Sunday, December 07, 2014

One accident stopped a city

Yesterday, there was an accident in Auckland between three motorcycles and a truck. Nothing particularly unusual about that, but this one happened on the south end of the Auckland Harbour Bridge and brought nearly the entire city to a stop. This shouldn’t have happened, but it was also a warning.

I’ve expressed this view elsewhere and was accused of not understanding what police need to do in such cases, I was told this was an “inconvenience”, that people should just adapt and accept the jam, that they should have taken “other routes”. In other words, it was nothing and I should just shut up.

I’m well aware of what police need to do when there’s a serious crash, as I guess this was. I also know that such investigations, if botched, could result in police not getting a conviction in the event there was some criminal negligence involved (there isn’t always, by the way, and even with thorough investigations police can’t always prove such criminality). And, I also know that the safety of those conducting the scene investigation is important. I was told that I didn’t understand any of those things.

Those people were not just condescending (and sometimes rude), they’re also wrong.

The Auckland Harbour Bridge is arguably THE most important bit of road in New Zealand. It carries State Highway 1, the highway that stretches the length of the country. The bridge carries people and freight in both directions every hour of every day. It’s a vital link.

But police closed three of the four northbound lanes (at that time of day and week) for well over three hours and the result was chaos. Northbound traffic was backed up 20kms (roughly 12½ miles) south of the bridge. Drivers were urged to take State Highway 16 to go north, but that moved at a crawl, too—the two motorways were more stop than go.

In the central city, streets leading to the motorway were blocked. So were streets leading to those streets. Things barely moved. A little after 3pm, they reopened the Curran Street on-ramp and the three lanes they’d closed and traffic finally started moving north again. It took hours for the roading network to get back to normal.

What all of this means was that all traffic heading north to the Shore and beyond was effectively stopped. So was all traffic anywhere near to those people trying to head north. Those people weren’t just casual travellers out for a Saturday drive, though some were. Also stuck in the gridlock were buses heading in all directions—and buses are the only public transport to parts of the North Shore.

Also stopped were emergency vehicles who couldn’t get through blocked streets. As far as I know, there were no dire consequences from that. But to dismiss all that as mere “inconvenience” strikes me as incredibly self-righteous arrogance.

The police should have opened the road faster. That's probably the most watched stretch of highway in the country, with live video cameras pointing in every direction. If transit authorities didn’t catch the crash on video, then it was a major failure by them—and we have a right to know about it.

But if the crash was fully recorded, then all the police needed to do was photograph the scene, take measurements and clean up any debris and open the road. If they don’t have modern, up-to-date technology to help them do their jobs faster, then they need to get that technology. If their personnel haven’t been trained to move quickly but methodically, then they need better training. If the video cameras on and around the bridge didn’t catch the crash at a high-enough definition, then they need to install better cameras.

That stretch of road is far too important to Auckland—and all of New Zealand—for it to remain closed even a minute longer than is absolutely necessary. I was told that police have no legal obligation to consider the wider impact of closing roads for hours, even when they bring the city that’s home to more than a quarter of New Zealanders to a halt. If that’s really true, it should change: Police ought to re-open major roads as fast as possible, but they should have a legal obligation to reopen the bridge as quickly as they can.

This incident also highlighted the importance of a second harbour crossing, one that includes separated public transport so that the North Shore isn’t cut off when something like this happens. Beyond that, Auckland needs to build the common-sense Congestion Free Network that Generation Zero has been promoting.

The importance of these changes was highlighted by that fact that Auckland was brought to a stop by a mere traffic accident. Imagine if there had been a truly major incident, say, a fiery explosion of trucks on the bridge. Then, it would be days, not hours, before traffic was restored. If it was more serious still, it could be weeks or months. Auckland simply can’t cope with that sort of disruption.

So, when incidents like relatively minor traffic accidents occur on the bridge, the police must reopen the road as quickly as possible. But to prevent the crippling of Auckland—and New Zealand—by a bigger disaster, we need to make the system itself more resilient.

The incident yesterday wasn’t an “inconvenience”: It was a warning.

1 comment:

rogerogreen said...

There's a narrow land bridge in Albany on Henry Johnson Boulevard, and when an emergency vehicle needs to get through, it has to go down the narrow middle lane - it's not really a lane but whatever's available when the cars on the bridge cheat to their respective right sides. There are hospitals within about a mile of this bridge in either direction. Crazy.