Considerate Cycling 44: 20mph Feels Good, So Do It


Sometimes I hire a motor vehicle. They are really useful for some journeys. Depending on the load, the number of passengers and the distances involved hiring can be cheaper and simpler than the alternatives.

So far this year I have hired two cars and two vans. The best part is being able to take them back and hand over the responsibility but this year I have had the extra pleasure of being able to drive around Bristol at 20mph. It’s such a civilised speed in a busy city. On a journey of three or four miles within the city the time involved in not racing up to 30 where the rare opportunity arises makes so little difference that it’s irrelevant. Rushing is a waste of adrenaline.

The pleasure of driving more slowly is being able to consider each section of the journey as an experience in its own right, paying attention to junctions, side roads, other roads users and the unexpected things that always crop up. Hard acceleration and sharp braking become unnecessary. All manoeuvres become stress-free events. Smiling becomes common. Other drivers seem to be mellower and less likely to get too close behind.

The general idea seems to be that the whole of Bristol will soon be a 20 mph city and the very thought of it is a source of pleasure. My usual cycling and walking will be much improved.

You can imagine my shock and unhappiness when I saw a recent set of proposals to make a whole list of exceptions to the 20 mph rule in a chunk of Bristol near to my home. Inexplicably, some of the residential and linking streets are going to be left as 30 mph routes for pointlessly short sections wherein quicker driving can be indulged in for no more than minutes at a time. I wrote my objections (ruefully noting that I was a day late in doing so.) I wrote:

Dear Bristol City Council

 I note that I have missed yesterday’s deadline for submission of the following comments. I hope, nonetheless, that you will be able to take them into account.

 Although I live just outside the inner north area, I travel into or through it on a regular basis – usually on a bicycle and sometimes on foot.

 I have one clear objection to one aspect of the plans for the Inner North Area and that is that too many exceptions have been made to the principle of a blanket 20 mph limit.

 As I understand it, the designation of a few roads as 30 mph was to allow some arterial or through routes to be treated as different enough in character and capacity to distinguish them from the residential, local and shopping streets that made up a lot of Bristol’s road network.

 When I look at Upper Belgrave Road, Clifton Down, Bridge Valley Drive, Church Avenue, Bishops Close, Stoke Park Road South, Downleaze, Stoke Hill, Stoke Road, Roman Road, Downside Road, Pembroke Road (especially near its junction with Clifton Down) and The Avenue. I see roads that are either residential streets (not motor vehicle routes at all) or roads that are immediately adjacent to and part of a wide area of residential and recreational use. Allowing short sections of them to be 30 mph will save tiny amounts of time and serve mainly to introduce uncertainty and anxiety for those large numbers who are not in motor vehicles.

The Downs area in particular has very large numbers of runners, walkers, football teams, zoo visitors, cyclists and sight-seers crossing and re-crossing the roads between the grassy areas. Ball games, dog walking, fitness training and other activities are frequently in play.

 All these things suggest to me that all the roads that service and pass through the area should be treated in the same way, and for the same reasons, as all the roads that will be improved by the 20 mph limit. If the case for 20 mph makes sense (and I firmly believe it does) then it makes the same good sense on these roads as well.

 I would also agree with many other commentators that the more unusual or contentious exceptions there are, the less likely it will be for other areas to get the full benefit of calmer and less dangerous motor vehicle traffic.

 I would also argue that Kellaway Avenue would benefit greatly from a 20 mph limit. I see that, as with Stoke Road and the junction of Clifton Down and Pembroke Road, Kellaway Avenue has been a site of notified road traffic accidents. Lower speeds would (as evidence available to the Council shows) reduce the number and the severity of casualties.

 Yours sincerely

 Sam Saunders


The officer responsible was quick to reply, as follows:

Dear Mr Saunders,

 As your comments have been received outside the consultation period we regret to inform you that they will not be included in the objection report for the proposed Inner North 20mph speed limit scheme.

 For future consultations please ensure any comments or objections for consideration in an objection report are submitted within the advertised period.

 Yours Sincerely,

 TRO Officer

Place Directorate

Traffic Orders Team -Highways Delivery

Bristol City Council

 I hope there is a sensible outcome. Fingers crossed.

