Time to put a stop to the 20mph zone fad

Speed limit sign, Belfast.

Over the past few years, a number of boroughs in London have imposed 20mph speed limits across most or all of the roads under their control (which in London is all except motorways and “red routes”, which are controlled by the Department for Transport and Transport for London respectively). The first were in inner London but the trend has been spreading out to the suburbs in the last few years. Ken Livingstone was a big fan of the idea but he was voted out in 2008, and normal speed limits (usually 30mph) remain on most of the roads controlled by the mayor’s office. The latest to introduce borough-wide 20mph limits is Richmond, which is the neighbouring borough to mine (Kingston). These roads include main roads (A- and B-roads) as well as minor roads, and the limits have no connection to road conditions or the presence of schools or large concentrations of shops although a few specific corridors have been exempted pending further research or consultation.

To begin with, I must say that I am not opposed to 20mph zones in residential streets or in limited zones as was the case with the zones originally. Some boroughs have expanded them more sensibly, such as Croydon which has imposed 20mph limits on all minor roads in the north of the borough and kept the limit at 30mph on A- and B-roads. Other boroughs, such as Lewisham, Lambeth and Camden, have imposed them on all borough roads. The ostensible reason for doing this is road safety (though for reasons I will come to, the wisdom of 20mph limits on such roads is questionable), but there was no great safety imperative on some of the roads concerned; they were main roads, in some cases dual carriageways, and a better way to ensure road safety would have been more pedestrian crossings or to enforce the existing limits. I am also in favour of reducing car speed limits on main roads with national speed limits to 50mph on single carriageways and 60mph on dual carriageways with two lanes, to bring them into line with HGV speed limits (which were increased in 2015) and to eliminate dangerous overtakes.

The urban area speed limit in this country is 30mph. It always has been; it’s generally accepted, partly thanks to a long-running public safety campaign to educate people that the limit is there for a reason. Grumbles about speed cameras have become rather more muted since they were painted bright yellow and their locations are featured on navigation units, though there are still a few that smack of money-making rather than safety. The presence of street lighting automatically indicates that the limit is 30mph unless there are signs that state otherwise, which is why 20mph zones are advertised with repeater signs. This is not the USA where different states have different speed limits and other laws; local authorities set speed limits but this is within guidelines. We now have a situation where speed limits change on main roads not because of a change in the road conditions but because of crossing an arbitrary boundary and because of the whims of local politicians. Quite simply, we have gone from “it’s 30 for a reason” to “because we say so”.

In the case of Richmond, although the zone excludes a few major roads, notably most of the A308 from Kingston Bridge to the Surrey boundary, it also includes a number of A-roads which are good, wide roads which do not have houses fronting them, such as sections of the A311 and A312 near Hampton. The A307 from Kew to Richmond is of better quality than the A205 which is part of the South Circular Road which retains a 30mph limit and has always been the major route from the A316 to the M4 because it avoids a low bridge on the South Circular. It is also part of the only road from Kingston to the M4 other than the more circuitous route via the M25. The A312 and A313 (through Teddington) are the only reasonable routes from Kingston to Feltham (a major industrial area), used by buses in the absence of a rail link; the B358 is the main road from Kingston to parts of Hounslow, Heston and Southall and part of it (Sixth Cross Road north of Teddington) until fairly recently had a 40mph limit and is a wide road and is in part dual carriageway. Apart from Queen’s Road in Teddington, the conditions in no way justify a 20mph limit and the council has never seen fit to introduce speed cameras in any of these places which suggests that they do not have high accident rates. The 20mph limit will include Thames Street, the part of the A308 through Hampton village; the council imposed a 20mph limit on that stretch for a while a few years ago and then lifted it. What is the sense in re-imposing a limit that was tried, and failed?

Richmond council claims that the policy brings the borough into line with neighbouring councils which have imposed 20mph limits. In fact, they have not. My borough, Kingston, has 20mph zones on a small number of roads around town centres and in selected residential areas; the main borough roads such as the A2043 to Worcester Park, the A308 to Roehampton, the A307 towards Richmond and most of the A240 to Tolworth have 30mph limits (part of the Kingston one-way system — sometimes called the Kingston Racetrack — now has a 20mph limit, namely the bit that has several pedestrian crossings in a short stretch which also has several blind bends). Wandsworth’s borough-wide 20mph limit, like Croydon’s, excludes A- and B-roads. Merton has imposed a 20mph limit in much of the east of the borough but not the west (e.g. Raynes Park), although this may be planned for the future. Hounslow’s 20mph limit policy is, again, for residential roads and areas around town centres only (even the A315 through Bedfont still has a 30mph limit). All this is a long way from a blanket 20mph limit.

However, the biggest problem with them is that they are generally ignored and flouted almost universally. People do slow down, but rarely to 20mph or less unless there is a police car or speed camera nearby. This is, I suspect, why the schemes attract little protest; people know that they can get away with breaking them and generally do. This is the reason why they do not offer the significant road safety improvements the local politicians claim they do; in fact, they may give a false sense of security to many pedestrians. In the cross-party letter from local politicians to residents, it is claimed that “according to Public Health Wales, a 20mph limit which reduces average speeds from 31mph to 19mph reduces harmful gasses by 32 per cent”, but if average speeds are actually reduced to about 25mph, emissions will not be reduced by that much. If there were widespread fines and points being given out, there would be a public debate, which there so far has not been, and there would be complaints. Ken Livingstone lost the 2008 mayoral election in large part because of the unpopular western extension to the Congestion Charge, which a consultation had found was unpopular but he brushed it aside, saying it was not a referendum.

Finally, in my opinion London boroughs should not have the final say in setting main road speed limits. They are too small and too parochial. It is not only local residents that use them but residents of neighbouring boroughs who need to travel to or through the borough concerned. They were built to link towns, as the names of some of them (e.g. Uxbridge Road in Hampton) suggest. Outside London, the responsibility for these roads lies with counties, whose councils have to balance the needs of everyone in the area rather than just the immediate neighbourhood, and even the new unitary authorities are often the size of a small county, with both urban and rural parts, rather than of a London borough. Richmond is also an odd shape, extending a long way east to west on both sides of the river (its two parts were not even in the same county before the 1960s), and it does not make much sense for residents of Barnes to get a say in speed limits in Hampton but people in Kingston, which is much nearer, being excluded. As we have no proper council for Greater London and the boroughs are the highest democratic local authority, they need to be reminded that main roads are not just for their residents but are public highways.

This fad for whole areas with 20mph limits regardless of road conditions in whole boroughs must be stopped. We live in a United Kingdom, not a federation which means there should be one law for everyone rather than the laws changing with every municipal boundary. A well-enforced 30mph limit is better for road safety than a generally ignored 20mph one, and road safety can be improved by other means, including pedestrian crossings, traffic calming and the blocking-off of rat-runs. It undermines years of efforts to persuade people that 30mph speed limits are there for a reason. It is not in response to public demand but is a project by local politicians (hence the cross-party support for the Richmond scheme); it may be intended to drive traffic off their roads onto those controlled by other authorities, i.e. central government or the mayor. We must get back to the principle that the speed limit on main roads in urban areas is 30mph and that speed limits vary according to road conditions, not arbitrary boundaries.

Image source: Albert Bridge, via Geograph Ireland. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence.

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