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James May says 20mph is “plenty fast enough”, and hopes “change in attitude” can help end road sectarianism

The former Top Gear presenter was responding to reports that the government is considering introducing a default 20mph speed limit in built-up areas

James May has voiced his support for introducing 20mph speed limits in urban and residential areas, which he believes is “plenty fast enough”, while also arguing that a “change in attitude”, rather than new signage or infrastructure, is key to ending road sectarianism.

The Grand Tour and former Top Gear presenter was speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, amid reports that the government is considering draft road planning regulations that would introduce a default 20mph speed limit on new or redesigned urban and residential streets.

A draft version of Manual for Streets, the Department for Transport’s planning document for residential areas, seen by the Sunday Times and set to be published early this year, says “the default should be to work to a design speed limit of 20mph in urban environments” and that “for residential streets, a maximum design speed of 20mph should normally be an objective, with significantly lower speeds usually desirable”.

According to the Sunday Times, other measures in the draft document include creating a hierarchy of road users based on their environmental impact, with cyclists and pedestrians at the top, followed by public transport, and with petrol and diesel vehicles at the bottom.

> Wales set to reduce default speed limit to 20mph in residential areas

In England, a third of the population live in areas with 20mph speed limits, while from September blanket 20mph zones will be introduced in Wales on residential areas and streets busy with pedestrians, and where street lights are fewer than 200 yards apart. Scotland is also set to make 20mph the “norm” in built-up areas, with councils permitted to make exceptions if they deem the area safe.

On this morning’s Today programme, Neil Greig, director of policy and research at the road safety charity, the Institute of Advanced Motorists, argued that a default approach to 20mph on its own will not enhance road safety or benefit active travel.

“We’ve had longstanding concerns about a blanket approach to 20mph,” Grieg told the BBC’s long-running news and current affairs show.

“If you have to change the speed limit on a road, you have to change the environmental cues to tell drivers what speed they should be safely driving at. And the problem with simply changing to 20mph without changing the road, is that drivers will continue to drive on at the previous speeds.

“And that means you don’t have the safety benefits, and you don’t have the active travel benefits of changing the environment to make it easier to walk and cycle.”

> People most likely to commute by bike where traffic speed below 20mph – but presence of lorries on roads makes no difference, says study

He continued: “For example, when you look at European countries like [the Netherlands], they changed the whole cityscape – you have different surfaces, obvious mixed use – it’s clear that you have pedestrians, cyclists, and motorised vehicles sharing the same space.

“And that’s the key here: it’s making it obvious that the shared space is for everyone. But when you try to retrofit that onto our older cities, those design cues aren’t there.

“Simply changing the speed limit, changing the signs doesn’t have the impact people think it will have.”

> James May: “I can’t stand road sectarianism – it’s all b*llocks

While former Top Gear host May – a lifelong cyclist who appeared on road.cc’s Drink at Your Desk series last May, decrying what he regards as “feeble minded” road sectarianism – agreed with Greig’s belief that changing signs isn’t enough to increase road safety, he argued that driving at 20mph is more than adequate when travelling in most built-up areas.

“I would agree that a blanket 20mph would probably be a little bit knuckle-headed, but in a lot of urban places, city centres, towns, and villages, actually 20mph makes perfect sense,” he told the Today programme.

“I live in Hammersmith, in west London, which is an area where people seem particularly fond of just running out into the street without looking – which is their prerogative because they are people not machines.

“20mph is plenty fast enough and 30 does feel too fast. And, to be honest, if you could go around somewhere like London, or Manchester, or Birmingham, at a constant 20mph, you’d be absolutely delighted.”

When asked about the apparent need to change the ‘environmental cues’ before adjusting speed limits, May claimed that an over-proliferation of rules and signage can “baffle” road users – and that a shift in attitude is really what’s needed to make Britain’s roads safer.

“He [Greig] has a point to some extent, but I do a lot of cycling around London and I think we can become over obsessed with things like rules, street furniture, signage, traffic lights and so on,” the journalist said.

“They’ve been doing this with a bike lane near me; which I think is not particularly well thought out, because you have a two-way road running alongside a two-way bicycle lane, with lots of junctions off it. The attempts to control it – with lights and signs and warnings – they’ve proliferated to the point where it’s becoming baffling.”

He continued: “All these things ultimately are cured by a change in attitude, not a change in signage or infrastructure or colours, or anything like that.

“That might be a stepping stone to ending road sectarianism and making towns and cities nicer places for everyone to travel around in. But I think ultimately it is about it, well: a mindful attitude. I hate to sound very right-on, but it is.”

> James May urges Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “bomb us with bicycles” with £80bn HS2 cash

May expressed this “right-on” approach to road safety in an interview with road.cc last year, during which he described the us-and-them attitudes of some road users as “b*ll*cks”.

“The thing I can’t stand, I’ve railed against this before, [is] road sectarianism – because it’s feeble minded,” he said.

“Supposedly bus drivers hate taxi drivers and car drivers hate cyclists, but cyclists hate people on electric scooters and so it goes on and on and on. It’s a great story for the media because they like to get a famous radio personality on there ranting about bikes and taxi driver ranting about how he or she has to make a living.

“It's a good story, but it's all b*ll*cks, frankly. People just need to accept the fact that we’ve got enough common enemies. To be honest, if you're riding a bike or driving car or using a motorcycle or a scooter, things like potholes, bad road markings, badly parked things, roadworks, bits being constantly dug up, all these things annoy all of us, and we have those in common.

