When #20IsPlenty came to north east Croydon

By - Monday 12th September, 2016

There’s a new 20mph speed limit in north east Croydon. Who owns the streets? asks Liz Sheppard-Jones

Image by Croydon Council, used with permission.

It’s easy to stereotype people and in the recent consultation over whether a second area in north-east Croydon should reduce its speed limit to 20mph, some old favourites went head to head: selfish, speed-obsessed drivers (hiss!) versus saintly cyclists (cheer!), petrolheads versus tree-huggers, lead-loving vehicle-users versus lycra-clad Greens, climate change collaborators spewing their fumes versus heroic eco-warriors. Who owns the streets?

In other words, it became a Twitter slanging match.

Polarising debate is what Twitter does best, and I’ve never agreed with the arrogant-bullying-drivers-in-one-corner and their-innocent-victims-in-the-other approach. (OK, it’s tricky to be a dangerous pedestrian, but I’ve seen some hair-curling incidents of inattention.) I drive, but I’m not just a motorist: few of us are. Buses, trams, on foot… how I travel depends on where I’m going, who’s with me, what I’m carrying – and whatever the outcry, it also needs to be said very clearly that irresponsibly-speeding road users come on two wheels as well as on four.

In the case of north-east Croydon, residents had backed the proposal from the start (admittedly with a low response rate during the consultation process) and the final decision was taken by the borough’s traffic management committee. There’s a plan to ask the whole of Croydon whether #20IsPlenty should be extended to all non-main roads by 2018, and the Citizen’s very own data blogger, Robert Ward, has already run a skeptical eye over the proposals.

The new lower limit doesn’t appeal to drivers, and didn’t to me: I enjoy my car and twenty is really slow. (Admittedly jam today, tomorrow and indefinitely on the Wellesley Road isn’t so great: the driving they do in car advertisements is the fun kind). Then again, like all parents I’m obsessed with the danger of roads and want speeds to be cut: a clear example of belonging to two different interest groups at once.

Now the slow-down zone is a reality: I live within its boundaries and it will affect me every time I turn the ignition key. So, am I incensed at unnecessary restraint and unpersuaded, like Robert Ward, that 20mph speed limits make a difference to safety, or joyfully toasting the muzzling of the motorcar?

Driving speeds make a BIG difference

Intuitively, I welcome #20IsPlenty. Each time my sons head out of the door, I fear cars. Intuition’s not enough, though: it’s about evidence, and recently I’ve come across a lot of it, all suggesting to me that slower speeds save lives.

I’m not proud to say this, but back in the spring I was sent on a speed awareness course. Nabbed at 37mph in a 30mph zone, it was that or three points on my licence. I paid £97 and headed for the training centre in Penge in a steaming rage… then came back feeling rather differently. Those on our table of six (in a class of around thirty) actually learned quite a lot and as the half day course proceeded, resentful muttering was replaced with real interest and engagement. (If they catch you with your mobile phone even on, you fail the course.)

Photo author’s own.

They showed us the figures, and here are some of them. The most powerful case is around impact speeds and stopping distances, which drop greatly as speed falls. Split second decisions are less critical and errors of judgement less disastrous when everyone has more time to react. And if the worst happens, at 30mph, you’ve a 50% chance of killing someone you hit, which is better than at 40mph, where it’s 95%. At 20mph, it’s just 5%.

Also, given the human tendency to exceed the limit whatever it is, reducing it allows for our rebel psychology and still makes the roads less dangerous. Going just that little bit slower can change your life if you’re involved in an accident as a driver, or save someone else’s.

Looking to the future, it’s even more important that Croydon slows down. Not all families have gardens, and in future as housing densities here increase it’s likely that fewer still will do so. Children need to play outside and the reason that they don’t is their parents’ (justified) fear of traffic. Local campaigners want to bring initiatives like Play Streets to Croydon, and this depends on traffic calming. Calmer streets are safer for others too: older people, wheelchair users, the visually impaired and those with hearing difficulties.

And although it’s primarily a safety measure, slower does seem to be greener. The arguments over the relationship between speed and vehicle emissions are on-going, but research has shown lower emissions at slower speeds. It’s because higher speeds necessitate increased acceleration, decceleration and braking.

Braking’s the word: after the course, I vowed to obey all speed limits and began at once, not just in Croydon but in Lambeth’s #20IsPlenty areas, as well as on Surrey’s more open roads. I’ve stuck with it, too, but it’s difficult, firstly because driving habits are deeply ingrained and my speed drifts up as soon as I stop thinking about it, and secondly because of the stress caused by my irritable trail of tailgaters. Strangest of all, though, has been puttering round SE25 at a close-to-comical twenty.

It’s unhelpful when your passengers say: “It can’t be as slow as this!”

I’ve learned that it takes time to adjust. A big part of driving is the emotional experience of being behind the wheel. Speed is a rush – it feels good. It’s testosterone-y, affecting your brain, making you more dominant. You’re likely to turn up the music and put on something with a faster beat. And the opposite is also true: slow down and you’ll drive more gently. Tension reduces, connection to the outside world increases, and you start to let people across at junctions with a nod and a smile. Making ourselves slow down doesn’t make us more impatient and frustrated – though I know you’d think that it would. Instead, you drive calmer and kinder.

I’m not saying this happens first time: the first time at twenty you just feel lame. It’s unhelpful that your passengers also say things like “it can’t be as slow as this!”. But the shift does happen.

The urge to give impatient people the finger can be strong

Now you’re thinking that this sounds all very well, but it’s going to make you late. Actually, it isn’t: you’ll be there in the same time you’d have been there anyway. The average speed on an English A road at peak time is now 23.6mph. When your journey is made up of bursts of limit-busting acceleration followed by bad-tempered sticking points, what is being gained?

