Disruption in our transport corridors is a given. Annoying though it is, it’s also a gift, because it can be managed in a way that delivers climate action, and makes life easier and safer for the most vulnerable people on our road.
It’s all in the temporary traffic management (TTM). The cones, signs, and planning that keep people moving while working in the road.
Done thoughtfully, TTM can improve safety for active modes. After all, disruption in the corridor is a time when vehicles are slowed down, or their movements are restricted in some way. Under such conditions, all that’s required to improve safety for people on foot and bike is to make sure they have space, protection, priority – and that the changes are clear to understand. Such TTM can be an opportunity to experience our streets differently, and gives residents a chance to understand how small changes can instantly make our city nicer.
None of this, of course, matches our experience of TTM at the moment, which regularly strands people on foot and bike, puts them in direct danger, gives them the lowest priority, and delays their journeys. The upside is that this is a “low-hanging fruit” for better safety – and both Auckland Transport (AT) and Waka Kotahi are on record as being keen to pluck those easy rewards.
This is essential not only to bring safety to Auckland’s transport system, but also to support the mode-shift targets of the Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway (TERP).
One of this week’s many examples
During the wee hours of Monday morning, contractors working at Te Atatu Interchange damaged the structure supporting the Te Atatu Rd underpass that is part of the Northwest cycleway.
Mistakes happen, and closing the underpass until they could make it safe was important.
But the other thing required was safe TTM, and this was missing.
There was no active management of traffic to ensure people using the path could continue on their journey safely, no wayfinding signage to show where to go – unless you count some handwritten notes in vivid pen on the back of some road signs.
Come the Monday rush hour, people coming from the south along Te Atatu Rd were treated with this beauty of a sign:
It was a long way to backtrack once you finally realised the underpass was closed.
Here’s the barrier faced by people coming from the east:
The detour, if you knew where to go, was 400m long. Anyone wondering where to go had no reason to trust they wouldn’t encounter further barriers and “Footpath Closed” signs. So it is no surprise that in the face of uncertainty, people found their own solutions:
Cyclist risking life and limb to try to get to work around this fucking bullshit. pic.twitter.com/Z5zHGjo3Yw
— Ben Gracewood (@aotearoa_ben) September 18, 2022
The problems were still rife in the afternoon, and would have been extremely difficult for anyone encountering it in the dark overnight.
— Ben Gracewood (@aotearoa_ben) September 19, 2022
All of this makes my blood boil. These are our loved ones at risk; someone could easily have died in the conditions. And I have many more questions about the priorities shown in the response.
Tracking TTM in Auckland
Auckland Transport tracks TTM performance at road works sites, based on site inspections, in its quarterly Temporary Traffic Management Newsletter. In the last one, I noticed that the performance is failing to meet the KPI of 80% satisfactory:
So I looked back at earlier newsletters, and noticed TTM performance seems to be worse now than a few years ago:
On the other hand, the number of crashes at work sites seems to be lower. The latest chart shows a total of 47 crashes:
Whereas, the number for the earlier year (to mid 2019) was 66. Clearly, the number moves around a bit, because a year ago, it had even risen to 81:
I know the enforcement team has tried different approaches to encouraging better performance. What worked, and what else are they planning to try? Were the lower number of crashes due to more stop-work notices issued, so contractors cleaned up their act? Were the enforcement team able to shift their focus to safety in response to Vision Zero?
But why is the performance dropping? What exactly gets measured? Is the focus on safety, or traffic flow?
It’s important not to put too much emphasis on the “number of crashes” as a measure of safety. Avoiding serious crashes is the focus of Vision Zero, but is not a useful measure of performance, because for any individual contractor you’d hope it would be a very low number. More useful and meaningful would be surrogate safety measures, like counts of people with mobility aids or of independent children using the streets nearby. Measures such as these also help practitioners think about the effect of what they’re doing on local people.
Another thing I noticed in the newsletter is the “leaderboard” of performance. It looks like only three companies in the city have achieved the KPI target of 80%! Given the potential impact on people’s lives and safety, if traffic management companies are regularly failing their inspections, how are they still able to win contracts to work on our streets?
The contractor responsible for this week’s poor TTM at Te Atatu is Fulton Hogan, which only has a 71.9% performance. As one of the biggest contractors, their staff should be practised in safe TTM, and well-equipped with signage and guidelines.
Cause for concern is that Auckland Transport and Waka Kotahi – as clients – are performing particularly poorly (57% and 57.1%). These are the road controlling authorities, who should understand how to meet their own requirements and be motivated to do so.
Have the safety-conscious people on the boards of AT and WK queried this poor workplace safety?
Suggestion 1: Stop serving Goddess Flow
At AT, TTM seems to be governed by the Network Operating Plan (NOP):
The Network Operating Plan needs to be updated in line with the TERP and Vision Zero, to prioritise safety over traffic flow. Currently it is overly focused on:
- Level of service and delays. The focus needs to shift, instead, to safety and mode-shift; this approach also improves the performance of all networks, by reducing – rather than inducing – traffic.
- Increasing capacity. Better outcomes will be achieved by aiming, overtly, to decrease vehicle movement capacity.
Projects could be completed much faster if AT and Waka Kotahi didn’t require the impact on vehicle traffic to be kept to a minimum. The benefits would be large:
- Quicker projects are cheaper. Even the temporary traffic management costs themselves can be considerably reduced with the use of more all-day detours. Having to stop work for the rush hour, or to keep vehicle traffic flowing at all times, complicates the TTM procedures, and prolongs the disruption. Cheaper transport projects means the funding goes further.
- Short, sharp disruption can also offer opportunities for demonstrating a different traffic circulation pattern, and its mode-shift potential, as I described in Getting Sign Off and The Power of Disruption.
- Similarly, the demonstration offers an opportunity for engagement, to encourage a more mature civic discussion about the benefits of change.
If we were to prioritise both safety and the pace of construction over traffic flow, this city’s built environment and transport system could be transformed rapidly.
Suggestion 2: More Resource and Urban focus
The TTM staff at AT are probably under-resourced. Also, the national guidance has been more suitable for the open road than for cities. Indeed, AT’s feedback to Waka Kotahi in May about the Draft New Zealand Guide to Temporary Traffic Management (NZGTTM) hinted at this tension. Although welcoming the review as necessary, it included the line:
AT does not believe the current proposed NZGTTM could be adopted for our road network.
TTM must be allowed to focus on mode-shift, and it needs to be resourced.
Suggestion 3: AT could empower the upstanding bystanders
People react to systematic risk to life in different ways. Ben Gracewood did his best to alert incoming bike traffic while calling on the authorities. Perhaps this person assumed the barrier was wrongly placed or made their own assessment of the safest way forward:
I recently asked Auckland Transport if a protocol could be developed for the public to be able to take action where TTM equipment has been placed dangerously. For example, where a sign obstructs the footpath or bike lane.
I suggested that currently, the only option the public have is to report the problem, knowing that enforcement action is slow. In a healthy society, people wouldn’t walk away from something that could injure people. I asked: wouldn’t it be better for the danger to be mitigated with temporary action? I used the following example:
The danger from having no “Works End Thank You” message to road users, for a brief period of time, is small. Whereas, the danger involved in keeping the sign in the bike lane – forcing kids out into traffic – is large. Without a protocol, people are likely to move dangerously placed signs anyway, which may introduce different dangers. So partnering with the public, and being clear about how to report, remove and place a dangerous sign responsibly, etc, would be a nimble, progressive and community-trust-building response.
I hope AT’s reply will cover situations like this week’s incident.
Suggestion 4: The AT Board need to connect the dots.
This is about Vision Zero, and the “layer of clay” at AT and Waka Kotahi. The executive at AT have had 4.5 years since the safety review to get their heads around Vision Zero and translate it throughout all of the organisation’s operations, programmes and contracts.
This is also about the TERP. Currently, TTM practices are an immense barrier to mode-shift. Safety needs to be reliable before people will rely on bikes to get around or allow their children to travel independently. It is one of many operational areas which can influence mode-shift and safety.
So what are the AT Board doing? Do they realise that AT can be taking many immediate actions to implement the TERP? Well before the flagged “rethink” of the Regional Land Transport Plan, AT should simply start doing what it does more safely. And the Board needs to acknowledge the organisational conservatism, and create a pathway of communication so knowledgeable staff can bypass the layer of clay and keep the CEO and Board informed – without fear for their jobs.
None of these changes require business cases. They are simply the ethical safety changes that adopting Vision Zero should have already delivered.