Hard News by Russell Brown


Back on the road

It probably was too good to last. The blessed peace on the roads that I wrote about here began eroding even before we left Level 4 of the Covid-19 restrictions – and on day one of Level 3, with the tradies rushing to catch upon their work, the double-cab utes roared back.

The streets were dangerous again.

Nothing was ever going to really change, people sighed: the roads becoming safer for humans was always a mirage. But I think that maybe the window did shift a little during lockdown.

I had to make a quick trip over to Gilmours on Sunday because we were having friends over for lunch (how much it pleases me to write that sentence). It's a good trip, nearly all on off-road paths – and the paths were thronged, much as they were through lockdown, with families walking and riding the inappropriate bikes they'd fetched out of the garage six weeks before.

And on the roads themselves, amid the flurry of the return to economic activity, I feel like more drivers are aware of people on bikes, a little more willing to lift the the foot off the gas. Well, some of them anyway: the dreaded utes still seem to be as fecklessly-piloted as ever.

The controversial tactical responses and speed reductions intended to provide for physical disancing in Auckland have not been on my streets. Apparently there's a temporary 30km/hr speed restriction on Ponsonby Road, but it just seemed its usual clusterfuck yesterday. Barely a Covid-cone have I seen.

I actually asked the Auckland Transport Twitter account exactly where the promised temporary safe spaces were going two weeks ago. They weren't allowed to just tell me, apparently. I was assigned a case number and, four days ago, received an email response:

Kia ora Russell 

Thanks for contacting us to request information on where temporary emergency speed limits have been applied around Auckland.

Moving down the COVID-19 alert levels means more Kiwis are safely heading back to work and starting to move around Auckland. That means there are more cars on our roads across the city and more people on our footpaths and shared paths.

We have moved as fast as we can to temporarily change some roads. In some areas this meant using road cones and/or signs to create space for physical distancing, in others this meant temporarily reducing the speed limit.

Under the Land Transport Rule: Setting of Speed Limits 2017 (section 7.1(2)(a)), Auckland Transport must consider the setting of emergency speed limits if we believe there is a risk of danger to a person due to an emergency which affects the use of the road.

It’s important that we help keep pedestrians and cyclists safe and enable them to stay a safe physical distance away from those not in their bubble while they’re travelling to work, school, and local businesses. As such, we considered the setting of emergency speed limits as a way to protect those users.

The high-risk locations have been chosen based on where we expect to see more people needing to use the carriageway to keep their physical distance from others. For more information on this, and for a list of the roads with emergency speed limits, please see our New Zealand Gazette release.

We hope the above clarifies why emergency speed limits have been implemented in some areas. Thank you for taking the time to raise this with us.

Ngā mihi


Customer Care Case Manager 

Which was all very nice, but it didn't answer my question. Indeed, it was clearly aimed at pacifying the kind of people who regard any gesture towards the safety of vulnerable road users as an unacceptable infringement on personal liberty, if not a de facto communist plot.

Indeed, when I shared this tweet on Saturday, with the observation that Queen Street would be a better place if there was this much space for people all the time, one correspondent was very keen to inform me that this was the future that "commies" want:

In truth, pedestrians and people two wheels vastly outnumber drivers in Auckland's central city. In normal times, about half a million pedestrian journeys are made every day. And yet 80% of the street is reserved for the driving and parking of motor vehicles. It is remarkable that the idea that the allocation of street space should reflect consumer demand is somehow creeping communism, but that's the place we're at.

But as much as the additional space for the area's principal users to moe around in is welcome, I'm not sure Auckland Transport is getting it right. Look at the images below and see if you see anywhere marked for people on bikes or scooters. I think this could have been done a lot better – and that AT dispensing with its walking and cycling team looks like a worse idea every day:

— Auckland Transport (@AklTransport) May 18, 2020

Days into Level 3, I sat outside the West Lynn shops glumly watching traffic speed through the village, even as families were out on their bikes. The whole village should be under a 30km/hr speed limit all the time, yet there's not even a temporary speed limit. A planned set of bike lanes has been half-finished for two years, since Auckland Transport took fright at a group of protesters. The lanes just stop.

So I had all this in my head this morning when RNZ reported a cost-benefit analysis of proposed new rules which to regulate the use of footpaths by people on wheels. The new rules could lead to one death a year, but would deliver a net financial benefit of $10 million a year, according to the analysis. This is not only a weird way of looking at it, it sets up a false conflict.

The overwhelming death and injury threat to both pedestrians and cyclists is the same: it's cars. In 2017, the year that the number of New Zealand cyclists killed while riding more than tripled to 18, pedestrian deaths also spiked. None of the pedestrians died as a result of bike crashes.

This isn't to say that injury accidents between cyclists and pedestrians don't occur: between 2010 and 2014, there were 33 of them on foothpaths, which made up 13% of foothpath collisions. Pedestrians aged over 55 were the most at risk and the most common injury was fracture. But in the same period, there 3849 pedestrians injured in motor vehicle collisions.

The proposed rule changes aim to regulate the use of footpaths by cyclists and other wheeled users, so it's inevitable that the focus will fall on the potential for an increase in inuries involving riders. But it's also regulating something that happens every hour of every day in every city: cyclists taking to the footpath out of a well-founded fear of death or injury on the road. It's not immediately clear that setting rules around that use – a speed limit and an affirmation of pedestrian right of way – will really result in more of it.

What is going to raise the use of bikes in pedestrian areas is the overall increase in cyclist numbers – new riders especially. We got my partner an e-bike this summer, and it's been an absolute boon. She started riding to work and the difference in her wellbeing was soon apparent. We rode together nearly every day during lockdown and these days we do our weekend retail dates by bike. It's brilliant – good for us, good for the environment. But it honestly wouldn't have happened if she'd had to take her chances on the road from day one.

Now that lockdown has given us a glimpse of how it might be, it's time to get with the work that will actually make everyone safer. And that's fixing the roads.

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