Is 20 Plenty?

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As you wander through the streets of Bristol you might be appalled to remember that until the middle of the 19th century our streets were used as open sewers. You might consider that they would have been dangerous places to walk and that in such circumstances your health and indeed your life was at risk. You might even take a deep breath and thank goodness that the stench of rotting drains and raw effluent is no longer something we have to worry about – no doubt you praise the spirit of progress because, occasional careless dogs aside, these days you don’t really have to look where you walk. Pause a moment to pity the poor medieval peasant and the dangers his streets presented. But then, as you press the button on the pelican crossing, pause again, picture him gawping at your shoulder and consider whose streets are really safer.

Today in Bristol being a pedestrian hit by a motor vehicle is the biggest cause of death for children: were we to substitute cars for the free flowing raw sewage we would actually be much safer. Elsewhere in Berkeley Squares the issue of pollution is addressed by Andreas Richardson – and of course vehicle emissions are a major cause of the problem.

20 mph speed limits were agreed before our last Major, George Ferguson, took office but it was a policy for which he received much personal criticism and no doubt many voted for Marvin Rees hoping for their removal. Like a return to the open sewers of the past it would be a retrograde step.

According Dr Adrian Davis, Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health and Visiting Professor at Bristol UWE, the 20mph has only had a very small impact on speed – but the tiny effect it has had is significant. Average local speeds are now 1mph lower and this brings a 6% reduction in road casualties. In Bristol an average of 120 people are killed or seriously injured every year so the 20mph policy has prevented almost one person a month from being badly hurt or dying.

Some argue that the new speed limits should be confined to roads besides schools and hospitals, but Dr Davis points out that drivers have already slowed down in those areas. In fact most collisions involving children occur about a mile away from schools and their greatest impact has not been close to schools, but away from them.

Others want to scrap 20mph limits on major roads where there are few pedestrians. In city centres this doesn’t amount to many, but in any case Dr Davis says that research shows that constantly changing speed limits are ineffective.

20mph speed limits are part of wider international policies to improve safety. We all know that when we walk and cycle more we are healthier and live longer, but ironically heavy traffic on our roads is the main reason why we don’t walk or cycle. Recent studies also show a direct link between increasing traffic volume and social isolation, a problem that is increasing.

Ultimately we should surely aim for a car free city. in 1996 designs were proposed by J.H. Crawford but although this has yet to be achieved serious attempts to reduce traffic are growing:

In Sweden, Vision Zero was introduced in 1997 to eradicate all deaths on roads and reductions in speed limits have halved fatalities.

In the USA, the 55mph limit was first introduced to save fuel during the first oil crisis in the 1970s. In some states, the limit was later increased but this led to a spike in road deaths and so the limit was reduced again.

Vauban in Germany is one of the largest car-free neighbourhoods in Europe, home to over 5,000.  Residents are discouraged from owning a car – or buy a space in a multi-storey car park away from the centre. A measure of the success of the scheme is that demand for the spaces is continually falling. Vauban has been taken over by children skating and cycling and by adults socialising outdoors in a way that is unimaginable in Britain.

In the Netherlands, Groningen has the largest car-free centre in Europe: largely pedestrianised and entirely closed to through traffic. Three quarters of residents have no car and 40% of all journeys within the city are made by bicycle.

In Gent, the entire city heart is car free: public transport, taxis and permit holders may enter but not exceed 5 km/h.

In Strøget, Copenhagen, there is a large downtown car free shopping area and the city is now building a network of 26 “bicycle superhighways” which spread out to the outskirts – part of the Danish capital’s aim to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, plans to drastically to reduce the number of cars over the next 20 years. Their Green Network will cover 40% of the city and connect parks, leisure areas, playgrounds and gardens with a network of green paths.

Whilst George Ferguson had a clear agenda and the will to introduce dramatic changes with a change of regime we have yet to see clear indications of Mayor Rees’s appetite for the inevitable battles that traffic management involves. Lets hope that he is not overly influenced by the voices of the past.