The 20mph default urban speed limit: an unlikely advocate

The 20mph default urban speed limit: an unlikely advocate

The day after reports surfaced that City of York Council is considering rolling back its wide area 20mph limits, Brake campaigns officer Ed Morrow analyses the reasoning and suggests it actually provides justification for more 20mph limits, not less.

On the morning of 8 July 2015, Councillor Ian Gillies, City of York Council's cabinet member for transport, went on BBC Radio York and made the case for changing the UK's default urban speed limit to 20mph. Of course, he did not realise this was what he was doing, but it is what he did nonetheless.

What Councillor Gillies thought he was doing was justifying his administration's reported plans to roll back York's wide area 20mph limits, less than two years after many of them were rolled out.

"Are you really going to scrap these 20mph speed limits?" he was asked. Gillies responded, "The blanket ones, very likely". This response was a source of great relief. If the Council is planning on scrapping blanket limits, then the residents of York having nothing to worry about, as the Council is planning on scrapping something that doesn't exist.

'Blanket', 'blanket', 'blanket'. The word represents one of the most common misconceptions about 20mph limits, which is wilfully spread by many detractors. It suggests a limit applied indiscriminately, with a broad brush, with no care for the particular nature of individual roads. This couldn't be further from the truth.

To more accurately talk about 20mph limits, we describe them as 'wide area' or 'widespread'. We start with the assumption that 20mph is the most appropriate speed for the majority of streets in cities, towns and villages, where people live, work and play – and then we consider where there are some major roads where it is appropriate and safe to retain a higher limit. All we do is to switch the onus – to prove where 30, not 20, is appropriate.

Councillor Gillies recited the classic myths on 20mph – 'the police don't enforce them', 'there's no evidence they reduce casualties', and simply 'they don't work'. Well, there's a whole heap of national and international evidence to say they do work, in terms of reducing speeds, reducing casualties, and making more people feel safe to travel by foot or bike.

But if City of York Council wants to look closer to home, it need only look at the Fishergate 20mph scheme in the city itself, which has been going since 2009. Here, average traffic speeds reduced by 2-4mph. This may not sound like much, but when you consider that even a 1mph reduction in speed leads to, on average, a 5% reduction in crashes, you begin to realise that small margins matter.

As for the claim about police enforcement, this rather misses the point. Yes, enforcement is important, and police forces across the country are starting to take their responsibility to enforce the law more seriously when it comes to 20mph limits, with Islington becoming the first area where police have started handing out fines, from October last year. But compliance can be achieved with the carrot, not just the stick, through engaging behaviour change campaigns, which become easier the more normalised 20mph limits become. It can't be achieved by giving up after less than two years.

But where Councillor Gillies inadvertently gave ammunition to the call for a 20mph default urban limit, was when he bemoaned the great cost of York's 20mph implementation, estimated at £500,000 to £600,000. He bemoaned the required installation of 20mph signs to mark the limit on small streets where, as he put it, you couldn't even get up to 10.

Now, the GO 20 coalition has been campaigning for years to get the national default urban speed limit lowered to 20mph to save just these sorts of local implementation costs. 20's Plenty for Us, in particular, has highlighted how it would ease the process if signage requirements imposed on local authorities for 20mph limits were relaxed. If 20 was the norm, we wouldn't need the signs. Compliance would become greater, and enforcement easier, if all drivers knew the limit was 20 unless a sign told them otherwise.

Unfortunately for Councillor Gillies, he put two and two together and got five. We put two and two together and know the answer is four – and four is a default urban speed limit of 20mph.

See more reaction to the City of York Council proposals from GO 20 partners.

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Comments 4

Guest - amy burbidge on Thursday, 09 July 2015 19:19

Really neat description of the idea of area wide limits. We are putting our justification to our Parish Council on Tuesday, and they have been annoyed that we as residents won't put out a specifc map of our preferred zone. We've said this is because we think 20 should be the area default, and the Highways Authority can decide anywhere it thinks should be 30 instead, but your paragraph is much better. We might well quote you on Tuesday night! Thanks 20s Plenty Buckden

Really neat description of the idea of area wide limits. We are putting our justification to our Parish Council on Tuesday, and they have been annoyed that we as residents won't put out a specifc map of our preferred zone. We've said this is because we think 20 should be the area default, and the Highways Authority can decide anywhere it thinks should be 30 instead, but your paragraph is much better. We might well quote you on Tuesday night! Thanks 20s Plenty Buckden
Guest - Ed Morrow on Friday, 10 July 2015 08:18

Glad to be of help! Best of luck on Tuesday.

Glad to be of help! Best of luck on Tuesday.
Guest - Tom Fisher on Thursday, 09 July 2015 23:16

Many of these themes are going to be developed in a research project on 20 mph limits that Brake is currently running, which has involved gathering information from councils across the UK. It is due to be released later this year.

Many of these themes are going to be developed in a research project on 20 mph limits that Brake is currently running, which has involved gathering information from councils across the UK. It is due to be released later this year.
Guest - peter on Saturday, 29 August 2015 09:37

How does a20mph limit outside a school at 10 pm during the summer holidays ever make any sense? Most sensible people would accept the logic of 20mph during genuine high risk times and at genuine high risk locations. However I simply don't accept that there is significant support for wide area 24/7 20 mph limits. I wish the people of York and Bristol success in their campaign to roll back 20 mph limits and I can only hope it becomes a widespread trend.

How does a20mph limit outside a school at 10 pm during the summer holidays ever make any sense? Most sensible people would accept the logic of 20mph during genuine high risk times and at genuine high risk locations. However I simply don't accept that there is significant support for wide area 24/7 20 mph limits. I wish the people of York and Bristol success in their campaign to roll back 20 mph limits and I can only hope it becomes a widespread trend.
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