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The death of Jane Bishop on Tamaki Drive has finally forced the issue of cyclist safety into the limelight, writes Phil Taylor
Sarah Payne knows exactly where her best friend, Jane Bishop, made the fateful decision that ended in her dying beneath a truck on Tamaki Drive.
She also knows why. "Because the bike path [along the footpath] is shite."
They rode it together most days on their commute from Mission Bay to work in Albert St. It's at its worst in Okahu Bay, near Kelly Tarlton's corner, where the crash occurred.
Bishop would dismount at the spot where roots from the bay's pohutukawas have undermined the path, making it difficult to ride. "She would get off at the bumpy bit, the rough bit at Okahu Bay, and walk," says Payne.
The evening of November 17, 2010, was bright, sunny and full of the promise of summer. Traffic on Tamaki Drive was reduced to a crawl as people keen to make the most of the weather swelled the evening commuter rush.
At Citymed, at a few minutes past 6pm, Payne, a physiotherapist, and Bishop, a nurse, prepared to head home. They were flatmates and colleagues as well as friends.
They normally rode together but Payne, a triathlete, made a late decision to run. "We just said 'goodbye, see you at home'."
Bishop would have cycled along the shared footpath until Ohaku Bay and got off her bike as usual, says Payne. But instead of walking the next few hundred metres, remounting and continuing on the shared pathway, she switched to the road, Payne believes, because she saw she could make better progress along a channel to the left of the stop-start traffic.
That's because the pathway was busier than usual with beachgoers, strollers, skaters and people stopping to use the Okahu Bay public toilets. "It's usually quite congested and people aren't generally looking for cyclists on that path," she says, including car passengers who open doors in to the bike path. "Pedestrians are often oblivious to the fact that it even is a cycle path."
The bottom line is that the shared pathway doesn't work for commuting cyclists.
The crash occurred 300 metres further on, at one of Tamaki Drive's worst black spots for cyclists. A fisherman who had parked at the exit of the 90-degree bend opened his car door and stepped out, into the narrow corridor along which Bishop was riding.
She braked, skidded into the motorist and the open door, then fell beneath an Isuzu truck in the line of traffic, just as the 8900 kilogram vehicle moved off.
Payne heard the sirens of emergency vehicles as she jogged towards Okahu Bay and immediately thought of her flatmate and another friend, Laura O'Keefe, who she knew were on their bikes ahead.
The three women, all aged in their late 20s, had met a decade earlier while studying at King's College, London, and remained close. Each visited New Zealand on world trips and vowed to return. O'Keefe, also a nurse, settled in Auckland with her husband in 2007 and Payne and Bishop arrived in March 2010. All found jobs at the same medical centre.
Australia didn't appeal to Bishop, says Payne. "She hated the bugs, the creepy crawlies. She liked New Zealand the most. She loved the people and she loved rugby."
When Payne got near the crash site, the worst was confirmed when a policeman approached her, holding her friend's driver's licence.
Bishop's friends have found misconceptions about her upsetting and unfair. She wasn't an inexperienced cyclist, having got around London by bike for years without mishap, nor was she listening to her iPod. The latter error arose from a witness who mistakenly said she was wearing headphones. None were found at the crash scene and Bishop's iPod was found on her desk at work the next morning.
That was one of two examples (the other was that the car driver was on his cell phone) from the court case that arose from the crash of mistaken eyewitness accounts, which is the most common cause of wrongful convictions.
The Kelly Tarlton bend, along with Mission Bay and the junction with Ngapipi Rd are borne out by Ministry of Transport crash data as the worst spots for cycle crashes on Tamaki Drive. The road around the inner-eastern bays is the country's most popular cycling course, with more than 1500 cyclists using it daily and it being a busy arterial route during rush hour.
The MOT's Crash Analysis System found that of the 107 reported crashes involving cyclists on the road since 2003, the most common cause was the failure of motorists to give way when turning on to Tamaki Drive. That was the cause attributed to 42 crashes. Next was motorists' failure "to see or look" when changing lanes or making a U-turn, which caused 17 crashes; followed by motorists' failure to look or see behind when opening a vehicle door, resulting in 11 collisions.
Overall, the motorist was recorded as being primarily at fault in 87 crashes, the cyclist in seven. That trend is roughly reflected nationwide. A study by Otago University's Injury Prevention Research Unit, which looked at the same period, found the driver was deemed primarily at fault in 65 per cent of crashes compared with 35 per cent for the cyclist.
In fatal or injury crashes where the driver was at fault, researchers found 60 per cent said they did not see the cyclist. "This supports results from other research that motor vehicle drivers involved in collisions with cyclists do not see the cyclist until it is too late," the unit's report says. That raises questions both about the visibility of cyclists and the perception of drivers.
What such data doesn't address is road layout. The corner where Bishop died had history. Changes made to its layout in 2005 made it particularly dangerous for cyclists. Roading authorities had failed to heed a warning.
