Slow change: The need for a 20mph limit
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Speed limits on residential roads are falling. Except in Richmond and Surrey. Time for a change of gear, says Samantha Laurie
Just before Christmas, Andrew Smith, head of Rodborough Technology College near Godalming, learnt that yet another of his pupils had been knocked down outside the school. A 15-year-old girl was in A&E, having been clipped by the wing mirror of a car and knocked unconscious. The car, travelling at 30 mph, didn’t stop. It was the fourth such accident in the vicinity within a year.
But even as Smith was penning a letter to parents venting his frustration at the council’s reluctance to lower the speed limit near the school, 40 Tory councillors were voting down a motion to make it easier to implement 20 mph zones when and where communities ask for them.
Something is happening around the country that is not happening in Richmond and Surrey: traffic is slowing down. Encouraged by an increasingly enthusiastic government – and by 70-80% satisfaction surveys – councils from Bristol to Portsmouth to Lancashire are introducing 20 mph limits on residential roads.
Eight million people in the UK now live in a local authority that has 20 mph as the default limit for residential streets. Slower roads are safer – witness a 42% reduction in casualties in London’s 20 mph areas – and encourage more cyclists and walkers (both up by 20% in Bristol). Moreover the impact on journey times is negligible. In the most typical model – main roads 30 mph, but residential roads lowered to 20 mph – average times have risen by just 40 seconds. As M25 engineers have long known, heavy traffic merges faster at slower speeds.
Yet in Surrey there is nothing but resistance to the idea. Incredibly, last year the council rejected best practice guidelines issued by the Department of Transport that make it easier to implement 20 mph limits on more roads.
In Richmond, a council task force urged more 20 mph roads back in 2010, but full council rejected this on financial grounds. Instead, residents can ask for the limit on their street to be lowered – but only if 50% of the whole road is in support. Naturally, the process is slow.
Meanwhile, Surrey’s road safety team manager, Duncan Knox, insists that reducing speed limits without enforcement does not work. Since the police are unwilling to take on extra responsibility, councils can either issue a 20 mph limit for all residential roads and rely on the public to adhere to it, or introduce isolated zones self-enforced with traffic bumps or chicanes. Surrey favours the latter.
At £60,000 per km, however, this is a limited solution. Moreover, it often increases driver frustration and danger to pedestrians, as cars speed up once out of the zone. A cheaper option is to install electronic signs for just £1,100 per km. Yet this makes for an average speed reduction of just 1.3 mph – pointless, says Knox, and may lead drivers to “disrespect limits in general”.
But the experience of other authorities signals otherwise: self-policed limits are a nudge toward a cultural shift in driver behaviour. In Portsmouth, where there is no physical calming, casualties have fallen by 22%. Because so many of its residents now live happily in 20 mph zones, they are much more likely to respect the limit on other roads.
By means of social – rather than traffic – engineering, change is under way. But it requires political will. And in Surrey, which has the highest levels of car ownership in the UK, the Cabinet Member responsible for Transport and Environment is unmoved.
“In a county as vibrant as Surrey, widespread 20 mph limits would not work,” insists John Furey. “Our economy works because people can get around quickly.”
Furey is wrong: driving quickly along residential roads is not the cornerstone of a vibrant economy. Nor does driving faster between congestion points speed up journeys. Most of all, Furey has misread the public mood.
“Surrey,” he continues, “does not have 20 mph zones because the people of Surrey haven’t asked for it.”
They have. From Weybridge to Godalming to Dorking and beyond, there are 20 mph campaigns that have run aground against a council policy couched in reluctance and with party politics at its heart. Slower traffic is a key tenet of Lib Dem policy. In Conservative-run Surrey, the matter is less about the quality of the politics than its colour.
Britain has the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in Europe. Residential roads are 60% faster than in the US. In Richmond, where just 2% of roads are 20 mph, cycling casualties are 2.5 times higher than Outer London’s average.
If we want roads where kids can play, and that older people can safely cross, either council policy or the councillors themselves must change.