London speed limits make front page news

Ronnie Cohen, one of our regular contributors, wonders why it  will be easy to find the cash to reduce speed limits in London but has been impossible to convert them to metric.

It is rare for traffic speed limits to appear as the main exclusive headline in a major newspaper. However, proposed changes to speed limits on London roads made it to the front page of London’s Evening Standard newspaper on 24 July 2018 under the headline “Slow Down: New Limit for London” with an image of a 20 mph roundel in the middle of four short columns of text. Above the main headline was the banner text “C-Charge Zone first for change – but restriction will go city-wide from 2024”. This was their front page:

During the first phase of these changes, the Victoria Embankment, Millbank, Albert Embankment and Blackfriars Road will get the reduced speed limit by May 2020, when Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s first term ends. The rest of changes will be introduced between next year and 2024. The proposals include:

  • 20 mph speed limits across 37 town centres to be implemented by the boroughs (if they agree to do so)
  • traffic-calming measures
  • speed cameras to enforce the lower 20 mph speed limits
  • redesign of dangerous junctions
  • safety measures on HGVs
  • buses fitted with automatic brakes

The purpose of these changes is to reduce road deaths and bring the number of road deaths down to zero by 2041. These plans are part of the Mayor’s Vision Zero initiative. New safety measures to reduce road deaths would surely be welcomed by everyone.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has consistently argued over many years that changing speed limits and other traffic signs to metric units would be too expensive and would divert resources from other parts of the transport budget. However, there is no suggestion that the Vision Zero initiative will do that. Many new 20 mph speed limit signs and road markings have already been introduced across London over the last few years but nobody complains about their cost or argues that they divert money from other areas. Not even the DfT makes these claims about these 20 mph signs and road markings.

When we compare the attitude of the DfT towards metrication with its attitude towards the installation of large numbers of 20 mph road signs and markings across many parts of London, we can see a lack of consistency in their arguments about transport budgets. Both involve spending money, which has to come from somewhere. Why does the DfT insist that metrication is too expensive and diverts money from other parts of the transport budget but does not apply the same logic to changing speed limits across London to 20 mph?

There is lack of political will to metricate British road signs and the DfT has been making excuses for years to avoid change. However, if kilometres were allowed to be used on British road for lower speed limits and made with distinctive signs, the transport authorities would have a greater choice of lower speed limits. With miles, they just have the 20 mph option. If they used kilometres, they could use two reasonable alternatives to the 20 mph limit: 30 km/h (19 mph) and 40 km/h (25 mph). Taking advantage of the opportunity to switch to lower speed limits to introduce kilometres instead of introduce new 20 mph signs and road markings would require no additional government spending. The DfT and our politicians just need the political will to authorise kilometres in the TSRGD. That’s all it would take.

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3 Responses to London speed limits make front page news

  1. derekp says:

    As Ronnie points out, changing London's speed limits to metric would significantly reduce the cost of the proposals. "30" ceases to mean 30 mph and becomes 30 km/h, that is 19 mph. Job done. But of course the reluctance to make the metric changeover is not really about money after all.

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  2. BrianAC says:

    As I have said a number of times before, DfT could just change the law from miles per hour to km/h and leave the signs as they are. It would then be up to whomsoever wanted to put the speed limits back up to find the money to do so.

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  3. Ezra Steinberg says:

    The biggest logical hurdle to converting to metric speed limits is that for safety reasons all such signs should be changed overnight (or over a weekend). And there will be arguments in various jurisdictions about which "nearby" speed limit in km/h should replace the existing mph limits will have to be resolved. However, a clear will to convert can drive deciders to pick a reasonable new speed limit.

    As for quick conversion of all speed limit signs, wouldn't sticky decals solve that problem?

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