People before traffic

Road

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.

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Phil Jones is cabinet member for sustainability on Camden council. He tweets @PhilJones79

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Photo: Carl Smith

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  • Steven Boxall

    For 20 mph speed limits to work the roads have to be designed so that 20 mph feels, to the driver, to be the appropriate speed to do (and this doesn’t mean speed bumps). Without this re-designing of roads all that will happen is that drivers will still do 30 mph, get fined, and see the reduced speed limit as a money making scheme rather than a road safety measure. The 30 mph speed limit was set at this level not through an arbitary process but because it was the speed at which the vast majority of drivers felt in control of their car under those road conditions.

  • Chris Johnson

    Steve, you are absolutely right. In most of our towns and villages it is no problem to drive safely within the 30mph limit and most people do so. However, in some congested areas or near schools at “home time” it is dangerous to drive even at 20mph. We trust road users, whether on two wheels, four wheels or on foot to act responsibly. We should promote measures to encourage and support all of us to be even more aware of and considerate to others.
    Before blighting the country with 20mph limits we should make more use of “smart signs” as used on motorways to vary limits in particular locations according to weather and traffic conditions.
    Authorities seeking to vary speed limits should consult road users as well as local residents, although I concede that this would require more effort. I think the current “no more than 20mph” band wagon is a vote loser for Labour.

  • Chris Johnson

    Steve, you are absolutely right. In most of our towns and villages it is no problem to drive safely within the 30mph limit and most people do so. However, in some congested areas or near schools at “home time” it is dangerous to drive even at 20mph. We trust road users, whether on two wheels, four wheels or on foot to act responsibly. We should promote measures to encourage and support all of us to be even more aware of and considerate to others.
    Before blighting the country with 20mph limits we should make more use of “smart signs” as used on motorways to vary limits in particular locations according to weather and traffic conditions.
    Authorities seeking to vary speed limits should consult road users as well as local residents, although I concede that this would require more effort. I think the current “no more than 20mph” band wagon is a vote loser for Labour.

  • drsnyc

    went for a new year’s day walk round my part of Camberwell – mostly housing estates. Shocked and furious to find that building works have created a totally no-go zone for pedestrians (probably very dangerous for cyclists) along a 500m stretch of road – vehicular traffic access had been planned for and implemented, but absolutely nowhere for people to walk except literally down the middle of a (busy) road. Is this even legal in Britain? Perhaps the developers think they can get away with this as the community using the road (which is a core route to a health centre) is mostly not middle class, presumably not connected and possibly unlikely to make any sort of a protest.