The 20mph limit works in Richmond Park. Let’s not try to lose it.

December 1, 2015

me on sawyer's hill

You can see it in their eyes, an expression that may be politely interpreted as “Oh dear. I’ve really made a terrible hash of this, haven’t I?” It’s a look of alarm that I’ve witnessed a number of times over the past decade or so in Richmond Park, and it’s always staring at me from behind a windscreen. Motorists sometimes concentrate so hard on safely overtaking a cyclist that they don’t see a group of oncoming riders on the other side of the road who have already started to perform their own safe overtaking manoeuvre. I’m often in one of those groups. The car moves around the cyclist in front of it and the wide space we had to snake around a slower rider suddenly concertinas to half the size, forcing our two-abreast formation to squeeze into one line. Still, it all works out fine: the motorist learns a lesson (I would hope) and our cycling club lives to see another Saturday morning club ride.

I thought about those drivers when I read about the latest cyclist to get busted for exceeding Richmond Park’s speed limit. When I started riding in the park, the limit was 30mph and traffic levels were much lower. When the limit was lowered to 20 in May 2004, my indignation was typical of many two-wheeled users of the park – apparently it was meant to benefit pedestrians, deer and even the sex life of birds (apparently the sound of motor engines drowned out mating calls) but I couldn’t find a single mention of cyclists in the consultation document drawn up by the Royal Parks (which is no longer on its website). My perception was that we weren’t asked for our opinion; now, however, I realise the lowering of the speed limit has been a happy accident for us. Rerun the scenario I’ve outlined above with the limit still at 30, and both the motorist and the cyclists have much less time to react. For that reason alone, I’m pretty much in favour of it remaining at 20mph for motorists — and to keep it that way, we have to ensure the limit can continue being applied to cyclists as well.

Cycling advocacy lawyer Martin Porter has offered to defend on a no-win no-fee basis the next cyclist who is fined for speeding in the park. In a sense — a very limited sense — this would be a welcome development. “Vehicle” appears in the park’s regulations for speed limits, and the police are interpreting that word to include bicycles as well as cars. But there are some people who, like Martin but more often than not without his legal expertise, believe the police’s interpretation is incorrect and cyclists are exempt from the 20mph limit. It is an opinion which, it seems to me, has transmogrified in certain quarters into established fact through sheer repetition, so a proper challenge in court would at least determine once and for all if cyclists can legally ride at whatever speed they choose on our beloved 6.7-mile loop.

But as much as I admire Martin’s work, I think in this case he is thinking more like a lawyer and less like a cyclist. He is applying loophole logic, spotting a way out without considering what the consequences of an exit from an established system might be. Because if we can shoot downhill at around 40mph, as the two most recent cases of speeding did, what then? Would cycling in the park be safer? Would it be easier to police a two-tier system of 20mph for drivers and no maximum limit for cyclists? And would motorists be as likely to keep their speedometer’s needle below 20 if there was one rule for them and another rule (actually, scratch that — no rule at all) for cyclists?

These are questions to which the answer is no. The 20mph limit allows fast cyclists to safely overtake cars while motorists can safely overtake slower riders. Yet from the fierceness of the arguments made against it, you would think that it was an unpopular rule among cyclists, which is difficult to square with the massive rise in riders using the park since it was introduced, to the point where Strava reported that the cafe at Roehampton Gate has become the most popular cycling stop in the world.

The fact is, no one gets on their bike and heads to Richmond Park fearing they’re going to get stopped for speeding. You are not going to get pulled over simply for nudging 25. You are not a victim, and you are not being victimised. The most recent speeding cases were going at around twice the limit down the park’s smallest hill — a feat which is near impossible to achieve unless you are trying very, very hard to do so. If you think what they did was harmless, then imagine driving with either of those two behind you as you try to overtake a cyclist in front: a glance in your mirror would show them to be some distance away, and just as you move right expecting them to still be far off, they could suddenly rear up next to your door. Twice the speed limit means half the time to react.

Of course there are aggressive drivers in the park, and Martin says he would like to see resources spent more on dealing with all kinds of bad driving rather than focussing on speed — but I would argue that the police may not need to spend any more money to address this issue. As last December’s public meeting at Duke Street Church indicated, cyclists and non-cyclists appeared to agree that there are far too many drivers using the park as a shortcut, and it seems possible that the Royal Parks, which recently issued a questionnaire on the issue and set up temporary cameras to record traffic flow, may introduce road charging to keep most of them out. I reckon that if you’re driving along Queen’s Ride only to get to Bentalls a few minutes quicker, you’re the sort of driver who is more likely, shall we say, to treat cyclists as a nuisance, so let’s see if road charging happens and observe any beneficial effect it has on this kind of motorist before demanding the police act. I also think that criticising the police in this way overlooks their success: in terms of man hours, policing of the limit is actually very light, yet it has helped create an environment where the vast majority of park users are happy to abide by it. Compare that to the roads connected to the park which need speed humps and cameras to keep drivers below 20mph, or the roads near London Bridge or Southwark Bridge which have neither — and, as I witness daily, attract drivers who treat it as a normal 30mph limit.

Given that the latest cyclist to get nabbed was left £600 out of pocket following a trip to the magistrates court, I suspect that what the anti-20mph faction really don’t like is the cost of getting caught. On that point, I have some sympathy, and I suspect the police do too. At the Duke Street Church meeting, I recall one of the two police representatives stating that they would like to issue Fixed Penalty Notices (which would be much lower) but the law doesn’t allow them to. If Martin Porter wanted to campaign to get that changed, I would happily sign up. But the 20mph rule works well and we should not try to undermine it.

Advertisements

2 Responses to “The 20mph limit works in Richmond Park. Let’s not try to lose it.”

  1. Danny McFee Says:

    Just change the park rules to ban cars. Easy peasy


    • That would result in far fewer people being able to enjoy the park (transport links aren’t great), lots of pedestrians would be on the roads, making cycling much more difficult, and our club would no longer have the benefit of car tyres warming up the icy roads in winter before we do our four laps on cold Saturday mornings. So not *that* easy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: