A typically deadly commute – let’s fix it

My partner rides a bicycle to and from work. Her town bike has a basket on the front and back, and she is small, wears normal street clothes and obeys traffic rules. This is what a ride home looks like. (She takes the long way home to get exercise).

She’s fast right?

You might have caught two or three scary moments — let’s look at the worst one, on what is essentially a random day — today.

Here she is nearing the top of College Hill Road. She is not very big and goes pretty quickly up hills — and enjoys passing the occasional middle aged man in lycra. She sometimes does that when those baskets are full of groceries.

She is approaching a carpark – and as there are no cars today she had a clear run. This is great as normally the parked cars force her into the often fast moving traffic that is chaotic due to a complex intersection ahead. This, by the way, is on the safest route she has found to get some exercise while riding home.

The cars at the front by the light are stopped, and the closest car, the red one in the car lane to the right, is slowing to a stop. There is lots of traffic so it’s pretty noisy.

With the empty carpark she has a clear run to the head of the intersection and can stay well out of the way of motorised traffic. She could alternatively choose to cross to her right to get behind the red car, but that decision would have killed her, as you will see shortly. When cycling or motorcycling making decisions about not dying are fairly constant, with the key rule to stay the away from high speed differentials with large vehicles.

From nowhere comes a bus at high speed:

The bus is trying to cut between my partner, who is riding quickly, and the parked red car, and then take the left hand turn at the end of the street. The green bus has a large amount of momentum and very little room for error on either side. My partner is still riding in the designated car park.

A few seconds later the bus and the bike have braked almost to a stop – but look how far it took the bus to do so. The bus driver chose not to hit the red car from behind, and instead cut in front of the person on a bicycle, potentially fatally. Perhaps it would have been safer to graze or hit the car than to risk squashing an unprotected rider – a potential judgement call that should be discussed in an incident investigation, but clearly won’t be because this incident is a sadly regular occurrence for both buses and cyclists, and they are never investigated as far as I can tell.

Luckily my partner, riding the bicycle, braked very hard, and a tragedy was averted. However once again I get to greet a distraught partner when she arrived home.

There really was no room for error if she had continued.

But the bus made it through, the car was untouched and the my partner got to come home physically unscathed tonight — and I am grateful for that. But for the sake of about 3 seconds of time, the bus driver’s dangerous driving was exposing the driver of the red car to an accident and injury, and the cyclist to a potentially fatal accident. That’s not worth it, and the driver should instead have slowed down to follow the bicycle.

Let’s look at it all in real time speed. What would you have done? Are you confident enough to stop safely? How about if your bike was full of groceries?

This sort of incident is, tragically, quite usual for Auckland roads. While every cycling day is packed with the normal dangers to avoid, most days also see specific dangerous driving actions like this one, and that’s what we have to stop.

Our worst story

One reason my partner gets distraught at these sorts of near misses is that she was knocked off her bike in late 2012 by a woman who works for an insurance company. That person dangerously crossed a busy road by driving her car illegally through a stop sign from one side street to another. My partner was descending and the car hit her, knocking her off her bike and she slid for quite some time, luckily avoiding hitting anything. Even more luckily she had just avoided a perhaps fatal T-bone accident, and escaped “only” with lacerations, bruising, swelling and a couple of trips to the doctor. She was also very shaken up.

Strangely, for someone I discovered to be a communications professional, the driver, provided only her first name (Michelle) and phone number. As a victim my partner wanted as little as possible to do with the driver or her insurer company, but I was glad to  help. Even then, while my Google foo was strong enough to find the driver, I had to ask her quite firmly to formally identify herself so that we could settle accounts. I also actually enjoyed jousting with her insurance company (which was not her employer), who as always are not exactly there to meet your full costs unless you fight. Incidentally — if something like this happens to you there are people out there who really enjoy negotiating with insurance companies — so don’t be afraid to ask around.

