You might have spotted that Oxford now has a blanket 20mph limit. You might also have spotted the pissed-off Transit van hugging your rear bumper, flashing his full beam and leaning on the horn as you attempt to comply. That’s SO much fun when you’re on a motorcycle on the city’s wet, diesely roads.
But the limits aren’t just dangerous, pointless and ugly – they’re expensive. £300k according to last week’s Oxford Mail – enough to keep eight libraries open. And for what? Well, according to the stats I saw from a Freedom of Information request, the new limits have achieved an average reduction of, er. 0.85mph. The council spreadsheet had even rounded that up to 0.9mph. Still, one must take 0.05mph where one can get it.
But the problem with Oxfordshire’s 20mph limits is not just that they cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and they don’t work; they force the Council to write a blank cheque for the future too.
So why do it? It’s not for road safety reasons – the data shows that drivers are already driving safely and slowly on residential roads. It’s not to reduce pollution and Co2 – 20mph increases both substantially. It’s a political decision, pure and simple. But it fails there too.
Rather than a cityful of happy, grateful residents, the Council has raised expectations it simply can’t fulfil. By backing a citywide 20mph limit, the Council has, in effect, promised every resident in those 20mph limits slower traffic.
And fair point. No-one wants people driving too fast past the front door. It’s unpleasant. For some, it can even be intimidating. But 20mph limits were never going to solve that problem. Limits have never, ever been intended as tools for speed reduction. Go read the government advice if you don’t believe me.
On narrow, residential streets drivers are already running at 20mph – no need for the limits. On broader, open streets where 30 is safe, that’s the speed most will drive at.
But the 20 limits were never based on evidence or fact. That’s not the idea. 20mph limits are a shibboleth, a sort of sign of belonging, for a certain sort of person. There could almost be a creed; “I believe in Manmade Global Warming, “Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep”, Polar Bears, the Toyota Pious and 20mph limits…”
So, now the Council has spent £300k to achieve an average 0.85mph speed reduction, what happens next? The cries are already going up from the True Believers that “something must be done”.
Hardline enforcement, as Oxford’s rather vocal anti-car lobby hopes? Good luck – Thames Valley Police have rather more significant priorities and the Council probably realises just how unpopular this move would be.
More traffic calming? Quite possibly. So that means the £300k wasted on the limits will be joined by more expensive, unpopular, ugly, obstructing, polluting, conflict-promoting calming. At a cost of how much per-scheme? £50k a pop? £75k? But, no matter what, the money will have to come from an already depleted highways budget.
The 20mph limits are divisive too, and send completely the wrong message about who really owns the roads. If we’d really wanted a more pleasant city, we should have shelved the desire to make those nasty kitten-killing drivers pay – and gone for shared space schemes. Removed the white paint, the signs and the artificial hazards of traffic calming and created streets for everyone.