What would safer streets in Birmingham look like?

20’s Plenty, Shared Space and how we get there.

By Matthew Keys

Imagine a city where you could walk or cycle to work, the shops, or school, without having to worry about speeding traffic whizzing by. A city where you felt confident letting children play together outside your house because you knew traffic was not speeding around. For one city it is becoming a reality. Could Birmingham be the next city to embrace this new approach to travel and speed, and what might it look like?

The UK has the second lowest overall number of road related fatalities in the world, just behind the Netherlands. Not bad, you might think, but it has a very much higher fatality rate for pedestrians, children and those living in deprived areas. We rank seventeenth in figures compiled across the world of child pedestrian fatality rates – falling behind France, Germany and the USA, to name a few. The UK has the poorest record in Western Europe.

It is easy to see why people are hesitant to cycle to work or allow children to cycle to school; encouraging people to adopt sustainable travel must also entail improving safety for users. Engineering physically calmed zones is expensive, however an alternative scheme that is up and running in Portsmouth and Oxford offers an effective and cheaper alternative.

20’s Plenty Where People Live, is a scheme that aims to make streets safer for people whether walking, cycling or playing by creating a blanket 20mph speed limit on residential streets and non-arterial roads. I recently visited Portsmouth to attend a conference organised by the Cycling Touring Club and high on the agenda was Portsmouth’s authority wide adoption of a 20mph speed limit.

The conference offered an opportunity to analyse a review carried out by the Department for Transport in 2009. It found that there had been a 15% reduction in casualties.[1] The greatest effect in reducing speeds was on roads that had speed problems: an average drop of 7 mph on roads that previously had average speeds of 24mph or higher. Overall, they found it had resulted in lower levels of noise pollution and a better quality of life. The findings have led to the DfT issuing new guidelines recommending 20mph limits for residential and non-arterial roads across the country. Portsmouth has set the precedent and now other cities have either begun introducing similar schemes or are planning to run pilots. The success of Portsmouth’s scheme is due in a large part to local community support. Communities have to taken ownership of their streets and the responsibility for driving safely.

The skeptic may say it won’t work without physical traffic calming measures but, having spent the weekend cycling around as much of Portsmouth as I could, I found the opposite to be true. Drivers, pedestrians and cyclists seem to interact slightly differently at slower speeds; you notice that drivers are making much more eye contact with you as you travel around the city. Although my iPod Touch does not yet offer a speed camera app, the traffic did seem to be flowing and travelling at the safer speeds that the DfT report had found.

What might slower speeds and safer roads in Birmingham be like?

The scheme would see the majority of roads in Birmingham having set speed limits of 20mph while arterial routes such as the Bristol Road and the Hagley Road would remain at higher speeds. Journey times would not increase by a great deal for those still using cars. Most houses are within a third of a mile of an arterial route, travelling that distance at 20mph as opposed to 30mph adds just twenty seconds to most journey times.[2] With a city wide adoption, as opposed to speed zones in certain areas, drivers would know that within residential areas anti-social speeds were not acceptable. Introducing a 20mph speed limit also has the potential to reduce levels of particulate pollution being emitted by vehicles as well as lowering noise levels.[3] Ultimately, the introduction of a city-wide 20mph speed limit would encourage a modal shift to other forms of transport, as well as creating a healthier environment in which communities could thrive.

The introduction of slower speeds would also offer the potential to introduce shared spaces, something that is already being proposed in some areas of Birmingham. Shared Space is an approach to urban design that seeks to remove clutter and barriers between pedestrians, cars and cyclists. The result is areas where road users must navigate around each other based along simple principles, such as giving way to vehicles coming from the right. Although it is somewhat counter-intuitive it has led to lower levels of accidents when introduced, forcing drivers to be more alert of pedestrians and other road users. Kensington High Street introduced a shared space/ naked road scheme that illustrates the improvement. In 1999/2000 there were over 150 accidents, 17 of those serious. In 2007/2008, after shared space design was in place, that figure dropped by two thirds to 53 accidents – 11 of them serious. Acocks Green Focus Group have investigated the potential for introducing it to the green island area and Moseley Forum are considering using shared space design principles to improve Moseley Village. Both shared space and 20’s Plenty can make a real difference to road safety and aiding a modal shift to sustainable transport, but to implement this requires the council to support the scheme.

Currently Birmingham City Council will only support 20mph speed limits in certain areas, mostly around schools. Despite over 500 letters being sent to the council, and the change of advice from the DfT approving the introduction of 20mph speed limits on residential and non-arterial routes, there seems to be no interest in exploring this scheme other than in a limited, ineffective zone scheme. The main reason given is that it would not be cost-effective to implement. It does not require the introduction of traffic calming measures, nor does it entail approval from the Secretary of State for Transport. The cost- estimated at £2.7 million by Birmingham City Council – is nowhere near the estimated £32 million being earmarked for the widening of the A45 road to Birmingham Airport.

It does not matter that the scheme does not meet with approval from the Council because it is really about the whole Birmingham community. If, as one big community, we demand the same levels of road safety as other cities, and take responsibility for our own speed, then it can become a reality.