Claims that the Island Bay cycleway is "unsafe" are hypocritical and put a car-centric sense of entitlement ahead of the health and safety of vulnerable road users. Here's why:
By far the most dangerous things on our roads are motor vehicles
Motor vehicles are inherently more dangerous than a bike or pedestrian and create significant risks to people biking or walking when mixed together e.g. when cyclists are forced to ride in traffic or 'door zone lanes', or when a pedestrian has to cross the road. The reasons why should be self-evident but if you need proof it can be found in Figure 3.2 on page 5 of NZTA's Road Safety Audit Procedures for Projects (these are the same set of procedures being used in the safety audits currently being carried out on the cycleway):
"The risk of a pedestrian or cyclist being killed or seriously injured by a car increases significantly when travelling over 30km/h. A safe system would protect pedestrians and cyclists by providing safer road infrastructure, by encouraging the uptake of vehicles that inflict less harm on vulnerable users in a crash, by managing speeds to reduce the risk of serious injury and by both the drivers and the vulnerable user being alert to and aware of the risks associated with their interaction so they can both behave accordingly."
Pedestrians and cyclists have much more in common with each other than they do with motor vehicles and it should be beyond question that separating people on bikes from traffic for the majority of their journey along The Parade reduces both the likelihood and consequences of a person on a bike being involved in a collision. It also greatly reduces the exposure to near misses, which are the real problem suppressing the uptake of cycling (for more information on this see The University of Westminster's Near Miss Project). As pointed out in a recent post on the well respected Transport Blog:
"In short, our default urban speed limits are too high for pedestrians and cyclists to be safe in the event that they’re hit by a car… and road designs encourage people to drive even faster. This has a number of direct and indirect consequences. The direct consequence is that people die, needlessly. The indirect consequence is that many people choose not to walk or cycle at all – a rational response to a dangerous road environment. That in turn leads to health problems and premature deaths down the track as a result of physical inactivity."
The bottom line is that The Parade is an arterial 50 kph road with nearly 10,000 vehicle movements per day. It is also a major bus route. Yes, the cycleway still has risks. There are still interactions with traffic at intersections and driveways and these need to be carefully managed (although the frequency of interactions at driveways has been grossly overstated) but to suggest that these risks are greater than the risks faced by people riding bikes among cars, trucks and buses weighing from one to 15 tonnes and moving at 50 kph is not just disingenuous but dangerous.
The Parade is already "unsafe", but we accept the risks
According to NZTA's Crash Analysis System over the ten years from 2005-2014 there were a total of 65 crashes on The Parade, causing 4 serious and 24 minor injuries. Only 2 of these (both in 2008) involved bikes, 1 of which caused a minor injury. This is probably not even the full picture. In his recent blog on the Island Bay cycleway Professor Alistair Woodward pointed out that "it is well-known these [crash] data are insensitive, partial and slow to come to hand." Most Island Bay residents who regularly ride a bike can tell you about many more crashes and near misses that went unreported. At least 20 of these reported crashes occurred in the 4 years since 2010, when Councillor Paul Eagle first took office.
These are all crashes that actually happened, not speculation about crashes that might happen. But where were the howls of protest and hand-wringing about these crashes? Where were the photos in local newspapers of angry residents and scowling councillors standing in the road and demanding changes? The sad but so-very-pragmatic truth is that there weren't any. Despite the very obvious dangers associated with motorised vehicles the reality is that we are so enamoured with them that we are prepared to accept quite a high level of collateral damage (an average of 6.5 crashes, 3 injuries and an unknown number of near misses on The Parade every year).
I don't think that's right but I can understand why it is. We collectively believe that the benefits of cars outweigh the costs so we are able to accept a certain number of crashes and injuries. In fact, we've developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome and come to view motor vehicle crashes as 'normal'. Another recent Transport Blog post highlighted some misguided commentary on road safety that implied that “distracted walking” was a serious problem and made the important point that:
"As humans, we’re very prone to focus on risks from new activities while ignoring the effects of things that are already common. Status quo bias is a very real thing"
What I absolutely cannot understand is why the cycleway should be judged to a higher standard than the road, especially when it is unproven whether the cycleway is dangerous at all. That's not to say that we shouldn't try to minimise as many obvious risks and issues as we can but that's still a long, long way from arriving at a completely premature and unsubstantiated conclusion that the cycleway is "unsafe".
