankly, the Government could have aimed far higher with its ambition for reducing DSI, and allocated more money away from road-building to achieve it.
Prioritising road building over safety is inconsistent with Vision Zero.
I’ve previously blogged about the Ministry of Transport’s rejection of Vision Zero.
In 2018, AT committed to:
influence senior decision makers (national agency heads and the Minister responsible for Road Safety and the Minister for Police) at national level to make the priority policy changes (including funding to achieve their implementation) to turn around unacceptable road safety performance…
AT did encourage Government to adopt Road to Zero, but wasn’t successful at securing sufficient funding. The funding doesn’t seem to be covering the policy work required:
Likely that MoT does not have resources to address available measures to save many NZ lives annually. Covid-19 may be a factor but this continues a pattern of delayed policy development opportunities and recommendations since 2017.
And a bias at Waka Kotahi means the funding is insufficient for urban road safety improvements:
Press for increased urban road safety treatments in the Safer Network Programme (Waka Kotahi’s Road to Zero programme) which is heavily focused on rural improvements.
This rural bias is a major problem. Our cities need designers to focus on short journeys that can be done on foot and by bike, so that people can get around their city – including to the bus stop or train station – safely and sustainably. Designing for walking and cycling requires an entirely different skillset to that of conventional highway safety engineering, which is focused on making long car journeys safer for car occupants. The engineers need to deprioritise the journeys by car which they’re comfortable designing for. Unfortunately, it seems Waka Kotahi’s highway engineers control the safety budget.
To improve the delivery of urban walking and cycling improvements, Waka Kotahi or the Ministry of Transport need to remove obstacles and streamline processes at a national level, so that safety for people on foot and small wheels can be provided without the current consultation and political difficulties. This, too, requires budget.
The United Nations recommends a minimum of 20% of the transport budget is spent on walking and cycling, but our Government continues to ignore this. And it needs to be a targeted budget that doesn’t get swallowed up into placemaking, underground or seawall infrastructure upgrades, or on widening the corridor to keep the traffic flowing.
Despite the erroneous newspaper headlines, funding for projects for walking and cycling is a tiny fraction of the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF). In fact, if we don’t count Auckland’s Cycleway Programme for a third time (it was supposed to have been delivered by 2018) and we don’t count an expensive Seawall to protect a State Highway in Wellington, the walking and cycling budget for the coming three years is only:
1.5% of the NLTF
This is an egregious and long-standing failure of our Government.
AT’s request for a dedicated road safety fund was also not taken up:
AT proposed a road safety fund (which would have a focus on additional infrastructure safety investment across New Zealand) to MoT in 2019, drawn from net fines from infringements.
And to top it all off, WK’s own funding criteria are inconsistent with Vision Zero, compromising safety on all projects:
NZTA project assessment systems requiring safety infrastructure projects to offset safety benefits with the time costs of any delays due to the speed or infrastructure treatments as a project funding condition
Vision Zero 101: you must not trade off human life against anything else, not even a few seconds delay at the lights.
The ongoing lack of Police enforcement of speed and drink driving alone has had tragic consequences:
Currently the price paid for extensively redeploying road police and compromising planned enforcement is additional drink-driving and speeding related fatalities on Auckland’s roads each year – in the order of some 9 to 11 lives. Biggest challenge and opportunity facing Auckland road safety performance today.
The Review notes the Police also need to focus on improving their crash reporting systems:
improved data are required to overcome the systematic (though not deliberate) biases in crash reporting and thus data collection…
strong advocacy and resistance to victim blaming is essential to generating appreciation of the need for safe infrastructure for pedestrians. This may usefully include correcting impressions of pedestrian error as the cause of pedestrian crashes…
Stronger allowance for the cause of a crash being recorded as unknown combined with appropriate training may assist to reduce this data bias, allowing for better informed (less mis-informed) advocacy and safety solutions.
A related issue was also raised in the Insights Memo:
It is widely acknowledged that speed is under-reported by NZ Police, and often only reported when the speed is considered to be excessive.
The Police face many challenges, so if there’s been any work done to address this problem (which was highlighted in 2019) some public communications would be timely.
Our speed limits are systematically unsafe. The Government has directed Waka Kotahi to change the way speed limits are set, and the Land Transport Rule is being changed to – hopefully – streamline the process. Unfortunately, Waka Kotahi have not taken a default change approach to bring our limits into line with international standards. (For example, blanket 30km/h for local streets in cities, as people can be expected to be walking, biking, and scooting.)
The Review urged AT to be prepared with an “alternative course of action” if the new regime doesn’t make introducing lower speed limits any simpler:
AT should target a 3 year period ahead in which all planned speed limit reviews across the network in Auckland will be completed. If this does not appear a likely result of the new by-law, AT will need to seek alternative solutions from the government.
The Big Opportunities
The Review isn’t all negative. A lot of work has been done to improve safety in Tāmaki Makaurau. There are topics of information and advice that make really interesting reading.
Best of all, the Review makes the connection between safety in the transport system, and a sustainable, healthy quality of life for society as a whole:
A well-designed Safe System can yield benefits beyond saving lives from traffic crashes…
A Safe System approach to land use can affect trip length and mode; good road design and infrastructure generate safe motorised vehicle speeds and provide for walking, cycling, and mass public transport. Reducing vehicle travel and speeds to improve safety also reduces other negative externalities generated by unconstrained use of private motor vehicles.
Safety and the environment converge when it comes to land use…
Reductions in travel speed not only save lives, they can also deliver economic returns and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel use, and the harmful effects of noise pollution.
Both our climate response and our safety crisis mean we can’t continue to spend money on building roads. New roads to sprawl push our emissions up in many different ways, and we need to be reducing the land area covered in asphalt, to reduce maintenance costs, not increasing it. Reallocating money from road building to improving safety will improve our cities, our future, and take the financial pressure off.
In another post, I’ll show how it appears the various Briefings to the Minister have stopped short of advising the Minister on what he needs to understand about safety.
The work of making our streets safe is sorely overdue. Every “partner organisation” needs to step up.