Sensible speeds by schools & centres: for once, it’s simple

This is a SPECIAL REISSUE of this piece to reflect the recent raruraru around numbers for Wellington City speeds. Spoiler: it’s the same rationales. It’s the same result.

This blog luuuurves to nerd out on things. We love saying things like “there’s more to it than meets the eye” and unpacking technical details, arcane legal stuff, political machinations.

But for once, there’s an issue where it really is very simple – despite lots of folk trying to make it hard and complicated. (If you’re experiencing that, check out Further Reading for some help!)

If you’re time-poor and have <3min to do some good, just jump down to the typing cat.

Keeping 50kph speed limits by schools and through town centres is saying that

I, driving through here, am more important than everyone outside a car who’s spending time here.

Me, over all of you.

My presence here for 30 sec, maybe a minute or two, over all your presences here for half-hours and hours at a time.

My experience here – cocooned in my upholstered, sountracked, 2-tonne, moving steel room –
over all your experiences here – walking, scooting, seeing birds, saying hello, wheelchairing, biking, making eye contact, getting a coffee, popping into shops, meeting dogs, taking a breather,
meeting parents or carers, taking in the day, waiting for friends

Is it really that simple?

Yes. Preferring 50kph over 30kph speed limits by schools and through town centres really is. For those going “ooh but what about”, check if what’s worrying you is actually not a thing!

It’s that simple because these are places, and humans gonna human.

Let’s unpack…

School streets and town centre streets are places

What’s a place? It’s a bit of public realm whose main purpose is people interacting with each other in all sorts of ways – call it human exchange – rather than just moving through it on their way to somewhere else.

School streets and the streets in town centres serve communities best when they’re good places to do that human-exchange stuff: to meet up, bump into people, play, chat, shop, catch up, get a coffee. They need to let you put your attention into what’s fun, interesting, pleasant, relaxing. To let your ear be caught by a snatch of music or by someone’s voice; to let your eyes be caught by a smile or little wave, by something lovely in a shop window. To let you breathe a bit deeper, even relax a little.

The street needs to let us feel, subconsciously, that we can take most of our attention away from “keeping safe” and allow it go to human stuff.

Fun fact #1: slower traffic speeds are being proposed for school streets and streets in town centres: ones which by their very nature should be better places for doing human stuff.

Outragedly calling this “blanket” is as daft as raging that “catfood companies make blanket assertions that all cats are meat-eaters!”

Doing movement in streets that are places

There’s a whole sliding scale of movement-purpose vs place-purpose that’s a good lens for lots of kinds of public realm – from motorways (entirely vehicle movement, no place) to pedestrianised malls / plazas / corner parks (almost wholly place, a little bit of movement in low-impact ways).

So, if we think that a school street or a town-centre street should also support movement of people and goods – transport – then it should do it in ways that don’t compromise the human stuff. Because otherwise, you have… drive-thrus, strip malls, stroads – bad places to be.

Obviously, some ways of moving people and goods have minimal impact on how good the street is for human exchange.

Walking and wheelchairing are top of the pops. And movement that uses smaller, lighter wheeled things, with the person navigating them out in the fresh air: scooting, cycling, skating and so on. In contrast, there’s a big, bad impact on a street’s goodness for human stuff when the movement is mostly big solid fast-moving things, where the person in control is essentially in a small room.

Big fast-moving vehicles mean a street is worse for doing human stuff

Well, d’uh.

But NZ has let its public realm be so comprehensively flooded with big motor vehicles that even just saying “hey, why not just slow them down a bit” feels dramatic to many, and actually limiting vehicles’ access feels revolutionary.

So it’s worth reminding ourselves: physics doesn’t care whether Kiwis feel something’s “a bit revolutionary” or not.

Physics… it just is

Here’s the bald science, below. A solid object like a bumper smashing into someone’s body is much, much worse for that person when the solid object is going at 50kph (and especially look-everybody-does-it-55kph) than at 30kph. And the likelihood of someone smashing a bumper into someone else’s body is much higher when they’re driving that bumper at 50kph, than at 30kph.

Auckland Transport’s graphic of the universal stats. In case you need more, some health folks’ take

Again: because humans gonna human, a bad mistake is much likelier to happen when cars are going 50kph, and its consequences are much worse when it does.

Our brains in 50kph streets

Our subconscious brains detect danger: they’re very good at generating persistent background anxiety that says “hey, maybe don’t hang around here any more than you have to” when the body they’re in is unprotected in a dangerous environment. Like an environment one with big solid things moving quickly around. (Subconscious brains do this even while our conscious brains are being actively distracted – by a phone, for example – or are thinking “I know this street I can cope”.)

It’s partly from this background awareness of traffic danger that we find ourselves saying things like:

“Baby I know it’s only 20 minutes to the shops with the dog and I know you’re seven now and Janeera’s almost nine and you’re very smart. But you have to cross the road in the shops and the cars just go too fast. Sorry, but no”

“I can’t leave the resthome today, Tuesday’s bin day and somewhere on my way I’ll have to step into the road to get past bins. With the walker I don’t know if I’ll be able to get up again quickly if a car comes, it’s just too dangerous”

“I’d love to bike to school. But I just can’t deal with being scared out of my skin three four five times a week. So Dad has to drop me to walking distance, which sucks, SO much late stress”

“I know it’s only 50 metres to the cafe and they’re itching to let go of our hands and run ahead, but we can’t. The cars turn in so quick to New World!”

