Our Wellington

News | 5 July 2021

Farewell to traffic guru after 39 years

Mayor Andy Foster joined tributes to the City Council's traffic and road safety guru (and part-time private eye), Steve Spence, who is starting a well-earned retirement after 39 years with the organisation.

Mayor Andy Foster, right at lectern, pays tributes to the City Council's traffic and road safety guru Steve Spence.

Steve has had a profound impact on the city's landscape, and the way people get around the city, since he was recruited to the Council from the UK in 1982. Speaking at Steve's retirement function, Mayor Foster said Steve has been a quietly thoughtful leader and adviser and that his work to improve traffic safety around the city has had huge and obvious benefits.

Wellington had some of the country's worst, if not the worst, road safety stats in the early 1980s - with more than 10 deaths each year. Now that figure is greatly reduced - mainly due to ongoing work, led by Steve, to reduce vehicle speeds and increase safety education.

"Even though the volume of traffic on our streets has massively increased over the past 40 years, the number of deaths and injuries per year has dropped significantly. For that, Steve has to take a huge amount of credit." Mayor Foster says, as President of the Local Authority Traffic Institute (Trafinz) it was his privilege to present Steve with a Life Membership in 2010. "It was thoroughly-deserved."

Steve joined the traffic management branch of the Council's Town Planning Department as 2IC in 1982 and two years later took over as City Traffic Engineer. He built a small traffic management unit into a broad transportation team - planning, designing and managing the city's transport network as well as parking buildings and operations, street lighting and transport assets.

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He led the introduction to Wellington of the Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS), an intelligent transportation system that manages the timing of signal phases at traffic lights.

SCATS, Steve said, made a big difference to traffic flow and safety. "It's the most effective tool in the traffic engineer's toolbox and over the years we've steadily moved to greater priority for pedestrians and that should continue."

Steve's team put a lot of effort into safety engineering and also established a new road safety education and promotion role, which was unique for local councils at that time - so much so that Wellington took the lion's share of Transport Minister Richard Prebble's inaugural road-safety budget in the mid-1980s.

In the 1990s the team also planned and led major street upgrades in the CBD and suburban shopping centres - many of which were run down with businesses closing. They widened footpaths on Lambton Quay, Willis Street and completely reconfigured Courtenay Place.

People walking on a bust Wellington street.

Steve says the formula was based on undeniable logic. "There are far more pedestrians than vehicles in the central city and suburban shopping areas - so they should be given priority. It was about narrowing roadways to just wide enough for vehicles and widening footpaths as far as we were able to give pedestrians a better deal.” This was done while maintaining or increasing parking, relocating pedestrian crossings, installing better bus stops and shelters along with planting and street furniture upgrades.

Steve worked long and hard - but ultimately unsuccessfully - on the 1990s bid to build the grade-separated Inner City Bypass - which would have featured four lanes of trenched/tunnelled State Highway 1 running from the Basin Reserve to the Terrace Tunnel.

"The Council had been pressing the Government via Transit NZ to fund the project and we set up a new traffic modelling team to carry out the economic evaluation/benefit cost analysis.

"We almost got it across the line - but Transit concluded they couldn't afford the $135 million cost and pulled the plug in 1994. We ended up with Karo Drive - a length of one-way street that took another 14 years to complete and cost over $30 million for much less. This was in hindsight a great lost opportunity."

In 2007 Steve was appointed Chief Transport Planner. "We put a lot of effort into improving bus priority along the Golden Mile as well as new parking, cycling and walking policies and a range of speed-limit reduction projects including our successful suburban centre 30 kmh programme which we've very nearly completed after 12 years’ hard graft. We've now done, I think, 18 out of 21 suburbs.

"The moral to this story is you need to persist with good plans because often they are overtaken by more recent fashions and so don't get finished. Many cities are in reality an aggregation of unfinished policies and plans."

Among other highlights for Steve include project-managing the Council's role in the Nissan Mobil 500 street races and persuading Councillors to fund the innovative SaferRoads project in the early 2000s.

A favourite project of Logen's” involved planting more than 50 trees along Jervois and Customhouse Quays.

Playing spectacularly against type, Steve turned private investigator in the early 1990s on a hunch that something was amiss in the Council's parking revenue unit - income from the parking meters was not what it should have been - but the cause was not obvious. His suspicions eventually led to a top-secret inquiry into the activities of two staff members who had the mundane but essential job of counting and banking thousands of dollars in coins from the meters every day.

An apparently-scorned ex-wife of one of the staffers, together with a hidden camera and a police 'sting' eventually led to the conviction and jailing of the two employees who, quietly over the years, had stolen at least $1.5 million from the Council - all in coins.

Steve, with his tinder-dry Yorkshire wit, says the investigation did have humorous angles.

"One of the guys used to regularly get on the overnight train to Auckland with a heavy bag containing thousands in coins - he had dodgy dairy owners in towns along the Main Trunk who were laundering the cash for him.

"One of them was also driving a Corvette Stingray - a bit unusual for a Council employee..."

Steve says he's worked for eight mayors and more than 60 different councillors, six CEOs and 12 business unit managers or directors. "I believe establishing solid working relationships and trust is the key to achieving results.”

After processing an estimated 200,000 emails, attending around 10,000 meetings, taking 30,000 phone calls and writing untold reports and letters, Steve says he's looking forward to more time for numerous other things - taking on the role as President of Wellington North Rotary Club in July, more bowling, catching up with family, watching the progress of Let’s Get Wellington Moving, "and writing letters to the Dominion Post".