Holly Walker of The Helen Clark Foundation with a Top 5 on urban road safety. 'Mum, when can I walk to school by myself?'

Holly Walker of The Helen Clark Foundation with a Top 5 on urban road safety. 'Mum, when can I walk to school by myself?'

This week's Top 5 comes from Holly Walker, deputy director and WSP Fellow of The Helen Clark Foundation, a public policy think-tank.

As always, we welcome your additions in the comments below or via email to david.chaston@interest.co.nz.

And if you're interested in contributing the occasional Top 5 yourself, contact gareth.vaughan@interest.co.nz.

Road deaths

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Source: NZTA
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Source: NZTA

Recently my six-year-old daughter asked me how old she would need to be before she could start walking to school by herself. It only takes about eight minutes to walk from our home to her school, but she would need to cross at least three roads on the way, and despite my theoretical enthusiasm for her to have a more ‘free-range’ childhood, I have to admit I baulked at the idea.

Like many parents, I have not forgotten the tragic death of six-year-old Carla Neems, killed by a rubbish truck in her own driveway after scootering 450 metres home from school in the company of older children in 2019, nor the controversial censuring her parents received from the Coroner for allowing her to walk to and from school unaccompanied. How could I live with myself if something happened?

With stories like this high in the public consciousness, it’s hardly surprising that many parents choose to drive their children to school, even short distances. But of course, this means congestion, lots of cars circulating outside the school at peak times, and for those kids who do walk, scoot or cycle, even greater risk. We need a circuit-breaker.

 As it happens, I’m researching urban road safety in my role as a research fellow for the Helen Clark Foundation, in partnership with WSP New Zealand, so I’ve had plenty of time in the last couple of months to reflect on what could make me and other parents like me feel better about letting our kids walk to school, and about changing our attitudes towards urban road safety in general. Here are five ideas that have been influential on my thinking.

1) What is an “acceptable” road toll?

Last year 353 people were killed on our roads, 50 were children and young people under 20, 92 people died on urban roads. We’re used to calling this the “road toll”, as if it’s the mildly inconvenient but inevitable price of doing business. But every one of those deaths represents an individual snatched from their loved ones with no warning, and all those deaths were preventable. If we lost this many people at once in an earthquake, eruption, or workplace accident, there would be national outcry. But because they occur in a drip-feed through the year, we tend not to get so worked up. Yet we can all agree that 353 preventable deaths each year is unacceptable.

What would be a more realistic target?

This video, from the Australian state of Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission tests this question with a member of the public, with surprising and moving results.

2) The ‘Road to Zero’.

Anyone not crying? Okay, so we’re agreed, zero is the only acceptable target. No-one should die just trying to get where they need to go. We should all be able to move around safely, every trip, no matter who we are, where we live, or how we travel.

Fortunately, zero deaths on the road is the goal of the Government’s ambitious new ‘Road to Zero’ road safety strategy, announced in December. And because there’s a big difference between 353 and 0, they’ve set an interim target too, of a 40% reduction in ten years, which would bring the average annual “road toll” to 212. Still unacceptable, obviously, but it’s a start. (And by the way, can we start calling the “road toll” what it really is – a death count?). Here’s a primer on the ‘Road to Zero’ Strategy:

3) How to achieve zero deaths in urban environments.

With the Road to Zero Strategy, New Zealand becomes the latest in a series of countries to adopt the ‘Vision Zero’ approach to road safety. Vision Zero originated in Sweden in 1997 with the founding principles that ‘it can never be ethically acceptable that people are killed or seriously injured when moving within the road transport system.’ It was revolutionary both for taking this ethics-based (rather than cost-benefit) approach to road safety, and for shifting the responsibility for road safety from individual road users, to transport system designers and decision-makers.

When we’re so used to hearing death counts in the hundreds, achieving zero road deaths can sound unrealistic. It’s true that Sweden has not yet reached the goal, though annual road deaths there have halved since Vision Zero was introduced. Last year in Oslo, the capital city of Norway, no pedestrians or cyclists were killed on the roads, and only one motorist (by comparison, there were 41 road deaths in Auckland). This was achieved chiefly by replacing on-street parking with bike lanes and footpaths, reducing speed limits, and introducing congestion charging for the inner city.

“Perhaps most remarkably, no children under 15 died in roadway crashes anywhere in the country of Norway during 2019, which has a population of about 5.3 million. […] One effort that may have contributed to the drop in child deaths are the new “heart zones” drawn around Oslo’s schools, where officials are making physical changes to streets to protect students walking and biking to school, including closing streets to cars during school hours.