8 thoughts on “Considerate Cycling 44: 20mph Feels Good, So Do It

  1. 20mph speed limits are not allowed on roads with average free flowing speeds of over 24mph without road modifications such as speed humps, DfT don’t allow it, the non compliance would be too high.

  2. Thanks for making the point Alex. I don’t really think that current legal arrangements match what we know or what we need in cities like Bristol, so changes to legislation would have to be part of a wider shift to lower speeds all round. The principle of deferring to compliance is not an absolute requirement. Shifting opinion and more regular enforcement can both have effects on behaviour if we are agreed that behaviour should change.

    I have been looking at casualty clusters in Bristol and it’s very clear that places like Park Street where compliance at certain times is low, pedestrian and cyclist casualties are high. Lower speeds would, if pedestrians carried on as before, would at least reduce the consequences of being hit my motor vehicles.

    To put this another way round, the status quo is what needs changing. If that means changing the application of law as well as the speed limit, then so be it. From my perspective, such changes would reduce the dangers faced by people walking or cycling.

    It’s interesting to note that journey times in Bristol’s peak periods are the slowest of all the 8 biggest cities outside London. A free flowing 24 mph on Park Street only becomes possible at the most dangerous times of night – when most of the traffic is on foot, socialising and walking from venue to venue. I think you might agree that slowing motor traffic would be better than having extra emergency admissions to hospital (as happens now).

  3. You have to take compliance into account because it’s known that the majority of motorists will drive that a speed that is intuitively safe for the conditions a the time, the speed limit is normally the upper bounds of this, dangerous driving laws may apply in other adverse conditions. If you set the speed limit significantly below this and you just get contempt towards the speed limit. Most motorist are more likely to slow down at the sight of a load of drunk people than they are a speed limit sign, I’d sooner have plonked a couple of refuges on Park Street than dropped the speed limit because it does not a apply to cyclists and speeds of 30+ are easy down there, on I bike, I’ve done it.

    Being that the average drop in free flowing speeds is expected to be 2mph in the council’s own literature and the actual figure was between 0.9 and 1.4mph in the test areas around Bedminster, it’s better that pedestrians are given a realistic expectation of the speed of traffic, on many roads the average speed was below the speed limit and it is now significantly above the speed limit.

  4. I think you are starting from the perspective of drivers who drive at speeds that they have got used to. This is not really “intuitive” it’s more to do with “habituation”, which is a different matter altogether. It’s what you get used to, it’s not what comes naturally.
    I am looking forward to a time (not so far off) when drivers are habituated to 20 mph or less in urban areas, a time when it feels normal to drive at 20 or less. Most ot the time there is no practical advantage in trying to drive faster on city streets (at peak times in Bristol it takes, on average, 4 minutes to drive each mile) but there are significant advantages all round if everyone comes round to driving slower.
    The history of cities like Bristol is of gradual changes that cause difficulties or opposition at first, but which become accepted and valued later. Change is the norm and we should try to manage the changes we want in ways that offer greater protection to people who, at the moment, are more likely to be the victims of motor vehicles. All of us benefit from motor vehicles. Lower speeds, after the first few days of feeling odd, will spread the benefit to those who are currently discouraged from using the roads or the fringes of roads or who are likely to be injured because of the known dangers of doing so.
    It’s obviously no good waiting for people to volunteer to drive more slowly. Roads have to be changed and policing needs to be stepped up. Speed cameras are easy to run and more or less cover their costs.

  5. Good luck with that, seriously people are more likely to drive at what’s intuitively safe, it might be a shock to you but most people don’t want to crash or run over pedestrians, and don’t have the disdain towards there own driving ability that you have, just because it’s 30 doesn’t mean you have to go 30 if it’s not appropriate at the time, and you certainly don’t need to “race” there, it’s the absolute maximum you attain when conditions allow for it, it’s not advisory, nor is it a target speed.
    I do about 22-24 down a normal residential street near me driving home late at night, it’s not because the limit is 20 it’s still 30 it’s just that I default to that speed because that’s what feels safe to do, so it’s good of the council that they will be criminalizing that soon.
    The 30mph speed limit was not arbitrary, also I don’t see how anachronistically changing the speed limit helps when it’s blindingly obvious that it’s a world away safer to do 30mph in modern cars compared to the average car when it was introduced in 1934! Although one problem which you might agree with it the lack of the option for the council to set speed limits at 25mph.

