Insight: The case for 20mph zones

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They do not take any notice – no-one pays any attention.” Some indignant residents are not happy with Edinburgh’s pioneering 20mph limit, nearly a year after it was spread to the wide, leafy streets of Inverleith.

“Drivers are itching to get past you – they have no patience,” complained Bruce Masson. “You also have a job getting out of your drive.”

Many drivers find observing the limit frustrating. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Many drivers find observing the limit frustrating. Picture: Ian Rutherford

But for as many people who side with the retired engineer, there will be an equal number of drivers frustrated at having to crawl along broad, empty thoroughfares since the first stage of the scheme was launched in 2016 and progressively extended across the city.

“It seems a bit crazy to me,” said electrician Robert Walton, parked in his van in Inverleith Place. “It might have been better to trial it at peak times. Sometimes I start work at 5am and there is not a soul on the road.”

Numbers in both camps are likely to be swelled next week when a swathe of south Edinburgh becomes the last part of the city to be covered in 20mph signs on Monday, 5 March.

However, council leaders are already pleased with progress and said criticism had died down, which they saw as a sign of acceptance.

The local authority won’t have hard evidence of success until next year when the £2.2 million project has been evaluated, but its leaders have been buoyed by the results of a similar scheme in Bristol published last week, which showed a cut in both speed and casualties.

Lowering the limit is seen as a possible factor in the reduction in road casualties in Edinburgh shown in Police Scotland’s new figures for the past three months. A separate study of Edinburgh’s scheme is being undertaken by the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research and Policy, which will run until 2020.

Cycle campaigners said that once the capital’s electric bike hire scheme was launched later this year, the 20mph limit would help to encourage and normalise cycling because it was easy to keep up with the traffic at that speed on an e-bike.

Rod King, campaign director of 20’s Plenty for Us, said Edinburgh was joining cities like Dublin, Paris and Brussels in cutting speeds, with 20mph being the World Health Organisation standard for motor vehicles to safely mix with cyclists and pedestrians.

There are signs other Scottish local authorities have taken the cue to expand their own 20mph zones, although critics warn that other blanket schemes should wait until Edinburgh’s is fully assessed.

Coverage has been very patchy across the rest of the country, with only Fife and Clackmannanshire introducing 20mph limits on most residential streets.

The Scottish Greens hope to remove the red tape hampering their spread with a bill going through Holyrood to make 20mph the default speed on such roads.

One hundred years ago, 20mph was the speed limit in Edinburgh – and across Britain. It had been raised in 1903 from 14mph set by the quaintly named 1896 Locomotives on Highways Act.

The limit was repealed in 1930 because of the difficulties of securing convictions, which led to pedestrian deaths reaching a record 7,343 in 1934 – condemned as “mass murder” by transport minister Leslie Hore-Belisha.

The following year, he introduced a host of road safety measures, including the 30mph limit.

The lower 20mph was not to return until 1991 when the first zone was introduced in Sheffield under new government guidelines, with 450 zones following by 1999.

Edinburgh City Council has been considering expanding 20mph for more than 15 years, but plans were reined back in 2005 following the rejection in a local referendum of congestion charging – and the funding it would generate.

However, at the same time ministers funded part-time 20mph limits around schools across Scotland, with most of the 162 in the capital being covered by 2006.

Three years later, cycling groups such as Spokes, the Lothian cycle campaign, called for 20mph limits on all residential streets, and a report commissioned by Glasgow City Council described it as a “key priority”.

Liberal Democrats on Edinburgh City Council spearheaded the plans, which led to the launch in 2012 of a £100,000 pilot covering 25 miles of streets across the south side of Edinburgh, including Marchmont and Newington.

The 20 per cent reduction in casualties and 10 per cent cut in average speeds which the council said it had produced led to the local authority deciding to extend 20mph to all residential and shopping streets, along with 80 main roads. It claimed 60 per cent backing for the proposal in 2014.

The city centre went next in July 2016, followed by an area to its east, west and north last February, and the west and northwest of the city last August.

Streets covered by the lower limit are marked with 20mph signs, but no physical traffic calming measures and virtually no extra police enforcement. Between July 2016 and 15 January this year, Police Scotland said it had issued 55 speeding tickets, reported 11 drivers and warned 960 others.

But that’s a fraction of those who ignore the new limit, according to some pedestrians. “Very few drivers adhere to it – I do not know why they have it,” observed expat Edinburgher Robert Grieve, who was back in the capital from Tenerife to visit his granddaughter.

His wife Claire agreed. “It’s a little bit drastic to be a blanket limit – although you can understand it being round schools.” However, she added: “If it does help, it can only be a good thing.”

Lesley Hinds, the council’s Labour transport convener who launched the scheme before stepping down as a councillor last year, said it was already well on its way to achieving its goals, but there should be scope for fine tuning.

Former council leader Andrew Burns – and fellow former transport convener – told her: “In a few years’ time, you will be seen as a hero.”

