20’s plenty

Last night I went along to a public meeting at the Storey Institute in Lancaster. Organised by the local Green Party, it was aimed at building support for the introduction of 20 mph speed limits on all residential roads across the district.


John Whitelegg was I think the engine behind the meeting happening, and he opened it, speaking as articulately and persuasively as ever. Then Rod King, from 20’s Plenty for Us, very eloquently and authoritatively elaborated the case for 20 mph speed limits on our streets, and filled us in on recent promising developments across the country.

I am absolutely 100% behind 20’s Plenty for Us, and I suspect that anybody reading this will be too. So I don’t want to go over familiar ground here. But I do want quickly to mention a few of Rod King’s remarks which really stood out for me as I sat listening to him talk, on a street near where I live, last night.

Rod asked a question, which he called ‘a moral question’. “Is it right to be encouraging people to walk and cycle without first changing the conditions for walking and cycling?”. This question also strikes to the very heart of my job on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. Unsurprisingly, most of the people I’ve so far been talking to through that job are pretty clear that they would walk and cycle more, and let their children walk and cycle more, if – and only if – it was safer, and felt safer, to do so.

Straight from last night’s meeting, Griet and I walked away from Lancaster city centre, along Meeting House Lane, to chat with one couple who are part of our ethnographic fieldwork. Like Sue and me, they have an eight year old son who’s learning to move around a bit more independently. They are being brave in tentatively trying to give him a bit more freedom, he is being brave in beginning tentatively to exercise that freedom. Such processes wouldn’t of course disappear with the arrival of 20 mph speed limits, but they would probably be less stressful to negotiate.

Rod said other things which bear on our Understanding Walking and Cycling project. We are very interested in how people make decisions about how they move around. Rod said that typically, people make their decisions about the speeds at which they drive out on the roads, whilst they are in the process of driving and interacting with the road environment. He said that in contrast, decisions to comply with an urban wide 20 mph limit were made in the home. Although I’m not sure what evidence he has to back up this claim, if it is indeed the case, it is really very interesting.

It suggests to me that where communities have taken action to implement 20 mph limits, then individuals and families across those communities are then thinking about and reflecting on what streets are for, and the role which they themselves can play in producing and reproducing those streets in one way rather than another. It suggests that people might be imagining their streets as they want them to be, rather than merely reacting to them as they currently are. It suggests they are thinking morally ahead of their actions, which then become ‘moral actions’ (whereas thinking on the road, whilst driving, is likely to be more practical, and to produce ‘strategic’, and potentially more self-interested, actions). So if it is correct, this change in the location of decision-making processes over driving behaviour as part of a community getting-to-grips with the idea of itself as a place where traffic speeds stay below 20 mph is really significant, and great news.

Obviously, we urgently need radical and national government action to change the ways in which our streets are used, and the ways in which we move around. But that action, certainly at the widespread and structural level at which it is required, is still not forthcoming. One of the things which now seems to be happening as a result is communities, with the help of inspired and inspiring people such as Rod King, are beginning to fill the moral vacuum created by the lack of a strong governmental lead as to how our streets, towns and cities should be.

Rod seems confident that the time for widespread introduction of 20 mph speed limits across the streets where we live has come. What is required now is for people to push for them. People in places such as Portsmouth, Oxford, Norwich and Leicester have pushed for them. Action is coming from the grassroots. The anarchist in me thinks that’s brilliant. But I also think that it shouldn’t have to be a battle to get 20 mph speed limits imposed where people live, work and play. Such a maximum speed limit should simply be recognised as a fundamental and indisputable right, and imposed.

Rod used an incisive, powerful phrase – he said that “speed becomes greed” when it adversely effects other people’s abilities to move around in ways which they would like. When the speed of motorised vehicles passing through our neighbourhood’s streets means that with heavy hearts and bruised souls we feel we must say “no” to our eight year old sons’ pleas to walk or cycle to school on their own, then the speed of those vehicles is greedy, wrong, and should be cut.

This isn’t just about kids, but I think that kids might be central to effective communication of the moral claims being made. Last night there was discussion about taking school children into meetings at which decisions about speed, about streets, and about the life and death of our communities are taken, often by politicians whose views seem too often to be formulated from behind a car’s steering wheel. Those politicians might do well to hear and to think about perspectives from the pavement; the perspective perhaps of a six year old girl walking to school.

Rod’s observations that we should get down to the height of a six year old child, and try to experience the urban environment from their perspective, see how big the lorries going past look from down there, made me think – about how my own six year old daughter experiences her journeys around the city, and about how in the Understanding Walking and Cycling project we should make sure we assemble video footage of such experiences, ready for when – later on – we’re talking to practitioners and policy-makers about the need for revolutionary changes to our urban environments.

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