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