Timothy Welch explains how those reduced speed limits won’t impact your travel as much as you think they will
Comment: Wellington City Council has signed off on a proposal to cut speed limits to 30km/h on most streets, and 40km/h on the main roads. The apparently ‘radical’ move has provoked a mixed reception, some enthusiasm as well as horror, but this one small step is likely to make the capital a lot safer for pedestrians and cyclists. And contrary to popular perception, it’s not going to make life harder for drivers.
However, one thing it will surely help do is reduce traffic injuries and deaths. We can look to the cities of Oslo, Helsinki and oddly enough Hoboken New Jersey as good examples for this. All three cities reduced CBD speed limits to 30 km/h as part of their Vision Zero implementation and all three cities have recently achieved zero recorded traffic deaths for an entire year. Speed alone isn’t the only ingredient in this success, but it was a major factor.
Whenever it’s suggested that steps should be taken to reduce automobile use and provide better facilities for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, a host of long-standing myths resurface to cloud the conversation. While pervasive, many of the most common myths are quickly dispensed with through common knowledge.
Such as the myth that a slower speed limits ruin your commute.
One of the cornerstones of Road To Zero, New Zealand’s implementation of Vision Zero (the international concept of zero traffic deaths created in Sweden in 1997 which has become a global policy many nations are implementing) is slowing down cars. Reducing speeds is logical because most of our roads are designed to prioritise the mobility of vehicles over access and safety, allowing cars to move along the street far too fast.
We have designed our roads to accommodate the worse actors amongst drivers. Most roads are designed to accommodate speeds of 80kmh, regardless of the official speed limit. This design encourages speeding. Moreover, those speed limits are set using the 85 percent rule, which determines a road’s speed based on how fast the fastest 15 percent of people drive on the road.
These high speeds are potentially fatal for everyone outside the car. The goal of reducing speeds is thus a small step in making cities less dangerous for those who choose not to travel in a motor vehicle.
The amazing thing about reducing traffic speed is small speed changes can have a massive impact on safety. Reducing speeds from 50kmh to 30kmh (a 40 percent reduction) reduces the likelihood of a collision between a car and person being fatal from 80 percent to just 10 percent. It also significantly reduces the possibility of a crash as slower speeds make cars more responsive to braking and give the driver and person outside the vehicle more time to react.
For the past seven years in New Zealand, more than 300 people have lost their lives to ‘vehicle violence’. Typically, a dozen or so are pedestrians or cyclists. These deaths are – as are nearly all vehicle-related deaths – entirely preventable. However, the way cities have been built, the design of transportation systems, and the lack of infrastructure, pretty much guarantee deaths will occur.
We’ve built our cities to prioritise cars but cars weren’t always the dominant mode of transport on the road. It started with horse and cart, then bikes. When cars arrived on the scene in the 1920s and began to dominate in the 1950s, all other modes of transport were pushed off the roads.
When cars took over, the focus became building more roads, widening existing facilities and stretching them far into undeveloped lands. The intense focus on road building meant that good-quality footpaths and protected cycleways were an afterthought, if they ever were a thought.
The lack of safe cycling infrastructure leaves cyclists vulnerable to heavy, sometimes erratic and fast-moving vehicle traffic.
Despite the grumblings of drivers, slower speeds have a small impact on travel times. Reducing speeds from 50km/h to 30km/h adds just 48 seconds of travel time per kilometre. For the average Wellington commute of 14km, this speed reduction would add, at most, 11 minutes to commute times if all travel was done at this lower speed.
Slower speeds reduce crashes, lessen inefficient queuing and bunching and make walking and cycling more attractive. As a result, travel times become more reliable, so on average, your commute is barely impacted by slower speeds, but your city is by far a much safer place.