“We don't need to fall out with each other about it,” he concluded. “I find it very feeble.”

> Daily Mail and GB News journalist objects to 20mph speed limits because... cyclists don't pay tax (apparently)

May’s ambition to achieve a sense of commonality on the roads wasn’t aided by GB News presenter Andrew Pierce’s contribution to the speed limit discussion last night.

Responding to the reports of a default 20mph limit, which he believes will be implemented “to support cyclists”, the Daily Mail writer tweeted: “Why do governments hate motorists and how much tax do cyclists pay? None.”

While this week’s reports have sparked a somewhat contentious debate, a spokesperson for the Department for Transport has said there are currently “no plans to introduce default or national 20mph speed limits in urban environments”.

“We have always encouraged road designs that enable low speeds to prioritise safety. It is for local authorities to consider setting 20mph speed limits on streets where people and traffic mix,” the spokesperson said.

Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.

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16 comments

Avatar
cyclisto | 1 year ago
8 likes

There is a saying about road design, that if a road needs signs then it is badly designed.

Placing a sign 20mph seems right, but it is not the proper solution. Roads need to be redesigned so that it is obvious that they are 20mph roads.

Avatar
Rome73 | 1 year ago
10 likes

It's all very well having a speed limit. But it has to be enforced. 

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ajuk.uk@gmail.com replied to Rome73 | 4 months ago
0 likes

Speed limits aren't meant to rely on enforcement.

Avatar
eburtthebike | 1 year ago
5 likes

The elephant in the R4 studio is, of course, where were the people that 20mph is supposed to help?  The cyclists and the pedestrians?

It's all very well having a couple of prominent drivers telling us what they think, but who cares?  Not me.  Why didn't the BBC prog interview someone from CUK and the Ramblers?  Answered my own question there; because it's the BBC, and pedestrians and cyclists really, really don't count.

Avatar
Steve K replied to eburtthebike | 1 year ago
10 likes

eburtthebike wrote:

The elephant in the R4 studio is, of course, where were the people that 20mph is supposed to help?  The cyclists and the pedestrians?

It's all very well having a couple of prominent drivers telling us what they think, but who cares?  Not me.  Why didn't the BBC prog interview someone from CUK and the Ramblers?  Answered my own question there; because it's the BBC, and pedestrians and cyclists really, really don't count.

I disagree (or at least partly disagree).  May is a cyclist and a pedestrian.  But his public profile is as a petrol head.  If a prominent petrol head is saying this is a good thing, then that is much more powerful than someone from the cycling lobby - where the general response will be "well, they would say that, wouldn't they"?

Avatar
eburtthebike replied to Steve K | 1 year ago
0 likes

Fair point, but do the motoring reports ever have sections exclusively commented on by cyclists and pedestrians?  No?  So it's only when it's for cyclists and pedestrians that they get drivers to comment exclusively.

Avatar
lonpfrb | 1 year ago
4 likes

Shock! Horror!

  • James May, experienced journalist, and
  • Neil Greig, director of policy and research at the road safety charity, the Institute of Advanced Motorists

talk sense.
The mainstream media can't manage to be accurate as to the law including how taxes work but would rather be an echo chamber for the ignorant and stupid in the hunt for clicks.
Where are the media regulations against hate speech?
Apparently upsetting somebody on how they 'identify', for example*, is more important than keeping people physically safe from road danger.
WTF?

* Other protected characteristics are legislated for.
Not people who travel by bicycle...

Avatar
belugabob | 1 year ago
5 likes

"And the problem with simply changing to 20mph without changing the road, is that drivers will continue to drive on at the previous speeds."

So, reducing a 30 zone to a 20 zone will result in people still doing 40 (or more)...?

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leipreachan replied to belugabob | 1 year ago
1 like

exactly. Unless there's something that stops them (oh, wait, black boxes..)

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Boopop | 1 year ago
8 likes

It was lovely to wake up to James May talking sense about road design next to me in bed this morning*.

*via my phone playing BBC R4 Today 😂

Quite how he ever ended up presenting alongside the other two is beyond me, he seems a thoroughly reasonable and pleasant individual.

Avatar
ktache replied to Boopop | 1 year ago
3 likes

The Reassembler is a favourite watch.

Once you get him away from the other two...

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ubercurmudgeon | 1 year ago
1 like

Clearly James May has made enough money, from being a sidekick to a obnoxious petrolheaded reactionary all these years, that he feels he can now say what he likes without it affecting his ability to live comfortably for the rest of his life.

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fenix replied to ubercurmudgeon | 1 year ago
8 likes

He's been a fan of cycling publicly for a fair few years now. He's not a complete idiot unlike his loud mouthed pal.

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Secret_squirrel replied to ubercurmudgeon | 1 year ago
8 likes

It's not exactly a new thing. He's said good things about cycling for years. 
Just because he shares a program with a dinosaur doesn't necessarily mean he's one too. 

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wtjs replied to Secret_squirrel | 1 year ago
0 likes

Just because he shares a program with a dinosaur doesn't necessarily mean he's one too
Pretty much like saying Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and (?) Cairncross were just OK guys making the best of it

Avatar
Secret_squirrel replied to wtjs | 1 year ago
2 likes

Its really not - but I do appreciate the analogy.

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