  6. Thanks for taking this up again Alex. Personally I don’t think that intuition or historical public attitudes to safety can be taken as given. As far as I can see both are subject to change and each generation tends to look for improvements.

    Is intuition involved? I think that habit is a more useful idea. Drivers get used to driving at particular speeds in different environments and tend to drive more quickly (often without realising it) as they get used to particular routes and particular enforcement regimes, depending on all sorts of factors that have nothing to do with intuition but quite a lot to do with experience and knowledge.

    In Bristol there are (on average) 5 road casualty incidents reported by the police every day. It doesn’t need to be said that none of the drivers, pedestrians or cyclists concerned expected or wanted them to happen. I expect that most of them were travelling at what they felt were safe speeds, speeds they had got used to.

    Apart from the cost to Avon and Somerset Police in time and money, NHS A&E Departments are under a lot of pressure from road casualties. Reductions in such figures have been achieved over many years but many have been at the cost of keeping children at home or by restricting their local travel to making journeys only when a lift is available. We need to keep up our efforts to make streets (we’re not talking about major trunk roads here) more civlised and not let them remain as danger zones where we feel threatened and from which our children are prohibited. Reduced speeds are just one way of reducing both harm and anxiety- many other improvements are needed too.

    25mph isn’t being offered so there isn’t much point discussing it. Better than 30, for sure, but the value of 20 is already established so I’m happy to go with that. It’s an easy speed to drive at and with only a couple of practice sessions it can start to feel completely normal.

  7. It seems quite odd that with a higher speed limit of 30mph you felt the need to accelerate harder and found you weren’t paying attention to the road around you. 20mph speed limits were only ever meant to be introduced on roads where the general flow of motorised traffic was around that speed anyway, where the average motorists using their own judgment considered it to be the right speed and so wouldn’t be slowed down by the reduced speed limit.

    One of the traditional means of setting a speed limit is the 85th Percentile Rule, this is an American article but it’s the best I can find for explaining it.

    The idea is that most drivers are reasonable and prudent and want to reach their destinations as quickly as possible without incident. A small number will be too fast while a minority will be too slow, so discounting those leaves a speed at which the majority of drivers will be reasonably and safely driving at.

    Reduce the speed limit to below what most people drive at and you will simply get a high level of non compliance. Reducing the speed limit is all too often seen as an easy way for a local authority to be seen to be doing something about perceived problems on roads without spending money on more ambitious improvement schemes such as modernisation of junctions. This simply means speed limits are generally no longer considered correct and reasonable for the roads they’re on and so disobedience becomes the norm, what the general flow of motorists does, rather than the behaviour of a minority who at the busiest times are slowed and forced to comply by the majority.

    We also have a lack of investment in policing and the police are reluctant to give over resources to blindly enforcing speed limits with static checks. They prefer, when they can, to actively enforce all aspects of safe driving such as targeting phone use and aggressive behaviour as well as those who are uninsured and unlicensed. All these things are problems that can’t be targeted by cameras either.

    There is also evidence to suggest accident rates are going up as 20mph limits are introduced. People are lulled into a false sense of security with lower speeds. People pay less attention to the other road users around them and lower speeds create long trains of cars that would spread out with more variation of speed, leading to impatience as people want to turn or cross the road.

    20mph is a negative restriction that risks criminalising careful and prudent road users while potentially making roads more dangerous, not less.

  8. Sorry for taking so long to reply Benjamin

    Most of what you say in this last post has (I believe) already been addressed in the comments. A large London study, however, has not. It’s pretty clear from that that 20 mph works well in reducing the number and severity of injuries (especially to childen) when practical measures are taken to guide and control the drivers of motor vehilcles in the 20mph zones. In other words, you have to do a lot more than just tell people what they should do.

    Download the pdf report:

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