On the way to Copenhagen II – Side road priority

As explained in the first post of this mini-series a while ago, this is a small series of blog posts that are going to be discussing policies (not infrastructure projects) to make cycling in NZ safer, more attractive, and more normal.

To be clear, this is very much for discussion, not CAA policy – though some topics relate to our policies, or may in time become one of them.

The topic this time is:

Should pedestrians walking / cyclists riding parallel to a main road have priority over vehicles entering and exiting side roads?

This rule exists in many countries the world over, including in my former home country (Germany). Basically, if you are walking down, say, Great North Road (or cycling on a shared path), then at any non-signalised side road, you have right of way. Yep, you should still look out for your safety, but it is perfectly feasible to simply step out. Motorists have to (and do) stop and let you pass.

What are the pros and cons? Let’s get the negatives out of the way first:

  • It would reduce car capacity at intersections where pedestrians and off-road cyclists are common, because car drivers have to stop, wait, and thus may also hold up other traffic. To this, I say: So what? If we are serious about becoming a more people-friendly society, we need to get serious about not worshipping car convenience over other modes.
  • It would be confusing for drivers. To this, I say: No, it would not. It would arguably be much clearer than at the moment, where we have strange rules according to which pedestrians “obviously waiting” at a pedestrian crossing point should be let across (check how many of your fellow drivers even knew this?). It would create “one rule to rule them all”, where through traffic – ALL through traffic – has right of way. Except at signals, which are easy enough to understand as an exception.
  • It would be unsafe, and lots of pedestrians would die as a result. To this I say: The countries using this rule have much FEWER traffic deaths than we do, including for people crossing the road. The rule encourages SAFER road use, because the main responsibility is placed on the person driving the fast, heavy, big vehicle, not on the more vulnerable party.
  • It would create a dangerous change-over time, where drivers are not yet used to the change, but pedestrians may already step out, expecting to be given priority. This is probably the most real concern, but to this I say: If we don’t change it one day, we will never change it – and we can’t change it in increments. Blitz the public with advertising on the change. Understand that pedestrians will take years before they will step out in the same way that, say, Germans already do as of right (and even Germans tend to look). And remember that lots of people thought half of all Kiwis would need new cars after the right-turn rule was changed, and how those concerns fizzled.

But would all these downsides be worth it? Let’s count the advantages:

  • Much friendlier cities for walking and off-road cycling. At the stroke of the pen. No more interminable waits at every side road as you try to make your way down the street on foot or on a shared path. You get the same dignity that car drivers going straight through on a road already get – Right of Way. What beautiful words.
  • Save a lot of money on complex road improvements. As I will discuss in a moment, there are some ways to replicate the advantages of the law change without changing the law. But they all depend on infrastructure improvements that are costly, need tight road space to construct in, and would take decades to implement in any number.
  • Much more effective and more used off-road cycle paths. We could build shared paths without having so many cyclists ignore them once they are confident enough to ride on the road. Because like pedestrians, cyclists on a shared path currently constantly. have. to. stop. at. every. side. road.
  • Safer footpaths and off-road cycle paths. Also, even if they behave according to the law, those cyclists on the shared path are still in greater danger in our current environment than they should be – because many motorists don’t properly look for footpath / off-road cycle path traffic when turning into or out of side roads. Changing the law reverses the primary burden of responsibility.

But what did I say about getting similar benefits in NZ without changing the law? Can we do this?

We can, but only by tying ourselves in knots, as an Auckland Transport urban designer once remarked with frustration at a meeting. Basically, we have to provide a zebra crossing over the side road – an example can be seen at Teed Street, off Broadway, in Newmarket. However, because drivers don’t expect this localised reversal of the rules, this is safe only in some very specific circumstances – mainly in environments where drivers already expect lots of pedestrians, traffic is already relatively slow, and ideally, where the zebra crossing can be placed on top of what is called a “speed table” – a flat speed bump.

Of course with so many restrictions in their use, and so many infrastructural requirements (raised tables are not that easy or cheap to build) that option does nothing for the literally tens of thousands of other side roads that exist in New Zealand and hinder people from walking freely and safely, and prevent off-road cycle paths from being as safe and useful as they should be.

Changing the law – it seems the only way.

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