We did report the incident to the police, who were wonderful. However we were later disgusted to find that  the end result was not a loss of license or worse for what was clearly careless or dangerous driving, but essentially a traffic ticket. My partner had had enough, and didn’t feel she could handle a court case, and so we let it slide, as victims often do. I’m certain that this is very common, and it’s just sad that dangerous driving against cyclists seems to be treated as irrelevant.

What we did

The first thing we did afterwards was to purchase Go Pro cameras for riding. They provide great evidence of dangerous driving, and I highly recommend riding or driving with a camera to everyone. If in doubt, search for “Russian driving video” or similar.

I did not write about the incident at the time, also because my partner did not feel she could cope with it. Overall I do not feel that there was natural justice, and feel that at the very least the driver should be compelled to go through some sort of remedial course.

However as with all accidents, it was not all the fault of one person. The real fault is the design of the road where vehicles have to cross a large road with cars traveling at high speeds. The side roads should either be closed, for example, or some sort of traffic control put in place. There should be no surprise to learn that nothing has happened yet, but we did go to the Ponsonby Road Masterplan public hearing.

What can we do?

Do buy a camera and use it to name and shame, but most of all to show other road users that their behaviour will not go unobserved.

Please do respond, and drown out, the vocal minority of selfish commenters on a variety of forums who seem to think it’s okay to mow down people with their car.

Please consider riding a bike yourself – as the more people on bicycles commuting to work, the faster we will change behaviour.

Please ask your local and national politicians what they are doing to stop the killing of cyclists and to make Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and all of New Zealand have vibrant life-filled streets and the best urban and rural cycleways in the world.

Let’s make it happen.

Posted in NZ Business | 17 Comments

How simple it can be to create protected bike lanes

This is a piece received via email from Gloria Williams (@caniwiwilliams) that she has given me permission to post.

I read your thoughtful column on cycling safety this morning and I thought I’d send along this photo which shows just how simple it can be to create protected bike lanes. This is Vancouver, a city similar in size to Auckland and this photo is on a main street within the CBD.

Yesterday I walked to St Heliers on the footpath and made these observations about the so called cycle path ( the one on the footpath, not the road)

  1. There are signposts cemented into the middle of the bike path in places ( bus stop signs, crossing signs etc etc)
  2. When parked cars open their passenger doors it blocks the entire bike oath ( witnessed a near accident because of this) Car passengers don’t look of course.
  3. Of course we know how bumpy and uneven it is (tree roots etc)
  4. It’s very narrow, not wide enough for bike travelling both directions.
  5. It’s poorly marked. The little painted bicycle sign is not used near enough and they are quite faded anyway.
  6. People and their leashed dogs, strollers, scooters, skateboards, joggers etc all stray into the lane, or use it intentionally.

So no wonder cyclists take their chances on the road, where the haphazard attempt at bike lanes are just as bad, too narrow, used by cars, intermittent, car door hazards, etc etc.

What all this shows me is that bike lanes are just an afterthought, we are trying to fit them in around very other usage without dedicating any real space to it.


Posted in NZ Business | 3 Comments

Confronting death

Today I arrived very early on the scene of a cycle versus truck fatality in Auckland today. The sight of a person lying motionless in the street with mangled bicycle in the background is chilling enough. The sounds of grief-stricken people comforting each other, the shock on the face of the woman in the car stuck in full view of the scene, the general feeling of despair – these things are not easy to portray. All of us were changed today.

For the family and friends of the deceased – utter devastation. For the witnesses who saw the event happen, that event will replay for years. For the police, ambulance and other emergency staff – another brutally tough day. I don’t know how they cope.

What can we do?

Today’s accident was, like all accidents, preventable. Like all accidents the root and contributing causes of the accident will be varied and troublesome, but are also able to be eliminated. However like all cycle accidents in NZ they likely won’t be, and we should all be very angry and upset about this.

