How to stop the killing on our roads

It feels wrong to be reflecting on road safety as a consequence of reading stories in the media about people being killed. To the families of these recent victims, please excuse my lack of sensitivity.

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A young man on a bicycle is killed by a motorist in Auckland. The motorist drives off. A ‘hit and run’.

A young woman is run over by a truck in Melbourne. The driver fails to stop. A ‘hit and run’.

And what about the two people killed by a bus in Auckland. An eyewitness says he “heard a long honk before the moment of impact”. Does that not suggest the driver had time to stop?

Roads are designed for motor vehicles. For maximum speed and volume. These young people were victims of poor road design. Tragedies like this would be avoided if roads were designed appropriately and with the needs of soft human beings as a priority. Infrastructure is the answer. It’s simple. Build it and we will all be safe.

But sadly, the questions that will lead to that answer (beyond a handful of informed experts and advocates) are not actually even being asked yet. The uncomfortable truth is this: the ‘why’ has to come before the ‘how’. First and foremost, there needs to be an engagement in conversations and actions that will develop a universal intolerance for the killing and maiming that is currently taking place on our roads. Without a consensus that we need to stop the killing and to value life, progress towards improving the built environment will be slow and piecemeal. The ends will determine the means. Not the other way around.

The reality is that we are dealing with a human problem of the most pernicious kind. Any discussion about the role of infrastructure at this point is futile. Examples abound in the media. For example, the police and the coroner reinforce the status quo every time they issue a statement cautioning cyclists to make themselves visible. Biases run deep and they are extremely difficult to counter. It’s not the Dutch bike infrastructure that amazes me the most. It’s how they managed to build a social contract that made it possible to build that infrastructure. Bottle that!

Infrastructure is tangible. A social contract is not. But it is the social contract that will be the foundation on which the infrastructure will be built. Building a social contract requires different skills. It can be done though. That’s the part of the Dutch cycling revolution that has been overlooked. A social contract comes from the grassroots and is built up. Invest in that, I say. Now is good.

‘Cycling’ is sport and recreation. ‘Riding a bicycle’ is everyday activity. No sweat. As easy as walking, but faster.

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13 comments

  1. I’m not sure the comparison to The Netherlands is entirely appropriate from a safety perspective, when you look at the risk measured by vehicle use (fatalities per billion km is a high quality statistic which is readily available) then they are entirely comparable to the rates in Australia (NZ fares worse):
    https://www.swov.nl/en/facts-figures/factsheet/dutch-road-safety-international-perspective
    Even when you break that out into different modes, cycling in Australia is approximately just as likely to kill you as cycling the same distance in The Netherlands. They do have an interesting twist where older people are over represented in cycling crashes, as they’re choosing not to use motor vehicles which would put others at risk from their impairments.

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    1. Hi, Thanks for your comment. I have read this article a few times and I am not too sure if it is all that useful to what I am trying to convey here. But, please feel free to enlighten me. 🙂

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      1. For all the wonderful cycling infrastructure in The Netherlands, its not stopping people from dying when cycling. Even with the suggested additional benefits of safety in numbers and strict liability the rate of cyclists dying in accidents (per km travelled) is still very similar to Australia.

        Cycling infrastructure makes it a very pleasant activity, you’re not constantly being defensive and trying to follow threats around you. There is no doubt its a good thing to have but the overall result for safety doesn’t seem to change radically. Part of this is the more vulnerable users increasing their cycling use, an example of systematic risk compensation.

        Probably the majority of the population won’t ride a bike unless there is separated infrastructure and moving away from cars has many benefits for a city, but everything I see points to transport fatalities staying the same or slightly increasing in such scenarios.

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      2. I have a feeling we may be talking at cross purposes here. The Netherlands has high bicycle mode share compared to NZ. And your saying that saying safety rates (amongst cyclists or all road users?) is not as good as we want to believe. So that would suggest that there is work to be done in improving safety in the Netherlands. But meanwhile in NZ ‘we’ are looking for a solution to getting more people using bikes. And infrastructure is the key to that, it would appear. So if I’m looking for a country to aspire to, what would it be? Because it would be possible to have zero cycling facilities if no one rode bicycles. But I think we would agree that that would be a dumb target. What I wanted to convey in my post was ‘why do we have such a high tolerance for transport related deaths’?

