Image Credit: Boating Safety Mag
Waka Kotahi CEO Nicole Rosie recently penned an article on Stuff, about the tragedy of our road safety crisis, in which she reminded us that safety needs to be approached from several angles. She made the excellent point:
why isn’t this massive public health issue in the spotlight throughout the year, not just during the holidays or after a “bad weekend” or a high-profile crash?
The article was in some ways a summary of what she’d presented about road safety at December’s 2020/21 Annual Review of Waka Kotahi, a meeting at which parliament’s Transport and Infrastructure Committee were able to ask questions of the agency’s CEO, Board Chair, and General Manager Transport Services.
In Turning the Waka Around, I drew on the review to discuss planning concepts. In this post, I’ll do the same to discuss road safety.
As before, I’m aiming to show how topics are being discussed, so the public can hold everyone to account.
New Zealand’s road safety strategy is called Road to Zero, and Waka Kotahi explain that it:
adopts Vision Zero, and a vision for Aotearoa where no-one is killed or seriously injured in road crashes, and where no death or serious injury while travelling on our roads is acceptable.
In discussing safer vehicles, Rosie only mentions vehicle safety standards in terms of the vehicle occupants. The review was an opportunity to explain to the politicians why our vehicle safety standards need to be improved to give better protection to people outside the car, who don’t have the protection of a steel box.
Further, she noted the statistics showed pedestrians and cyclists are increasingly being harmed in urban areas, and then suggested this is:
probably a consequence of increased intermodal investment.
Assuming she means investment in walking and cycling infrastructure, this is a worrying misconception to convey to the politicians. Cities which have invested in safe cycling infrastructure are safer for all road users.
Unfortunately, Waka Kotahi didn’t address the criticism I’ve mentioned before that the Road to Zero programme is insufficiently focused on urban safety.
Mode shift is central to Vision Zero
In the Vision Zero paradigm, planners don’t just attempt to improve the safety of how people are currently travelling. Instead, they design the system to enable people to get out of their cars and choose a safer way to travel.
What are the safer ways to travel?
- When you measure safety by how many (or how few) injuries are caused, the “active modes” – walking, biking, scooting – are safest.
- When you measure safety by how many (or how few) injuries are sustained, public transport is safest.
- And driving is unsafe by both measures.
So – in both cities and in regional areas – a key plank of transport safety planning is creating “mode shift”.
But in the current “predict and provide” planning system, the focus on “traffic flow” and “travel time savings” interferes with mode shift – and therefore with safety. Projects which speed up longer distance vehicle trips are favoured in the investment evaluation framework – despite their negative effects on shorter, active trips, and despite the extra traffic they create in the whole network, which slows down public transport. This works against safety, by encouraging people to keep driving.
But the paradigm shift seems very slow coming.
Is that because the shift ultimately threatens the budget available for road widening projects?
Or is it about speed limits? Are the senior planners having difficulty conceiving how Vision Zero speed limits could work in New Zealand, and have decided to dismiss them as unattainable?
Safe speeds in Regional Areas
The UN recognises that all countries still face major road safety challenges, and that we must focus on speed management. Where speed limits have been lowered in New Zealand, they are working to save lives.
At the annual review, speed limits were mentioned, but Waka Kotahi should have presented the evidence for changing our speed limits by default. The default speeds are needed because they set an upper ceiling to the speed limits. Planners can do further “analysis of the road conditions” to determine safer speeds needed below this ceiling, but default speed limits bring safety swiftly before there’s resource available to look at the locations in more detail.
Vision Zero speed limits are determined easily, by simply looking at the users and movements possible:
New Zealand’s regional roads – with unprotected road users (residents, workers and visitors) and with “transverse conflicts” (driveways, side roads and intersections) – should never have had 100 km/hr speed limits. This error alone has been responsible for tens of thousands of unnecessary serious injuries and deaths.
Waka Kotahi has a programme to address some of the problems on our state highways, using side and median barriers, rumble strips, roundabouts and wider centre strips and shoulders – but we’re still awaiting Vision Zero solutions for:
- Side roads
- People on foot and bike
These barriers, for example, were installed as part of the Road to Zero programme, but they have only addressed some of the risks present, and there’s clearly enough room to adopt a different solution:
Waka Kotahi’s General Manager of Transport Services, Brett Gliddon, said:
whenever we build a new highway, we add a cycleway on as standard practice
Yet retrofitting the existing state highway corridors to be safe for all users is Waka Kotahi’s responsibility too. Indeed, “fix it first” before adding more is just responsible planning from all perspectives.
So how should Waka Kotahi create a Vision Zero system from our current network? These Vision Zero speeds mean roads with driveways and side roads need 50 km/hr, and people on foot, bike or horse need 30 km/hr – or complete separation.
Let’s look at solutions.
