Opinion: In March 2021, Auckland Transport summarised the feedback they received on submissions about the Great North Road bus, cycling and safety improvements, between Crummer Road and Ponsonby Road, to make the corridor safer for all road users, 

It was intended to be safer for all road users, especially people walking and cycling. It would make bus journeys more reliable, and it would help reduce congestion along the route.

The project aimed to improve safety, particularly for vulnerable users, and make other modes of transport that weren’t private vehicles, more appealing to people who travelled on the road.

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Most submissions supported the proposal, or variations of it, except perhaps for the “other submissions” catalogued towards the end of the document, many of which had common themes objecting to most of the components of the improvements. The other theme these submissions had in common was that they came from automotive-oriented groups, including National Road Carriers, Auckland City Toyota, Premium Mobility Ltd (SIXT) and Giltrap Group Holdings.

Unsurprisingly these businesses that rely on selling personal vehicles prioritised car access around their businesses and unimpeded loading to their sales lots, and objected to improvements that would moderately inconvenience some drivers while significantly enhancing everyone else’s safety.

What’s particularly interesting is a single paragraph repeated in each of these auto-oriented submissions:

“This largely commercial area consists mostly of motor vehicle-related business. It is also a major transport corridor, with more than 10,000 vehicles using this section of Great North Road daily. Despite this being high traffic volume, we understand that there have been no fatalities as a result of any vehicle-related accidents in over a decade.”

One might challenge the statement the Great North Road corridor, which crosses a library, places of worship, a Bunnings, dozens of local businesses and several housing developments, could be classed as “mostly of motor vehicle-related business”. Even if that were true, it should have little bearing on whether the road should be improved for everyone else’s safety.

One might also be surprised that in 2021 average daily weekday traffic on Great North Road (between Sussex and Brisbane Streets) was not 10,000 vehicles but a whopping 19,084 vehicles a day. This figure is important because, according to Auckland Transport’s own Urban Street and Road Design Guide, roads with this level of traffic volume should have protected cycleways with wide separators.

But what jumps out is the final line, that there “have been no fatalities as a result of any vehicle-related accidents in over a decade”. To write such a statement is to either be unaware of or to deliberately ignore the death of 81-year-old Elaine Leong on August 16, 2018.

Elaine was crossing Great North Road from west to east and was in the northbound lane when a Porsche Cayenne, driven by Ivan Marinovich, came around a slight bend in the road and fatally struck her.

Elaine wasn’t on a crosswalk because on this western stretch of Great North Road, at the end of a cluster of local shops, the closest pedestrian crossing is either 100m back or 160m up from the point at which Elaine needed to cross. These extra distances, to cross the road, were likely daunting for Elaine.

She was not breaking any laws, as pedestrians have a right to cross a road outside a pedestrian crossing where they feel safe. From Marinovich’s statement, he was driving about 20-25kph and was 1-2m from Elaine when she began to cross the road.

We don’t know precisely how fast Marinovich was travelling at the time or how far he was from Elaine when she started crossing the road. While police copied his statement, he argued that the 81-year-old, who used a walking stick, “ran” out in the road before him. Marinovich was convicted of careless driving causing death, given a $3,600 fine and a loss of his licence for seven months.

The arguments by National Road Carriers, Auckland City Toyota and Premium Mobility Ltd (SIXT) that Great North Road was safe despite heavy traffic volumes, and that there had been “no fatalities as a result of any vehicle-related accidents in over a decade”, is true for the area where the auto dealerships are concentrated. But not for the entire stretch of road targeted for improvements. 

Their omission could be forgiven as the crash happened about 1.5km away from these businesses and three years before the statements they put forth.

The situation is different for Giltrap Group Holdings, which also submitted the very same statement. Ivan Marinovich had been an employee of Giltrap for 47 years. At the time of the fatal crash, he was driving a Giltrip-owned car back to work at Giltrap Porsche. In the New Zealand Herald article about Marinovich’s conviction, Shaun Summerfield, Giltrap’s head of communications, even makes a statement confirming it was a company-owned car.

This was a serious collision by a company employee using a company car while on the job, so why the omission?

It’s difficult to say how much influence the statements submitted by Giltrap and others held over the decision-making process. Still, the design, approved in October 2021, was finally approved by Auckland Council on June 27, 2023.

This isn’t the only case of groups who deny safety improvements being utterly wrong in their position. Soon, decisions will be made about a critical extension of the Great North Road improvements through Surrey Crescent and points beyond, called the Waitemata Safe Routes project.

In 2019 a two-vehicle crash on Surrey Crescent sent the driver of one vehicle to the hospital with serious injuries. The collision was so violent the driver had to be cut from their car after it was flung onto the footpath. Luckily no one outside the vehicles was hurt. With irony rearing its head, the Stuff article reports the “crash took place just three days after an aggressive protest halted the implementation of a speed bump in the same area”.

There will always be opponents to road projects that even slightly reduce the priority of vehicles in favour of better accessibility and safety for people on foot and bikes. But, the often misinformed opinions of a few should not outweigh the voices of entire communities demanding better streets and cities.

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