20mph zone for the City

Twenty's plenty

20mph in the City sign

Reducing the top speeds of motor traffic by making most of the Square Mile a 20mph zone is the single measure which could do the most to make cycling safer and more attractive. Tipping the balance from motor traffic to people oriented spaces, it would also benefit pedestrians and disabled people greatly.

UPDATE: we are still pushing for 20mph zones to be included within the City's transport plan or at the very least for there not to be a blanket policy against them.

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Is it that important?

20mph zones are at last a common sight throughout the UK and are being proceeded with in other Historic Core Zones such as Oxford's city centre. Even Birmingham, once known as the champion of cars, has changed the speed limit in its centre, including parts of the dual carriageway inner ring road, to 20mph, while the busiest streets through shopping areas even have an advisory 10mph limit. Central London is the exceptional and now stands out like a sore thumb.

20mph in Birmingham

Mayoral candidates from the four main parties all signed up to LCC's manifesto for cycling including 20mph as the standard speed for streets where Londoners live, work or shop and all over London new 20mph zones are springing up. All that is except central London, where there are the most pedestrians and cyclists, the most collisions and the slowest traffic speeds. Keeping the 30mph speed limit in bustling places such as Oxford Street, Bank, Covent Garden and Fleet Street no longer makes any sense.

It was only the disastrous engineering of the 1960s with gyratories, guardrails and one-ways that made high speeds possible in the crowded mediaeval streets of the City. Very few drivers manage to get over 20mph in central London for anything more than a short burst between waiting at traffic lights. However allowing for the possibility of such speeds creates the need for more traffic signs and regulations while significantly reducing the capacity of junctions.

The City of London, the world's largest financial centre, has a very high profile. Many people know that certain cities such as Amsterdam or even York have a lot of cycling but this is seen as just a quirk of those countries or localities. If somewhere such as the City is made into a people-friendly 20mph zone, it will have an effect not just in the UK but also in developing countries where there is pressure to move towards a car culture and repeat the same mistakes made here in the 1960s.

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The decision under challenge

The City has been considering a 20mph zone for a number of years. Although the decision under challenge only concerns a 20mph zone based on the ring of steel (the section of the City inside Farringdon Street, Upper/Lower Thames Street and Minories), City Cyclists believe the western extension to the ring of steel (between Farringon Street and Temple Bar) should also be made a 20mph zone along with the area around Smithfields Meat Market. The Farringdon Street and Upper/Lower Thames Street corridors should remain at 30mph indeed having a lower speed limit on the smaller streets will mean drivers are more likely to respect the higher existing 30mph limit on these busy dual carriageways.

The Traffic Management & Road Safety Sub-committee decided unanimously in January 2002 to obtain an evaluation report comparing a 20mph zone based on the Traffic & Environment Zone (the 'ring of steel' security cordon) with an alternative of traffic calming with an unchanged speed limit (minutes and the second and final report). However the Planning & Transport Committee decided narrowly against proceeding to an evaluation report, following the issue being called in by the Policy & Resources Committee, and the reasons given simply do not stand up to scrutiny:

"The plethora of signs necessary for a City wide 20mph was not considered desirable." / "There should not be a plethora of signs introduced into the City." The 20mph proposal would need a disproportionately small number of signs as it would be based on the ring of steel where extensive road closures mean there are only eight entry points. Furthermore these signs could be mounted on the existing number plate reading cameras, which along with the associated security lights, police boxes and chicanes are far more visually intrusive. The Committee was wrongly advised that 20mph signs would need to be repeated throughout the zone. Despite admitting this legal error, the Corporation has refused to reconsider its decision.

"Appropriate road safety measures should be used only in areas where there was a specific problem" / "It would be more appropriate to address the problems in individual areas rather than a blanket approach." The whole of the City has a serious road safety problem, with collisions distributed throughout all the main thoroughfares. The Square Mile has four schools, five town centres (Fleet St, Cheapside, Bishopsgate, High Holborn, Cannon St) with the highest pedestrian flows in Europe. This is not simply a narrow 'safety' issue but is highly relevant to quality of life, vital to the competitiveness of a world class City.

"It would impede traffic during the quieter periods, evenings and weekends, when it was possible for vehicles to go faster". With the 24 hour world economy and later opening hours following the Licensing Act 2003, there are people out on the streets on foot or cycle throughout the night, while the Millennium Bridge has led to a dramatic increase in tourists to the City. A significant proportion of collisions happen during the quieter times, for example Kim Vin Thi was killed while cycling during the early hours of a February morning in 2003.

