This is a guest post by accessibility and sustainable transport advocate Tim Adriaansen. Header image by Nenad Stojkovic
So your transport agency has a Vision Zero plan.
But does it really?
A new report released yesterday on the impacts of air pollution in New Zealand shows that until now, we’ve been underestimating the impact that traffic-induced air pollution has on our health – by a factor of 10.
HAPINZ 3.0, as the first of its kind to measure NO2 emissions (AKA, traffic exhaust – at least, that’s where 90% of it comes from) is both groundbreaking and alarming. It points the finger squarely at motor vehicles for causing $10 billion in pollution-related harm in a single year.
Included in this ‘social cost’ are some grim statistics: More than 2,000 premature deaths, 9,000 hospitalisations and 13,000 cases of childhood asthma across 2016 alone. In effect, every single New Zealander is subsidising motor vehicle transport by $2,000 per year – year after year – to offset the costs of air pollution.
We already knew transportation could have a big impact on health. A 2021 meta-analysis concluded that “any level of cycling is better than none for all-cause mortality” while a similar more recent meta-analysis on walking found that the more steps you take each day, the less likely you are to die.
While walking and cycling don’t have to be transportation, it’s fair to say that in a city like Auckland – where the climate is pleasant and half of all trips taken are less than 6km in length – transportation often could be either walking or cycling. And if it’s not, we’re missing out on those potential life-lengthening benefits.
What became clear during the Covid lockdowns – if it wasn’t clear already – is that the number one reason people aren’t eager to cycle more often is because they’re scared of other people’s driving:
Judging by the number of bikes out there, people are more afraid of riding in normal Auckland traffic than they are of a global freaking pandemic
— geogoose (@geogoose) March 30, 2020
And walking around our city, unfortunately, has been made much more difficult and time consuming for pedestrians… in order to make things easier and save time for drivers.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that inactivity is the leading cause of harm to people’s health in Aotearoa: A 2019 Active NZ survey found that just 7% of children and 23% of adults were getting sufficient daily exercise. As one cheerful study frames it:
“There is overwhelming evidence that physical inactivity is linked to an increased risk of non-communicable diseases including coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, hypertension, and several cancers. Physical inactivity is also associated with non-communicable disease risk factors… and a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes”
It’s a pretty simple formula: Physical activity very good; inactivity very, very bad. The long list of conditions associated with inactivity effectively make up the very similar looking list of leading causes of death in New Zealand.
That is, with one notable exception: Motor vehicle accidents [sic].
Which brings us back to Vision Zero, the aspirational policy which sets a humble objective for our transport system:
“By 2050, we aim to eliminate transport deaths and serious injuries (DSI) in Tāmaki Makaurau.”
It begs the question, however: What is a transport death?
We can say, with a high degree of confidence, that air pollution and inactivity related to transportation both claim far more lives each year than crashes. If we were aiming to create a safe system, then surely addressing these two causes of harm would be top priority?
Are we really working towards eliminating transport deaths, if we don’t have a robust plan to address the leading causes of death from transport?
Thankfully, the philosophy behind Vision Zero is robust, espousing “We want a transport system that prioritises safety, not a system that puts other measures ahead of human life and limb”. It already encourages a “safe system” with “safe vehicles” and “safe infrastructure”.
It just needs a little more of the Vision part of the equation. That is, someone with 20/20 vision to step back a hundred paces and take a look at the whole system, not just the parts of it that are smashing into each other. Find the common themes, look for common causes. Heck, you could even throw Climate Change in the mix, for good measure. Oh, and did I mention that traffic noise causes permanent brain damage? Might want to give that a look in, too.
Once you’ve identified all the risks, you can apply the classic risk management hierarchy to start finding the most effective solutions, noting that “engineering controls” and “administrative controls” (or it’s better known cousin – “behaviour change”) fall well down the list in terms of what is most effective:
Now then, can anyone think of an easy way to eliminate air, noise and climate-changing pollution from traffic, and the risk of crashes, all while encouraging people to live a more active lifestyle?
That’s what I’d call Vision Zero.
When a city makes a conscious choice to prioritize people over cars, the powerful force of life returns to the streets, enabling the freedom of mobility for all ages and abilities, and the prosperity of local commerce. pic.twitter.com/o4hoYhMvZ8
— American Fietser (@AmericanFietser) July 6, 2022