Pedestrians and cars a recipe for disaster

By Ewan McDonald

Downtown Auckland, Saturday afternoon. I'm driving along Customs St, will pass the Britomart intersection and turn left into Albert St to go into the office and pick up the keys I left there in my hurry to get out of the place on Friday evening.

Except I don't.

Police have barricaded Customs St at the Commerce St lights because there's a large and loud demonstration outside the US Embassy. Palestine flags, China flags, Tino Rangatiratanga flags. Don't know what the occasion is: possibly International Pick On America Day.

Traffic is diverted into Commerce St and then Fort St. Which, for those who don't get into the CBD very often - i.e. most of the motorists surrounding my Honda Jazz - has been a "shared space" for quite some months. No footpaths. No road markings. Trees and seats. People, cyclists, scooteratti, cars; ambling pace; more or less equal rights, determined by courtesy.

Expecting most Auckland drivers to exercise - or even recognise - the idea of courtesy towards any of the other three constituents of the previous sentence is the delusion of some university-educated traffic engineer who needs a degree in common sense. Especially, as in the early hours of a hot Saturday afternoon, Fort St's bars have been open for several hours to locals, backpackers, early Christmas shoppers and those on a break from the strip clubs and massage parlours.

These pedestrians and moving cars are muddled, as the mixologists say, into a dangerous cocktail.

Statistics released this week show that any interaction between Auckland motorists and pedestrians is lethal. According to Auckland Transport, seven of 27 deaths on roads around in the region in the 10 months to October 31 were pedestrians. One pedestrian was among 12 people killed on motorways or highways. Four of the dead were aged 60 or more. Only one cycling death was reported.

The Living Streets Aotearoa walking federation and Grey Power want to change the law so motorists must give way to pedestrians at intersections, as in Australia and Britain, among others.

Living Streets president Andy Smith met Associate Transport Minister Simon Bridges on the issue but Ministry of Transport officials said they'd changed the intersection rules in March.

"They are telling the minister that the New Zealand public are too stupid - that we have already changed the rules and they can't possibly handle another change," he said.

Grey Power president Roy Reid agrees, saying too many drivers turn corners at speed without considering whether there were pedestrian crossings ahead. That, combined with slower reaction times among older pedestrians, was a recipe for death or injuries.

The Government says the March law changes need to be given more time for motorists to get used to them, and pulls out national statistics showing pedestrian deaths dropped from 49 in 2007-08 to 33 in the year to June 30. Basic maths supports the proposition that Auckland Transport's numbers indicate a significant problem here, compared with the rest of the country, that needs regionally-based action.

Like the central city crossings where the left-turning arrow and the little green man coincide, and walkers are foolish enough to think they have the right to cross the street just because there's a cute white sign instructing, "Turning traffic give way to pedestrians". Wanna debate that with a high-revving courier van?

Or the vast swathes of Dominion Rd, and many other arterials (outer suburbs like Pakuranga and the North Shore specialise in them) where pensioners and mums with toddlers in pushchairs try to sprint across a couple of lanes at a time, forced to play chicken with cars and trucks. Those two-inch-high "refuges" in place of grown-up zebra crossings.

And shared streets. Sorry, just don't get them. Fort St, Elliot St, the Central Library plaza and even Nuffield St in Newmarket should be closed to traffic and become havens for pedestrians. Deliveries could be restricted to 10am-7am. It works in Italy - that's why chocolate-box cities like Siena and San Gimignano attract squillions of tourists walking around, eating and shopping and cafe-ing. That and the character architecture. Oh. Sorry.

- The Aucklander

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