Most of the causes of this and other accidents are fairly obvious, and have been observed time and again by cycling and safety advocates. They come down to one core goal, to seek to limit human-vehicle interactions:

  • That means physically separating trucks and cars from cyclists, and cyclists from pedestrians, through a system of bike and pedestrian paths that criss-cross cities and form commuter routes. This increases bike use, boosts the retail economy and reduces motorised traffic, reducing associated infrastructure costs as well.
  • It means investing serious dollars into this human-scale infrastructure, and rather happily this also creates a lot more jobs per dollar than truck-scale infrastructure.
  • It means putting in place short term solutions immediately, such as smart use of painted lanes to widen cycle lanes, removing lanes of car traffic from Parnell Rise, removing car parks from Tamaki Drive (where a person was injured today) and laws which increase the incentive to give cyclists their space.
  • It means accelerating and building from the liveable city changes that have already happened in Auckland, removing car parks in favour of wide boulevard footpaths, bike lanes and multi-use zones. If it works for New York’s economy and people, it can work better here with our weather.
  • It needs a Mayor and Council and transport authorities and ministers to lead, and to take responsibility for just making changes happen.
  • And it also means asking seriously why we needed the truck there in the first place – and that goes back to whether we even want a working port in downtown Auckland. 

It’s an election year, and this is a great time for all parties and candidates to take a tough stand. Cycling and work safety are not Green, Red, Blue or other party-affiliated issues, but ones that offer benefits across the board. Improving cycling safety and work safety generates more retail and manufacturing revenue, saves on medical expenses, prolongs lives, saves money for individuals and families and delivers better environmental outcomes. It’s cheaper than building roads and rail, and will make it far safer for our children to walk and cycle to school. It seems obvious, and will attract a decent number of voters looking for a better life.

It’s a great time for us voters to ask the candidates and existing MPs what they are doing about safety on the streets and work, but we also need to ask and apply pressure to the recently elected mayors and councillors to follow through on their promises. I am particularly concerned with Auckland and Wellington mayors and councils, who have delivered little for cyclists on a mandate of change. Too many people are dead and I think we would all like to see a genuine sense of urgency before more people die.

Posted in NZ Business | 31 Comments

When will the next fatality happen at Lyttelton, Port of Christchurch?


I don’t know when, but this is a dreadful picture. The incident happened at Lyttelton Port of Christchurch on Saturday 4th January, 2014. It was a near miss to a fatal injury – the driver is lucky to be alive and was reported to be taken to hospital. Let’s hope that their injuries are minor.

The near miss is more evidence, on top of the two recent fatalities, that the port is not providing a safe work environment. It’s a situation that needs serious intervention before the next tragedy, which can clearly happen at any time.

Something needs to change, and now. Two fatalities and this incident are well beyond any normal signalling required for a site to recognise it is in crisis and for major change to occur.


As a postscript – the person just visible in the bottom right of the picture is not wearing gloves, nor hardhat and has their sunglasses (protective perhaps) on their hat, but not covering their eyes. They also look to be quite close to the incident, and if there is anything flammable being emitted then they are using a device (iPhone) that is not intrinsically safe and could cause a spark. I would argue that none of this would be acceptable on a true Zero Harm oriented site.

Posted in NZ Business | 1 Comment

When people die at work it’s always a safety issue

Another tragic fatal injury from a work accident in New Zealand, this time on board a fertiliser ship berthed at Lyttelton, Port of Christchurch.

My heart goes out to the family, friends and colleagues of the deceased man.

What went wrong?

Every accident is preventable, and there is never an acceptable excuse for placing any worker into harm’s way, let alone repeatedly exposing workers to fatal risks. These tragedies were preventable – and so why weren’t they?

For one, the Maritime Union Maritime New Zealand (a government agency) spokesman who said:

“There doesn’t appear to be any safety issues or equipment failures that have lead up to this. It seems to be a wrong place wrong time sort of thing”

clearly does not, to me, understand that the site and its safety management systems have failed this deceased man and his family. It’s good that the Maritime Union is supporting the family and colleagues, and calling for a meeting, but I am not convinced that they anyone understands the magnitude change in culture required.

