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Traffic speed, public health and Wandsworth

September 11, 2013

Wandsworth Council is currently considering its strategy for introducing 20mph speed limits and has suggested that this will only happen if streets or groups of streets can organise themselves to petition the Council – a continuation of the current (expensive) piecemeal approach, in other words.  This risks exacerbating the divide between those in more affluent and more deprived localities – and consequently widening health inequalities.

Is this what we want for Wandsworth?

A key factor in people’s health is the extent to which they are physically active every day.  Most Wandsworth residents aren’t physically active enough to benefit their health.  For various reasons – including the future survival of the NHS – this needs to be addressed urgently.

Walking and cycling are obvious ways to incorporate physical activity into people’s daily routines.

The environment in which we live – particularly the streetscene that greets us as we leave our dwellings – is a big factor in the extent to which we walk and cycle.  (‘Nudge’ can only go so far).  We know that ‘fear of the traffic’ is what stops many Wandsworth residents from cycling; Wandsworth’s chidren, by contrast with their counterparts in other European countries, have little freedom to move around their neighbourhood independently.  20mph speed limits reduce road danger and help free up people to choose to walk or cycle.  They represent a simple, low-cost way to improve everyone’s quality of life and health.

By making our streets more inviting for walking and cycling, thus increasing walking and cycling across our borough, introducing a 20mph speed limit can therefore be seen as a public health intervention.  The recent NICE guidance on local measures to promote walking and cycling reiterated the importance of a coherent ‘package’ of measures to increase people’s physical activity, rather than a piecemeal approach.

With this in mind, we overlaid the areas with 20mph speed limits in Wandsworth onto the latest ‘Index of Multiple Deprivation‘ map for the borough of Wandsworth.

The IMD map is a map showing, for each 'enumeration district' within all 20 Wandsworth wards, how deprived each area is using national measures of deprivation such as proportion of households on benefit; darkest colour indicates the most deprived localities.

The IMD map is a map showing, for each ‘enumeration district’ within all 20 Wandsworth wards, how deprived each area is using national measures of deprivation such as proportion of households on benefit; darkest colour indicates the most deprived localities.

There’s no clear pattern in the location of 20mph speed limits or zones, and no clear relationship with areas of higher deprivation (where most households have no cars).  The introduction of 20mph speed limits has proceeded in an ad hoc fashion, driven by a range of factors such as vocal public opinion, interest of ward councillors, and – critically – a policy which assumes that Wandsworth’s younger citizens are at risk only in the vicinity of the school gate.  Often those neighbourhoods most dominated by motor traffic have, unsurprisingly, the greatest challenges in making their case for a lower speed limit.  Disadvantage is piled upon disadvantage!

Historically the apparent lack of integration of 20mph speed limits with areas of deprivation within the borough is understandable.  After all, public health is a very new element of Wandsworth Council’s remit for our borough.  But there is no reason to carry on with this expensive, piecemeal approach.  Public opinion – whatever level you measure it at – is consistently shown to favour lower speed limits.  The weight of public opinion, residents concerned with value for public money, and those with an interest in public health are all sending the same message on lower speed limits for Wandsworth; are our councillors listening?

Speed is the single most important determinant of safety in road transport systems.  Speed affects the risk of a crash occurring: the greater the speed, the less time there is to prevent a collision [and] the more severe the consequences once a crash has occurred….

(p. 2 and Figure 2 in ‘What are the main health impacts of roads in London?’, Transport for London Roads Task Force – Technical Note 20, TfL, 2013).

“Your local authority might claim might claim that your road is safe becaue no one has been injured.  This is nonsense.  People know road danger when they see it and they stay out of the way….”

(p. 121, Chapter 7, ‘Reclaiming our neighbourhoods’, in: ‘The Energy Glut: The Politics of Fatness in an Overheating World’.  Ian Roberts with Phil Edwards, Zed Books, 2010.

Susie Morrow

(with acknowledgements to Ruth Pates for comments on an earlier draft and Russell King for prompting thoughts on this public health topic)

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One Comment
  1. Alasdair Stuart permalink
    September 15, 2013 9:05 pm

    I do not agree with this proposal – I have registered my objections and alternative suggestions previously but no-one has yet attempted to contact me to discuss these further. There are better ways of tackling the issue of excessive speeding in residential roads in the borough. I believe these would be cheaper and more effective. I live in the borough and have two young children so am very safety conscious when it comes to traffic in the area.

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