She said: “There have always been demands to bring speeds down in residential areas, but if it had to wait for speed bumps and roads being narrowed it could have taken 20-30 years.

“It has made such a difference and made the city a whole lot calmer. People who drove at 40mph now drive at 30mph.”

However, she admitted she had found it difficult keeping to 20mph on some streets, and said there was a case for reviewing the limit on some roads with no adjoining buildings, such as Regent Road, east of Princes Street, and Melville Drive through The Meadows.

She said: “They should look out for feedback from people who want a street to go back to 30mph, or go from 30mph to 20mph. We have to consider what works and what might want to be changed.”

Lesley Macinnes, her SNP successor, would not be drawn on potential revisions. She said: “I will be looking to review the results with great interest and use them as guidance for future action.

“I would expect the assessment next year would show many of the same benefits that the Bristol study has thrown up. People are enjoying their streets more and there has been a general reduction in speeds – according to the police and our own observations.

“I think it is going very well and the level of acceptance has grown. I am not seeing any great concerns – I cannot remember the last time I got an email about it. The vast majority of people accept and understand the need for it.”

However, the Conservative opposition transport spokesman Nick Cook said: “We remain concerned the blanket 20mph scheme dilutes effectiveness of targeted areas which genuinely benefit from 20mph zones, such as outside schools.

“The council’s policy has proved divisive and has caused confusion in its implementation. It is neither environmentally friendly or efficient.

“Rather than lazy, one-size-fits-all schemes, resources could be targeted intelligently on more effective road safety measures.”

However, support has come from unexpected quarters, such as the Freight Transport Association. Chris MacRae, its head of policy for Scotland, said in certain circumstances 20mph zones “are proven to improve safety for vulnerable road users… driving at lower speeds can also reduce emissions and fuel usage, which may benefit commercial vehicle operators by reducing fuel costs.”

The association continues to monitor the roll out of schemes across Scotland to see which prove effective.

Martin Reid, of the Road Haulage Association, said there had been fears about delayed deliveries “but because the main arterial routes are not in the zones a lot of these concerns have not come to fruition”.

Motoring groups remain sceptical. AA president Edmund King said: “We are concerned 20mph limits lose their effectiveness when they are everywhere as opposed to being targeted where they are needed.”

Neil Greig, the Scottish-based policy and research director of IAM RoadSmart, said: “The number of casualties is very low anyway and in most parts of Edinburgh the number of deaths and serious injuries is zero.

“I would support it if the 20mph limit encouraged more people out of their cars to walk and cycle, but I haven’t seen that happen. The real answer is not to rely on just putting up 20mph signs, but to segregate cyclists from other traffic.

“People take their cues from the environment around them – if they feel safe driving at more than 20mph they will do that.”

Greig also pointed to Manchester, where the city council put more 20mph limits on hold last year after casualty reductions were lower in such zones than in higher speed limit areas.

He said: “This goes against every other city, but shows the worth of doing more analysis. Other councils should wait until there has been more evaluation.”

By contrast with Edinburgh, Glasgow has followed an area by area by approach, with 77 now covered by 20mph limits, including the city centre since March 2016 – four months before Edinburgh’s.

Both cities have taken advantage of new Scottish Government guidelines in 2016 that enabled 20mph zones to be introduced without traffic calming measures if mean speeds were no more than 24mph.

Glasgow’s sustainability and carbon reduction convener Anna Richardson said: “We will be directing significant investment into making our streets and neighbourhoods safer through the more rapid implementation of a city-wide 20mph speed limit.”

But the Greens want to make it even easier for councils by changing the law so 20mph is the norm. Mid-Scotland and Fife MSP Mark Ruskell said: “Overall, the roll-out of 20mph limits has been patchy across Scotland and many councils struggle with a complex process for exempting roads from a default 30mph limit. My bill would make it easier and cheaper to establish 20mph as the safe speed limit on the streets where we live, work and play.”

Living Streets, which campaigns for pedestrians, said extra measures would still be necessary. Scotland director Stuart Hay said: “A significant change in behaviour is still needed to make 20mph the norm and realise the full benefits of the lower limits. In some streets, physical changes are required to further reduce speeds, because signs alone aren’t always enough to alter driver behaviour.”

The Scottish Government has taken limited steps itself, such as the first 20mph limits on trunk roads, starting with the A77 in Maybole in South Ayrshire in 2015. Its Transport Scotland agency is known to support widespread 20mph zones, but successive ministers have stressed the need for it to be left to councils.

Transport minister Humza Yousaf said: “Given the varied nature of Scotland’s urban road network and the number of factors which need considered when setting appropriate limits, we believe decisions on 20mph speed limits are best taken at local authority level.

“Our road safety partners agreed a commitment to encourage local authorities to introduce 20mph zones or limits in residential areas and places with a high volume of pedestrians and cyclists, as set out in our 2015 good practice guide on 20mph speed restrictions. This is being acted upon, as evidenced by measures such as Edinburgh’s.”

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