Thursday, 20 February 2014

Safer Streets for Bristol

Large groups of us used to kick or throw a ball around or race our bikes and scooters around the block or skip or play hopscotch on the streets in 1960’s and 70’s Knowle, Bristol. Kids playing in the street is a much rarer sight now, not least because our roads are much busier. The UKs current default speed limit of 30mph in areas where people live was set in 1934 when there were 1.5 million motor vehicles. Now there are a massive 34.5 million!! 

Adopting the principle of residential roads having a 20mph speed limit and implementing this in stages across the city, with monitoring and public consultations is one of the best actions Bristol City Council has taken (see here). Here's why I hold this view so strongly.

Road traffic in the UK is the single biggest cause of premature deaths for boys and the second biggest cause for girls age 5 -15. Every year in Bristol hundreds of people are killed or seriously injured on the roads (see here), the burden falling hardest on the poorest, with 24 of every 100 child pedestrian casualties being in the most deprived neighbourhoods compared to 1 in 100 in the least deprived. At 20mph a pedestrian knocked over stands a 90% chance of surviving. At 40mph they stand a 90% chance of dying. 20mph in residential areas is clearly fast enough, and the "20's Plenty For Us" initiative is excellent.

Compare our residential street default speed limit of 30mph with the speed limit in Northern European towns. Our limit is 60% higher than the 18.5 mph (30 kph) limits that they have for streets where people live. No wonder perhaps that 92% of pedestrian deaths are on urban roads in the UK and at 21% we have a higher proportion of pedestrian deaths on the roads than any of our European neighbours.

In Hilden, Germany, the setting of their 18.5 mph (30 kph) limit in the early 90's was the foundation of them encouraging cycling and walking. In fact now 23% of in-town trips are made by children and adults using bikes instead of cars.

Something has to change to bring the UK into the 21st century. Adults lead more sedentary lives in part because they spend more time in their cars. Children lead less active lives in part because we worry about the dangers posed by road traffic. The growth of physically inactive lifestyles in industrialised countries has led to what many are calling a major public health crisis. Preventable illnesses associated with inactivity and obesity include stroke, heart attack, certain cancers, diabetes, and depression.

Around 40% of people in the UK report being bothered by noise from traffic, nearly double the figure from the 1970’s. Children living near busy roads suffer significantly higher rates of asthma and West of England Partnership figures show that over 100,000 Bristolians live in areas where air quality is considered to be potentially damaging to health.

Cars travelling too fast in residential areas have helped to create social degradation. Neighbours across the road from each other don't talk to each as often as they used when I was kicking a ball about with mates, because a gulf is created by cars speeding past. As far back as 1969 Prof David Appleyard found that community was eroded on San Francisco streets with busier traffic.

A study by Kevin Leyden in 2003 found that people living in walkable, mixed use neighbourhoods were more likely to know their neighbours, participate politically, trust others and be socially engaged, compared with those living in car-oriented suburbs’.

Research on Bristol’s streets by Josh Hart at UWE showed that motor vehicle traffic is responsible for a considerable deterioration in residential community, measured by average number of social contacts, extent of perceived ‘home territory’, and reported street-based social activity. Several studies show that people whose homes had windows facing busy streets were more often depressed.

20's Plenty For Us was formed in order to work for the implementation of 20 mph as the default speed limit on residential roads in the UK, in place of 30mph. The balance is shifting towards roads and streets as public spaces for people rather than just motors – safer, cleaner, healthier and more civil. Quality of life is better with a 20mph limit, with less noise, lower pollution, greater child mobility, more walking, more cycling and more talking encouraged, leading to better general wellbeing.

The Bristol 20’s Plenty group was launched in 2009 to help build improved quality of life in local communities. Dozens of neighbourhood champions were then put in place, including myself in Knowle - and its been great to see Bristol City Council's and the Mayor's efforts bringing in 20mph areas since then.

20mph is an idea whose time has come, with growing numbers of cities doing it, including Portsmouth, Oxford, Norwich, Leicester, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Islington decided to become the first London Borough to implement an authority-wide 20mph limit where people live. Transport for London made funds available for all London Boroughs to set a 20mph default. Bristol is proposing to roll out 20mph limits in more residential streets after beginning in the south and east of the city some years back.

Research has shown that the vast majority of the public, over 80% in polls, would like 20 mph on residential roads. After all its where people live!! The Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety found that 70% of drivers want it too. Changes in Dept of Transport guidelines have relaxed recommendations and in many residential areas 20 mph limits may be set without any physical measures at all – which means the cost of the change is small.

Portsmouth City Council created over a thousand streets with 20 mph – and they did it with only 6 traffic orders, in just nine months without any speed bumps at a cost of £475,000, the cost of about two sets of traffic lights. Speeds reduced by an average of 3mph and the whole community has a collective commitment to sharing the roads better. The cost of 20mph in Bristol is greater as we are bigger than Portsmouth but its a tiny amount considering that if a person is unfortunate enough to be hit by a car at 30mph they are likely to die whereas at 20mph they are likely to live! Further information, facts and figures and references: and

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