Glenn Becker, the motorist involved in Bishop's crash, was charged with careless use of a motorvehicle causing death but the charge was thrown out this month because the evidence didn't support that he was careless.
Cycle Action Auckland's tireless spokeswoman Barbara Cuthbert sat through the case and agrees. She says the designers of that piece of road should have been in the dock. That was more or less the argument of the defence, which blamed road layout along with the heavy traffic for Bishop's death.
Bevan Woodward, an engineer and transport planner (and Cuthbert's predecessor at the Cycle Action lobby) was to have given evidence for the defence. Woodward discovered the pinch point in 2006 while employed by the old Auckland City Council to review its mapped and signposted 50km cycle route, a scenic circuit that includes Tamaki Drive.
He reported it in a letter addressed to the council's general manager of transport, Dr Stephen Rainbow (now Auckland Transport's "key relationships manager"), which he hand-delivered to the council. Rainbow has said he doesn't recall seeing it.
The letter included photographs and explained that the addition in 2005 of a raised island in the centre of the road and changes to parking had the effect of funnelling all traffic into a narrow pinch point between parked cars and the centre island.
"While the changes may be safer for cars and pedestrians," Woodward wrote, "no consideration appears to have been made for the safety of cyclists." As an inexpensive fix, Woodward recommended that car parking and a bus park on the bend be moved and the space be used for a painted cycle lane.
Nothing was done until after Bishop's death four years later, when four carparks (including the one where Becker was parked) were promptly removed. Other problems, such as the bus park, which narrows available road space on the bend, remain and were noted by the judge.
Apart from the removal of a tree planted in the middle of the cycle lane on Quay St, none of the other examples Woodward alerted the council to in 2006 have been fixed. The examples identified two major problems common all over Auckland - pinch points and roads that go from single to double lanes at the approach to a busy intersection. "Both suddenly squeeze cyclists out, with potentially tragic results," he told the council.
And nor has anything come of his proposals to ensure that cyclist's minimum needs are catered for in every roading project and to train the city's road planners on the basics of designing for cycling.
"My overriding impression," Woodward told the Weekend Herald this week, "is that Council, or Auckland Transport, does not care about or understand the importance of cyclists' safety."
What Cuthbert describes as "a bureaucratic communication blockage" remains a critical impediment to making the city's roads safer for cyclists.
Auckland Transport (a council-controlled organisation established with the Super City) is responsible for the city's roads. While Cuthbert says the division that designs new roads is "excellent", the department responsible for problems with existing roads (Road Corridor Operations) was a closed shop. "We get told that they are very busy, that they will talk to us later, but later never comes. We are told to ring the actionline on a one-off basis. It is massively frustrating because we want to talk about systemic problems and the only way we can do that is to sit down with Road Corridor Operations."
"There's no question that the culture that prevailed in Auckland City, which effectively killed Jane Bishop, has rolled into Auckland Transport. The culture is one of non-consultation with road users and of 'we know best'."
Cuthbert wants a rapid response capability set up with input from Cycle Action's professional roading engineer and is seeking a meeting with Auckland Transport chief executive, David Warburton.
International research suggests that cyclists are safer the greater their number on the roads, because better attitudes and infrastructure follow.
Organised sports cycling bunches have begun running seminars encouraging good behaviour. The initiative is called Good Bunch and has written protocols that include riding no more than two abreast in a tight formation, limiting bunch size and obeying the rode code.
Auckland's Crown Prosecutor, Simon Moore, who cycles for fitness, says there are many examples of poor design such as "pedestrian buttresses" built across cycle lanes but he sees a change for the better in terms of attitude by drivers and cyclists.
Most adult cyclists are also motorists but few motorists also cycle. The more who do, the better, says Moore. "There is nothing that teaches you more about how to treat a cyclist than having ridden on the roads yourself."
Bishop's friends hope her death serves to make roads safer. A "ghost bike" appeared opposite the crash site soon after. The white bikes have appeared at the locations where cyclists have died. Payne says they don't know who put up the first bike but after it was stolen during the Rugby World Cup, Bishop's friends replaced it. It's a memorial but also a reminder that there is much to do.
In London, Bishop was good enough to work at the prestigious Guys and St Thomas' Hospital. She was a natural at her job, says Payne. "Jane would have saved so many lives as an awesome nurse. Maybe she will continue to make a difference now."
There is talk of installing traffic lights at Ngapipi Rd and building a boardwalk around the bays, a costly project that would have a difficult consent path. "Yes, there's some wonderful long-term thinking," says Cuthbert, "but the serious deficiency is the inability to get the day-to-day stuff done."
"I've been at bike breakfasts this week and people are saying 'if we can just get pinch points fixed across the city' ...
"These things are often easily fixed. What we are asking for is to fix them in consultation with the road-user group representing cycling. If the mayor wants a liveable city, that is the biggest step he could make in the next six months. Forget the big projects for cycling for now, just do that."
* Map by Steve SouthallBy Phil Taylor Email Phil