Twenty-seven children and young people under 15 died on New Zealand roads last year.

How Oslo achieved virtually zero …. 

4) The true cost of cars.

You’ll note that in Oslo the urban road safety improvements were achieved in large part by encouraging people to move around on bikes, on foot, or on public transport, instead of driving. We talk about road safety, but it’s not roads that are unsafe, it’s cars. As traffic volumes and speed limits in urban areas reduce, people who might otherwise be put off riding their bikes or letting their kids walk to school begin to feel safer doing so, and for those still in their cars (either by preference or necessity) the roads become safer and eventually less congested.

But finding a way to get from A to B that doesn’t involve a car can be a big mental hurdle, let alone understanding that these alternatives can be safer and more convenient than driving. Most of us have come to accept cars as the basic default mode of transport for almost all trips. But as this New Yorker feature argues, this might have been a terrible mistake.

“Since 1899, more than 3.6 million people have died in traffic accidents in the United States, and more than eighty million have been injured; pedestrian fatalities have risen in the past few years. The road has emerged as the setting for our most violent illustrations of systemic racism, combustion engines have helped create a climate crisis, and the quest for oil has led our soldiers into war.

Every technology has costs, but lately we’ve had reason to question even cars’ putative benefits. Free men and women on the open road have turned out to be such disastrous drivers that carmakers are developing computers to replace them. When the people of the future look back at our century of auto life, will they regard it as a useful stage of forward motion or as a wrong turn? Is it possible that, a hundred years from now, the age of gassing up and driving will be seen as just a cul-de-sac in transportation history, a trip we never should have taken?”

5) Safe, accessible streets in Aotearoa.

If we really want to get around safely then (not to mention survive the climate crisis), we need to get out of our cars whenever we can, and encourage our kids to walk and cycle to school. And this is where the Government’s new Road to Zero strategy falls short: it sets the ambitious zero deaths goal, which is fantastic, but it doesn’t focus on the important contribution moving away from cars (for short, urban trips in particular) could make to road safety.

It’s true that most deaths take place on the open road, but at least a quarter occur in urban areas, and the risk to children and young people in urban environments is particularly high. New Zealand could achieve significant road safety gains (and knock off the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of lower speed urban crashes) with more policies and investment to make walking, cycling and taking public transport for short, urban trips safer and more attractive for everybody.

What would this look like in practice? The Te Ara Mua: Future Streets project in Mangere provides a great, Aotearoa NZ-based example. In partnership with the local community (and in particular, through meaningful engagement with children), key locations were redesigned with safety in mind. As a result, traffic volumes and speeds have reduced, making the local streets feel safer and more accessible. More of this please.

The Helen Clark Foundation, in partnership with WSP New Zealand, will release a report reframing urban road safety and making the case to treat transport mode-shift as a road safety priority in mid-2020. Meanwhile, feedback or expertise on the ideas explored in this column is welcome – please email holly@helenclark.foundation.

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15 Comments

Great article Holly!

I remember seeing a comment on FB from a friend a couple of years ago saying - I let my kids walk to school alone for first time today, and I didn't follow them.

That really stuck in my head, it's an extremely hard thing to do and I admired her for being so brave.

My kids are the same age as hers and it was another year before I let out two walk alone (7&9 by this stage), and I was extremely nervous, so much so I didn't tell my partner until lunchtime. She asked if I'd called the school to check they arrived and I told her no. But I was still nervous...

It's a ten minute walk for them and they do it daily now but the road is a race track for a surprising amount of people which is ridiculous given the amount of children walking/being walked to school.

It would be nice if councils and NZTA could expedite your thinking here Holly, it feels like we're hamstrung by boomer age road 'engineers' and their backward mentality which feels stuck in the 60's.

On street parking irks me immensely, people thing because they own a house somewhere they have some god given right to on street parking. Councils need to grow a pair and start treating it like the public storage area it really is. If a bike path or wider footpath needs to be put in there should be zero consultation on it.

And remember - You're not stuck in traffic, you are traffic. (my kids now remind me of that when we're not moving on the southern motorway the times we head out of town).

Thanks for reading and commenting! Couldn't agree more with all your points. Of course, we're in a different era now as regards all this... will be interesting to see what kind of transport policy changes start to emerge long-term from Covid-19. I've seen commentary overseas suggesting reducing speed limits as a way of limiting the burden on hospital emergency departments, for example. And who knows what behaviour changes will emerge from the new way we are all living for now. Take care!

In Indonesia if you feel the traffic is going too fast past your front door you go out in the night and build a polisi tidur literally sleeping policeman aka a speed hump. They work very well.

