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.


Kent Duston
Rational Transport Society



  1. Brent Efford, 29. August 2014, 14:01

    Possibly even worse is the installation of 30 km/h zones in suburban centres without any enforcement, giving the convenient political illusion of increased safety without any actuality.
    I live about 50 metres from a pedestrian crossing in one such makebelieve zone (Aro St). The screeching of brakes, as yet another speeding petrolhead narrowly avoids collecting a pedestrian lulled into a false sense of security by the posted limit, is a daily occurrence.
    I was myself the ’cause’ of a collision when I used the crossing once (I usually wait until there are no cars approaching!) – two cars stopped for me correctly but a van behind plowed into them, damaging all three vehicles. There was no way that the driver could have been going anywhere near as low as 30 km/h, but the police attending the accident were unconcerned about collecting any evidence for a prosecution.
    At a regional level, pedestrians – lumped in with cyclists and public transport users – did have a seat at the regional transport planning table, in the form of a single representative on the Regional Land Transport Committee. I was in that position for a number of years in the early 2000s.
    The role of such ‘special interest’ representatives was later abolished by legislation – probably because we were insufficiently enamoured of big roading programs like RONS and not sufficiently worshipful of the Transmission Gully Motorway cargo cult.
    The same reluctance to endorse cars-above-all-else transport planning is probably what did for Regional Council transport manager Dr David Watson and like-minded staff in the Fran Wilde council. His advice about sustainable transport, in the form of Christmas ‘think pieces’, and the organisation of a Towards Sustainable Land Transport conference in 2004, clearly irritated councillors who saw salvation coming in the form of the next motorway.

  2. Esjay, 30. August 2014, 12:19

    The 30kph was introduced into suburban centres when no one asked for it. It still remains a mystery.


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