None of the European cities that lowered the speed limit to 30 km/h regrets it

It reduces accidents, makes transports safer and gets people using public transport and cycling, thus improving air quality and reducing noise pollution. The introduction of a 30 km/h speed limit has so far worked in all the cities concerned. Let's take a closer look.

Published On: February 20th, 2023

Through the last decades, a 30 km/h speed limit was introduced in several European cities. This is not only the case in certain residential zones but, with a couple of exceptions, the whole town. There are places where this system has been in place for three decades and others where it has been introduced only recently. Many city councils have a concrete plan and schedule to introduce the same measure in the near future. 

In places where these restrictions are used, there are no accounts of bad experiences. Locals had doubts initially, but they got used to the new scenario. However, the introduction of the new system was accompanied by a significant increase in the number of traffic cameras in several places, leading to privacy concerns that are justly raised.

In the past weeks, EUrologus got in touch with several affected cities to make this article; the “Italian” part was created thanks to cross-border journalistic cooperation. Beside the cities mentioned in this article, there are several others across Europe where a 30 km/h limit is the norm, not the exception. These are for example Lille, Madrid, Paris, Lyon, Grenoble, Valencia, and Bilbao.

Graz: 30 years of experience

In the south Austrian city of Graz, a 30 km/h speed limit was introduced in 1992. This applied to every street classified as a secondary road, which in practice means that this rule applies to 80 percent of streets, combined over 800 kilometers of roads.

Magdalena Markovic, the press referee of the Graz city council argues that the biggest advantage of the change is achieving safer transportation in the city. Already in the first two years of the policy, the number of traffic accidents decreased by 25 percent. As there were no other policy changes regarding safe transportation in the same time period, the success is obviously due to the 30 km/h rule. The number of accidents started to increase again since 1996, but this was due to accidents on higher-level roads, where the speed restrictions do not apply. In the 30 km/h zones the number of accidents remained constant or even decreased a little.

Markovic believes that implementing the limit on city level also saved money, as it was much less expensive than implementing individual restrictions for particular places. In addition, it was easy to understand for citizens. The speed limit policy was accompanied by several surveys. After the initial doubts, nowadays the majority of residents support the 30 km/h limit. Some of the critics were afraid that there would be an increase in traffic jams, but this was not the case according to available statistical data.

Helsinki: visible results

We got in touch with Heikki Palomäki, the head of the transportation systems department of the city council of the Finnish capital. In Helsinki, the first wave of introducing large-scale 30 km/h restrictions took place in 2004, then the system was extended in 2019. First, it was used in the city centre and some residential areas, then speed restrictions were modified in effectively all the streets. The adjustments were made in a way that they affect the traffic entering and leaving residential areas and the city centre as well.

After the 2004 change, in the streets with lower speed limits traffic accidents resulting in personal injury decreased by 9 percent. In places where the speed limit was changed from 40 km/h to 30 km/h pedestrian injuries decreased by 19 percent and vehicle damages by 34 percent. The biggest improvement was observed in the city centre, where the number of traffic-related injuries decreased by 42 percent.

Heikki Palomäki pointed out that it is very important that authorities monitor speed via a camera system. Currently, approximately 30 cameras are in place on the streets, and 40 more will arrive in the next few years. After a camera was place in Kaivokatu street in the inner city, mean speed lowered to 23.5 km/h and the number of accidents decreased from 2.2 per year to 1.1 per year.

In Helsinki, they do not monitor public opinion on this issue, but based on the reflections of the media it seems that citizens are satisfied. There is also a recent, 2022 poll concluding that 77 percent of Helsinki citizens feel safe in traffic, and only 5 percent answered that they find transportation in the Finnish capital dangerous.

Brussels: raising awareness with cameras

In Brussels, the 30 km/h speed limit is very recent, only two years old. On the other hand, in the Belgian capital, the measure was not introduced in stages but it instantly applied to the whole city. Only the busiest, usually multi-lane roads are exempt from the restrictions. At the same time, 70 km/h signs that were applicable for entry roads and basically non-populated areas were also removed.

Inge Paemen, spokesperson of the Brussels city council told EUrologus, that the main goal of the speed restriction was to improve road safety. Pedestrians have a five times higher risk of death in an accident with 50 km/h speed than one with 30 km/h. In the case of car drivers and passengers, the risk of serious injury or death in an accident at 50 km/h is 45 percent, while at 30 km/h only 15 percent. Break distances are also lower at a lower speed: 13 meters at 30 km/h and 27 meters at 50 km/h. According to science, lower speeds also improves the range of visibility, which is 102,17° on average at 30 km/h, while it is 75,46° at 50 km/h.

“Further benefits of speed limits include cleaner streets, quieter areas, more fluent traffic, and better health, since more people choose to walk or cycle” says Inge Paemen. In Brussels, annual speed measurements take place at 80 spots in the city. They show that speed did actually decrease, but travel time did not increase significantly.

