What's The Big Idea?

2011: August

Most people would like to be more active – so why do so many of us jump in the car when we need to get somewhere? This was the question asked in What’s The Big Idea?, a thought-provoking presentation about the way we travel in town. 

Kevin Hickman of  Witney Bike User Group  (Witney BUG for short) told us that 40% of car journeys in Witney are 5km or shorter, while nearly 25% are less than 2km. Why are nearly a quarter of people getting in their cars to travel distances of less than a mile?

Perhaps the answer lies in how we feel when we step outside the front door. A lot of people don’t feel confident about getting on a bike because they’re nervous about being on busy roads without the steel cocoon of a car. So we have a ridiculous, paradoxical but self-perpetuating situation: we drive because we’re afraid of drivers. We choose the car because we’re afraid of cars. 

How do you break that loop? How do you make the streets feel safe enough that people are encouraged to walk or cycle? Kevin suggested the answer lies in lowering the speed limit to 20mph in residential areas. It’s an idea which has already taken hold (and proved very successful) in other parts of the country. The 20 is Plenty campaign has seen many local authorities commit to making 20mph the default speed limit for residential streets. 

Closer to home, Oxford has switched to 20mph for residential streets in 2009. The county council is review of the scheme in April 2012, once three years’ worth of data has been gathered. 

Kevin quoted the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey, in which people were asked if they wanted lower speed limits in the area around their homes. Over 70% of respondents said yes. 

So could it work in Witney? The current proposed solution to our traffic problems is the controversial Cogges Link Road, which will cost millions and destroy 30 acres of country park. But is it the best way of calming Witney’s roads?

One of the main reasons for building the Cogges Link Road is the heavy traffic on Bridge Street. The reasoning goes that traffic using the proposed link road will be able to bypass Bridge Street, making it quieter and safer. Bridge Street residents at the meeting confirmed that the traffic there is currently a huge problem. One resident reported that the HGVs currently using Bridge Street make the pots and pans rattle in her kitchen. Others commented that crossing the road on foot means waiting for up to ten minutes for a gap in the traffic. 

It sounds as if reducing the traffic by creating another road is the perfect solution. But let’s imagine what would happen if the road achieves its purpose and fewer vehicles travel down Bridge Street. The lack of congestion would allow them to go much faster than they currently do. Those HGVs lumbering along the road would be coming through at speeds guaranteed to kill anyone who gets in the way (not to mention rattling those pots and pans) , crossing the road would be just as stressful and there would be absolutely no incentive not to jump in the car for short journeys into town.

However, it’s by no means certain that the link road would actually reduce traffic on Bridge Street. Studies tend to show that new roads attract more, not less, motorised traffic to a town. So the likelihood is that Bridge Street would be just as congested as before. 

In other words: 

If the link road does what it’s meant to... life will still be stressful for people who live on Bridge Street. Walking or cycling will still feel riskier than driving.

If the link road fails to achieve its purpose.... life will still be stressful for people who live on Bridge Street. Walking or cycling will still feel riskier than driving. 

Clearly, we need to move beyond the debate about Cogges Link Road versus no Cogges Link Road and talk about what would actually work. A 20mph limit on Bridge Street would mean that traffic speeds are more predictable and easier for road users to negotiate. Combine that with the pedestrian crossing residents are asking for and you send a message: this is a place where people live. Treat it with respect. (One audience member also suggested imposing a weight restriction on Bridge Street, which would get rid of the HGV problem.)

Of course, we’re not just talking about Bridge Street. The point of the 20 is Plenty idea is that the 20mph limit applies to all residential roads, unless there’s a reason to do otherwise. Applying it in all areas means less potential confusion for all road users and allows traffic to flow more smoothly, making driving less stressful. 

Residents have already begun campaigning for 20 is Plenty in Witney. We’re already considering much more drastic moves to reduce the traffic: isn’t it time we gave this simple option a try?