Consultation: Variable 20mph zones outside schools

School zone 20mph variable limit sign

Birmingham City Council is consulting on a list of variable 20mph zones outside schools in Birmingham. This is part of the work paid for by the Birmingham Cycle Revolution (BCR) with the national funds awarded by the government through the Cycle City Ambition Grants. There are individual consultations for each of the variable 20mph zones, but contact email address for each is the same. If you put in a generic response to cover all the consultations, we recommend that in your response you name each of the individual consultations that you are responding to. There are 22 individual consultations in total, and they all close on Friday 3rd March, 2017.

Sadly, Push Bikes strongly oppose these proposals. We do not believe that limited 20 mph zones outside schools will improve cycling conditions in Birmingham, and we do not feel that they are an appropriate way to spend Cycle City Ambition Grant funds. Furthermore, we do not believe that they will be effective in their stated aim of improving safety for children on the school run.

In 1999, the DfT advised that schemes of this nature were not appropriate: "It is of doubtful benefit to have a short length of either a 20 mph speed limit or a 20 mph zone outside a school. Apart from the uncertainty of whether drivers will observe the limit, they may subsequently speed up significantly in an area where children, in relatively large numbers, will be approaching or leaving the school. Forming a self- enforcing 20 mph zone in roads surrounding the school would be likely to reduce the frequency of accidents not only in the immediate vicinity of the school, but also on the routes that children take to that school." (Traffic Advisory Leaflet 9/99, June 1999)

A short section of 20 mph road outside of a school only looks safe for those parents who have driven their children to school and are watching them walk the final 50 or 100 metres to the school gate. Those of us who walked or cycled to school ourselves or with our children now, know that the whole of the school trip, from door to door, needs to be safe. Addressing the final few meters is not enough. The goal of money spent through BCR should be to increase the number of journeys made by cycling (and walking), and on that measure these consultations will fail.

A consistent, city-wide, 20 mph speed limit is essential to introduce simple legibility to Birmingham's roads; drivers should expect the road to be 20 mph unless signs tell them otherwise. When speed limits on a road change regularly, drivers can argue that they were too confused by the changes in the limits and so did not know what the right speed limit was. The DfT has suggested that a minimum length of 600 meters (just over 650 yards) is needed to ensure that speed limits are not changing too often. The DfT then went on to note that a minimum length of 300 meters for variable speed limits outside schools was possible "in exceptional circumstances" but that "[a]nything shorter is not recommended." (see item 37 in the linked document) Yet some of the proposals put forward by Birmingham City Council are even under that recommendation. We sampled 8 of the 22 proposals and have estimated the lengths for the 20 mph zones to be:

  • Holyhead School - about 230 meters
  • Wheelers Lane Technology College - about 150 meters
  • Wheelers Lane Primary School - about 375 meters
  • Barford Primary School - about 255 meters
  • Abbey RC Junior School - about 310 meters
  • Audley Primary School - about 200 meters
  • Broadway Academy - about 220 meters
  • Handsworth Grammar School - about 180 meters

Of the 8 sampled, the longest stretch of 20mph zone is over the minimum acceptable "in exceptional circumstances" but it is not close to the minimum that there should be in normal circumstances. 6 of the 8 even fail to meet 300 meters, and so we could conclude that the DfT would not recommended their implementation.

Furthermore, these proposed 20 mph zones will not contribute to the final goal of achieving a Birmingham-wide 20 mph speed limit. Instead they are likely to set-back that objective by giving local objectors an excuse to cite - "We've already spent money on these flashing signs outside schools, so why do you need 20 mph limits on all our roads?" Birmingham City Council needs to put forward a clear and consistent argument, based on the trial 20 mph areas, that the whole of Birmingham should have 20 mph limits. Money and council officers' time should be spent towards that goal, not towards sub-standard schemes such as these.


Some further comments on these variable limits:

Schools are increasingly offering extra activities before and after school hours, as well as being used as community centres. These proposals only offer lower speeds during brief periods of the day, and seem to not take into account the need for lower speeds for people accessing the schools outside of those times.

We also note that these variable speed limits have been used in several places across the UK, but we have found it difficult to find evidence about the effects of these variable limits. In 1999, the DfT noted little evidence of a reduction in speeds in trials (see item 16) but in 2003, a report for TfL on the impact of speed humps said that there was evidence that variable speed and message signs were effective in reducing speeds (see item 8.4). Other than this, we have not been able to find any evidence, and these two reports do not cite the research they rely on. If variable speed limits outside schools were effective, we would expect evidence of that to be more widespread. We have been told by Birmingham City Council that they will review the schemes after 1 year and 3 years. If Birmingham City Council insists on pushing ahead with these schemes, we want them to produce evidence from the other schemes around the UK where these variable speed limits have been introduced to show the they have been found to be effective elsewhere before they are implemented in the UK.

Finally, 20's Plenty for Us have written a couple of information briefs, on why larger 20 mph limits are better than isolated 20 mph zones and why 'school safety zones' are not a priority.