In order to convince citizens, the city council considers communication and raising awareness crucial, but speed checks play an essential role too. At the moment there are 85 single-direction cameras available to check speed and crossings of red traffic lights, and 28 dual-direction cameras, that only record speed. In addition, the city council is funding the establishment of 7 mobile speed cameras per week on regional and city roads.

Zürich: accepted via referendum

Sabina Mächler, the city’s communication project manager, answered our questions for Zürich. In Switzerland, the federal law determines a 50 km/h speed limit for cities, but “in the spirit of proportionality, in order to increase road safety, help traffic and reduce pollution” a 30 km/h limit can be applied. Based on this, the city of Zürich introduced speed limits step by step. They started to use 30 km/h speed limits in residential areas in 1991, and then they introduced a 30 or 20 km/h speed limit in other smaller streets without public transport in the past years, covering 370 kilometres out of the 680 kilometres of total roads within the city.

A new wave of 30 km/h restrictions will be triggered soon. It will also involve larger streets, including those with public transport. There will be exceptions: on some main roads that connect Zürich to neighboring cities 50 km/h will remain the speed limit. In November 2021 the citizens of Zürich approved the infrastructural plan of the city with a referendum, this involves the speed limits as well. A survey conducted with 900 participants revealed that 70 percent of people were happy that only slow speeds were allowed in their own street. It is also good news that, according to theoretical modeling, the number of people exposed to excessive traffic noise decreased by 73%.

On the other hand, some citizens voiced their concerns. They worry that the standard of public transportation will worsen: to avoid this, the city council decided to invest 20 million franks to make public transport more frequent and improve capacity if needed. 

Glasgow: getting rid of deadly accidents

Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow, responded to us that they are planning a 20 miles/hour speed cap, which is slightly higher than 30 km/h. The measure was approved at the end of 2019 with the purpose of creating safer streets so as to make cycling and walking more appealing options for everyday transportation. The idea is part of the city council’s plan to react to the climate emergency, but it will also support the council’s initiative aimed at achieving zero deadly accidents in the city by 2030.

Recently the organizational unit of the Scottish Borders Council, which consists of 115,000 people, upheld the 20 miles/hour speed limit in 97 towns and villages. The introduction of the limit has proven beneficial to road safety.

Germany: rebelling cities

In Germany, many cities would like to introduce a lower speed limit, but they have no legal right to implement it. It is only possible to implement such regulations on roads that are not federal, district, or state-funded. This leaves out only secondary roads and clear residential areas, where people usually drive slower anyways. Seven German cities began cooperating last year to demand a 30 km/h speed limit, that is Aachen, Augsburg, Freiburg, Hannover, Leipzig, Münster, and Ulm. Since then, 70 cities have joined the initiative, supported by the Association of German Cities, which would also like to gain more freedom in establishing these zones.

We already have some examples. In Berlin, where the speed limit applies to five main roads, significant improvements in air quality could be observed: especially the level of nitrogen dioxide decreased. In Hannover, they found that having a 30 km/h limit has no significant effect on the number of traffic accidents. On the other hand, they did find that in areas with such a limit the number of cyclists and pedestrians increase, and more people use public transport as well. This in turn has an effect on air quality and noise pollution.

Regardless of this, the ministry of transport is critical towards the 30 km/h speed limit. They believe it would not make roads less crowded, and they propose better traffic control systems instead.

Italy: from meter to meter

EUrologus can reflect on the Italian situation due to the cooperation of its Italian partner within EDJNet, Il Sole 24 Ore. An article by Michela Finizio reveals that a 30 km/h restriction is in place in 66 provincial capitals in Italy, covering over 2700 kilometres of roads. Milan and Bologna are preparing to take the biggest step, expanding the 30 km/h zone to nearly the whole city. Parma will introduce a limit first in the inner city in 2024, and then gradually in less central areas too. In Rome, the capital, there are currently thirty 30 km/h zones.

Our Italian colleagues collected the length of speed-redacted roads per person too. In Verbania, this is 170 meters, which seems small, until we realize that this number for Florence and Torino is 35 and in Milan only 20 meters.

Budapest: ideas of unification

We also asked the city council of Budapest about their impressions on this matter. The Mayor’s Office pointed out that in the last eleven years, 470 people died on the roads of Budapest. This is five times as many as in Vienna and eighteen times the number of Oslo casualties. 90 percent of accidents resulting in injuries were caused by vehicles, and most of the victims were blameless individuals, pedestrians or cyclists.

“In terms of policies on speed limits, our primary goal is always the protection of human life, the improvement of the livability of city districts, and the mitigation of harms on citizens, such as noise pollution” they emphasized. The Home in Budapest program, which designs the city’s future and development goals, contains a point on decreasing accidents that result in death and serious injury by 50 percent by 2030. The same program aims at reducing  deadly road accidents near to zero by 2050.

In Budapest, the width of 30km/h residential areas in already significant: in 2022 112 square kilometres of traffic-controlled areas were in place. Big differences exist between Budapest districts however, as streets with similar characters and functions can be regulated very differently. The city council of Budapest aims at standardizing rules and it is negotiating with the districts.

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