The London borough of Waltham Forest shows the principles of low-traffic design in action (Photo: CK Travels / Shutterstock.com)

Driving less saves lives, but low-traffic areas aren’t on NZ’s road safety agenda

Even a small reduction in the number of trips taken by car can lead to a significant decrease in the number of deaths and injuries on our roads. But we can’t rely on individuals to drive less in a social and physical environment that doesn’t support it, says Holly Walker.

At the time of writing, 268 people had been killed on New Zealand’s roads in 2020. While horrifying, this figure is much lower than the equivalent for previous years.

We’ll never know who of us was saved from death or injury by the quieter streets of the Covid-19 lockdowns, but based on 2019 figures, there are about 14 people alive today who would have died on the road by this time in a “normal” year. Hundreds more have been saved from injury. 

The difference demonstrates an obvious truth: the more we drive, the more we crash. During the pandemic, we’ve driven less, and in doing so, we’ve saved lives.

It is less known that the relationship between how much we drive and how much we crash is exponential. For every 1% increase in the number of kilometres travelled by vehicle (VKT) there is a 2.5% increase in the number of crashes. Even a small reduction in the number of trips taken by car can produce a significant decrease in the number of deaths and injuries on our roads.

It’s surprising, then, that reducing VKT doesn’t feature in the government’s Road to Zero road safety strategy, which sets the ambitious and ethical goal of zero road deaths, and an interim target of halving the road toll in 10 years. To have a chance of success, the Road to Zero strategy should use every available tool. 

This week, November 9-15, is Road Safety Week. The charity Brake, which runs Road Safety Week, is encouraging New Zealanders to “learn about, shout about and celebrate the amazing design-led solutions that will allow us all to get around in safe and healthy ways, every day”.

A family enjoying the quiet streets of Howick during the level four lockdown (Photo: Jo Clements)

One such solution is the “low-traffic neighbourhood”, something we all had an inadvertent taste of during the level four lockdown.

While a lot about the lockdown experience was stressful and disruptive, many people reported being pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoyed the safer, quieter streets. This comment from the report ‘Life in a low-traffic neighbourhood’, commissioned by Women in Urbanism Aotearoa to explore the lockdown experience, was indicative of many:

“People are outside taking walks, scootering, learning to bike, chalking, gardening, and so on much more often. There’s no worry that kids will run into the street and be hit by a car, and with so much time at home with their families, everyone really seemed to enjoy getting outside, walking in the street, and waving from a distance.”

Luckily, we don’t need to return to lockdown conditions to enjoy the feeling of greater freedom to walk, wheel and connect in our streets and neighbourhoods.

Planned low-traffic neighbourhoods are areas where through-traffic is discouraged. Instead, buses, trucks, and other vehicles stick to the main roads, and car access is reserved for residents, deliveries, and emergency services.

Inside the low-traffic area, creative measures like wider footpaths, bollards, planting and new public spaces encourage residents to make greater use of alternative modes such as walking, wheeling or cycling for short local trips.

In the UK, where they are being rapidly deployed as part of the Covid-19 response, low-traffic neighbourhoods have been shown to reduce vehicle emissions, improve air quality, encourage physical activity, benefit local businesses, foster social connection, and improve life expectancy. Importantly from a road safety perspective, they are highly effective at preventing road deaths and injuries.

The Helen Clark Foundation and WSP New Zealand have today released a report entitled ‘The Shared Path: How low-traffic areas in Aotearoa’s cities can decarbonise transport, save lives, and create the connected urban communities we need in a post-pandemic future’.

It makes the case for the widespread creation of new low-traffic neighbourhoods in New Zealand’s cities as part of the Covid-19 response, and recommends actions that communities, councils, and central government can take to speed their adoption.

One of the recommendations is that reducing VKT is included as a key priority in future iterations of the Road to Zero strategy. Not only is this a no-brainer from a road safety perspective, it would be a huge step towards reaching net zero emissions by 2050, given that 40% of our transport-related carbon emissions come from private vehicles. Smart policy adjustments like this create the conditions for design-led solutions to emerge, rather than relying on individuals driving less in a social and physical environment that doesn’t support this.

Everybody should be able to get where they need to go comfortably, safely, affordably, and in good time. The pandemic gave us a taste of a low-traffic future, and in doing so, saved lives. Now we need to choose that future for ourselves.

Holly Walker is deputy director and WSP Fellow for The Helen Clark Foundation. Her report about low-traffic neighbourhoods was released today and is available from the foundation’s website.




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