COMMENT:

What's with all the fast and furious opposition to Auckland Transport's plan to lower speed limits in the central city and on other high-risk roads? The AA and the National Party are both terribly worked up about it.

Actually, what is the point of the AA? It wants us to think it's the voice of motorists but that's not true. It's an insurance company that offers a breakdown service, and good on it. Although most other insurance companies also do that.

Motorists don't have a single voice, because we're nearly all motorists and we don't think alike. Claiming to be the voice of motorists is like claiming to be the voice of taxpayers, or parents: it's inherently nonsensical.

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The AA bolsters its case by surveying its members, but those surveys are opt-in. They represent the views of a non-random, self-selected group of people who want their views heard.

As a guide to public opinion, they're like the surveys of readers and listeners conducted by the Herald and NewstalkZB: always interesting, never reliable.

The AA says it's strongly committed to road safety and it also says its members are opposed to lower speed limits. Well, you can't have it both ways.

Auckland Transport (AT) has declared safety is its top priority and it wants to reduce the speed limit in the central city from 50km/h to 30km/h.

What's the point of that, critics ask, when the traffic moves slowly anyway? On the motorway ramps of Hobson St, Nelson St and Fanshawe St, according to AT's own data, the average speed is only 19km/h now.

The answer goes like this.

Those roads are high-crash routes. It's not the regular speed that causes problems, it's the sudden bursts of speed, the lurching between lanes, the attempts to run the lights.

All of those things are made possible by the 50km/h speed limit. They will become harder to do, making the roads less dangerous, if the limit comes down to 30km/h.

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And with a steadier speed, traffic on those roads will progress more quickly. Speeding and slowing causes backups that slow everyone down.

Hobson, Nelson and Fanshawe Streets are not exceptions to the value of the slower speeds plan. They are at the very heart of it. They're the streets we most need moderated.

AA spokesman Barney Irvine told me the other day that speed limits weren't the best ways to make those streets safer. The implication was that they could become corridors, closed off from non-vehicle users. A bit like extending the motorway right into the city, I guess.

If you're looking for an exemplar of the difference between two competing views of the city, that's a pretty good one right there.

In the AA vision, we put up a physical barrier on each side of the road, keeping pedestrians, cyclists, scooterers and others on the outside. It could be done with raised and planted borders, or it could just be a wall. We would also need bridges and ramps and underpasses, to allow for cross traffic, other road users wanting to cross and merging traffic.

It would be quite expensive. It wouldn't address any health, air pollution or climate change issues. It would probably be quite unpleasant. But at least it would let the traffic flow, right?

Actually, it wouldn't. The AA vision for busy city streets, if that's really what it is, would encourage more traffic and that would lead to more congestion.

That's the thing about policies explicitly designed to prioritise private motor vehicles: they make things worse, not only for every other road user, but for private vehicles too.

The status quo is the problem. It can't possibly be the solution.

The alternative vision involves making the option not to drive a lot more attractive to a lot more people. That means, among many other things, making the streets safer and more inviting to walk on.

There's a deeper factor. The AA approach conceives of the inner city as a central business district, a CBD, in which businesspeople arrive and depart in private vehicles. That, for many decades, has been what business people do.

But the inner city is far more than a CBD. It's home to 57,000 people now and the number is growing fast. It's a place to live, be educated, be entertained, hang out, enjoy. It's a complex, growing community. If we stop calling it a CBD it might help us to stop thinking of it only in those terms.

The area around upper Hobson and Nelson Streets is the densest residential precinct in the entire country. Some 13,000 people live there, and many of them walk their kids to and from Freemans Bay School, across dangerous roads that were not designed for regular pedestrian use and have not been well adapted to cope with it.

That's got to be fixed – and the fact it hasn't been tells you heaps about Auckland Transport. The restricted speeds policy is great, but AT has been woefully slow to introduce other safety measures. Communities all over the city have been campaigning for years for footpaths, safer intersections, median dividers and the like on their roads, and very often getting nowhere.

The National Party's new transport spokesman, Paul Goldsmith, has weighed in on this. He's called for other safety measures, including red-light cameras and enforcement, to be introduced instead of lower speeds.

That's rich. AT's historic neglect of safety was perfectly in tune with the National-led Government's approach, which focused on motorways, not safety on local roads. And the police themselves scaled back their road-safety enforcement over those years as a direct result of budget restrictions.

The police have now renewed their commitment and AT has a bigger programme of safety-related roadworks. That's a result of the new transport accord between the Labour-led Government and council, which is funded in part by the regional fuel tax. National says it will abolish that tax.

Goldsmith called the proposed 30km/h limit "radical" and an "over-reaction". He called for "common sense" and said the plan is "hard to understand given cars have never been safer than they are now".

Safer for whom? The growth in fatal and serious-injury crashes in Auckland has been three times greater than in the rest of the country. Most of it has involved harm to people hit by cars: motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians.

That's why we need to rethink our approach to road use.

That's why 30km/h is not an over-reaction. Recent research from Monash University in Melbourne found that lowering speed limits from 40km/h to 30km/h cuts in half a pedestrian's chance of dying when hit by a car.

There's also evidence that improved safety for vehicle occupants can make the crash rate worse. Like sportspeople wearing protective gear, drivers who feel safer may behave less safely.

But what about the "natural driving speed"? Irvine and Goldsmith have both suggested the rules have to acknowledge this, or people will ignore them.

There's no natural driving speed. Most people drive to the limit, which feels "natural" because it's what everyone else is doing. They drove at 50km/h on Ponsonby Rd when they were allowed to and now they drive at 40km/h. The crash rate has dropped accordingly.

Regulations, and only regulation, can make this change happen. It's what common sense really looks like, and it's for everyone.