Even the City's own report concedes that a 20mph zone is likely to smooth traffic flows and reduce journey times during the day. At night the theoretical delay from a change of speed limit is 3.7s per 100m, which is little over a minute extra for the longest through route (though should through traffic be encouraged?) of Holborn Viaduct to Aldgate. Of course there are eight junctions with traffic lights plus a number of pedestrian crossings so the actual delay in practice is likely to be much less, so much so that it would not be noticed. A 20mph zone would assist the case to remove traffic signals so even at night journey times could be reduced. Bus journeys would become more reliable and passengers who are increasingly having to stand on the new bendy buses would not be thrown about by drivers speeding up to 30mph.

The Committee decided instead to proceed with "effective but subtle traffic calming measures that should not impede the smooth running of the business City" and that these should "be adopted, where necessary, to produce similar benefits as the introduction of a 20mph zone". The measures would be "narrowing the carriageways and by perhaps installing shallow ramps rather than the introduction of a large number of signs". Two years later, nothing new has been done, not even a single report commissioned.

While increasing numbers of London's streets are being turned into 20mph zones, there is only one short street in the City with a speed limit of less than 30mph. As it has pedestrianised, the reduced speed limit makes no difference now. These signs would be removed if the City 20mph zone went ahead.

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Traffic "destressing"

Trying to calm motor traffic in an area without reducing the speed limit is like trying to build a house without foundations. Drivers will still regard the 30mph speed limit as their speed target and indeed their right. The shallow ramps introduced on Bishopsgate have had no effect whatsoever while road narrowings would be impractical on the City's thoroughfares in fact the existing narrowings as part of the ring of steel have caused huge problems for cyclists.

Besides the City's "traffic calming initiative" will do nothing to prevent the menace of speeding motorcyclists and where there is a crash, drivers will say they were within the 30mph speed limit so the pedestrian/cyclist must have been at fault. With relatively high speeds still provided for, it will not be possible to remove kerbs and guardrails at many locations, or under DfT regulations permit cyclists to use one-way streets in both directions, actions which would calm the traffic.

  • Removing half a dozen traffic lights and replacing them with give-ways or mini-roundabouts. From putting your foot down to get through on green only to find your stress levels rising as they change to red and you are stuck in another queue, to driving at a constant relaxed speed, taking your foot off the accelerator to slow down gradually as you approach a junction rather than slamming it on the brake
  • Removing guardrails and kerbs (except by bus stops) and replacing them with attractive surfaces and the occasional bollard to channel drivers. No more pedestrians squashed onto narrow pavements
  • Removing one-ways and gyratories replacing them simple road layouts and the occasional bus or cycle only restriction to prevent rat-running

While British traffic engineers declare war on the motorist and wonder why drivers become so annoyed while those on foot or cycle remain deeply unsatisfied, on the continent they treat road users with intelligence and create attractive streets where it is obvious what style of driving should be adopted. That works, what we do in the UK does not. Isn't it time we learnt better?

Cars travel little above walking pace in this German Living Zone/Yard (equivalent to our Home Zones but not limited to residential areas) not because there are huge tank trap like humps but because it is obvious from the street design they should.

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20mph info

Despite the success and popularity of 20mph zones here and on the continent, where in many large towns over 80% of all roads have an equivalent limit, a swathe of politicians and engineers in the UK still regard them as only suitable for token application in residential areas and around schools etc. Perhaps it is because they view a reduction in speed limits as a sign of failure, just as if they were in charge of a railway and were considering downgrading the line speed.

These people still seem to view roads as traffic sewers rather than as public space for a variety of users. Nowhere more is the stupidity of this approach shown up than in places such as Oxford Street or the Square Mile, where not only would a reduced speed limit improve safety and quality of life but it would actually help drivers too.

20mph in Newcastle

Safety analysts have known for several decades that the maximum vehicle speed at which pedestrians can escape severe injury upon impact is just under 20 miles per hour. Research also suggests that an individual's ability to interact and retain eye contact with other human beings diminishes rapidly at speeds greater than 20 miles per hour. One theory behind this magic bullet, says leading expert Ben Hamilton-Baillie, is that 20 mph is the "maximum theoretical running speed" for human beings and evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has drawn similar conclusions. "This is of interest," he says, "because it suggests that our physiology and psychology has evolved based around the potential maximum impact on the speed of human beings."

The ramifications go beyond safety, says Hamilton-Baillie, to bear directly on the interplay between speed, traffic controls and vehicle capacity. Evidence from countries and cities that have introduced a design speed of 30 kilometres per hour (about 18.5 mph) - as many of the European Union nations are doing - shows that slower speeds improve traffic flow and reduce congestion.

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Legal

Richard Stein at Leigh Day & Co and David Wolfe of Matrix Chambers took the case on a no-win no-fee basis (Conditional Fee Agreement).

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