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Wales votes to make 20mph the default urban limit

Plans to change the default speed limit for most urban roads in Wales from 30 to 20mph were supported by all the major political parties in the Welsh Parliament last week. Andrew Forster reports

24 July 2020

 

Wales looks likely to become the first part of the UK to make 20mph the default speed limit on restricted roads after the Welsh Parliament supported the idea last week.  

Assembly Members voted by 44 to five (with four abstentions) to support the Welsh Government’s proposal to consult on changing the default speed limit on restricted roads – roads with street lights at least every 200 yards (183 metres) – from 30mph to 20mph.  

The Welsh Parliament’s support for the idea contrasts with the Scottish Parliament, which rejected a similar proposal last summer. The Scottish Government said local authorities were best-placed to decide where 20mph limits were appropriate (LTT 21 Jun 19). Policy in England continues to be made by individual local authorities too, despite campaign group 20’s Plenty for Us lobbying for a default 20.   

Last week’s vote in Cardiff came alongside publication of a Welsh Government taskforce report into the switch. The taskforce, chaired by transport consultant Phil Jones of PJA, recommends introducing the change as quickly as possible, suggesting that legislation could be passed in October 2021 with implementation in April 2023.

The 20mph policy has been championed by Lee Waters, the deputy minister for economy and transport, who was director of Sustrans Cymru before becoming a Labour politician. 

He acknowledged last week that changing the default limit would not guarantee that drivers will drive at 20mph. “We don’t expect speed to drop to 20 mph overnight. It will take time to change behaviour.” But he claimed that, even a one per cent drop in average speeds was “likely to bring about a six per cent drop in casualties”. This is based on TRL research from 1994, which the taskforce also cites.  

Said Waters: “I am hugely grateful to Phil Jones for leading this substantial piece of work over the last year, systematically identifying the barriers to implementing this significant change and drawing on the experience of the police, local authorities, public health experts and the key stakeholders to devise ways through.”

He also paid tribute to the contributions from task force members Rod King, founder of campaign group 20’s Plenty for Us, and Adrian Davis, an academic at the University of the West of England/Napier University.  

King said last week: “We are impressed at how stakeholders and Government, both local and national, have worked together in developing such a detailed, practical and insightful report that shows how this important initiative can be delivered.”

The taskforce remarks: “The significance of the change being made in Wales should not be underestimated. No country has previously chosen to reduce the default speed limit for urban areas to 20mph and there will be global interest in learning from Wales’ experience.

“Making the change to a default 20mph speed limits in most urban areas is simple in legal terms, but the ramifications are wide and complex. It should be seen as a major Government project, which will need strong and dedicated governance to ensure it is successfully delivered.” 

It recommends the formation of a  project board and project team, including representatives of the Welsh Government, local government and taskforce members.

Local authorities will need additional funding, it adds. “Local authorities will incur significant additional costs in engaging with local communities and stakeholders, planning the speed limit changes and defining exceptions, drafting and making the Traffic Regulation Orders and designing and implementing the engineering changes including the changes to signs. Transport for Wales has estimated that approximately 10,000 new gateway signs will be needed.” 

The evidence base

In November 2018 the DfT published the findings of an in-depth research project into 20mph limits by consultants Atkins, AECOM and Professor Mike Maher. They concluded there was “insufficient evidence to conclude that there has been a significant change in collisions and casualties following the introduction of 20mph limits in residential areas” (LTT 23 Nov 18).  

The DfT evaluation earns a brief mention in an appendix to the Welsh Government taskforce report, though not this finding. On the casualty reduction effects of 20mph limits, the taskforce pays more attention to research into Bristol’s experience.

“The Bristol research provides the most thorough analysis of the effectiveness of 20mph in any one locality,” it says, citing a 2018 University of the West of England (UWE) report, and a subsequent 2019 UWE paper on the Bristol experience published in Injury Prevention. The latter quotes a city-level reduction of fatal injuries of around 63 per cent (but within a 95 per cent confidence interval range of two per cent to 86 per cent), controlling for trends over time and areas.   

On whether 20mph limits encourage more active travel, the taskforce says: “There has been little research as yet which has focused on monitoring any changes in active travel as the result of introduction of 20mph speed limits in the UK, but evidence from initial pilot schemes in Bristol and Edinburgh both reported positive results. Objective counts during the piloting of 20mph in Bristol found small increases in walking and cycling. Self-reported increases in walking and cycling were also noted after implementation of the pilot 20mph speed limit in Edinburgh.”

Behaviour change

Because most roads in built-up areas will in future be subject to a 20mph limit, the taskforce say it will be impossible to re-engineer all of them to make them self-enforcing. “While it will be desirable for roads to be self-enforcing it will need to be recognised that this will not be achievable in most places and that traffic calming and other engineering solutions should be targeted at locations where speeds remain unacceptably high after other means of reducing them have been applied.”

Behavioural change will be key to the success of the policy, and enforcement will be needed to ensure compliance. 

“Lowering traffic speeds in urban areas should be seen as a major behaviour change project,” says the taskforce. “This will require a sophisticated communications and marketing strategy based on building social unacceptability for speeding in residential areas, and backed up with strong enforcement in the early stages.”

Organisations that receive grant funding from the Welsh Government should agee to ensure their vehicles stick to 20mph, thereby creating a class of ‘pace’ cars and helping normalise the idea that 20mph is an appropriate speed. “A workstream should be established to support a cohort of drivers who will be required to observe speed limits as a condition of their employment,” says the taskforce. “This should focus on fleet and professional drivers.” 

