As we prepare ourselves to face the holiday traffic jams, made worse by the sunny weather, an engaging and radical thought comes from the Institute of Policy Studies. The authors of a new book, Speed Control and Transport Policy, suggest it may be faster to go slower.
It is not as illogical as it sounds. Already this idea has been accepted by the Department of Transport in relation to motorways. The busiest part of the M25 has been fitted with devices that can vary the speed limit so that when the road is particularly busy it is reduced from 70mph to 60 or 55. And hey presto, more cars are able to use it, as the stop-start effect of people speeding up and then being forced to brake is dissipated. Other motorways are being similarly fitted with these signs.
The PSI pair, Stephen Plowden and Mayer Hillman, go further by suggesting that the effect could also work in urban areas. Researchers in Vaxjo, Sweden, found that the traffic flowed more smoothly at junctions when the speed limit was reduced because there was less stopping and starting.
Moreover, any time lost by some motorists would be partially made up by pedestrians gaining time as crossing roads became easier and involved fewer detours - in general, one person's lost time is another person's gain. For years, that equation has been weighted in favour of the motorist rather than the pedestrian. Indeed, in the cost-benefit calculations used to assess the value of road schemes, the time saved by motorists is assigned a value of around pounds 7 per hour. But pedestrians' extra time is not counted as a disbenefit. That is why we have those ridiculous bridges over some dual carriageways where pedestrians are supposed to spend five minutes walking up spiral staircases to a height of 30 feet or more, simply to cross a road.
During the long rise and rise of the motor car, society lost its sense of proportion. Rather than being a means to an end - easier travel - cars became the centrepiece of transport policy. The space in towns was turned around to accommodate the motor car rather than the people in them. One- way systems were created to speed it along its way, while other road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, were designed out of large swathes of urban areas. Barriers were erected to hem pedestrians in; traffic lights were installed to allow them to cross the road only for a few seconds every couple of minutes and high streets were turned into urban clearways as traffic was given priority at every opportunity. Speed became an end in itself. Little thought was given to the downsides, not only the casualties, but the degradation of the environment caused by fast cars.
The PSI book argues that it is time to reconsider this set of priorities. Instead of allowing cars to whizz about unfettered around towns, the authors suggest a speed limit of 20mph or 15mph. …