Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Slower Speeds Initiative (WTC 25)

  Ideally, walking should be the major mode of transport in towns. It is available to almost everyone, causes no pollution, is very cheap to provide for, is good for health and makes for a lively and agreeable urban scene. Two conditions have to be met in order for this ideal to be realised. The first is that a large range of activities should be available within walking distance. This is a matter of urban form, to be achieved by town planning and development control. The second is that walking should be safe, convenient, agreeable and, within its own limits, expeditious (in particular, not subject to long delays because of the need to wait for motor vehicles). Lowering the speed of motor vehicles could help achieve those aims.

  The following notes have been prepared in some haste in order to meet the Committee's deadline. Slower Speeds Initiative would be pleased to expand on any points if that would be helpful to the Committee.

  1.  The term "walking" should be interpreted widely so as to include all activities on foot, including those which would not normally be seen as transport such as children's play, street life generally, dashing across the road to see a neighbour. If such activities are not taken into account, part of the case for lower speeds will be neglected.

  2.  There should be some areas, such as purely residential streets and shopping centres, which should be regarded as the pedestrians' domain. If motor vehicles are permitted there at all, it should only be on the strict understanding that they must behave in a way that poses no threat to pedestrians. If that means driving at walking pace, so be it.

  3.  A problem with living zones is that people, especially children, may become accustomed to the idea that motor vehicles defer to pedestrians and may therefore fail to take due care when they venture out into other streets. However, if the standard speed limit in towns were reduced to 20 mph, the difference between conditions in living zones and those in other streets would be reduced, so that such behaviour would be less likely to result in a crash. (This is only one of many reasons why the standard speed limit in towns should be 20 mph.)

  4.  One problem with reducing speeds in towns is that with vehicles of the present type there is a risk that that will lead to higher fuel consumption and pollution. This consequence is not inevitable: if lower speeds are accompanied by smoother driving with less accelerating and braking, and if in addition they led to a significant transfer from cars to walking and cycling, fuel consumption and pollution might actually be reduced. In any case, this problem arises only because of the way that cars are now designed. Most car mileage is driven either on roads in built-up areas or on minor rural roads, but cars are designed in such a way that fuel consumption and pollution are minimized only at speeds which are higher than appropriate for those roads. Cars should be built with lower top speeds and more modest acceleration. This will not happen voluntarily, so must be brought about by Vehicle Construction and Use Regulations.

  5.  The introduction of less powerful vehicles would not solve the problem of how to enforce low speed limits. The best way is by variable speed limiters in the vehicle. Variable speed limiters can either be driver-operated or externally activated. At the moment, Research and Development, in Britain at least, is concentrating exclusively on the externally activated type. Slower Speeds Initiative believes that the driver-operated type is more promising. There are several grounds for this belief, of which the most important is that the technology for the driver-operated limiter is almost identical with that for cruise control, which is a tried and tested technology. This means that driver-operated limiters on new vehicles could be introduced straight away, whereas it is likely to take many years for the externally activated type of limiter to reach a comparable stage of development. We have put this and other arguments to the DETR on more than one occasion but have been ignored, so we urge the Committee to pursue this point. In the meantime, much more use should be made of traffic calming and speed cameras, which give excellent value for money, better than any other transport investment. Traffic calming may always be a useful supplement to speed limiters in streets with very low limits.

  6.  Most powers of vehicle regulation have now passed to the European Union, so it may be necessary for the legislation required to limit the top speed and acceleration of vehicles and to ensure that vehicles are fitted with limiters to be introduced at the European level. However, there are (or were until fairly recently, we have not checked the latest position) provisions allowing member states to make their own regulations on matters of safety, which might allow Britain to act alone. We also believe that some powers of vehicle regulation should be repatriated to member countries. In the United States, the states have the power to set more stringent standards on vehicle design than are required by Federal legislation. This means that those states which are in the lead on environmental matters can try out rules which others, or the Federal Government, may wish to adopt later. We believe that a similar arrangement should apply in Europe. Whether or not this reform is implemented, Britain should do all it can to press for Europe to legislate for less powerful vehicles and for speed limiters.

  7.  Lorries are especially intimidating to pedestrians. The key to reducing both this threat and the nuisance caused by lorries in towns generally is for urban goods distribution to be organised on a town or area basis, rather than by firms or products as at present. Area-based distribution minimizes the vehicle miles that have to be driven in order to perform any given task of goods distribution, and it would also make use of lorries specially designed for urban conditions. Among other characteristics, such lorries would have a low top speed, since there is no advantage even to the operator in using a high-speed lorry for short-distance, multi-stop work. The policies needed to encourage the wider use of area-based distribution are described in the report A New Framework of Freight Transport, written by Stephen Plowden and Keith Buchan and published by the Civic Trust in 1994. Our understanding is that Britain has the power to introduce the necessary policies without reference to Brussels.

  8.  The DETR should do all it can to encourage local authorities to give greater prominence to walking. Grants from central government to local authorities should be made conditional on their giving due attention to walking in their local transport plans. It would be easier to work out how much attention and resources should be devoted to improving conditions for walking if the benefits could be evaluated in a cost-benefit appraisal similar to that used for appraising investment in facilities for motorised transport. This means finding ways of giving money values to the important but less tangible benefits such as improved health and freedom from intimidation. The technical problems, though difficult, are not insoluble, but unfortunately the DETR and its predecessors have not tackled them. We understand, however, that some estimates of the health benefits of walking and cycling are being prepared in a study Models and Appraisal of Walking and Cycling now being carried out by Mayer Hillman, Howard Boyd and Stuart Reid, which is partly funded by the DETR. We hope that the problem of evaluating freedom from intimidation will also be tackled. One way is by questionnaires in which respondents would say what priority they would give to reducing intimidation vis-a"-vis benefits such as time savings on the journey to work to which the DETR does now attach money values.

  9.  In the meantime, a partial assessment, taking account only of accident reduction and time savings, is likely to show that measures to improve walking give excellent value for money. Among other things, safer walking should lead to a reduction in unwanted escort travel, which now involves the escorts in huge amounts of travel time. A reduction in escort travel made by car would also, by reducing congestion, save time for other road users as well. In their report One False Move . . ., published in 1990, Mayer Hillman, John Adams and John Whitelegg estimated that in that year the travel time and congestion costs associated with escorting children of junior school age amounted to between 10 and 20 billion pounds at 1990 prices. This study was based on the methods used by the Department of Transport and the Confederation of British Industry to evaluate travel time and congestion. It may have overstated the time savings on journeys to escort young children that would actually follow from improving conditions for their unescorted travel; on the other hand, it took no account of other escort journeys. Unsatisfactory travel conditions also give rise to journeys to escort elderly people, for example.

John Stewart Esq


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