This is a guest post from NCD
Some months ago we looked at the cost of Road Traffic Accidents (RTAs) in New Zealand.
What if I was to suggest that there is a single change that could be made to Auckland’s transport system that is cheap to implement and that will have dramatic effects of road safety, quality of place and promotion of active modes of transport? Cue incredulity.
First, let’s set the scene. If safety is one of the criteria by which the effectiveness of road engineering is measured, then it would have to be the single biggest failure of a professional discipline in human history. This is after 100 years of effort to improve the situation. How much longer do they need?
When the Airline or Rail transport industries run conferences on “Safety lessons we can learn from road engineering” I hear they aren’t well attended. Ah, that feels better.
And all the while the solution was staring them in the face: Reduce Auckland speed limits to 30 km/hr.
If you turn down the stereo you’ll be able to hear the AA’s howls of protest from your place.
Kent did a post “Slow Down” which made some of the points below. But that was like, you know, way back in 2012, and not much has happened in Auckland since then, so here we go again. That post has a graph showing that the risk to cyclists of a fatal accident reduces dramatically as speed reduces.
Here’s a similar one from SFstreetsblog (a prettiﬁed version of http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/research/pub/HS809012.html )
Occasional contributor Glen K will dispute the ﬁgures, but even the most conservative ﬁgures I’ve seen show you’re four times more likely to die at 50km/hr compared to 30km/hr.
A few months ago Bryce P. did a post on the Cycle Action Auckland site that linked to a study in the British Medical Journal, and it’s that study that I’d like consider in a bit more detail. It shows a 42% injury reduction in areas of London where speeds were dropped to 20 miles/hour. It’s hard to convey how signiﬁcant this is. If this was the 1990s we’d have a GIF with stars exploding, a scrolling ticker, and that number jumping out of the page to meet you. In the world of public health interventions a 5% reduction in morbidity or mortality has researchers high-ﬁving each other (OK, academics don’t high-ﬁve, but you get the idea).
From the report: “Casualties as a whole were reduced by 41.9% (95% conﬁdence interval 36.0% to 47.8%), with slightly larger point estimates for the reductions in all casualties in children aged 0-15 and in the numbers killed or seriously injured. The numbers of killed or seriously injured children were reduced by half (50.2%, 37.2% to 63.2%). The point estimate of the reduction in number of people killed was slightly smaller at 35.1%, −1.9% to 72.0%).”
The study is robust (see the conﬁdence intervals above. The sample size was almost a million accidents!), and checked for things like migration to neighbouring roads. Here’s a map showing how much of London is covered:
The authors of the study in a subsequent interview have estimated the 30km/hr zones are saving 200 lives a year in London, and this would increase to 700 if the zones were implemented city-wide. The onus is on those who want to leave them at 50km/hr to demonstrate that the productivity gains justify the 72% increase in injury and 100% increase in child serious injury and death that the higher limits cause (because that’s what proponents the status quo are arguing).
Why is this strategy so successful? Because at its heart it takes the HPtFTU seriously. The what? The human propensity to fuck things up. (Complaints about the language to Francis Spuford.
The airline industry has also been taking the HPtFTU seriously for quite some time now, with spectacular results. That’s why planes have co-pilots, why airline mechanics account for the tools they might have left lying inside the engine, and why airlines run a “no fault” reporting system.
Here’s a chart from the NZTA’s 2011 accident report. It’s titled “Factors contributing to crashes” It could have been titled “The HPTfTU while driving”
The problem though is that “Too fast for the conditions” in 29% of crashes might lead one to think there’s 71% of accidents where speed wasn’t a factor. Actually, there’s 100% of accidents where speed was a factor. (I don’t believe any stationary cars are represented in the stats). You could argue that “too fast for the conditions” should be at 100% – if not too fast for the condition of the road, then too fast for the condition of the driver’s mind!
And this is why taking the HPtFTU seriously and reducing speed limits is so effective- it affects every type of crash. Texting, changing the radio channel, thinking about something else, pretending not to look at the hottie in the car next to you, assuming there won’t be anyone coming, sun in your eyes, headache, recent argument, arrogance, ignorance, incompetence, unbalanced. We aren’t about to stop being human, and we need speed limits that reﬂect that.
