Study finds Edinburgh's 20mph limits won majority support on Twitter - policymakers should be less concerned about public backlash, say researchers

Council leaders should be less concerned about a public backlash against measures like 20mph limits and enlist the backing of influential figures to increase support for potentially controversial policies, a study has suggested.

By Ian Swanson
Tuesday, 16th November 2021, 12:30 pm

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The study analysed more than 23,500 Twitter posts on Edinburgh’s 20mph limit and found a majority of the comments were positive, both before and after the roll-out of the new speed cap, which happened between 2016 and 2018.

The academics who carried out the study, including Tushar Semwal and Ruth Jepson from Edinburgh University, said: “This finding was surprising as there is a perception among policymakers that there would have been public backlash against these sorts of policy changes.”

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The 20mph limit applies to most of Edinburgh's residential roads, shopping streets and city centre. Picture: Neil Hanna

Tweets about Belfast’s 20mph limits, introduced around the same time, were also examined with a similar result, though the vast majority of tweets were about the Edinburgh scheme.

The tweets spanned the period from 2008 to 2020 and an analysis of the Edinburgh ones found 10,874 were positive, 2,858 negative and 9,774 neutral.

The authors said: "We had anticipated at the outset that this analysis would give insight into the public’s opposition towards 20mph and would assist policymakers in better preparing for such negative responses in the future. This would put policymakers on the front foot in terms of responding to opposition.

"What we found, however, was very little opposition among Twitter users. The findings clearly show that the majority of the public, or at least those who express views on Twitter, are supportive of 20mph and think these schemes should be implemented at scale.

The 20mph limit was rolled out in four phases between 2016 and 2018 Picture: Greg Macvean

"Concerns about the public’s reaction should not be viewed as a barrier to future adoption and implementation of such policies.”

The study, published by BMC Public Health journal, said the majority of tweets were the retweets of a few influential people who were advocates for a 20mph speed limit, including university researchers, scientists and senior officials from advocacy organisations.

"Based on the number of retweets, it would seem strategic for policymakers to utilise influential people to sway public opinion on future transport policies.”

But the study also warned: “It is often assumed that social media is extremely powerful in affecting attitudes and opinion. This has led some public authorities to invest in working in social media, with Edinburgh Council being a good case in point. Our data does not suggest that this strategy was particularly successful in Edinburgh.”

Transport convener Lesley Macinnes said the council knew from its own findings that the introduction of 20mph limits had resulted in a statistically significant drop in speeds, while independent research had shown a reduction in collisions as well..

“This study demonstrates that many people across the city recognise these benefits too. It’s been proven that for every 1mph reduction in speed there’s a six per cent fall in the number of accidents and no one can argue with that kind of evidence.

“Of course not everyone uses Twitter, and we’ll be working hard to raise awareness of the reasoning behind these changes as we expand the network further, so that everyone can gain from calmer, safer roads.”

And vice-convener Karen Doran added: “We’ve had many requests from people who want slower speeds in their neighbourhoods and this research suggests the desire for and appreciation of calmer roads is widespread.”

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