Telegraph Debate: What would a new 20mph zone mean for Sheffield city centre?

20mph zone sign
20mph zone sign

This week’s Telegraph Voices debate examines proposals to reduce the speed limit to 20mph on over 300 streets in the middle of Sheffield.

Peter Sephton, Chair of SCCRAG, Sheffield City Centre Residents Action Group

Peter Sephton, chairman of SCRRAG residents' action group

Peter Sephton, chairman of SCRRAG residents' action group

Some of the air we breathe in Sheffield is very unhealthy and sometimes those locations may surprise us. For several years there have been pollution measuring sites in the city, with the results on a council website.

Unfortunately the annual records have not been kept up to date, but SCCRAG has been keeping an eye on the situation. Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health. The lower the levels of air pollution, the better the cardiovascular and respiratory health of the population, particularly for children, the elderly and those with breathing problems. By reducing air pollution, cities can reduce the burden from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma. This lengthens all our lives.

The particulate matter measurements are PM 10 and PM 2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 micro-meters in diameter), expressed in micrograms per cubic meter of air. This is the concentration in the air of fine particulates, easily absorbed into the lungs and bloodstream.

In 2006 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assigned a health standard for PM 2.5 of maximum 35 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m³) because levels above 35µg/m³ are associated with significantly higher health and mortality risks. The university roundabout at Brook Hill is on this 35 limit, Abbeydale Road corridor and Netherthorpe are around 45, Duke Street and Park Square roundabout are around 50, Shoreham Street is over 50. Being inside a car is little protection from these particulates. Our main road problem is caused primarily by car, bus, truck and taxi engine emissions, in particular diesels.

8 Dec 2016.....Sheffield taxi driver Lee Ward who claims the city's taxis are being targeted daily by youths throwing bricks and stones. Picture Scott Merrylees

8 Dec 2016.....Sheffield taxi driver Lee Ward who claims the city's taxis are being targeted daily by youths throwing bricks and stones. Picture Scott Merrylees

SCCRAG has made air pollution one of its core issues and welcomes the city council 20mph initiative. German research has shown that faster speed in built-up areas raises the incidence of acceleration, deceleration, and braking, all of which increase air pollution. This research indicates that traffic calming reduces idle times by 15 per cent, gear changing by 12 per cent, brake use by 14 per cent and fuel use by 12 per cent. The slower and calmer style of driving reduces emissions. Let’s go for 20 in the centre and make our lives healthier!

Lee Ward, Chairman of Sheffield’s ALPHA – Taxi and Private Hire Drivers Association

The taxi and private hire industry will always welcome a safer road system for the public to enjoy, and on the face of it a 20mph zone in the city centre would look to be an attractive public safety policy.

However, studies in both Islington (London), Bristol and Brighton show that the 20mph sign-only zones only reduced the average speed of traffic by just 1mph at a cost of around £2.3m per zone for each area.

Russell Cutts

Russell Cutts

The consensus is that speed bumps are most effective, but as stated by Sheffield City Council, also the most expensive.

The trade’s concerns are that if this city 20mph zone was introduced, who will police it, and if not policed will it then be just an expensive exercise with no real value to show for it?

The city centre is also a part of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone that the council aims to introduce, but petrol cars that the government are asking everyone to switch to actually produce more harmful emissions at 20mph than 30mph according to a London study.

Therefore contradicting the safety purpose of the 20mph zone where Sheffield reported that poor air quality costs the city in the region of £160m per year.

Mark Woodward, Green Directions

Mark Woodward, Green Directions

Of course the trade would wish for safer roads, but to be perfectly honest, the pedestrians have to take some responsibility for this also.

Too often a pedestrian will walk into the street because they are looking at their smartphones instead of the traffic, or wearing headphones distracting them from oncoming traffic.

Ironically, taxis and private hire vehicles then get accused of braking for no reason, when obviously there is a reason and that’s the safety of the public.

Mark Woodward, Green Directions, Stannington

I have been driving for over 40 years. I find adhering to 20mph zones very challenging as I am used to 30mph as the benchmark urban speed – 30 feels slow to a driver but not to a pedestrian or to a child who has run out into the road.