All this saving lives is sure to have some side effects. Yessir. Our city becomes a much nicer place to be. Auckland goes up a few notches on the awesomeness scale. Other modes of getting around become more attractive, safer, with all the health beneﬁts that Mr Money Moustache has so eloquently described. There’s real potential for a virtuous cycle of improving conditions causing more people to change modes, which further improves conditions which causes….
So what’s stopping us just doing it? There are three main objections to lowering urban speed limits: “we’re different”, productivity losses and the difficulty of enforcing limits.
The “we’re different” argument could also be called the “we need to study that” argument. This is a typical official response from NZTA/MOT/AT. The coroner just released a report on cycle accidents in NZ. Sample size: 13. Glen K. very kindly pointed out that 13 isn’t a very big number, and he has data on 84 fatalities. Good point. And that’s why the London study mentioned above is so important. A million accidents gives real statistical grunt. Londoners are human too, they live in streets, drive similar cars. What isn’t needed is another study. What’s needed is leadership. Action.
On to productivity losses. We’re in a city where the CCFAS is projecting average speeds of 11km/hr in a few years, so that pretty much closes the case for the city centre. Second, I’m not suggesting we change motorway speeds. Allowing 100km/hr on motorways would reduce the productivity losses for most longer trips around the city, especially once the WRR is completed. So balding, grumpy traffic engineer, I offer you an olive branch: you’ve done a great job of making motorways safe. Thank you. (But no, the answer to every traffic safety problem is not “make the road into a motorway”)
As for suburban travel, arguing for productivity losses being the reason not to change implies 50km/hr is some sort of sweet spot where we’ve got the balance between safety and productivity right. Not so, says 100 years of stats. With a 30km/hr limit you could expect a 5km suburban trip to take about 10% longer suggests some research. That’s a difference measured in seconds, not minutes.
Arterial roads are a bit trickier- you’ve got the trade-of between them being routes that are useful for active modes, and the fact that they move a lot of cars. Places like Dominion Road. Here’s a proposal: reduce speeds on arterials to 30km/hr until separated infrastructure is built for vulnerable road users. Let’s see how fast AT can build bike lanes then!
The argument around difficulty in enforcing limits seems to be enshrined in NZTA’s big fat book of road engineering wisdom- you can’t reduce a speed limit much below the speed the traffic is observed to travel at. Enshrined defeatism. I don’t believe this approach is taken with open road limits, and it shouldn’t be a factor in urban speed limits either. The whole self-explaining streets idea is great, but realistically, they aren’t going to be everywhere in Auckland any time soon.
Why don’t we try lower speed limits and see how it goes? I suspect it is not a problem that liberal speed camera deployment wouldn’t ﬁx, and wide scale changes would create a mini ﬁrestorm of indignation, so AT gets a free publicity campaign.
And what’s the worst case scenario? We have to add the traffic calming in later. That’s not the end of the world.
In London the zones have mostly been done with traffic calming while Portsmouth in the UK and Graz in Austria have changed most of their streets to 30km/hr without traffic calming, and Cambridge (UK) is currently proposing to change all but arterials with a budget of only £500,000.
And the secret formula for change? Stroppy women plus visionary leadership. I’m conﬁdent that NZ has the former, if not the latter.
One of the key factors that is identiﬁed in bringing a change in the Netherlands from a car oriented society to a more balanced one was that women (in the 1970′s) got angry enough about road fatalities that they got stroppy and organised. Brett Toderian made the same point about Vancouver not allowing motorways in the city centre: it was protesting women that were a signiﬁcant factor. We need some Kiwi women to continue the tradition. An aside to AT: how’s your board and executive management gender balance?
Lastly, a personal plea to Lester Levy. You’ve had a large and signiﬁcant role in leading Auckland’s health institutions- thank you! This is really a public health issue that spans health, transport, community and environment. There is no other measure that can be implemented with such huge gains for so little cost. You and your board have an opportunity to show real leadership. Ask AT’s management to report at your next meeting with either a plan to implement widespread 30km/hr zones or a convincing argument why the status quo of a steady stream of death and injury is the best they can do. Failure to do anything on your watch is making a decision that in effect says “I’m going to sacriﬁce some Auckland lives for an unproven efficiency gain.”