Monday, 26 October 2009

Article published in World Streets

Here is an article that was recently featured in the World Streets on-line magazine. See

On 14th May 2008 in a United Kingdom House of Commons Transport Committee evidence session the respected head of the Netherlands Road Safety Institute, Fred Wegman, commented :-

“Until 2000 we were always looking to the United Kingdom when it came to road safety. You were the inventors of many good activities and polices. All of a sudden, somewhere in 2000, you stopped doing things and we continued with our efforts. A simple figure to illustrate that is that, compared to 2000, in 2006 you had 7% fewer fatalities in this country. We have one third fewer.”

The resultant critical review of road safety in the UK by the Transport Select Committee was tellingly entitled “Ending the Scandal of Complacency: Road Safety beyond 2010”

Experts will debate the reasons for the slow down in better safety on UK roads. Some will put it down to an over-reliance on engineering measures which may well simply keep prevailing vehicle speeds higher and inevitably make it more dangerous for our vulnerable road users. Indeed whilst the number of total road fatalities has dropped from 3,221 in 2004 to 2,538 in 2008, the percentage of these which were pedestrians has been steadily rising from 20.83% in 2004 to 22.54% in 2008. In fact UK’s skewing of road fatalities towards pedestrians is one of the highest in Europe where the average across the EU14 countries in 2005 was just 14%. In 2005 in the Netherlands it was just 9.4%.

However, things are changing. In 2006 the Department of Transport issued some new guidelines to Local Authorities for setting speed limits. One city, Portsmouth, seized upon a slight change in the guidelines for 20 mph limits without traffic calming and decided to embark upon a new initiative based upon the premise that 20’s plenty where people live.

And last week at a special conference “Portsmouth – Britain’s First 20 mph City” the presentations in the Guild Hall in Portsmouth may well have created a pivotal point in road danger reduction in the UK.

Until now, speed management has mainly been implemented by means of localised interventions on streets to make the driver slow down. Whether they are speed cameras, or speed bumps the essential engagement has been with the driver on the road whilst he or she is driving.

At the conference, Portsmouth City Council and the Department for Transport reported on the results from the completely different approach taken by Portsmouth when in March 2008 they completed their setting of all residential roads, bar arterial routes, with a speed limit of 20 mph. 1,200 streets were set to 20 mph over a 9 month period. No bumps or humps, but most importantly a decision not just made by Traffic Officers but by the whole community as they sought a way to deliver lower speeds and a better quality of life for their residents. Quite simply, Portsmouth people decided to slow down wherever people live!

Of course, setting lower speeds with traffic calming is so expensive that one only usually does it where you have excessive speed problems. But when you make the decision as a community to slow down wherever people live then it is inevitable that many streets will already have speeds below 20 mph. In fact in Portsmouth they monitored 159 sites. 102 already had mean speeds of 20 mph or less. 36 were between 20 mph and 24 mph, whilst on a further 21 the mean speed was above 24 mph.

And because of that mix it was found that overall the mean speed for all the roads did not change very much. In fact it reduced by just 1%. But what was very significant was the fact that in those streets where speeds previously were 24 mph or above then a huge 7mph reduction in mean speed was recorded.

Whilst casualties also fell by 15% and total accidents by 13%, more time will be needed to establish statistically significant collision figures.

Portsmouth’s success is as a community that has debated how the streets should be shared more equitably and has gone through the due political, democratic and administrative process to take that community commitment and turn it into a framework within which everyone can take their part in making their city a better place to live. One where casualties reduce and people have quieter streets with more opportunities for cycling and walking.

The spaces between our houses, which we call streets, will never be the same in this country. Portsmouth has shown that communities can change their behaviour and sensibly embark on a 20’s Plenty Where People Live initiative that delivers real benefits to every road user. More and more towns, cities and villages are following this trend to put citizenship back into the way we drive and share our roads. The same plan is proposed in Oxford, Leicester, Newcastle, Norwich and Islington, with widespread trials being conducted in Bristol and Warrington.

But people in Portsmouth are perhaps no different from us all. But what they have found is a way to enable them to turn an aspiration for safer and more pleasant streets into a reality. I suspect there will be plenty more similar communities saying 20’s plenty for them as well. And that may well put the United Kingdom back on track in improving the safety of vulnerable road users and bringing a little more calmness to our urban and residential streets.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Letter to the Parish Council!

I recently heard of a response from a Parish Councillor explaining that at the parish level not much could be done to influence 20 mph speed limits. At 20's plenty for us we believe the reverse is true.

