We need to talk about car cul­ture

So­ci­ety seems will­ing to tol­er­ate all man­ner of ‘col­lat­eral dam­age’

The New Zealand Herald - - EDITORIAL & LETTERS - Rhys Jones com­ment Dr Rhys Jones (Nga¯ti Kahun­gunu) is a pub­lic health medicine spe­cial­ist and se­nior lec­turer in Ma¯ori health at the Univer­sity of Auck­land.

In the af­ter­math of another hor­rific mass shoot­ing in the United States, the rest of the world is, as is cus­tom­ary af­ter these all-too-fa­mil­iar in­ci­dents, shak­ing its col­lec­tive head in dis­be­lief. What seems par­tic­u­larly in­com­pre­hen­si­ble is that such a tragedy will, in all like­li­hood, lead to no mean­ing­ful ac­tion.

But be­fore we get too self-right­eous, we might want to con­sider whether sim­i­lar aber­ra­tions or blindspots ex­ist in New Zealand pub­lic pol­icy. One is­sue that war­rants se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly in light of re­cent events, is our at­ti­tude to cars and the trans­port cul­ture that pre­vails as a re­sult.

The par­al­lels are clear. When it comes to trans­port pol­icy in New Zealand, as with gun con­trol in the US, it’s as though all rea­son and ev­i­dence goes out the win­dow. As a so­ci­ety we seem will­ing to tol­er­ate all man­ner of ‘col­lat­eral dam­age’ as a trade-off for the per­ceived ben­e­fits.

Af­ter each in­ci­dent – a mass shoot­ing in the US or a mul­ti­ple fa­tal­ity on our roads – along with a sense of de´ja` vu comes a feel­ing of res­ig­na­tion. Deep down we know that af­ter all the thoughts, prayers, con­do­lences and ex­hor­ta­tions to act have sub­sided, noth­ing mean­ing­ful will be done to pre­vent the next tragedy.

Our road toll has been ris­ing over re­cent years, with fa­tal­ity rates in­creas­ing since 2013 af­ter many years of de­cline. Yet there has been no over­whelm­ing pub­lic outcry. There is, at some level, col­lec­tive ac­cep­tance of a man­i­festly un­ac­cept­able sit­u­a­tion. Trans­port poli­cies con­tinue to pri­ori­tise traf­fic flow and re­li­a­bil­ity for mo­torists over safety for ev­ery­one. We con­tinue to tol­er­ate chil­dren be­ing killed on their way to school as some­how be­ing an ac­cept­able price to pay for the free­dom and con­ve­nience that driv­ing pro­vides.

Like gun deaths in the US, it doesn’t have to be this way. In the Nether­lands, for ex­am­ple, the road fa­tal­ity rate in 2014 was 2.8 per 100,000, less than half of New Zealand’s rate of 6.5.

Now, you’re prob­a­bly think­ing, “but we’re noth­ing like the Nether­lands”. How­ever, un­til the 1970s, nei­ther was the Nether­lands.

In 1972 over 3000 peo­ple died on Dutch roads; in 2014, de­spite a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in pop­u­la­tion, that num­ber had dropped to 570. This stag­ger­ing de­cline was prompted by po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy by Dutch cit­i­zens who recog­nised their ‘car prob­lem’ and lob­bied gov­ern­ment to ad­dress it.

In ad­di­tion to deaths and in­juries as a re­sult of road traf­fic crashes, New Zealand’s car cul­ture has many other devastating im­pacts on our health and well­be­ing. Over 1000 peo­ple die pre­ma­turely ev­ery year in New Zealand as a re­sult of air pol­lu­tion, much of which is at­trib­ut­able to motor ve­hi­cles.

Our car de­pen­dence also leads to a mas­sive and un­nec­es­sary bur­den of dis­ease as­so­ci­ated with phys­i­cal in­ac­tiv­ity, not to men­tion lock­ing in pat­terns of be­hav­iour and ur­ban de­sign that ex­ac­er­bate cli­mate change, the great­est threat to global pub­lic health this cen­tury.

New Zealand’s car prob­lem is also high­lighted by the in­or­di­nate amount of pub­lic funds we are pre­pared to sink into ma­jor road­ing projects that ef­fec­tively dou­ble down on the con­gested, pol­lut­ing, dis­ease-in­duc­ing sys­tem we have. Trans­port au­thor­i­ties have had to be dragged kick­ing and scream­ing to sup­port Sky­path, a cru­cial walk­ing and cy­cling link across the Auck­land Har­bour Bridge, de­spite the fact that it costs peanuts.

At the same time, bil­lions of dol­lars are spent on “roads of na­tional sig­nif­i­cance” af­ter per­func­tory cost-ben­e­fit analy­ses and min­i­mal scru­tiny be­cause, well, they’re na­tion­ally sig­nif­i­cant.

On the one hand, we have to fight to get pub­lic trans­port in­fra­struc­ture that of­fers real so­lu­tions to our trans­port prob­lems, while on the other hand we have to ac­tively op­pose road projects that threaten to ex­ac­er­bate those prob­lems.

Fur­ther ev­i­dence of our deeply em­bed­ded and prob­lem­atic car cul­ture, and the re­sult­ing ir­ra­tional­ity of de­ci­sion mak­ing and out­comes, can be seen in how we al­lo­cate pub­lic space. Cities and town cen­tres, which in many other coun­tries are at­trac­tive, pedes­tri­anised pub­lic spa­ces, in New Zealand are of­ten un­invit­ing, noisy and pol­luted ar­eas as a re­sult of traf­fic and parked cars.

De­spite pri­vate motor ve­hi­cles com­mand­ing the vast ma­jor­ity of space on ur­ban trans­port cor­ri­dors, there is a gen­eral re­luc­tance to con­cede any of this space to en­able other trans­port modes. For ex­am­ple, re­tail­ers ve­he­mently protest the re­moval of car park­ing to al­low cy­cle lanes, even when there is clear ev­i­dence that do­ing so is good for busi­ness.

Which­ever way you look at it, the de­ci­sions we make about cars – whether it be fund­ing for in­fra­struc­ture, reg­u­la­tion to im­prove safety, pro­mot­ing healthy en­vi­ron­ments or al­lo­ca­tion of pub­lic space – are ir­ra­tional and harm­ful. Logic, pro­por­tion, and ju­di­cious bal­anc­ing of pros and cons are hard to de­tect in any such dis­cus­sions. Other coun­tries with more ev­i­dence-based and hu­mane ap­proaches to trans­port no doubt look at coun­tries like ours in dis­be­lief.

Picture / John van de Ven

The wreck­age of two motor ve­hi­cles in­volved in a crash this week on SH1 north of Taupo that killed four peo­ple and in­jured a fur­ther eight.

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