Open letter to Justin Lester: time to make the city better for pedestrians

To Justin Lester,
Deputy Mayor of Wellington.
Dear Justin,

In Thursday’s Dominion Post you lamented the failure of your colleagues to agree to reduce the speed limit on a few CBD streets to 30km/hr. From my point of view as a pedestrian advocate, this is a victory rather than a defeat.

The proposal was flawed from the outset. There was no evidence that the city would be safer; in fact there was little evidence that much of anything would result – except for ratepayers being $250,000 out of pocket.

The problem is that the Wellington City Council regards us pedestrians as a problem to be managed rather than as stakeholders to be engaged. We could have told you that a lower speed limit was not the highest priority item for pedestrian safety – but you never bothered to ask.

For the last three years the Council has operated a Pedestrian Safety Steering Group – from which you have deliberately excluded pedestrians. And when we’ve requested membership, we’ve been greeted with stonewalling, foot-dragging and outright dishonesty from officers. So if you wanted to send the message that pedestrians don’t have a seat at the table when it comes to Wellington’s transport discussions, you’ve succeeded admirably. And it’s that deliberate exclusion that has led directly to poor-quality proposals such as the speed limit reduction.

In the last five years, the pedestrian environment in Wellington has worsened. Far from becoming the Copenhagen that Jan Gehl envisaged, the city has become a much worse place to walk around, due largely to the actions of the Council and its staff.

We’ve lost Manners Mall. The putative replacement in Lower Cuba Street prioritises car parking over pedestrians. Pedestrian crossings in Courtenay Place and on The Terrace have been removed. The design study that would have increased pedestrian safety on Taranaki Street has been ignored. It’s a litany of bad decisions and arrogant, paternalistic attitudes from the Council – typified by the way you’ve attempted to go about the speed limit reductions.

And the effect has been entirely predictable – the Council has succeeded in reversing the decades-long decline in pedestrian deaths and injuries in the CBD.

So it’s no good claiming the victories of Frank Kitts Park and Civic Square. These initiatives are now decades old, started and completed long before most of the current incumbents sat around the Council table. None of them happened on your watch, but the things that have happened recently – Vanessa Green’s death, the roll call of injuries, the loss of Manners Mall, the cluttering of the Golden Mile with anti-pedestrian barriers dressed up as “street furniture” – are very much your responsibility.

There’s no reason why Jan Gehl’s recommendations from a decade ago couldn’t be implemented in Wellington – other than inaction from Councillors and the intransigence of Council officers. But holding out his vision while steadfastly refusing to take the actions necessary to make it real is beginning to smack of hypocrisy.

And in my view, you only have yourselves to blame for the result over the lower speed limit. Your refusal to engage, consult and listen to Wellington’s pedestrians is the root cause of the problems you’re lamenting in the Dominion Post.

So my recommendation is simple – give Wellington’s pedestrians a seat at the transport planning table. It’s got to be a better idea than the current approach of dreaming up bad ideas, attempting to shove them down our throats and then getting grumpy when we resist the experience.

Regards

Kent Duston
Secretary
Rational Transport Society

 

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