Here is the email I sent to our own local parish councillors in anticipation of lower speeds being debated at the next council meeting :-

I am delighted that Lymm Parish Council is going to be discussing the issue of speed limits for Lymm village on Tuesday night.

I will be looking forward to attending and if my experiences can be of help in assisting the discussion then I would be pleased to have an input.

As you may be aware, the whole “20’s Plenty for residential streets” idea is having huge interest in communities around the country. Cities and towns with diverse architecture and street plans are realising that lower speeds not only reduces danger on our roads but creates a far better quality of life for residents whether they drive, cycle or walk. But I am sure that you do not need convincing of the benefits of 20 mph in places where people live. You will be far more interested in the methodology for achieving it.

Communities thrive on social interaction and people interact and engage when walking, cycling or driving slower in manner which is near impossible at 30 mph and above. Its not the Spring Fair or May Queen which really creates a community spirit but the acknowledgement of faces met, smiles exchanged, people remembered and comments about the weather exchanged in everyday interactions on a streets which binds us all together.

And so it is that 20’s Plenty provides the opportunity for so much more of these positive interactions to take place within an environment of mutual respect and tolerance rather than one where traffic is feared and the outside treated as a danger.

I would therefore like to correct the thought that the Parish Council has limited input into this. My own opinion is that the Parish Council is at the heart of most communities and that is where the 20 mph policies are made or broken. The whole 20’s Plenty movement is not just about what local authorities can facilitate in reducing speed limits, but how local communities debate that essential question of “how do we wish to share our roads?”. 20’s Plenty is not some traffic management scheme devised in the Town Hall, but the outcome of a cultural change which has already happened in our communities. We all know that almost everyone we ask will tell us that for those who walk or cycle, or simply stand an chat on or next to our roads then the speed of vehicles is too high.

But some of the same people when in the comfort of their car may well forget the difference between their perceived safety when behind a steering wheel and their effect on others at the side of the road. Its not intentional, but conditioned by the high levels of comfort and safety within modern cars when contrasted with the vulnerability of us all when walking, cycling or using the pavements. And because of this the success of 20’s Plenty lies not in the decisions that individuals make when seeing a speed limit on the road, but the decisions made in the home, or work, or with family when the whole idea of lower speeds where people live is debated. Its that community debate at family, street, district and town level that means we all make lifestyle decisions to change our behaviour when driving between other people houses.

And, of course, our Parish Councillors may well be powerless in the actual implementation of 20 mph limits. Indeed with widening its implementation to be a borough rather than parish intervention being such an important ingredient in the Portsmouth initiative, it is necessary for this to done at borough level. But we should never underestimate the power of the Parish Council to act as a catalyst for that community debate on lower speeds. Without it entering the fray, debating the gains, considering the disadvantages and marshalling support then we dis-empower the community and its ability to evolve and grow.

What really stands out from the Portsmouth 20 mph success is that it confounded the experienced traffic managers. Hitherto it had been said that with signage alone only a 1 mph reduction in speed limit would be achieved. But of course the most important factor which had never been built into DfT experiments before was the willingness of communities to change their habits and behave differently. The streets in Portsmouth which the DfT suggested would be least likely to reduce their speed (those previously above 24 mph) in fact had a whopping 7 mph reduction. What was also noticeable was the reduction in speeds on 30 mph roads and also the lower “pace” of traffic when accelerating from lights or junctions.

This was not because of the signs or the enforcement, but because the council provided a framework for social change. It enabled the good citizens of Portsmouth to discuss and decide what they wanted and then put into place a speed limit regime which enabled them to say that 20’s Plenty where people live.

Of course you will be aware of the moves in Warrington towards lower speeds, and I am sure you will be aware of my criticism and impatience with the current 20 mph pilots which merely tinker with signs rather than really engaging with communities. But I believe that in Lymm we have a community which is crying out for a change in the way we share our roads. I trust that the Parish Council will be able to empathise with the aspirations of Lymm people and take a very active role in promoting 20 mph limits for the residential roads of Lymm. Of course whether Higher Lane should be included in such a scheme would be up to the Traffic Officers. But certainly I can conform that wider and busier and more strategic roads than Higher Lane have been set at 20 mph in Portsmouth.

Having been involved in debate around the country, not only with community meetings, but also in meetings with DfT, London Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly Members, Members of Parliament and even in Brussels with the European Transport Safety Council, I am aware of the benefits and also the challenges of creating a better environment and quality for life for us all. I do trust that here in Lymm we can similarly take stock of our opportunities for betterment and improvement in our lives. And I trust that all of us, as residents, parish councillors, borough councillors, pupils, employees, employers and retired can all take part in this opportunity for change.