<Update – I incorrectly attributed the quote above to the Maritime Union, rather than to Maritime New Zealand. My apologies to all concerned. Updates are in italics.>

Even more sadly this is the second fatality at the Lyttelton, Port of Christchurch facility within a month, showing with arguable certainty that this worksite has broken safety systems and processes, leadership and culture.

Is safety even a priority for the Port?

One crude indicator which we can all see, aside from these twin tragedies, is that the Lyttelton Port of Christchurch website carries no reference I can find to either fatality, not even in their media releases. Sure, the fatalities may (or may not) have happened by workers not employed by or contracted directly to the Port, but they occurred on their site.

Another indicator is that finding out about safety on the website is hard – it’s buried within the menu structure, and the result when there is underwhelming.

What should happen?

The Port has faced tremendous challenges following the earthquake, and no doubt the challenges will continue as the rebuild evolves. But challenges to operations should never be a priority over safety.

LPC is a listed company, but 80% is held by Christchurch City Holdings (CCH), who are generally very smart. CCH and the board should be entering crisis management mode, and ensuring that the company responds with appropriate seriousness. At the very least I hope they all understand that this is arguably a lapse in duty of care that could elsewhere remove the site’s “license to operate.”

The board and management team should not rest until they can state unequivocally that the safety systems and culture have changed, and changed for good, and that people on their site can go home unharmed each day.

What would I do?

If this were under my control the port (and any other facility) would be shut down immediately after any fatality, and not reopened until control of fatal risks was regained. I would conduct an all-hands meeting (as suggested by the union) and ask everyone to commit to a tougher set of site safety rules – and enforce them. The rules would include the obligation to stop any observed unsafe work, and I’d hire in external experts to stick around for months to coach everyone through the process. Not everyone will get the new Zero Harm approach, and a small percentage may need to be prohibited from accessing the site.

As an uninformed outsider in any case like this I would stand the CEO down. I would replace him with a new leader with a mandate to place Zero Harm back at the top of the site priorities. I am sure the CEO in this instance is going through hell, and I appreciate that me saying this will not make that better. He may well be superb at his job, but the priorities the board and he agreed to were not correct and an epiphany is required.  So while the CEO may be able to change his approach, he is also somewhat caught in the crossfire here, and in my experience removing the CEO (and at times the management team and/or board as well) is the strongest signal that owners can send to a site that things simply have to change. 

Finding a new CEO who will drive change will not be an easy job, and neither will that person have an easy time of it. He or she will need to work top down and bottom up, and get the support of the Union, employers and all the other players on site to make sure that safety outcomes improve. It’s a challenging job, but one that has been successfully done across a wide range of industries – I’d start by calling recruiters for senior staff in the Australian mining sector.  

The standard is quite simple really – we should all fight to ensure that everyone gets to go home safely at the end of each day. 

Posted in NZ Business | Tagged | 1 Comment

Chorus: Turn around and go.

The short and light on detail Ernst Young Australia (EY) report on Chorus [thanks NBR] shows that while Chorus’s top line “$1 billion shortfall” statement was correct, it was also disingenuous.

First of all, we already knew that the $1 billion gap is until 2020, which is 7 years away, which is an average of just $143 million per year. This may still seem like a lot, but this is for a business with current revenue of over $1 billion and EBITDA of a staggering $663 million.

Secondly, the $1 billion to 2020 assumed that Chorus would make no changes to their current approach business, an inexcusable approach.

Thirdly the EY report, rather embarrassingly for Chorus, identified some simple ways to reduce the gap to $200-250m ($28-36m per year).

  • Chorus had a dividend yield of 10.3% to June 2013, unsustainably higher than the 4.3% NZ and 6.7% Australian peer averages. Their FY13 return on equity was a staggering 29.7% versus peer averages of 12.5% in NZ and 11.2% in Australia. So EY is comfortable recommending that Chorus remove or reduce dividends.
  • EY also point out that Chorus has been operating well away from the danger zone for their debt covenants, and so they can raise more money through debt
  • They also show that there are ample opportunities to save costs and increase revenues.

