Life in the Slow Lane: Are You Ready for Wales’ 20mph Limit?

If you’re just returning to Wales from outer space, you may have missed the kerfuffle over the new 20 mph speed limit. Here’s the short version, courtesy of the ever-helpful RAC:

In a global first, the Welsh Government has announced that all residential roads in the country will have the speed limit reduced to 20mph.

The £32 million, Labour-backed plans will be introduced by the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford in an effort to lower road collisions and pollution across the country. The rules with be enforced on ‘restricted roads’ – those that have lampposts placed less than 200 yards apart.

The change was voted in on July 12th 2022, following a trial in Monmouthshire four months before — more on that in a bit. The new limit is due to come into force in September 2023.

As you might expect, some of our citizens are delighted and others are ready to break out the pitchforks. So what’s this change aiming to achieve?

Saving lives, money, and the environment

At the heart of the 20 mph limit is one stark statistic: when cars are travelling at 30mph, 45% of pedestrians don’t survive a collision. At 20mph, 95% survive. Lowering the urban speed limit would result in fewer fatalities and serious injuries. How many? Research by the Transport Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University estimates that over a decade, lowering the limit would save 100 lives and 14,000 casualties.

Given the health and other costs associated with collisions, they further estimate that the scheme would save taxpayers over £100 million in the first year, far more than the £32 million cost of making the changes.

The second strand to the benefits relate to the environment and wellbeing. Around the world, city and town planners are trying to create environments which are cleaner and encourage people to walk and cycle more. However, sharing road space with faster-moving vehicles is a major barrier, especially as a third of motorists don’t think cyclists should be on the road at all. A 20 mph limit, the government suggests, could change this. That in turn would improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions.

So that’s all upsides then? Not necessarily.

Traffic hell and petitions

The obvious downside to the scheme is that 20mph is, well, pretty slow. Or at least that’s what it feels like for our 30mph-attuned internal clocks. And inevitably, when faster moving traffic moves into a slower zone, bottlenecks form.

When the scheme was trialled in Monmothshire, The Telegraph reported that Monmouthshire Council “is now reverting many roads back to their former limit” (though it doesn’t say how many). The reporters also collected together an assortment of complaints from residents. These included: increased pollution from vehicles idling in traffic; lorries stuck in low gear on steep hills; increased travel time, including for people travelling to medical appointments; and cost of signage.

As a result of the trial, one Buckley resident has started a petition against the blanket 20mph change. At the time of writing, it’s attracted just under 48,000 signatures. It comprehensively sets out the objections to the scheme, arguing that it would be much better to target specific zones.

Big pros, big cons

In our little blog, we try to be as even-handed as possible. It’s easy to start ranting about war on motorists and out-of-touch elites, and equally easy to rant about a nation of car addicts who never want to change anything. It’s more difficult to keep an open mind to both sides. Here’s our best shot.

No one wants their fellow citizens to be killed or injured on the roads, and it’s unarguable that a reduction of speed would help. But how far do we take that argument? Why not reduce the speed limit to 10mph and have virtually no serious collisions? UK roads are widely touted as among the safest in the world, and considerably more people die from poisoning each year than are killed in traffic accidents. So for many people, 30mph is the acceptable compromise.

On the other hand, maybe that’s the acceptable compromise because it’s what we’re used to, in the same way that we used to think sending kids up chimneys was an acceptable price to pay for a warm home. And regarding those safety stats, actually the UK doesn’t do so well at protecting its pedestrians.

Then there’s the environmental question. You don’t need a science degree to understand the benefits of reducing motor traffic in urban areas: just visit one of the many European cities with major restrictions on cars. The air’s cleaner. It’s quieter. Life moves at a more pleasant, human pace. Those gains couldn’t have been achieved without actively discouraging drivers through reducing parking spaces, adding emission-related charges… and adding speed restrictions.

But here’s the thing: Milan is not Buckley, and the great big question is whether measures that work well in big cities will have the desired effect across Welsh communities. In dozens of small towns, public transport is chronically under-resourced and livelihoods depend on the car. Many in these communities use a car from necessity rather than habit. And therefore, outside of the big towns, how many will forego the car as a result of the new limit remains to be seen.

Still, the public appears ready to give it a shot. A public attitude survey by Beaufort research concluded:

…the majority of respondents support a new lower speed limit.

Almost two-thirds of people surveyed said they would support a 20mph speed limit where they lived and 62% said they wanted everyone to slow down on the roads.

We’ll be interested to see how it all pans out.

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