Slowing down the cities

Spain is about to join the Europe-wide trend of imposing a 30 km/h speed limit in built-up areas The evidence shows that it reduces accidents and road deaths

A 30 km/h zone in the Les Corts neighborhood in Barcelona.
A 30 km/h zone in the Les Corts neighborhood in Barcelona. JAVIER CORSO (EL PAÍS)

An end to road deaths in our towns and cities. Not such a utopian idea as it sounds; in Pontevedra, Galicia, it's already coming to pass thanks to the imposition of a 30 kilometer per hour (km/h) speed limit there. Evidence from around the world shows that pedestrians stand a 95-percent chance of surviving being hit by a car at that speed; at 50 kilometers an hour, the figure drops to 55 percent; and above 70 km/h, death is the most likely outcome. So why not apply a 30 km/h speed limit in all built-up areas?

The first step has been taken within the EU: a European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) called "30 km/h - Make Our Streets Livable!" made up of members from Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Spain and the UK has submitted a proposal for a speed limit of 30 km/h in European cities and municipalities to the European Commission.

If the Commission accepts this direct democracy initiative, the next step will be to gather signatures online or on paper. One million signatures from seven EU countries would be needed over the next year to enable the European Commission to move ahead with passing legislation.

Pedestrians stand a 95 percent chance of surviving being hit by a car at 30 km/h

Heike Aghte, the German coordinator of the campaign, says: "Our proposal is for a 30 km/h speed limit in urban areas unless another speed is set by the local authority. The scheme is simple, effective and cost-efficient. Long experience with 30 km/h zones throughout Europe has proven that the number and severity of accidents decreases significantly, and that noise and exhaust emissions decrease. Flow of traffic and conditions for pedestrians and cyclists improve. Environmentally friendlier modes become more attractive with an EU-wide speed limit of 30 in cities and municipalities."

She says that although the default speed limit would be set at 30 km/h in built-up areas, local authorities would have the final decision to set other speed limits or measures that improve road safety and create a healthier environment: "Cities and municipalities are in the best position to know where exceptions should be made."

In Spain, the initiative is supported by Ecologists in Action, Stop Accidentes, Andando, and Conbici, which began gathering signatures on December 4 under the banner: "For more habitable, safe, and less-contaminated cities."

Cities are in the best position to know where exceptions should be made"

The European Commission's own data shows there is room to improve the safety and air quality of our cities. Two-thirds of road deaths in Europe - around 20,000 a year - occur in built-up areas, while 48 percent of victims are cyclists or pedestrians.

As regards air pollution: in Spain 94 percent of the population breathes air that exceeds the contamination levels recommended by the World Health Organization, according to a report issued by Ecologists in Action in October. Even by the EU's less-stringent levels 22 percent of the population in this country, or 10.4 million people, live in areas where those levels are exceeded.

"The main contributor to air pollution is traffic," says Ecologists in Action, adding that cleaner air would come in the medium to long term, as more people leave their cars at home and move around on foot or by bike.

In Spain 94 percent of people breathe air that exceeds WHO contamination limits

"The crux of the matter is that by driving at 30 km/h we reduce the danger that cars present, because aside from almost removing the possibility of death in the event of an accident, the injuries are always going to be less serious," says Mariano González of Ecologists in Action. He says that among the many benefits associated with slower traffic speeds is that "people walk more or get on their bicycles: the cyclist's biggest fear is being hit by a car."

Manuel Martín of Conbici, a group that promotes cycling in cities, largely agrees: "Streets with 30 km/h limits feel safer, but what people really need to see are cycle lanes, which are relatively expensive: until that happens, these 30 km/h zones are a cheap solution."

Slowing traffic down in urban areas would also make our cities quieter places: Germany's Environment Council says that driving at 30 km/h instead of 50 km/h would lower noise levels by three decibels.

Drivers realize they can get around quicker because there are fewer jams"

Both of Spain's leading motorist organizations - the Royal Automobile Association and the CEA - support imposing a 30 km/h speed limit in built-up areas used by cyclists and pedestrians: "This is an initiative that would apply to residential areas," says a CEA spokesman, adding: "We would only be against this if the speed limit were to be applied in blanket fashion throughout the city, for example on main roads."

According to the organizers of the EU-wide proposal to lower the speed limit, opposition has come mainly from the public. "People automatically assume that they will be forced to drive too slowly, because they tend to drive at twice the legal limit, but the evidence shows that once the 30 km/h limit is introduced, drivers realize that they can get around more quickly because there are fewer traffic jams," says Aghte.

This has been proven in the UK, where 34 cities have already introduced a 30km/h limit. According to a survey carried out by the British government, 75 percent of the public supports the limit; as do 72 percent of drivers.

Pontevedra's pedestrians-first policy dates back to 1999, when extensive areas of the Galician city were cut off to through traffic, pavements were widened, and the main roads were turned into one-way systems with the idea of discouraging people from driving around the center of the city.

But it was only in September 2010 that the authorities there decided to impose a 30 km/h speed limit. "It's not just about the speed limit, we have had to post traffic police at strategic points," says a spokesman at City Hall, pointing out that the only death in Pontevedra over the last four years was the result of a road accident outside the pedestrianized areas.

Growing numbers of Spanish cities are increasing the amount of 30 km/h streets, but few have applied it to entire zones. Valencia has done so throughout its old quarter, while part of Malaga's city center is a 20 km/h area. In Santiago de Compostela, the old quarter is pedestrians only.

Other European cities, such as Paris, say that they are extending the number of 30 km/h streets. In Spain, the Directorate General of Traffic aims to introduce legislation in the coming weeks that would extend a 30 km/h limit throughout all towns and cities. The institution's boss, María Seguí, says she intends to "end the long-standing privileges associated with the automobile" and allow pedestrians and cyclists more room.

Motorists are not entirely to blame for accidents in built-up areas, at least according to a study by insurers Mapfre published at the beginning of 2012, which shows that pedestrians failing to look properly when crossing roads were among the three main explanations for accidents, along with motorists breaking the rules and speeding.

"Drivers are not the only guilty parties," says a spokesman at the CEA. Its policy is for solutions that "allow for all road users, along with pedestrians, to get along."

Mariano González of Ecologists in Action says that to achieve that, "we need to transform the way we design our cities, as well as the way that we move around."

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