Zones were introduced in Hull in 1994. The casualty statistics between 1994 and 2001 showed a drop of 14 per cent in Hull, compared to a rise of 1.5 per cent in the rest of Yorkshire and Humberside. In the 20mph zones in Hull, there was a decrease in total accidents of 56 per cent and in fatal and serious injuries of 90 per cent, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. The evidence speaks for itself.

Evidence from NICE – the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – also indicates that 20mph limits in urban areas would help to improve air quality by reducing the emissions from acceleration and deceleration.

In Sheffield City Region we have a major health problem resulting from poor air quality, much of which is caused by vehicle emissions. This is one of the reasons why we chose to lease a Renault Zoe electric car nearly two years ago. The Zoe is 100 per cent electric and produces no pollution. We charge it using renewable energy from our wind turbines and solar panels – again, no pollution. For longer journeys we also have a diesel vehicle which we will hopefully be able to replace soon as the range of electric cars is increasing rapidly. I might find it challenging to adhere to a new road speed benchmark but, both for safety and health reasons, it is a challenge I need to confront.

Russell Cutts, owner of Russell’s Bicycle Shed, Sheffield station and Neepsend

The planned introduction of a blanket 20mph speed limit across the city centre in Sheffield, omitting a couple of major routes but covering more than 300 streets, is of course a welcome development for cyclists and pedestrians.

It should provide a serene environment where cars and other vehicles are restricted to travelling at a slower pace.

Or it could just mean that more people who choose to drive cars become criminals.

The 20mph speed limit can only be justified if there are other controls imposed such as speed humps, shuttle runs, more pedestrianisation and restrictions to traffic flow.

If the desire is to create a safer environment for everybody, then there is a bolder argument for more education and stronger legislation.

Then speed limits like this would be self-enforcing.

I am not against the introduction of reduced speed limits, and I know they have gone on to produce safer environments in many other towns and cities around the country.

But perhaps if the council took it a step further and closed the roads within the inner ring road to traffic once a month, or restricted traffic to just a few routes in and out of the city and then pedestrianised the rest, this would create an environment that is safer for everyone.

It would also allow cafés and restaurants to offer more seating outside for customers that is pleasant to sit at.

Putting up a few signs is not going to change things overnight.

Education and better traffic control is the only answer.

It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when measures such as these are proposed.

And that in itself can create an even more dangerous situation.

Chris Broome, Sheffield Climate Alliance

For too long, car use with as little restriction as possible has been seen as a virtually universal good, an aspect of our improved standard of living. But the harmful impacts of increased pollution have always been there and not acted on with enough conviction.

This seems to be largely down to the connection between cause and effect being neither direct nor particularly tangible. If a loved one becomes ill through lung disease, ones’ first reaction is not to become resentful about pollution and the number of cars on the roads, though this is factor in increasing the number of people suffering from a wide range of cardio-vascular and other diseases.

The climate impacts of air pollution are even less tangible – the growth in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere gradually disrupts the climate to an extent that will eventually have very serious impacts on our well-being and way of life. The effects are real but will take years to fully manifest themselves.

But how much difference will this 20mph limit actually make to this much wider issue? In fact the impact will be greater on road safety and air quality – the latter because the emissions from cars in the city centre pollute air that is close to dense populations. Nevertheless, smoother and slower driving will help tackle climate change too.

Perhaps a bigger benefit is that pedestrians and cyclists will feel safer and more comfortable using their local streets. Attitudes will gradually shift away from a ‘car is king’ mentality. In a similar vein, a 60mph rush-hour speed limit was introduced on the M1 through Sheffield in the spring, with apparently little complaint from drivers.

This is the first speed limit to be introduced for air quality reasons, and the idea was rejected when first proposed in 2014.

More needs to be done. We would be in favour of a city-centre Clean Air Zone, which the most polluting vehicles would have to pay a charge to enter.

Evidence suggests this is the only way to bring air pollution levels within legal limits quickly and of course, it will help reduce climate change too. In the meantime, the council’s more modest proposal is a good start.

* Why 20 could be plenty on over 300 city centre streets in Sheffield