Where speed limits of 70 km/hr or 100 km/hr are desired, one of the big changes needed is the removal of driveway entrances, as that is a source of “transverse” conflicts. Alternative ways to access properties include:
- Easements over neighbouring properties
- New access lanes off side roads, or
- Access lanes parallel to the highway
Sometimes the space could be reallocated from excess lanes.
Intersections will also need treatment to remove the “transverse conflicts”. Often there will be too many intersections for this to be economical so Waka Kotahi will need to either drop the speeds to 50 km/hr in the region of the intersections, or close some of the side roads. With this last solution, local “traffic circulation” changes might mean people need to take a different route to get to their property. Standard designs for small overbridges – for walking, cycling, horses and maybe stock – could minimise their costs while preventing severance.
It is also Waka Kotahi’s job to reduce the high speeds drivers use as they leave the state highways. In Slowing Drivers in Houten, Kent showed some design ideas that are used in the Netherlands to slow drivers down rapidly, as soon as they leave the high speed road.
Above, this road leads from a 90 km/hr ring road, and uses visual cues, trees and sharp turns to slow the cars initially. This is followed by narrow single lanes, as below, to slow drivers further, before they enter the local road system where there are properties to access and people.
There are many roads where we need a few Vision Zero templates to give people on foot, horse, bike or e-bike the safe travel they deserve, like:
- separated paths created on the other side of the side ditches, or if there’s no room for that,
- making the road one way and reallocating some of it to active modes, with a barrier between the cars and the people.
Waka Kotahi will need a streamlined programme that uses economies of scale, and they need to prevent it getting lost in business case madness, consultation limbo or used as a political football.
An excellent manager would find a way to excite the highway engineers about doing this retrofitting work – because the funds for it must be reallocated from highway building. With climate planning meaning our vehicle travel will reduce anyway, we cannot justify spending money on new or widened highways, let alone afford their maintenance, which has already grown to become an enormous drain on the budget.
However, in many areas, default speed limit changes and enforcement will need to suffice rather than making these changes. There will often be a higher cost benefit ratio for using the funds to improve travel by other modes. Bringing the rail and national public transport networks up to standard would provide real travel choice, equity and freight benefits. As Andre de Brett has written this month:
we can have excellent transport simply by upgrading our existing conventional rail network. Passenger trains with timetables that outdo non-stop car journeys are so realistic that we should have them already.
The Ōtaki Example
So now I turn to the Annual Review. Labour MP Terisa Ngobi asked about progress on Road to Zero:
I’m from the Ōtaki electorate so I probably have one of the most dangerous stretches of State Highway 1 along there. We’ve had many deaths this year, unfortunately… how are we engaging with iwi when we are doing those safety improvements? …Just being out there this weekend, I noted that while those safety improvements are happening, it’s making it harder to get into the marae, and to a lot of the houses that are up and down that Kuku stretch
Here was an opportunity to paint a picture for the Ōtaki MP about what Vision Zero and new traffic circulation ideas could deliver for her community.
Instead, Board Chair Sir Brian Roche said:
We would acknowledge that your area is one of the most dangerous areas in the lower North Island which is why we’re actually committed to getting a substantial rebuild of that whole network, which will address some of the issues to do with iwi as well…
And here’s the problem. The planned “substantial rebuild” of that network is a new highway. There are some minor interim safety improvements on the existing highway, but not to a Vision Zero standard.
Yet the area is ripe for investment as a demonstration project showing how a community can be provided with low cost, safe, sustainable travel options. There are already great transport “bones”. For the money being spent, the area could easily be transformed into a world-class, Vision Zero environment, with train, bus, and safe biking and walking, enabling the local community and economy to thrive in a sustainable way.
Sadly, what Waka Kotahi are planning to build between Ōtaki and Levin is simply a road capacity expansion project, focused on improving travel times.
It will induce more traffic:
And the additional traffic at the start and end of each new trip means safety will deteriorate on the local network.
The politician’s question was good, but the response from Waka Kotahi was not Vision Zero, and it prevented the upskilling of a willing listener. Indeed, it was a lost opportunity to inspire the whole select committee about the potential that Vision Zero has to lift our communities out of the twin problems of transport trauma and transport poverty.
In addition to the progressive safety programmes of work that are already underway, Waka Kotahi’s leaders need to let Vision Zero guide the entire programme. It isn’t something to “squeeze into” a sector feeling the pinch of funding pressures; it’s a way to critique everything in order to reprioritise funding. The scale of change required is immense, and some entirely new programmes are needed, based on Vision Zero principles and harnessing traffic circulation changes. Many programmes should also be discontinued, with their budgets reallocated.
Waka Kotahi need to demonstrate how they will:
- Put mode shift and vehicle travel reduction at the centre of Road to Zero
- Introduce better urban safety improvements
- Present the evidence for default speed limit changes
- Establish a programme for retrofitting regional roads with safe back and side lanes and safe intersections to meet VZ speed limits
- Provide better Vision Zero information for politicians and public
The politicians should be making sure this happens.
Again, let’s hold them all accountable.