For the new default 20mph limit to be credible the taskforce says Welsh Police forces must give a clear statement that 20mph limits will be enforced in the same way as other speed limits. “Average speed camera enforcement is likely to be the preferred option for through routes,” it says.

Over the long-term, the taskforce believes Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA) technology will ensure compliance. As a first step, organisations, including bus operators and public sector bodies, should be encouraged to retrofit ISA systems to their vehicle fleets, it says. 

The European Union announced in 2019 that ISA will be mandatory on new models of car sold in the EU from May 2022 and on new versions of models currently on the market from May 2024. “It is likely that vehicles sold in the UK will feature these systems,” says the taskforce. “Although drivers will be able to override or switch-off the ISA system it will automatically be activated every time the vehicle is started. 

“On-board data recorders will log the over-riding of the ISA system and it is possible that in the event of a crash this information could be available to the police and possibly civil lawyers.”

 

Pilot settlements

The Wales-wide change to a default 20mph limit will be preceded by 20mph ‘Pilot Settlements Projects’ (PSPs), which will inform implementation across Wales. The Government will engage with a small number of local authorities who are “committed to 20mph limits” to select suitable PSPs.  

Each local authority in Wales will need to review the roads in its settlements to identify routes that should be made exceptions to the default 20mph limit. Small 30mph repeater signs may be used on these roads.  

To simplify the process, the taskforce recommends a set of criteria to identify the ‘Principal Urban Network’ (PUN), as a sub-set of the existing 30mph roads in a local authority area, on the basis that the 20mph limit should normally be applied to all other roads. This will remove some 83 per cent of the urban road network in Wales from detailed consideration. 

The criteria for defining the PUN should be refined and tested through the Pilot Settlements Project but may include routes that meet one or more of the following criteria: trunk roads; the primary route network; A and B classified roads; abnormal load routes; motorway diversion routes; dual carriageways; and important bus and coach routes.

Transport for Wales has developed a GIS tool drawing on Wales-wide datasets to produce draft maps identifying where exceptions could be justified. These were prepared for four demonstration areas: Gwynedd; Rhondda Cynon Taf; the A470 north-south trunk road corridor; and the A458/A483/A489/A470/A44 east-west route between Shropshire and Aberystwyth. 

“Feedback on these maps from the relevant authorities was generally positive, with officers confirming that a set of consistently-produced maps would simplify and speed up the identification of exceptions,” says the taskforce. The GIS tool will be refined through the proposed pilot settlements project. 

The taskforce points out that signage is often used at national borders to inform drivers of changes in traffic law and signage. “A more complex issue arises where there are built-up and/or lit roads on either side of the Wales/England border. An example is Saltney, which forms a contiguous built up area with Chester, and where road conditions either side of the border are similar. It would be preferable if the speed limit did not change at the border and close working will be advisable with the relevant English highway authorities on local speed limits and sign requirements.” 

A monitoring and evaluation framework for the change is recommended. This should focus on a representative sample of eight settlements (two per region) across Wales that will be studied in detail, with more routine data being collected for Wales as a whole. 

“These eight settlements should form part of an early engagement with a number of pilot authorities that are committed to wider 20mph limits, and are willing to work with Welsh Government on developing the guidance and tools needed for Wales as a whole,” says the taskforce.

Monitoring data will also have to be gathered from eight matched control areas, one for each of the eight settlements, to identify the changes in key performance indicators that are only a result of the reduction in speed limit. 

“Because this is a Wales-wide intervention it will be necessary for the control settlements to be in England, some distance from the Welsh border, and this will require the cooperation of some English local authorities,” says the taskforce.

The taskforce included representatives of: 20’s Plenty for Us; the Confederation of Passenger Transport; Disability Wales; the Federation of Small Businesses; the Freight Transport Association; Fire and Rescue Service; GoSafe; Guide Dogs; Living Streets; local authorities; the police; Public Health Wales; the Road Haulage Association; Sustrans; the University of the West of England; Welsh Government; and the Welsh Local Government Association.  

DfT won’t block change

The DfT said this week that changing the default speed limit from 30 to 20mph in Wales was a matter for the Welsh Government alone.  

The legislative change will be made under Section 81(2) of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. It requires Welsh ministers to consult with the UK secretary of state for transport before exercising the power. 

Says the Welsh Government taskforce report: “Discussions have been held with officials of the DfT to inform them of the Welsh Government’s intention to change the default speed limit for restricted roads. They confirmed that there is no definition of the form this consultation should take. It was suggested that Welsh ministers write to the minister in the DfT with responsibility for road safety once a decision to proceed with the legislative change is made.” 

A DfT spokeswoman this week told LTT: “The Welsh Government has the power to make 20mph the default limit on restricted (i.e. street-lit) roads. The requirement to consult was inserted in the legislation in recognition of the fact that many roads cross the English/Welsh border, and signage changes could be needed on the English side of the border.

“The DfT recognises that this is the responsibility of the Welsh Government and remains neutral on the proposals.”

The Highway Code will also need amending, possibly in the form of a Wales addendum. 

The Welsh Government is committed to revising Circular 24/2009, Guidelines for setting local speed limits in Wales. This currently advises that 20mph limits are only appropriate where existing speeds do not exceed 24mph. 

 
 
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