Yap, Betul Sekali! - Now days - just go to local h/ware store get one of those black rubber bump, already painted with yellow reflective for safety marker, couple bolt on the road surface - done. But yea, NZ regulation this, that, consent, have to go all to NZTA, consider the disable traffic, consider nocturnal animal passing at night etc.

Given where we are, this tells us how far off the pace the HCF is.

Legitimate posit, but orders of magnitude down the priority list. It's about to be feed-back looped bigtime. Was it trotted out purposely?

Agree! For what it's worth, this post was commissioned, drafted, and scheduled well in advance of current developments. Hope you and yours are keeping safe and well.

Excellent article. I like cars but I love bikes. I love my kids and grandkids even more and it suxs terribly that they can't safely walk bike or crawl around without 2tonne of metal being driven like it has right of way no matter what.
Attitudes of both drivers and planners , lawmakers and others needs to change.
Yes I do think in the future people will look back shaking their heads asking why did we let this happen.

It is estimated that motor vehicle collisions caused the deaths of around 60 million people during the 20th century,[6] around the same as the number of World War II
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epidemiology_of_motor_vehicle_collisions.

So by 2020 we are at about 85m worldwide deaths since the invention of the car.

Implementation of vision zero cant come soon enough.

Once we are past this coronavirus, the government should implement congestion tolls to reduce the funding needed for additional road capacity and focus the remaining funding on vision zero.

I live overseas where the design standards are substantially higher & put NZ to shame. We can do a lot better: For example:

a) all traffic signal movements are approached based fully protected phasing (no filtering right turning traffic, & peds/cyclists get fully protected phasing as well (i.e no conflicting car movements). Yes it takes wider intersections for the same capacity but it is so much safer

b) all cycleways are off road fully protected

c) there are few priority intersections - almost all have medians through them. Turns are done at signals or roundabouts Where they do exist, there are speed humps on all approaches.

d) rural roundabouts have speed humps on the approaches.

e) there is no parking on the main roads. This provides much better sight distance, and less complexity for drivers.

This sounds dangerously like suggesting the development of good policy....such a thing, in THIS Country? The best way to acheive VZ is to flood the country with cheap public transport. Hell, for the price of one of the faulty RONS it could probably be done. Imagine that. No more wofs, regos, insurance, oil changes...

Thank you - this is an excellent article and one that I will share.

For myself, I think it's fascinating that Covid-19 is dominating the headlines when deaths from vehicles are around 1,250,000 per year around the globe (source: https://www.asirt.org/safe-travel/road-safety-facts/)

That's approximately 104,166 per month - or in other words, about ten times the death rate of Covid-19.

Now, if road deaths were Covid-19 - would we be banning all cars from streets? Perhaps!

Obviously that's impractical, but the numbers speak volumes.... we've become blinded by our own selfish needs.

My late father once said - how to solve road accidents? Don't provide airbags for drivers, replace them with killer spikes in instead... then drivers will drive super carefully!!! ;-)

With my own kids, I let my 10yr old cycle to school and my 12 yr old walks with her friends, safety in numbers. But my 8 yr old I still don't have the confidence to let her go on her own because we have no footpaths on our rural road and cars often speed... it saddens me to see drivers not slowing down - it seems using the brake is the enemy ....

My point is this: With all of the money recently announced by Labour for roads (approx $6bn), why not spend a large chunk of it on traffic calming and alternative transport facilities (e.g. cycleways etc). I know some of it has been earmarked for these, but it's not enough.... though we can always hope for more....

Thanks for reading and commenting! It is interesting to see how we respond to preventable deaths differently depending on the context isn't it? But for now I guess we can expect to see a dip in the road death count with everyone staying at home!

Yea in short time public transportation will be a black sheep, and will probably stay that way for long enough for Holly to realise how great her car really is.

Car hating rubbish.

Yes, cars have costs. Abandoning them to embrace our current standards of public transit would come at a massive cost too. To get to work by my start time, the AT journey planner suggests starting to walk there the night before. There's a lot of pointing at things and saying "you are privileged in this way" online, but very little acceptance that well-off, central city areas tend to have better access to more frequent and reliable public transport.

It's all well and good to say "most people shouldn't drive" but unless you are well-off enough to 1) choose where you live, b) choose where you work and c) have flexible enough hours that you can sometimes be two hours late when the trains don't work for some reason, then public transport just isn't really a viable option.

Thanks for commenting. Yes, we need to design our transport systems for the needs of the majority. I found this article helpful: https://humantransit.org/2017/07/the-dangers-of-elite-projection.html. Hope you and yours are keeping well at this stressful time.