Safer roads: Making city streets safer – by making driving harder

What makes driving safer? As holidaymakers hit the highways after another grim annual road toll, Simon Wilson reports on the evidence for what really works in the final of a five-part series.

OPINION: A person struck by a car travelling 50km/h has an 80 per cent chance of dying, says Shane Ellison, the outgoing boss of Auckland Transport. But at 30km/h that reduces to 10 per cent.

“It’s not much to ask,” he says. It’s really not.

And yet both Auckland Transport and the national transport agency, Waka Kotahi, have run into enormous problems trying to calm and slow traffic and make suburban streets safer.

Auckland Transport is midway through a programme to reduce the speed limit on about 30 per cent of Auckland roads. Rural, suburban and inner-city streets are all affected. Most people providing feedback so far support the idea, but the critics are vocal.

And Waka Kotahi began a trial programme called Innovating Streets in 2020, offering funding and advice to local bodies wanting to create safer streets in small, defined areas. AT has a companion programme called Safer Streets and the Helen Clark Foundation has put forward a similar proposal, called Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.

Among the “traffic calming” devices used: reducing the road width, especially at intersections; turning through routes into cul de sacs; adding planters and creating pocket parks and play areas; laying pavers and raised “tables” for pedestrians, to slow cars at intersections and pedestrian crossings. Also: bike lanes.

An older method is to add judder bars. Critics hate them, often because they have to slow down. But that’s the idea.

Some of the options are very cheap: painting patterns on the road, for example, which livens the place up and signals to everyone that something different is going on here. The road is no longer just for driving on.

The projects aim to be good but they’re never perfect. That’s okay; perfect is the enemy of good.

But so are suspicion, entitlement and opposition to change. While many suburbs have welcomed having safer streets, in some there has been a lot of anger. So Waka Kotahi has reviewed the trials and produced a new set of guidelines for what it now calls Play Streets.

The name comes from Britain during the time of the “Spanish flu” pandemic after World War I. More than a little relevant today.

Kathryn King, the lead manager for Play Streets, says the big difference between the new scheme and Innovating Streets is that neighbours can implement it themselves. They don’t need transport agencies or council officials to come in and do it for them. They create it and they own it.

Nor should they get caught up in a lengthy permissions process, cumbersome traffic management plans or the need for expensive “street furniture”. If you’re in a quiet side street, King says you might be able to close it off with just a row of wheelie bins.

Community action, initiated from the ground up. The guidelines, available on the Waka Kotahi website, provide ideas and tell you how to go about it.

“We’ve trialled the programme in a bunch of places,” says King. “We’re really confident now.”

If you live in the street closed to through traffic you can still come and go, but probably you’ll be driving more slowly. Same for couriers, visitors and anyone working there.

And the benefits are not just for kids playing. Want to hold a street barbecue? A long lunch? How about a street concert?

Lurking beneath all this lies a fundamental question: What is our attitude to cars?

In suburbs where Innovating Streets ran into trouble, most people said they did agree with the aims: the streets should be safer and the climate crisis should be confronted. But they didn’t want it done by making driving more difficult.

You can express the problem like this. When you close side streets to through traffic, you stop “rat running”, where drivers nip through back routes to avoid the traffic on the main roads.

With this option gone, some drivers rethink their options. They might catch the bus or train instead, or ride a bike, drive at non-peak times or work from home a couple of days a week. For short trips, say to the school or shops, they might walk.

But others will stick to the car and be forced onto the main roads where they spend longer stuck in traffic. Getting angry.

They’d say the Play Streets scheme has failed. Congestion is worse. But is that failure, or is it success?

For many people, driving is the first-choice option for every trip. For that to change, so driving becomes something we do when we need to, don’t we have to make it less convenient?

In 2022, the Government and several councils around the country will be devoting money, time and energy to this debate. It’s about road safety and a lot more.


What makes driving safer? A Herald summer series.

Monday: More police enforcement
Tuesday: Better drivers or slower speeds?
Wednesday: The impact of safer cars
Thursday: Safer open roads
Today: Safer city streets

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