I’ve seen teams successfully deal with turnaround situations that are a lot worse than this. While the report does not itemise the cost and revenue opportunities, my own experience is that these numbers are easily achievable, especially when we look at the current situation. I say easily achievable, but that’s only if the right approach is taken, which is to create departmental teams with CEO line of sight and authority to prioritise and systematically identify and fix the biggest and easiest revenue and cost opportunities. With the right approach Chorus should be able to eliminate entirely the remaining $200-250m gap, mainly by focussing on increasing fibre revenue per premise.

The huge opportunity

Chorus was formed with one primary goal – to install fibre on the roads past 70% of the premises in the country. The are behind their peers in this, but the industry is lousy at the real primary goal – of converting those premises to being lit fibre customers. Chorus may argue that it’s the RSP’s (ISPs) mandate to convert retail customers, but I hold them firmly to account for not making it easy for those businesses. This, I believe, is the real turnaround opportunity for Chorus.

Internet access is a strange business, where demand rises exponentially at a staggering annual rate. That demand though is largely influenced by the available supply, following an “if you build it they will come” model. The slow conversion of premises (rather than the roads in front of them) to fibre means that Chorus misses out on the essentially free incremental revenue above the fixed price base plans.

Fibre is intrinsically easier to upgrade than any other technology, and will always maintain a physical advantage over alternatives. While the GPON technology used for UFB is a poor choice, once fibre is in the ground then it is eminently upgradeable with newer equipment on each end. The more quickly the industry connects premises to fibre, the more quickly we they will be appreciated and upgraded, and the more money Chorus will make.

Some examples of the current industry pain that need to be fixed are: 

  • Chorus has 24 candidate areas for UFB, and has fibre in roads past 153,000 premises so far. The three other UFB players have just 9 areas, but have passed 94,262 premises, 64% more than Chorus has per area.
  • Multi-family dwellings and offices are placed on hold during months-long waits for pieces of equipment (MDUs) that really should be in stock, or may not even be required in the first place.
  • ISPs dealing with Chorus have to invoke black arts to get their systems to work properly, making installations slower and more expensive.
  • The industry collectively presents poor quality plans and a confusing picture to buyers, which the new broadband product disclosure will help.
  • The Chorus Gigatown promotion-spam debacle is a lottery-like distraction for individuals and towns that all just want Chorus to do their job of delivering gigabit internet to all premises.
  • The international cable bottleneck is still unsolved – and Chorus would be an ideal partner in one or both of the two proposed ventures. They could also work to build or buy backhaul infrastructure, and offer a wholesale internet in a box transit service to RSPs large and small. 

What should Chorus do? 

The UBA decision and the EY report clarify the future for Chorus, and nicely align the public and shareholder incentives to replace copper with lit fibre. It’s time that Chorus embraces their true role of being the champion of this future.

  1. It’s time for Chorus to introduce a culture of continuous improvement, systematically prioritising and removing the barriers to increasing revenue and the wasteful costs.
  2. It’s time for Chorus to move on from playing politics and to place overwhelming board and management focus on delivering lit fibre at ever-increasing data rates. Bring us our UFB future. 
  3. It’s time for this giant start-up to stop on paying out its short term earnings as dividends and instead invest for the future beyond 2020. That future will see ridiculously lower capital requirements, monopoly profits and dividend streams to please any investor.

I suspect that the current board and management felt that they had to give this politicking a go, but they now they have a clear chance to inspire and transform the company, and the country, rather than fight for the copper past.    


If the Chorus board and management cannot manage their way out of this, then the logical long term controlling investor to step in is our government. They should then invest with an accompanying mandate to the new board to focus on accelerating the lit fibre rollout to deliver long term value, rather than on the Telecom of old strategy of underinvesting and high dividend streams to shareholders.

I see tremendous long term value in owning a controlling stake in this monopoly player. There are, however, government limits which prevent any shareholder from asserting control – and repeating the Telecom of old mistakes. That’s good, but perhaps the right long term investor is out there (Milford is a start), and if the government is unwilling to step in then this may be a way forward.