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      3. The mode share of cycling is removed from the comparison of risk through measuring it by distance travelled. The dutch are always trying to improve road safety just as most developed nations, but their current rates of transport fatalities and even if you pull out the numbers just for cyclists are within 20-30% of those in Australia. You can see the effectiveness of substantial infrastructure in this Dutch presentation:
        https://etsc.eu/wp-content/uploads/Gert-Jan-Wijlhuizen.pdf
        Even fully segregated paths don’t make a big difference at just -24%, adding completely segregated cycling networks for all trips for a 24% reduction of that mode seems like a poor return.

        We’ll agree that a good goal is to increase cycling mode share as it has many benefits to society and cities, but that goal is unlikely to reduce transport deaths overall even if we increase the quality of cycling infrastructure.

        If you want to look at countries with significantly lower road tolls sadly there aren’t any. Scandanavia, Britain, The Netherlands, Germany and Australia are the front runners. Taking whats working from all of them can continue to improve safety but there aren’t any solutions which make big changes left.

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      4. But can you see the problem I’m trying to resolve? “Make cycling safe like it is in Australia”, would not be an accurate assessment because of the low mode share. I’m thinking that the numbers you are quoting are extrapolations? That is, if mode share in Australia jumped overnight to something comparable to the Netherlands, would the safety rates stay the same? Maybe we need to accept that some safety will be compromised in order to achieve a higher mode share. And if that’s the case, NZ is doing badly in both counts-low mode share (and missing population health/economic/environmental benefits) and low safety rates.

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      5. Btw: do the stats you are referring to distinguish between car v bike incidents and non car v bike incidents? In NZ bulk incidents the motorist is at fault. And how are sports/rec incidents treated?

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      6. I think you’re still trying to join safety and mode share as things which must be connected, they aren’t. As I keep explaining the mode share is removed from the measure of risk by comparing it against the distance travelled. Then we can compare different modes in different quantities and consider the effect on transport deaths of shifting transport from one mode to another.

        It gets much more complicated as increasing mode share will change who is cycling increasing the numbers of less capable/safe cyclists participating, balanced against safety in numbers and changing societal attitudes. For all the differences that do exist between Australia and The Netherlands the net result is cycling as a transport mode is almost equally as safe in both examples.

        You open your blog post with an unambiguous motivation of people being killed while cycling, but comparisons to The Netherlands are misguided as they still have similar rates of cycling deaths (when accounting for the different mode share).

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      7. I understand your words but I am failing to understand your intent. The data says Oz is almost as safe for cyclists as the Netherlands. Yes? Ok. So, in effect, the reality of the infrastructure that we are told we need, in order to make cycling safer (and which is abundant in the Netherlands but not in Oz) will not make cycling any safer than they are without it. Yes? So, the value of infrastructure is purely in its ability to improve subjective safety and hence increase ridership numbers. So, is it correct to assume that you are not a fan of infrastructure? Or do you simply want to point out that even with infrastructure in the format that the Dutch currently provide, it will fail to make cycling completely safe? ie. while it will encourage more people to ride and we should build it, it will not make all those people completely safe. In which case, the Dutch still do have a tolerance for road deaths and it is impossible to reduce it completely. (Caveat emptor) Or maybe we need to start thinking about banning cars completely 🙂 I don’t want to be the one to break it to advocates that infrastructure is not the panacea that they believe it is.

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      8. You’re on the same page now, infrastructure is not the magic solution its often portrayed to be even when done perfectly. Segregation of modes is good from many aspects but we should be realistic about the results it achieves. Thankfully the Dutch have the continuing research to back up their choices and we can get a good idea of what to expect.

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      9. FYI https://www.nzherald.co.nz/index.cfm?objectid=12058539&ref=twitter
        And you are more than welcome to write a post critiquing my post in order to make the point that you have in the comments section. I think it is important to make these points known. Paradoxes abound. Like the helmet issue. I am sure Dutch transport authorities would prefer every person on a bike wore a helmet but equally, they don’t want to be seen advocating for them to avoid dangerizing. In population health terms it is better to have as many people using bikes as possible. #visionzero is a tough nut to crack.

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  2. The difference in conversation is interesting, isn’t it? When children were being killed on Dutch roads, the people stood up and said that the way to stop it was to take the dangerous machine off the roads. When people die on our roads, the talk is all about making sure the victims are responsible for not getting themselves killed. Until that conversation changes, nothing else will.

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