This is partly why crash data don’t tell anything like the full picture. The crash records are the tip of the iceberg of actual crashes (especially in poorer areas), which is itself the tiny tip of a massive ice-mass of near-misses that could’ve easily been devastating, which is in turn a dot on a vast ice-shelf of good things people don’t do because of that background nervousness.

feels like this

Our brains driving in 50kph streets

When there’s a 50kph sign and the road or street environment isn’t telling our subconscious brains to slow down (more on that below), we feel entitled to do what Authority has said we’re allowed to do.

And, driving, we have thoughts like…

“Look, I’m late – I’m just making it snappy, not mucking around”

“Let’s have some style in these corners! No point driving like a nana all the time. Everyone deserves a little spice in their day”

“OMG that dithering idiot’s finally pulling in! They need to know how annoying they were to me stuck behind them”

“Hey it’s amazingly clear for once! Let’s have some gas! Aaahhh doing 50 through here at last! Bit of a treat – 55 – just for a little”

We all have these thoughts, simply because we’re human. And because humans gonna human, a mistake is much likelier to happen when cars are going 50kph, and its consequences are much worse when it does.

Official speed limits: step 0 for a good street

When we change the lollipop sign from 50 to 30kph, but leave everything else the same, there’s about a 2-3kph reduction in overall traffic speed just from that “entitlement” effect above. But traffic speeds on any given day vary heaps by themselves – mostly due to how much other traffic there is – so people don’t tend to notice a small variation like 2-3kph.

What actually makes us drive cars slower?

Really obvious enforcement (a traffic cop with a speed gun, a speed camera) makes a localised difference. But far more effectively – and 24/7 – are physical street changes. Think islands creating chicanes, raised humps of various kinds, tightening the turns at corners, narrowing what you see as the “driveable” space with trees, tall sculptures, solid planters, upright things like flexible posts. All those “traffic calming” treatments we’re just learning about in NZ!

Step 2 for a good street: self explaining safe streets please!

When done holistically (i.e. not just speed humps in an otherwise fast-feeling road), you get a “self explaining” street that often doesn’t even need a lollipop sign with a number, because we naturally drive at the a safe and survivable speed without being overtly “told”. With the vast majority of vehicles going at or below 30kph, A mistake – by anyone – is vastly more likely to just give people a fright rather than leaving someone dead, or maimed. It’s safer because physics, but it’s not just a statistical probability: whenever we’re in the fresh air on a truly 30kph street, our subconscious brains feel it too.

how this stuff works on regular roads (not even school streets or town centres!)

The consequences are just great:

  • most people cycling and scooting can now ride comfortably in the traffic lane, not needing a separated space
  • far more people can cross the road where it suits them, instead of having to trudge down to the one safe place to cross (or not crossing at all)
  • people are more relaxed on the street, noticing expressions on others’ faces, catching nice smells and sounds; noticing a lovely shop-window display – including across the street
  • more people can use the street: carers feel OK letting the little ones run ahead; older people feel safer on narrow footpaths or stepping off the kerb; people using wheelchairs or walking aids can move and cross more freely
  • and loads more!

Councils can choose to include physical in their speed management plans, and it’s a good acid test of how serious they are about making safer and better school streets and town centres. They know

What’s (not) in the proposals?

Here’s a sad fact: because NZ has got pretty widespread silliness about driving, these proposals will already be watered down from what they should be. Fewer streets, weaker speed reductions, variable reductions (“only applies 8.35am – 9.05am weekdays during school term”). Council officers, councillors or both do this, in the name of… us! The citizens, the voters. Who, they assume, feel about driving past a school and through town centre at [insert current speed limit number] the way some Americans feel about being able to carry a gun – and they assume we will react accordingly if “they try to take away my right”.

If this isn’t you – and if you’re reading this we’re fairly sure it’s definitely not – it’s really important you make sure the decision-makers hear your voice.

OK. What’s in a useful submission?

There are loads of people who’ll be a bit silly about this, so general level-headed “support” is brilliant. (And there’s enough good nerdy folk ldiving into the detail, like Living Streets Aotearoa and your local cycling advocates.)

You’ll be helping just by cheerfully whipping through a council’s online form and going “support” the whole way, without having to squint and comment on details if you haven’t time.

If a submission period’s closed, you can just email with a subject line:

submission on speed management

plus in the body, your name and contact details incl address and just saying “I support all proposed reductions”.

BONUS: in the “any other comments” boxes or just in your email, say something in the ‘any other comments’ box about supporting physical traffic calming or self explaining streets not just swapping the lollipop signs.

K. Submission links?

GO you good thing!

Image credits:

Further reading

4 comments on “Sensible speeds by schools & centres: for once, it’s simple”

  • Chris says:

    Wellington City, until the 30th June:

  • James Wood says:

    A 30kph limit on all Wellington town centre streets at all times is simply ridiculous. During the work day periods, I would love to be able to travel at 30kph, but can’t because of the inanely short traffic light sequences that only let a few cars through at a time and result in slow-moving backed-up vehicle traffic (haven’t WCC planners heard of queuing theory and the inertia associated with getting a line of traffic moving?). During off-peak times, there is little pedestrian traffic except say in Courtenay Place, so a blanket 30kph limit doesn’t make any sense from a safety perspective outside those areas.

    • ben says:

      Things are changing. Wellington’s already getting more people, lots more residential coming in what’s now the CBD, families etc, more night economy. This needs survivable speeds, 30kph is what every decent city centre has.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for our Newsletter

Unsubscribe any time.