Posted in NZ Business | 3 Comments

NZ Customs Seizes Electronics – a full enquiry please

In the first week of January I’m leaving a Software Engineering gig for a US defense contractor to move to New Zealand.

It’s great that New Zealand attracts high talented people from across the world, and we certainly need more software engineers from local and offshore sources.

Due to the expense of shipping, my wife and I are only bringing what we can carry, and we’ve taken special care to fit as much of our lives as possible into our electronic devices.

It’s wonderful that we can digitise our possessions, carry a track record of our life online and digitally hold our digital music, book and movie collections.

However NZ Herald reported on Thursday this week that New Zealand citizen Samuel Blackman, had “all of his personal electronic items seized by NZ Customs.” Blackman believes this occurred because he attended a London meeting on mass surveillance. NZ Customs subsequently said that they had seized the equipment (returned on Friday afternoon) because of a “website accessed from a shared internet connection at a student flat in 2007“. That’s a long time ago, and if the website in question really was that disturbing then we have to ask why authorities (which authorities?) tolerated the ensuring 6 years of not following up.

The quotes come from one benjamincburns on Hacker News, and while one person commenting on a news site is not a trend, he went on to say:

the only solution would be either to not go, or to not carry any devices at all…

We need to handle this with great caution as the values that bind us together and attract offshore visitors and business are at stake. I have three concerns and a suggestion.

  1. “Theft” of the devices: Once a computer, phone or hard drive is out of our hands, we have no control of the disposition of the contents, are unable to use the devices while they are gone and can never trust the devices again. I do trust our guys, but this is, for the affected party, roughly equivalent to theft and destruction of property.  Seizure of devices is a valid action by authorities, but should only be invoked with considerable cause, and with full investigation as follow-up if there is nothing found .
  2. Damage to New Zealand’s reputation: This is bad bad press for New Zealand, and detracts significantly from New Zealand’s reputation as a place that treats people fairly, where considerate rule of law prevails and where MPI and Customs officials focus on finding things like rooster testicles. While this incident (devices not roosters) should  only marginally affect our $24 billion tourism industry, I would argue that the resulting publicity will give pause to some considering tourist and business visits. Those rethinking visits will most likely be from the sector of people who read technology news and who coincidentally are often the investors in and drivers of the start-up economy. NZ Customs have a job to protect our borders, but their primary role is to provide a safe and efficient service to everyone while doing so. This action will make it harder for them to be trusted by visitors in the future.
  3. Lack of process: Borders are, by their nature, the places where we have the least rights, and border officials have essentially arbitrary powers to detain, remove or tax possessions, assert criminal charges and/or reject entry to a country. This incident has exposed that New Zealand may be asserting these powers beyond what is reasonably expected, and while one incident does not make a pattern, we need to make sure that the system remains fair and reasonable. I’m not convinced by the explanation offered by NZ Customs. Perhaps an investigation would find that every device owned by every person residing at the 2007 address has been checked each time they have gone through Customs, but it’s doubtful and even if so it’s a strange way to go about the business.

What Next?

New Zealand needs to confidently say to all approaching our borders, visitors and citizens alike, that they will be treated fairly and reasonably.

The lesson so far from the aftermath of the Kim Dotcom raid is that while we can make mistakes, but we can also learn from them, and that our political and judicial systems are strong and we can fix underlying issues.

So I’d like to see this incident followed up at a senior level, with Government oversight. We need an enquiry.

I’d like to make sure that any structural issues are identified and addressed, that people in these positions have the right training and procedures to fit the circumstances, and that taking electronic possessions away remains an extraordinarily rare event, at a level, say, where the person involved is also placed in custody.

The worst case would be for this to be ignored and then it happens again and again in the future. We can expect any future events to be reported internationally again, and each event will have an exponential effect on our inbound visits and economy.

Our New Zealand values are what bind us together. Let’s defend them.

Posted in NZ Business | 3 Comments