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Lowering speed can reduce harm and boost active travel

1 Apr 2019 | Bruce Whyte

When my children were younger and in primary school – about 10 years ago – I would cycle with them to school, a distance of about 2.5 miles. I wanted them to enjoy the experience but the roads were busy, cars often travelled at speed and the route involved tricky right turns on and off main roads. 

Since then, the national budget for active travel has doubled and government, transport, health and academic leaders back transport systems that prioritise walking, cycling and public transport as ‘the best investments for physical activity’ and for tackling vehicle emissions.

A segregated cycle route on the South West City WayLocally, this increased investment has led to the building of Glasgow’s cycle ways, and related neighbourhood-based projects like Connecting Woodside. The city’s cycle hire scheme has been a massive success since its launch in 2014, and is expanding across the city, while Glasgow’s Avenues project is widening pavements, building cycle paths and returning trees to city centre streets. A low emission zone is being introduced to tackle poor air quality and the city centre now has a default 20mph limit. 

However, if we look at the statistics for walking and cycling, we see that although cycling levels are on the rise, they are still very low, and there are downward trends in children walking to school in many local authority areas. In Glasgow, despite low car ownership, high proportions of children travel to school by car

And what about the bike journey to my children’s school now? The situation, sadly, is really no different and has the same risks: in fact, there are more cars than ever on our roads; the cycle route to school is still disjointed and hazardous, and I wouldn’t advise any parent to let their primary school child cycle it alone. So despite the positive investment being made to encourage active travel, making roads safer for all road users must continue to be a priority, and especially for those who are most vulnerable, particularly – but in no particular order – pedestrians, wheelchair users, cyclists, children and older people.  

What can be done to encourage active travel?

So what would make our roads feel safer and encourage more people to walk or cycle to work or school? Fewer cars, more segregated cycle routes, pavements unencumbered by street furniture and parked cars and lower road speeds would all help.

Fewer cars parked on pavements and in cycle lanes would make journeys more pleasant

However, given current trends, it seems unlikely that there will be fewer cars on our roads any time soon and segregated cycle routes take time to build. Road speeds can, however, be altered relatively quickly, which brings me to the current Safer Streets Bill being considered by the Scottish Parliament just now.

The Safer Streets Bill proposes a national 20mph limit on restricted roads with the option for local authorities to vary this on some roads. Evidence that we and others have provided, based on places where such a limit has been introduced, strongly suggest that 20mph limits reduce average speeds and smooth traffic flow, and in so doing, reduce the likelihood of accidents and the number and severity of casualties. The size of the impact at a Scottish level could be significant. We estimate that the number of people being injured on our roads could potentially be reduced by 500-750 per year. Furthermore, where traffic is slower, roads feel safer and more pleasant, which encourages more people to walk or cycle in and around their neighbourhood. Some may be concerned that slower speeds will mean longer journeys, but evidence has shown that any increase in overall journey time for traffic in urban areas covered by a 20mph limit is extremely small.

Scotland has a growing track record of ground-breaking public health interventions, including the ban on smoking in public places and minimum unit pricing on alcohol. These positive changes have been enabled by having a devolved government that recognises the importance of using its powers to tackle Scotland’s unenviable and persistent poor health record. Health and transport are devolved matters and this Bill is surely an opportunity to improve both road safety and health in Scotland. 

20mph roundel marking on a Glasgow roadThe Bill has several strengths over the current piecemeal and time-consuming approach, where each road needs to be considered individually by a local authority if the speed limit is to be varied from 30mph. The Bill is a population-level intervention that would have benefits for every one of Scotland’s 5.4 million residents.

The universal approach means the benefits of reduced speeds on urban streets will be experienced in every community in Scotland and not just in those areas where local speed restrictions have been introduced. We know that casualties are higher in our more deprived communities, particularly among pedestrians, and so the Bill has the potential to reduce this inequality. Allied to this, lower average road speeds not only improve safety but encourage more people to walk and cycle with benefits to physical and mental health, thus reducing carbon emissions and air pollution; increases in active travel are also likely to benefit the local economy. 

Addressing inequality, improving health, creating safer environments and encouraging sustainable travel all tie in to national and local policy: to Scotland’s National Performance Framework (set up as part of Scotland’s effort to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals), to the new Public Health Priorities for Scotland and to NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde’s Public Health Strategy

To make our streets safer, to reduce our carbon emissions and to encourage more people to travel actively, requires many different complementary and integrated interventions. We need to prioritise and invest even more in sustainable travel options, to reduce air and noise pollution, to build safer walking and cycling routes and to create a low speed environment in our towns, cities and villages.

The Safer Streets Bill offers an opportunity to make significant progress and to make our roads safer for everyone.

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