Safety isn't absolute, it's relative
There is no such thing as "safe" or "unsafe". The safety of something can only be properly assessed and understood in comparison to the safety of other things. In the case of The Parade the relevant questions to ask are:
- What was The Parade like previously?
- How does The Parade compare to other roads in Island Bay and Wellington?
Some of the most common safety concerns related to The Parade's new layout are listed below, with some thoughts on how the concern compares to either The Parade's previous layout or other roads around Island Bay and Wellington. In the new layout there is actually only one interaction that is completely new and unique to the Island Bay cycleway. That's the interaction between a person riding a bike along the cycleway and a passenger getting out of a parked car. Every other concern is either a variant on an interaction that previously existed or has a precedent somewhere else in the Wellington roading network.
The road is "too narrow". This regularly made claim is just nonsense and easily disproved. Yes, the main carriageway of The Parade is now narrower than it was previously but the traffic lanes are still 3.0 m wide. This is a standard width and actually wider than many other roads around Island Bay and Wellington. In fact, you can't actually get to Island Bay without driving along roads that are just as narrow, or even narrower. Buses and trucks do need to be careful when passing each other but that's a good thing and it's not unreasonable to expect professional drivers to cope. As long as it is still passable a tight fit illustrates the efficient allocation of precious road space. There's also an increasing amount of international evidence that shows that narrower traffic lanes are safer because they slow traffic down. I am absolutely certain that the average speed along The Parade has dropped since the cycleway was implemented and I hope that WCC and NZTA are gathering data that will confirm whether that is true. The review of the cycleway certainly needs to include this kind of hard data. A possible solution to this 'problem' is the removal of more parking. The base residential demand for parking is another dataset that WCC and NZTA must bring to the review.
It's "dangerous" getting out of the driver's side of a car. There's no doubt that drivers now need to be more careful getting out of a car, because they are getting out into the traffic lane instead of a "bike lane". The question is whether this represents an unacceptably high level of risk. It doesn't, because this interaction is still no different to many, if not most, other roads around Island Bay and Wellington. There is a clear precedent and it's not unreasonable to expect drivers to take care getting in and out of a car. The fact that drivers making this complaint apparently don't see the need to take the same care getting out of a car into a bike lane tells you something.
It's "dangerous" getting out of the passenger side of a car. This is a completely new interaction and it will take time for both passengers and people riding bikes to get used to it. However, there is a buffer zone between parked cars and bikes and as long as both parties take care and show some courtesy there shouldn't be any problems. Again, the question is whether this presents an unacceptably high level of risk to anyone. Without a local precedent it's hard to judge, but the parking protected cycleway design is already common overseas. 30% of all protected bike lanes in the U.S. use parked cars. What is certain is that both the likelihood and consequences of getting 'doored' on the passenger side are much lower for a cyclist. Ministry of Transport research shows that for a large proportion of car travel (approx. two thirds), the driver is the only person in the vehicle. A cyclist 'doored' in a cycleway is also at no risk of then being run over by a motor vehicle.
Visibility is reduced when reversing out of driveways. Actually, as a general rule, it isn't. What has changed is that the obscured visibility created by a parked car for a reversing car now occurs when edging out into the main carriageway instead of into a "bike lane". Again, the perception that this wasn't previously an issue tells you something because the risk to people riding bikes is significantly reduced. Does this present an unacceptably high risk to reversing cars? It probably depends very much on the specific characteristics of a particular driveway but, in general, the risk here is no worse than when reversing out of one of Wellington's ubiquitous angle parks. And there are many other driveways around Wellington with similar visibility issues. In the most severe cases there is an obvious solution - remove the offending car park.
Making a left-hand turn across the cycleway is "dangerous". This has always been the case and being cut off by a left-hand turning car is the bane of every cyclists life. The cycleway doesn't remove this interaction but it does structure it in a more formal (but slightly different) way. As long as people on bikes and motorists are looking out for each other there really shouldn't be a problem. In our tips for using the Island Bay cycleway we suggest that drivers approaching a left-hand turn should be scanning the cycleway for people on bikes and then check their side mirror and glance over their shoulder before making the turn slowly. The risk of a collision at a driveway is also mitigated by the speed that someone on a bike is travelling and the visibility of the turning car to the person on a bike. Drivers probably don't appreciate just how visible they are to cyclists even if cyclists don't seem that visible to them. A person riding a bike at a safe speed will almost always have plenty of time to slow down and stop (if necessary) on the rare occasion that a car turning left into a driveway hasn't seen them. People on bikes need to play their part by accepting that sometimes motor vehicles will be temporarily blocking the cycleway.
Overall, the current layout of The Parade really doesn't present any risks to road users that are unacceptably high when compared to the standards set by the rest of the Wellington roading network, and in many cases they are still lower. A common theme above is the transfer of some risk from people on bikes to motorists, but in most cases this means a significant reduction in the risk to cyclists at the expense of a minor increase in risk to motorists. It's a subjective debate, of course, and it would be good to see WCC and NZTA try to bring some more objectivity to this discussion as part of the review of the cycleway. It's also worth noting that most of the perceived risks with the new layout could be mitigated, or even removed completely, by removing more on-street parking from one or both sides of The Parade. Anecdotal evidence suggest that the base residential demand for on-street parking along The Parade is as low as 50-60%, which makes this option a realistic possibility. Hard data certainly needs to be collected on parking demand by WCC and NZTA so that the option of removing parking can be discussed as part of the review.
Any objective discussion about safety on our roads really starts and ends with motorised traffic. To argue that separating people on bikes from cars, trucks and buses travelling at 50 kph is less safe overall is disingenuous and dangerous. If we really care about safety then let's focus on motor vehicles and have a discussion about things that will actually make a difference. Let's talk about dropping the speed limit across Wellington to 30 kph. Let's talk about about the design of roads and road geometry that encourages people to keep to safe speed limits. Let's talk about giving pedestrians and cyclists on paths priority over turning traffic at side streets. Let's talk about having more traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. And let's talk about removing more on-street parking from Wellington's roads in order to make more room for cycleways and footpaths (in Island Bay it is actually the preservation of so much on-street parking on The Parade that creates almost all the key risks that people perceive with the cycleway). If we just don't want to talk about these things that's fine, life is full of tough choices and trade-offs and we might not be prepared to make some of those. But if we are prepared to mitigate, manage and ultimately accept the significant risks associated with having motor vehicles in our cities and suburbs please don't be a hypocrite and tell me we can't do the same for a cycleway.
The past week in Island Bay provides a perfect case study on the hypocrisy surrounding the 'safety' of the cycleway.
On June 9 a child was actually run over by a car near Wakefield Park. The child was very lucky to escape with only a few bruises. However, there was no comment at all about the incident on Councillor Paul Eagle's Facebook page or Twitter account and The Dominion Post did not report on it. There was some comment on other social media but it was largely along the lines of this blog post from mayoral candidate Keith Johnson which bizarrely uses the incident as an excuse to have a crack at the cycleway, which ends approx. 100m down the road and had nothing to do with it. I'm in general agreement with Keith's comment that we need more "integrated multi-modal transport planning" but find it strange that he can't see how encouraging use of the cycleway could make an immediate contribution to lessening the severe traffic management issues that exist at Wakefield Park.
On June 13 a truck crashed into a parked car on The Parade. Almost immediately Councillor Eagle sent a series of tweets blaming the cycleway. Later, in comments to the Dominion Post, he indulged himself in more bike-blaming by repeating an unverified claim that the driver swerved to avoid a cyclist and speculating that "the next thing that will happen is there'll be a death". A witness to the crash later claimed that "there was no cyclist". Even if there was a cyclist they were quite entitled to be on the main carriageway (let's not forget that's still how it works on every other road in Wellington) and it is hard to see how they would be to blame. It should also be noted that under the old layout the truck would have swerved into the "bike lane" so it's no less speculative to say that the death of a cyclist may have been avoided. In fact, the incident is actually a good example of how people riding bikes, as vulnerable road users, are safer in a protected cycleway. There's little doubt that Councillor Eagle's comments were premature, opportunistic and irresponsible, especially coming from a community leader. They also reveal an instinctive lack of empathy with people who choose to ride bikes. The good news is that the Police are investigating (the crash, not Councillor Eagle).