August 22, 2023 - 1:00pm

After TfL’s introduction of a 20mph speed limit on 125 miles of its roads by 2024, Welsh Labour has followed by imposing the same limit on “built up and residential areas”, which will come into effect in mid-September. The reasons given for the change are varied, but two that stand out are that the speed limit will save lives from collisions and that it will encourage people to stop driving and switch to walking and cycling instead.

The statistics used to justify the idea that the policy will save lives are slightly misleading. According to Roadwise, the chances of a pedestrian dying after being hit by a car at 30mph are 20%, while the chances at 20mph are a mere 2.5%. Yet it seems unlikely that a car driving at 30mph would hit a pedestrian at 30mph. More probable is that the driver will slam on the brakes and hit the pedestrian at a substantially lower speed. Reducing the speed limit will undoubtedly save lives from pedestrian collisions, but not as dramatically as proponents suggest.

The other issue that immediately stands out is that if people ditch their cars and get on a bike, this greatly increases their risk of suffering a life-threatening injury. The statistics bear this out. In 2021, 111 cyclists were killed on British roads, while 682 car passengers were killed. Yet in the same year, bicycles only accounted for 1.7% of all non-motorway traffic, while cars accounted for 75%. Adjusting the fatality numbers, we find that riding a bicycle is seven times more dangerous than travelling in a car.

Or consider another statistic. In 2021, for every one cyclist killed in a collision, there were 3.25 pedestrians killed. But once again there are vastly more pedestrians on the streets than there are cyclists. We do not have precise statistics on the number of pedestrians relative to the number of cyclists, but it seems reasonable to assume it’s at least 30:1. Using this highly conservative estimate, we find that a cyclist is almost 10 times more likely to be killed than a pedestrian. If we assume the ratio is 50:1, cycling is 15 times more dangerous.

These statistics indicate that the case for safety is clearly nonsense. Bicycles are one of the most dangerous methods of travel in modern Britain. By incentivising people to dump their cars and hop on a bike, we will only increase the number of collision deaths. 

But what about the case for lowering emissions? This also comes up short. An extensive study conducted in New Zealand notes that standard mathematical models show driving at lower speeds increases carbon emissions. It also cautions that there is politicised literature on the topic. Research published on Future Transport London’s website, claiming that lowering speed limits will lower emissions, “does not appear to have been peer reviewed”, while statements on the site are a “misrepresentation of average-speed models”.

The truth is that the centre-Left and the Greens don’t like cars. Many of them are cyclists who think they should own the road. And so this small minority recall, they make up only 1.7% of road traffic — is trying to restructure the transport grid in its own favour. Due to the overrepresentation of cyclists and anti-car types in local and national government, the rest of us are being subjected to the tyranny of the irrational bicycling oligarchy.

Philip Pilkington is a macroeconomist and investment professional, and the author of The Reformation in Economics