Transport

Stop blaming individuals for bad transport policy

The transport environment that policymakers have helped shape puts the car as king and ignores the needs and safety of children. To blame grieving parents for the failure of politicians, urban designers, and roading engineers is infuriating, says Jess Berentson-Shaw.

Last Wednesday morning, during the usual morning chaos of getting our 6 and 10 year old off to school, I glanced at the news. And what I read made me incandescent with rage.

In 2017, Carla Neems was scootering home from school in Gisborne, as she did most days. But, on that awful day, a person driving a council rubbish truck backed over her. She died.

In the two years since, her parents have had to go on living with a gaping hole torn into their lives and hearts. On Wednesday, perhaps as the scar tissue was thickening, public servants ripped that hole open. The coroner investigating her death, backed by police policy, implied that Carla’s death was her parents’ fault. They let her walk to school without an adult.

My children walk and ride and scooter to school. They want to do so alone. But people have designed our neighbourhood to prioritise people using motor vehicles. The pedestrian crossings put children and turning cars on a direct collision course. The footpaths are narrow. Cars travel too fast. There are no protected cycle lanes. Children’s visibility to vehicles is not considered. Peak hour traffic flow is the number one consideration. All this prevents children in our neighbourhood, and all over NZ, from experiencing the freedom to be safe and have fun in their public spaces.

Despite this lack of infrastructure to support their safety and freedom, we do sometimes let our children scooter and play on the  pavements in our neighbourhood. A wave of rage overcomes me at the thought that powerful people - the coroner, the police, the media even - would collude to blame me if a car or truck injures them.

These adventures built my confidence and sense of independence. It made me feel as though people made the world for me too. That I mattered.

To blame grieving parents for the failure of politicians, policy makers, urban designers, and roading engineers is unacceptable. To blame individuals for the failure by professional people to put children at the heart of our public policy is a gross warping of the role of those public servants. People who shape our streets have a responsibility to ensure children are safe in their neighbourhood. Those investigating harm to children have a responsibility to understand how policy affects our wellbeing.

I grew up in Lower Hutt in the 1980s and 90’s. From a young age, I was jumping on my bike or walking to school. I would pelt over the local recreation grounds to avoid the fox terrier lurking in the shadows. In the weekends I would pootle around our streets on a homemade go-cart with my brother. These adventures built my confidence and sense of independence. It made me feel as though people made the world for me too. That I mattered.

Children and their experiences don’t appear to matter to people in our public services now. The transport environment that policy makers have help shaped has ignored children's lives. Carla’s death is one of the many harms laid on our children because of such choices. Research shows that when New Zealand children die from an injury, the cause of their death is most likely to be traffic related. And that children living in communities where the least public resources go are hurt by people in vehicles at the highest rates.

We know what to do about it too. In communities where children travel, Auckland Transport (AT) wants to slow cars down. To 30 km/hour. This is still above what is safest for children (25 km an hour and lower is best). Yet organisations like the AA, are trying to block this change. Where is their responsibility to our community? To our children?

When it is safe for children to get to and from school without adults, that is when we have it right. That is the story that people in the public service must understand and tell.

We must design and build our neighbourhoods and set policy to encourage people to use non-car forms of transport where they can. Urban planners and designers, transport engineers, advocates, and researchers say this is how we reduce harm. Yet people in central and local government focus on the loud minority who want to keep the car as king. This is not serving the public, it is not serving children like Carla.

When the coroner or police reinforce the myth that individual behaviours - rather than infrastructure and urban design - are the most important factors causing traffic related harm, we should all be angry. They are framing causes and solutions to transport harm not founded in the evidence. And it suits the agenda of the noisy few.

These people in the public service must lift their gaze. Be part of the solution, not reinforce the narrative that a loud vocal minority push about transport. People in public service are professionals, they should understand the evidence. We have structured the places we live and play in and move through in ways that harm us. Instead, we can choose to structure these places into real communities. Communities where children and adults have fun on bikes, scooters, and go-carts.

When it is safe for children to get to and from school without adults, that is when we have it right. That is the story that people in the public service must understand and tell.

To Carla’s parents, who must be hurting so much, this was not you. This was people in policy failing to prioritise those who should be. I am sorry that people in powerful positions have piled onto your pain in this way. They are failing you and all our children.

We value fearless, independent journalism. We hope you do too.

Newsroom has repeatedly broken big, important national news stories and established a platform for quality journalism on issues ranging from climate change, sexual harassment and bullying through to science, foreign affairs, women’s sports and politics.

But we need your support to continue, whether it is great, small, ongoing or a one-off donation. If you believe in high quality journalism being available for all please click to become a Newsroom supporter.

Become a Supporter

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

With thanks to our partners