What went wrong? CBD speed limits stay the same for a second time

In a marathon session last night, the Wellington City Council voted down the proposal to reduce the speed limit on selected CBD streets to 30km/hr. It was a defeat for Transport portfolio leader Andy Foster.

Foster’s track record with speed limits isn’t good – this is the second time in three years that a decreased speed limit has received the thumbs down. In 2011 there was a proposal to decrease speeds on the Golden Mile to 20km/hr, and it was soundly defeated. This time, the speed limit was a bit higher and the road selection a little wider, but his colleagues around the Council table seemed equally skeptical.

What’s remarkable is the consistency of the result across two very different councils. In 2011 the conservative bloc was much more assertive – think Ian McKinnon and John Morrison – while this term there’s a much more collaborative approach to getting things done. With the likes of Nicola Young and Mark Peck around the table, who either live or have businesses in the CBD, you’d think that a lower speed limit on the streets they live and work on would have been an easy sell.

And looking at coverage in the Dominion Post, Deputy Mayor Justin Lester was doing his best to take councillors on the journey, a state of affairs that’s different to three years ago, when the more conservative Councillors seemed to want to stifle Celia Wade-Brown’s agenda at every turn. So what went wrong?

The first problem was that the quality of the proposal. As was pointed out on wellington.scoop the officers’ arguments weren’t exactly compelling – agreeing to a 30km/hr limit on roads where the average is already 31km/hr doesn’t seem like grappling with the big issues of the day. And it does seem odd that the progressive/green bloc would want to expend so much political capital to get such a small improvement.

But the real challenge seemed to be Foster’s inability to convince his colleagues to support the proposal. It wasn’t a big change so it shouldn’t have needed a big sell.

Perhaps the reason for the skepticism has to do with his support for the now-failed Basin Reserve flyover. While he may well feel that throwing in his lot with the Transport Agency was the right thing to do, the way he went about it – using a swing vote at the last minute in a way that ambushed his colleagues – would naturally inspire some cynicism about both his motives and methods.

Political memories are long memories, and all politicians hold grudges. Perhaps these two defeats for Foster have less to do with the merits of lower speed limits than they do with blow-back. And if that’s true, then he has a very hard row to hoe indeed.

This is important because transport is not a collection of standalone decisions that can live or die individually; some of the projects in the pipeline are critical to Wellington and the legacy of the politicians who advocate them.

Let’s take the Island Bay cycleway as an example. The cycling Mayor clearly has a lot of political capital tied up in a project that has significant merit and (if the comment threads on wellington.scoop are anything to go by) relatively wide community support. To have been defeated on the cycleway would have been a black eye to a green mayor, not to mention her allies around the council table, and would have been a gift to the conservative elements in the city who are still chafing from the thrashing John Morrison received in the last election.

The question is now whether Wade-Brown can leave this critical project in the hands of her transport portfolio leader. Does she continue to back Foster, hoping that his form will change and the defeats will come to an end? Or does she have to consider a portfolio reshuffle to be sure of getting the cycleway result that’s wanted? Only time will tell.



  1. Nicola Young - Wgtn City Councillor, 28. August 2014, 15:07

    Spending $250,000 to fix a problem that doesn’t exist simply didn’t make sense. Accident data showed that most of the pedestrian injuries in the targeted area related to pedestrians not paying attention, being intoxicated, or ignoring the traffic lights. Wellington is notorious for its jay-walking culture; people need to remember to look both ways. Data also showed there is co-relation between lower speed limits and higher accident rates.

    Wellington needs to be pedestrian-friendly, so the $250k would be better spent on identifying areas where that can be achieved – and doing something about it.

    The cycleway debate was more about the consultation shortcomings in Island Bay, and the frustration of councillors not being able to vote – because of the new committee structure. Safe cycling is important, so we need to make sure the money is spent wisely so we can get as many built as possible – and as fast as possible. I would like safer cycling in the CBD, where there are far more cyclists; let’s hope that’s the next priority.

  2. Ian Apperley, 28. August 2014, 15:40

    It’s my opinion, regardless of this particular outcome, that the Transport committee needs a clean out. It’s clear that they aren’t doing the job set them, which is improving transport in the city. It just isn’t happening. It doesn’t really matter whether you fall on the green or the conservative sides, what matters is making progress for all users of the roads from pedestrians to freight.

    Slowing down the speed limits is cruel irony given this committee has slowed down any kind of progress since its inception.

  3. KB, 28. August 2014, 20:10

    Nicola, putting the blame on pedestrians sounds fine in theory, but with many CBD roads offering no safety buffer (fast moving traffic right next to the kerb, no parking spaces buffer), any slightly wayward child, tourist or slightly inebriated pedestrian is being put at risk.

    The reality is everyone gets distracted from time to time, and not reducing the speed limit in these very busy pedestrian spaces means that the possible punishment for that rare time you forget to check the road could be death (rather than a less severe result).

  4. John Clarke, 28. August 2014, 21:18

    @Nicola Young – that’s a typical response from a politician. You’re critical of spending $250,000 but you have no concrete better ideas and then you fall back to the laziness of blaming the victims.

    The number of pedestrian crashes went up since your council made the poor quality changes on Manners St and Lambton Quay. I guess you think this has nothing to do with bad design and is only because all the pedestrians got dumber. If it’s all the same to you I’d like the council to take some responsibility and actually fix the mess they made.

  5. Nora, 29. August 2014, 17:34

    While this “debacle” was going on and on, one has to wonder where the CEO was? At full Council meetings where the Mayor wears all the trimmings of office, the CEO sits on her right, but this week he was conspicuous by his absence.


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