What you do need is a certain resilience: remember those tailgaters? I don’t have to hear them tutting at grandma (by which they mean me) as I keep to the limit. I know what they’re saying, especially at twenty. It gets to me, and the urge to give these impatient people the finger when they screech past can be strong. But what did I just say about making the roads kinder? Anyway, I’ll be seeing them again at the next set of lights, glaring and revving their engines but no nearer their destination than I am, and it might get awkward.

We’re all citizens, all road-users, and the new slow-down rules are in our shared interest. They protect the vulnerable and make community space more welcoming. Let’s think again about those stereotypes, and try to be a bit less confrontational. I hope that the roll-out that’s reached my neighbourhood will spread across a traffic-calmed borough. In fact, let’s make it a norm, Croydon-wide then London-wide. For people-friendly roads and a safer city, I believe that twenty’s plenty.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Ann Creighton

    20 is plenty but m concern is that it is that the limit is ignored so much – and this is largely because the roads are unpoliced. The likelihood of being in trouble for going over the speed limit is remote. So, we will still have speed obsessed drivers on our streets driving unchecked in our side streets.

  • Robert Ward

    Hi Liz. Great article and thanks for the plug.

    My conclusion was that if a 20 mph limit reduces speeds on those roads then that is a benefit, although one that was grossly over-estimated in the council discussions. However it is likely that the speed of traffic on the roads affected is already less than 20, so this has cost money to no quantifiable benefit. There is no plan for additional enforcement and the reality is that it would be extremely time consuming of police time to catch just one speeder so it won’t happen.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Thanks Robert. Clearly going through the benefits on a road-by-road basis isn’t valuable, but outside my house (within the #20IsPlenty zone) we regularly get speeding well in excess of the previous 30mph limit (because it’s straight and wide enough for vehicles not to have to give way to each other). It would be nice to think the new ’20′ signs may slow things…. although of course without enforcement the rules will be ignored just like the old.

      As we’ve all been saying about fly-tipping for quite a while now, we need cultural change, so that behaviours previously considered acceptable are no longer shrugged at but censored by peers. Drink-driving campaigns – eventually – achieved this. I’d like to see speeding follow. There are, it seems, no quick fixes, but perhaps every little helps.

  • Ian Marvin

    For those who are interested here’s a presentation on the possible impact on emissions and fuel consumption. http://ee.ricardo.com/cms/assets/Documents-for-Insight-pages/Transport/06.-20mph-and-carbon-emissions-Duncan-Kay.pdf

  • Anne Giles

    Good article, but there are only a handful of head to head: selfish, speed-obsessed
    drivers and many cyclists are far from saintly, as they frequently go through red traffic lights. I am not into hugging trees, nor do I particularly go for lycra-clad Greens. I don’t consider eco-warriers heroic either.Live and let live, for God’s sake. Here in Selsdon we have volunteers who monitor car speeds and the drivers do receive a letter from police with a warning. Tailgating is a nuisance, but I just pull in and let the idiots go by. We do report speeding drivers to the police and they receive a warning. Any more, and it’s a Section 59, and after that the vehicle is confiscated. I can’t understand why more people don’t report speeding drivers. It is not that difficult. I sometimes drive along, muttering the registration number again and again to myself until I can pull in and write it down. Steve does the same, sometimes with photographs. I then look the vehicle up on http://www.mycarcheck.com to see if the registration number matches the vehicle and what make and colour it is. This gets passed on to police. I can’t understand speeding. I just don’t do it. We stick to whatever the speed limit is. The amazing thing I did once was take down the number of a company employing truck drivers. The man had been tailgating me for ages, sounding his horn and eventually putting two fingers up at me. I reported him to his boss, who coincidentally was looking for an excuse to fire him! He was very grateful for my report.

  • Susan Oliver

    Hi Liz , Many thanks for the article.

    I lived in the affected area for 8 years, right across from Cllr Sean Fitzsimons on Edward Road. As you may know, we left Croydon in April.

    I filled out the consultation form and I said something like, “Okay, sure, the little side streets like Edward or Rhymer or Exeter Road – sure – but whatever you do, Davidson Road has got to stay 30.”

    Why? Davidson is the longest road in Croydon and, especially toward the South Norwood Rec Ground, the road is relatively wide there with wide sidewalks, so enforcing a 20mph zone there is punitive. Going at 20 on that road would be frustrating for many people and frustration leads to anger.

    Let’s face it: this is all about demonising the driver.

    People are used to driving at 30 and the motorcar is still the way people get around in 2016. Let’s not try to change the world by hurting ordinary people who are just trying to get by!

    What’s the real problem in Addiscombe? That’s easy! The gridlock that happens every morning on Lower Addiscombe Road and St James’s Road. It is a nightmare. Of course our councillors Mark Watson, Patricia Hay-Justice and Fitzsimons don’t want to admit that they can’t do anything about the problem so what do they do? They make it look like they’re solving problems by instituting a politically-correct policy like this 20mph thing. Ridiculous.

    Driving up Davidson Road at 20mph will be like swimming in molasses and I won’t be surprised if Croydon Council will use it as a speed trap. What a nice little earner!

    Driving is tough enough in Croydon. A lot of traffic, a lot of crazy junctions, congestion (particularly in the mornings), high parking charges, high parking tickets, hard to find a parking spot on the side roads and whenever there are road works (which seems often), there are additional wait-times. And now this 20 mph thing. I mean, how much are people supposed to take?

  • Susan Oliver

    Another thought.

    If Croydon Labour is so into saving lives, why are they supporting the incinerator?

    (You gotta laugh).