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Portsmouth – changing the way we share our streets.

Report from the "Portsmouth - Britain's First 20 mph City" Conference, 29th September 2009

The presentations made yesterday in the Guild Hall in Portsmouth may well have been a pivotal point in road safety and danger reduction in the UK.

Until now, speed management has mainly been implemented by means of localised interventions on streets to make the driver slow down. Whether they are speed cameras, or speed bumps the essential engagement has been with the driver on the road whilst he or she is driving.

Yesterday Portsmouth City Council and the Department for Transport reported on the results from the completely different approach taken by Portsmouth when in March 2008 they completed their setting of all residential roads, bar arterial routes, with a speed limit of 20 mph. No bumps or humps, but most importantly a decision not just made by Traffic Officers but the whole community as they sought a way to deliver lower speeds and a better quality of life for their residents. Quite simply, Portsmouth people decided to slow down wherever people live!

Of course, setting lower speeds with traffic calming is so expensive that one only usually does it where you have excessive speed problems. But when you make the decision as a community to slow down wherever people live then it is inevitable that many streets will already have speeds below 20 mph. In fact in Portsmouth they monitored 159 sites. 102 already had mean speeds of 20 mph or less. 36 were between 20 mph and 24 mph, whilst on a further 21 the mean speed was above 24 mph.

And because of that mix it was found that overall the mean speed for all the roads did not change very much. In fact it reduced by just 1%. But what was very significant was the fact that in those streets where speeds previously were 24 mph or above then a huge 7mph reduction in mean speed was recorded.

Whilst casualties also fell by 15% and total accidents by 13%, more time will be needed to establish statistically significant collision figures. However, the presenter noted the changes in child and elderly casualties in before and after numbers :-


Children (0-15)

Elderly (70+)










All Casualties




Portsmouth’s success is as a community that has debated how the streets should be shared more equitably and go through the due political, democratic and administrative process to take that community commitment and turn it into a framework within which everyone can take their part in making their city a better place to live. One where casualties reduce and people have quieter streets with more opportunities for cycling and walking.

The spaces between our houses, which we call streets, will never be the same in this country. Portsmouth has shown that communities can change their behaviour and sensibly embark on a 20’s Plenty Where People Live initiative that delivers real benefits to every road user. More and more towns, cities and villages are following this trend to put citizenship back into the way we drive and share our roads. People in Portsmouth are perhaps no different from us all. But what they have found is a way to enable them to turn an aspiration for safer and more pleasant streets into a reality. I suspect there will be plenty more similar communities saying 20’s plenty for them as well.

Report from 20's Plenty for Us visit to Portsmouth - 14th March 2008

I must say that in my 24 hrs in Portsmouth I was really impressed by the collective commitment from everyone I met to lower motor vehicle speeds on the roads. This was not just from Councillors and Council officers, but from members of the public. During the previous evening and on the Friday I was taking every opportunity to ask people on the streets, in pubs, in shops and even a police patrolman on Baffins Rd/St. Mary’s Rd roundabout what they thought of the 20 mph introduction. During the Friday afternoon, I undertook a complete tour of the city from Southsea to Stamshaw, Hilsea, Paulsgrove, Drayton and Baffins.

In fact everyone thought it was a good thing and a step in the right direction. This collective commitment is to me the most important change which seems to have happened in Portsmouth. Whilst officers informed me that initial results show a significant mph reduction in speed on average, it is this commitment from councillors, officers, police and most importantly community which seems to be the “paradigm shift” on road safety that has been established in Portsmouth. I believe this collective commitment will continue to lead to greater and greater safety on Portsmouth streets as the 20 mph implementation becomes more mature. And with that will come all the benefits of modal shift, child independence, lower pollution and noise, etc.

Indeed it was this “paradigm shift” which was referred to by Fred Wegman of the Institute for Road safety Research, Netherlands at the previous days PACTS conference I attended, when he argued that in the UK we need to have a collective involvement in road safety that comes from community wide (ie city/town wide) schemes that, by necessity, need endorsement by the public and strong and visionary political leadership.

The move to a default 20 mph speed limit in residential roads, by its nature, includes all drivers in the city with both the ability to “own the benefit” in their own streets and “take responsibility” in the streets of others to make your city a safer place for all road users.

Portsmouth stands out not for its particular geographic characteristics, but the “can-do” approach which it has taken to responding to its community aspirations. From that approach then councillors, officers and the public have developed that collective commitment that has resulted in this major step forward in civic safety.

This has been done, not by highway engineering in the abstract, by compulsion and physical constraint, but by public engagement, consultation and political leadership. A real sign of a civic society.

In many streets, Portsmouth has particular characteristics which lend themselves towards 20 mph being the obviously correct speed limit. However, to categorise Portsmouth as only consisting of the Victorian back to backs of Southsea would be as wrong as categorising other towns, as only being 20th century estates. In truth, all local authorities have a wide range of streets and a universal aspiration of citizens to making those streets safer for all concerned. 

Whilst Portsmouth is very much a beacon of communities making the “paradigm shift” on road safety that I referred to, there will be other communities which will build on the work done in Portsmouth and will also become safer places for their residents.  

Whilst there may be difficulties, Portsmouth has shown that political leadership, officer professionalism and public aspiration can all be combined to deliver a better standard of life for your citizens.

In conclusion, I would like to thank Portsmouth City Council for its hospitality and relate an experience whist waiting at the railway crossing near Cosham station. A cyclist came up beside me at the barrier and said hello. I replied and asked him his experiences as a cyclist of the 20 mph default limit. He explained that he really did not have much experience so far, as he and his wife had only decided to give up their car and cycle instead, just two days ago. I think that in that reply he gave a resounding endorsement of Portsmouth’s 20 mph initiative.

My thanks go out to Portsmouth for the information, hospitality and most of all inspiration given to myself and 20’s Plenty For Us.

Click on images to enlarge

A more comprehensive report will follow soon.


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