Power to the pedestrian

A new report suggests that by slowing cars down, we can all get about more quickly and safely. Christian Wolmar explains

Share
Related Topics
As we prepare ourselves to face the holiday traffic jams, made worse by the sunny weather, an engaging and radical thought comes from the Institute of Policy Studies. The authors of a new book, Speed Control and Transport Policy, suggest it may be faster to go slower.

It is not as illogical as it sounds. Already this idea has been accepted by the Department of Transport in relation to motorways. The busiest part of the M25 has been fitted with devices that can vary the speed limit so that when the road is particularly busy it is reduced from 70mph to 60 or 55. And hey presto, more cars are able to use it, as the stop-start effect of people speeding up and then being forced to brake is dissipated. Other motorways are being similarly fitted with these signs.

The PSI pair, Stephen Plowden and Mayer Hillman, go further by suggesting that the effect could also work in urban areas. Researchers in Vaxjo, Sweden, found that the traffic flowed more smoothly at junctions when the speed limit was reduced because there was less stopping and starting.

Moreover, any time lost by some motorists would be partially made up by pedestrians gaining time as crossing roads became easier and involved fewer detours - in general, one person's lost time is another person's gain. For years, that equation has been weighted in favour of the motorist rather than the pedestrian. Indeed, in the cost-benefit calculations used to assess the value of road schemes, the time saved by motorists is assigned a value of around pounds 7 per hour. But pedestrians' extra time is not counted as a disbenefit. That is why we have those ridiculous bridges over some dual carriageways where pedestrians are supposed to spend five minutes walking up spiral staircases to a height of 30 feet or more, simply to cross a road.

During the long rise and rise of the motor car, society lost its sense of proportion. Rather than being a means to an end - easier travel - cars became the centrepiece of transport policy. The space in towns was turned around to accommodate the motor car rather than the people in them. One- way systems were created to speed it along its way, while other road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, were designed out of large swathes of urban areas. Barriers were erected to hem pedestrians in; traffic lights were installed to allow them to cross the road only for a few seconds every couple of minutes and high streets were turned into urban clearways as traffic was given priority at every opportunity. Speed became an end in itself. Little thought was given to the downsides, not only the casualties, but the degradation of the environment caused by fast cars.

The PSI book argues that it is time to reconsider this set of priorities. Instead of allowing cars to whizz about unfettered around towns, the authors suggest a speed limit of 20mph or 15mph. Outside towns, the authors want to see a 55mph speed limit as the most optimal between reducing the casualty rate and ensuring that road transport is still economic. The limits would all be enforced by speed limiters, similar to those fitted to lorries and coaches, which could be set to different speeds in towns or outside.

The benefits from much-reduced speed limits in residential areas are enormous. People, particularly the old and the young, would be freed to reclaim the streets. No longer would anxious parents have to accompany their children to school, old ladies would be able to walk to the shops again and children would be able to play in the streets safely. As a result of the streets becoming more used by people, crime would fall and communities would be revived.

Outside towns, the benefits are mostly in the form of reduced road casualties, but there would be environmental gains, too, through reduced fuel consumption.

Plowden and Hillman deny that they are being idealistic or outlandish. They are not suggesting that some people will not still resort to their cars even for ridiculously short trips to the shops. They accept that cars will remain an integral part of society's desire for mobility. But just by changing the hierarchy between cars and pedestrians, which has evolved without thought or debate, urban society will be transformed.

In answer to suggestions that all these ideas are merely the musings of radical transport planners, Mr Plowden replies: "Things are changing. Only a few years ago, walking and cycling were at the bottom of transport priorities. Now it is accepted that they should be at the centre of any transport policy." He adds that public opinion was ahead of the views of politicians in realising that the current use of cars was unsustainable. Many people involved in transport policy-making already support views similar to those of the authors.

Experience from towns such as York, where these ideas have been put into effect, suggest that after initial antipathy they become very popular. In York, the hierarchy of transport has been turned round, giving pride of place to pedestrians and cyclists, followed by public transport, and finally the individual car.

Indeed, visitors from abroad frequently comment on how traffic has been able to dominate the urban environment in most of our cities in a way that is now unthinkable in the cities of Holland or Germany. There is nothing to lose except our obsession with the car.

`Speed Control and Transport Policy', by Mayer Hillman and Stephen Plowden, is published by the Policy Studies Institute, pounds 14.95.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Robert Fisk
 

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention