The case for a 30km/h speed limit in cities

As urban populations grow, city streets will overtake rural roads as the major scene of fatal traffic crashes in many countries. The evidence in support of a 30 km/h speed limit on all mixed-use urban roads is undeniable, and mounting.

Written by Stephen Perkins


International Transport Forum’s Safe Speeds YouTube Video

A lot has happened to sharpen policies for preventing deaths and serious injuries on our roads in the build-up to the Third Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety that will meet in Stockholm on 19/20 February. The results of bold safety initiatives in a number of countries and cities have clearly demonstrated that aligning safe speeds to the design of infrastructure and the mix of road users lies at the heart of Safe System policies. Marshalling evidence on what works and what doesn’t is the key to getting public and political buy-in for these policies.

First of all, nobody any longer fatalistically regards increasing numbers of deaths on the roads of lower-income countries as the inevitable, “normal” result of increasing motorisation. The myth that death rates would only start to come down once incomes rose sufficiently has been debunked through careful review of the data by the Independent Council for Road Safety International: There is no correlation between income and peaks in road deaths.

Instead, all OECD countries saw improvement from around 1970, when their road safety policies began to be based more systematically on evidence-based, proven interventions. The powerful message here is that all countries can cut the number of deaths and injuries on the roads, regardless of GDP per capita. It also means that there is no longer an excuse: all countries must urgently implement those road safety policies that have been shown to work in their specific economic context.

Lessons from India, Colombia, France

Convincing examples of effective policies can be found in all parts of the world. Often, they were introduced in the face of vocal opposition. Pune was awarded ITDP’s Sustainable Transport Award in 2020 for doing what seemed impossible in Indian cities: establishing a sensible allocation of street space to motor vehicles to replace the chaotic free-for-all and building simple sidewalks for pedestrians.  This is the basis for safe streets and may indeed be basic. What was remarkable was creating the necessary political will by convincing the public this should be done.

Pune at night

In Colombia, the capital city Bogota is similarly making a growing number of its streets radically safer by implementing comprehensive interventions in school, residential and commercial zones, and reducing the speed limits of arterial corridors. These initiatives to promote safer interactions between all road users include the reallocation of space from cars and parking to pedestrians, often just using bold paint. But the biggest achievement has been turning around public hostility to reducing speed limits from 60 to 50 km/h on the corridors bisecting the city. By publicising the number of lives saved on these arterial roads, citizens and some of the administration’s stronger critics have accepted that speed reduction is an effective measure to save lives. 

Bold paint: pedestrian crossing in city centre

France has been in the headlines because of protests over its latest efforts to save lives by curbing speed. The policy to reduce speed limits on the fast secondary road network from 90 to 80 km/h is an outstanding example of basing policy on evidence: Evidence that shows rapidly diminishing survival rates in crashes at higher speeds; evidence that shows lower speed limits do result in lower speeds because drivers do not simply ignore limits; and evidence that shows lower average speeds always result in fewer fatal crashes.

The Safe System in action

Protests led the French Senate to modify the law, delegating responsibility for limits to Department councils. At the same time, Senators applied the Safe System principle to their decision, setting out quality and design standards to be met for 90 km/h roads. Only one Department has reinstated the 90 km/h speed limit.

This interplay between speed and infrastructure is a perfect example of the Safe System approach in action. The system has to be designed to protect against death and severe injury even when humans make mistakes. This can be achieved through controlling behaviour, improving vehicles or enhancing infrastructure, or all three – but it must be done in concert to ensure all users can use the roads safely.

Infrastructure enhancements: road works in Bogota

The basis for effective interventions is good data and analysis. The ITF supports national and city safety agencies enhance their capacity and compare their performance with our IRTAD and Safer City Streets databases. These show that the majority of traffic fatalities currently occur on rural roads, hence the importance of France’s new speed limits. Other countries need to look carefully at similar measures. At the same time, as our populations become more urban, city streets are soon set to account for the majority of casualties in ITF countries.

Safe urban mobility needs a 30km/h speed limit

The success of sustainable mobility policies will see increasing numbers of pedestrians, cyclists and electric micromobility users on our streets. This will require a redoubling of efforts to allocate space for protected cycling and pedestrian infrastructure and create mixed use roads with low speed limits. This is the front line for the safety targets under the UN Sustainable Development Goals and is taken up in Recommendation 8 of the Academic Expert Group convened to support the 3rd UN Global Conference on Road Safety. The Group recommends implementing a speed limit of 30 km/h for all mixed-use roads in urban areas. This is a true life saver, and it should be a primary focus of discussion at the conference.

An increasing number of cities have moved in this direction. Starting with 30 km/h zones in the early 1990s, almost all of Helsinki is now subject to a 30 limit. Oslo has followed suit as part of its Vision Zero policy as have Munich, Grenoble and a rapidly increasing number of cities in Europe and on other continents. With 19 cities in the 30 club, Spain is now pioneering the move at national level, with a proposal before Government for all cities to limit speeds to 30 km/h. The policy works, with Toronto reporting a two thirds reduction in serious and fatal injuries from crashes since it reduced speeds from 40 to 30 km/h in 2015. The case for making 30 km/h the default speed limit for all vehicles in urban and residential areas is clear.

Stephen Perkins is Head of Research and Policy Analysis at the International Transport Forum (ITF). The ITF runs the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group (IRTAD) and the Safer City Streets network.

Paris: Managing the Shared Mobility Révolution

Shared Mobility in Practice

In Paris, the shared mobility revolution is well underway. We examine how Hôtel de Ville, Paris’ town hall, is trying to get a grip on the situation.

