Reading some of the comments below the line on local news websites and social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that 20mph limits are unpopular in Bristol. There are some strident voices arguing for the limits to be dismantled, or at the very least removed in some places. “They don’t stop speeding!”, “They need to be enforced!” and “Where’s the evidence?” are their constant refrain.
They can’t be looking terribly hard for the evidence for the good 20mph limits can do, as it’s easy to come by. Common sense dictates you’re a lot less likely to die if you’re hit by a car driving at 20mph rather than 30mph. Study findings vary, but you’re around five times more likely to die if you’re hit at 30mph.
And we now have a wealth of evidence showing the Bristol 20mph limits are particularly effective, thanks to the most in-depth evaluation of a 20mph implementation ever. A team at the University of the West of England (UWE) sifted through 36 million vehicle observations and eight years’ worth of road traffic casualties. They concluded that Bristol’s 20mph limits are a roaring success and should be replicated across the UK.
One of the common criticisms of lower speed limits is that they aren’t respected. This isn’t unique to 20mph, of course. A third of UK drivers admitted to regularly driving at 35mph in 30mph zones in a 2008 study. European data suggests more than half of motorised traffic routinely drives above the speed limit. The logical end-point of the “They don’t stop speeding” argument is to do away with all speed limits, which I think most would agree is a very bad idea.
Many drivers routinely drive just above the legal speed limit. No matter what the limit is set at, these drivers will always drive slightly above it if they feel the conditions are right. So what 20mph limits aim to do is get the average speed down - and in Bristol it’s worked.
The researchers found average traffic speed has reduced by 2.7mph across the city since 20mph was introduced. That may not sound like much, but it’s made a huge difference. It’s saved nearly five lives a year, and avoided 11 serious and 160 slight injuries. This has saved the NHS a whopping £15 million a year.
A corollary of slower traffic speeds is a more enticing environment for walking and cycling, and generally being able to enjoy the places where we live a bit more. A stated aim of the original 20mph roll out was to make our neighbourhoods more pleasant to walk and cycle around, and to make the city a better place for our health and wellbeing. The UWE evaluation found that walking and cycling has indeed increased since 20mph was introduced, among both adults and children, and people were less bothered by traffic noise.
But these gains are under threat. Bristol City Council is now consulting on the 20mph limits. This review is being pitched as a means of fine tuning the existing limits, which could have some merit. The researchers found average speeds hadn’t reduced on six of the 106 roads their study sampled, so it’s not working in a few places. But this review could so easily become a tool for removing 20mph where it is working but is perceived to be unpopular or has vociferous opposition.
I’m a resident of Easton, and bitter experience of the Easton Safer Streets consultation has taught me that measures that would pay huge dividends for a community’s health can be derailed by vocal opposition. I didn’t even bother contacting my councillor in support of the Easton Safer Streets proposals. I assumed that, as they were so obviously good, they would win out. Opposition has resulted in a diluted solution that is a shadow of its former self.
We can’t allow this to happen with 20mph. One of the reasons for Bristol’s success is our far-reaching implementation, covering so much of the city. A 2017 attitudinal survey, also analysed by UWE scientists, found that seven in every 10 adults support 20mph. If this silent majority made itself heard, we would be able to protect the benefits Bristol residents are already enjoying.
That UWE study demonstrates that ‘pluralistic ignorance’ is at work in people’s attitudes to 20mph: while the majority support 20mph they also feel that they are in the minority – making them more likely to stay quiet about their opinions.
In fact, national research shows most people are in favour of 20mph limits on their own street. This inverse NIMBY-ism (or JIMBY-ism – just in my back yard) sees people becoming less supportive of the limits on busier streets.
What about those residents who live on main roads? They’ll already suffer poor air quality, exposure to noise and worse health because of where they live. They’re even likely to have fewer friends and acquaintances, thanks to the roaring traffic on their doorstep. In a study of social interactions on Muller Road, one resident compared the traffic to a mountain range that cuts off neighbours on either side of the road. And it tends to be the more deprived, and often voiceless, people in our neighbourhoods that live on these kinds of roads. Why should the benefits of 20mph be denied to them because the rest of us want to drive more quickly past their homes?
Sometimes – most times – policymaking should be evidence-based rather than opinion-based. There are children alive in Bristol today who wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for 20mph limits. There really is no better evidence for keeping them.
If you are one of the seven out of 10 who supports 20mph, then the consultation is your chance to show your support, both where you live and in other areas of the city. We must be loud and proud of our support for this vital measure that’s already making Bristol a better, safer place to live for everyone.
Zoe Trinder-Widdess (@zoetw) is Communications Manager for Bristol Health Partners and NIHR CLAHRC West – and a supporter of 20mph limits in Bristol. A version of this blog was first published by Bristol 24/7.