Could it soon become possible to travel all the way from the borders of Essex to the West End of London on main roads with a 20mph speed limit? Across London, Labour boroughs such as Camden, Hackney, Islington, Southwark and Waltham Forest are rejecting the timid policies of Boris Johnson’s Transport for London that too often put traffic flow before neighbourhoods. They are, instead, forging a new consensus on 20mph road speed limits to reduce road accidents, promote walking and cycling, and help tackle traffic domination of London’s streets.
It is important to understand the difference between a 20mph zone and a 20mph limit. The new approach is not to implement piecemeal 20mph zones around schools or in quiet residential areas with traffic-calming measures. Instead it is a more comprehensive reform of limiting vehicles to 20mph across the board, including on the main roads where most accidents happen. Despite rising cyclist fatalities, it is a policy that is viewed with hostility by TfL, which controls the major ‘red routes’ and could still veto the boroughs’ decisions to move to 20mph on many other main roads.
It’s quite simple: you are far more likely to die if hit by a car travelling at 30mph than 20mph. Evidence shows that implementing a 20mph rule can reduce speeds even when traffic calming measures like speed humps are excluded. And you only need small reductions in speeds to produce significant reductions in casualties. Research conducted for the Department for Transport estimates that for every 1mph decrease in speed a six per cent reduction in accidents is achieved. But 20mph limits are just as much about encouraging more of London’s rapidly growing population to walk and cycle as about reducing casualties. By promoting sustainable transport modes we prevent some of the emissions and congestion that clog up our roads, damage our health via polluted air and undermine efforts to tackle climate change.
In times when local government has already been cut to the bone, Labour councils need to find ways to deliver improvements for communities that don’t involve ongoing burden to the taxpayer. It is cheaper for councils to use existing transport budgets to shift to 20mph across the board than to set up multiple smaller zones each with their own traffic- calming measures. And every accident avoided saves considerable sums to the NHS and local economy.
Ultimately, however, we cannot quantify in monetary terms the value of just one single life saved or one family spared the grief of a child knocked down by a speeding car. Not that all families are equal in facing this risk. Research by both TfL and the British Medical Journal has shown that people from deprived communities are more likely to become road traffic casualties. Moving to 20mph is part of a wider Labour agenda on equality and social justice as well as a way to increase road safety and boost sustainable transport.
The objections to 20mph from the pro-car lobby are legion, but unpersuasive. There is no evidence that air quality will get worse, or that traffic congestion and journey times will increase. Lack of enforcement by the police of 20mph is also no more of a barrier than their lack of enforcement of 30mph. It makes sense to encourage the police to act where there is a proven safety problem, but evidence shows you don’t need coppers lined up with cameras to encourage drivers to slow down.
The efforts of campaigners in advancing the 20mph cause have been impressive. But it is only Labour that can provide a real political alternative to Boris on transport, and it is only the boroughs that can actually deliver change on the ground to show a better way forward. We need greater cooperation on building our alternative and, who knows, maybe it will be possible to travel right across London on 20mph roads by the time we fight again for the mayoralty in 2016.
Phil Jones is cabinet member for sustainability on Camden council. He tweets @PhilJones79
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