By Emma Latham-Jones and Will Duncan

Over 20,000 dockless trottinettes eléctrique, or electric scooters, have sprung up around the French capital since June 2018, quickly becoming a common sight on the city’s Haussmannian streets. Renting one is as simple as downloading an app and punching in your credit card details. With the scooters seemingly available everywhere – on sidewalks, squares, and by the banks of the Seine – it’s become easy to whizz around the city at a silent speed.

Parisians have been quick to recognise the potential of these new shared vehicles. The novelty of the electric e-scooter has swiftly given way to it being seen as a mainstream and significant mode of transport. As James Tapper wrote in The Guardian, “they’re cheaper than cabs, less effort than a bike and more convenient than buses.” They have a lot going for them.

Never have their benefits been more apparent than during December’s period of grèves – transport strikes – across the capital city. Zipping past tense car drivers stuck in traffic stretching out miles down Paris’ boulevards at rush hour, e-scooters defy both the public transport strikes and the increase in car traffic that’s accompanied it. For those otherwise stranded during the public transport turmoil, these e-scooters seem to be an early Christmas blessing.

But the sudden success of these new networks of scooters has created a dilemma for the city government. Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, ran on an especially green platform and has implemented a number of reforms to combat the city’s pollution levels and traffic congestion. While these new scooters appear to offer Parisians a greener way to get around the City of Light, their sudden arrival has been chaotic, prompting critics to label it an “invasion”.

From Bolt to Lime, the takeover of one-syllable brand names running e-scooter fleets is causing some serious problems. Tourists fly by silently through busy pedestrian areas. Disorganised clusters of scooters block sidewalks and doorways. The less-fortunate can be seen vandalised or discarded in an ugly heap. Tragically, Paris saw its first electric scooter-related death in June 2019, after a truck collided with a rider in the city’s 18th arrondissement.

The transport revolution is taking hold, but it’s causing some serious headaches.

Photo: martin_vmorris (CC), Flickr

Taking back control

In June 2019, Hidalgo declared an “end to the anarchy”. Her government established a new set of rules for shared electric scooters operating with Paris city limits, necessary “to assure road safety and to calm the streets, pavements, and neighbourhoods of our city.”

Riders were banned from rolling along the footpaths or through parks and gardens. Speeds were capped to 25km/h. The number of service operators would be reduced from twelve to an approved (and more manageable) three, and operators have been requested not to increase the number of scooters in circulation while the new national mobility law creates a more appropriate legal framework.

Perhaps the most significant intervention: scooters can no longer be abandoned on the sidewalks – possibly the biggest gripe amongst Parisians towards the new vehicles. E-scooters must be parked in legitimate parking spaces, the same used by cars or bikes. Paris will soon experiment with dedicated shared scooter and bicycle parking spots around the city.

The official Twitter account of the city of Paris

While Paris is in some sense, “cracking down” — these actions don’t really represent the big blow to shared mobility innovation that some may have expected, or feared. Free-floating scooters are in no way banned from operating in the city (like they are in London and Barcelona, for example). Clearly, Paris recognises the potential of free-floating shared vehicles. In fact, by calling for an end of the anarchy, the Parisian government has elected to take a leading role in the responsible management of shared mobility in its city.

“Under no circumstances should this mode of transport be pilloried,” assures a city press release. “[E-scooters] represent a new form of transport mobility and contribute to reducing the use of polluting cars. However, the City of Paris wishes to regulate this mode of transport more effectively to ensure road safety and calm streets and pavements.” 

According to Philippe Crist, Innovation Policy Analyst at the International Transport Forum, “Paris has established an ambitious regulatory framework in less than twelve months.” And in only 16 months, e-scooters were added to the Code de la Route. As a result, they are subject to the rules of the road, and there is now a ban on more than one person per scooter.

With the tender process well under way, the contracts for the three wining e-scooter service operators will be awarded from January 2020. This has prompted scooter companies to share more ambitious approaches to sustainability, declaring the creation of extra scooter repair facilities to extend the notoriously short lifespan. As they race to win the favour of Hôtel de Ville, they also rush to ditch gig workers and instead hire staff on permanent contracts.

Re-imagining the city street

“Why do these scooters often feel so anarchic? Because they’re whizzing down roads that aren’t designed for them,” says Crist.

“We devote a very large part of the road to a wall of steel — parked automobiles. If we managed public space better — if we adapted it to the needs and possibilities of today — it could be quite different,” he says.

Cities must look at how they can effectively regulate — and also benefit from — this kind of innovation. Like other city halls, Paris’ Hôtel de Ville recognises the extraordinary potential of shared mobility to reduce congestion and pollution, by encouraging the idea that owning a private vehicle is not necessary to have high-quality access to the city.

Disruptions like this invite us to imagine how cities could be. According to Crist, “we’re living in a very interesting time — something of a crossroads. We suddenly have so many more options in how we can get around, with an even greater promise for the future. But we haven’t yet thought about re-allocating space in the city to fit these modes.”

“Today’s roads are based off a 100-year-old model,” he points out. “How can governments adapt and lead to re-think the model for the next 100 years?”

ITF work has indicated that if widely adopted, some forms of shared mobility could halve the number of vehicle-kilometres travelled in urban areas, and reduce urban transport CO2 emissions by 30%. Free-floating e-scooters and other forms of micro-mobility can help achieve these outcomes, but it’s crucial that governments take them seriously and recognise the potential they represent.

Cities such as Paris are well-placed to imagine and invest in the future of transport at this exciting time.

This article is part of a series on Shared Mobility in Practice, which looks at how cities around the world are incorporating innovative transport solutions in real life, today. See also: Los Angeles: Harnessing Data for Transport Innovation, and: China: Explaining Ride-Hailing’s Rapid Rise. Shared mobility is one of the transport disruptions explored in the 2019 ITF Transport Outlook.