Some years ago, Oxfordshire County Council took advantage of changes in criteria for speed limits to apply 30mph limits through all the villages in the county. In doing so, they appeared to stretch the definition of the word "village" to include any area within one mile of a shepherd's bothy which was last mentioned in the Domesday Book. This has been taken as an indication that they are anti-car, and that the 30 limits are therefore an unwarranted restriction on drivers' inalienable right to pose as much risk to others as they see fit - and I used to agree, up to a point. But recently I have reconsidered my view.
I cycle and drive around South Oxfordshire. For the last five years or so most of my journeys have been in the area covered by this policy. I been looking at the start and stop points for the 30 limits, and have come to the conclusion that the spread of 30 limits is inevitable under the circumstances.
Hanlon's Razor tells us never to attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence. I suggest that the seemingly arbitrary nature of the speed limit areas, far from being evidence of malicious intent, is simply the inevitable result of the bureaucratic process.
Given the task of applying 30 limits in villages - a policy which is the norm in many European countries and with which it is hard to disagree given the number of villages blighted by rat-running traffic or bisected by roads now carrying many times the volumes of traffic for which they were designed - what can the transport planners do?
They could assess every site on the basis of a carefully developed plan, take speed measurements, assess the sight lines and population densities, design criteria which take account of the width (or absence) of footways, the presence of schools and playgrounds - and take years about it, during which the electorate who voted for 30 limits in every village will become progressively more frustrated, and eventually kick out the political masters. Or they could develop a simple test which involves an OS map, a pair of compasses and a definition of "village" which includes all the places where vociferous councillors live.
Option 1 is the "right" option, but will take time and money, and almost certainly lead to accusations of foot-dragging. Option 2 is quick and easy, and leaves the political masters taking the flak for any resultant problems. Put yourself in the place of an underpaid highways officer with plenty of other things to be getting on with (like maintaining county roads with the ever smaller budgets allocated by the councillors). Which would you choose? The righteous way which brings you grief and absorbs chunks of money you'd rather spend on the backlog of street works, or the quick and easy option which transfers the problem right back to its source?
Given the fundamental nature of the bureaucratic process, no other result was ever likely, and pragmatically I can't even think this is even necessarily wrong. After all, who is to say that the drawn-out and expensive process would yield a significantly different result? Of the limits I travel through regularly at most one or two seem to be unjustifiable, the balance cover roads where there are clearly houses, schools and - well, communities (of course, if you are travelling at 60mph it is quite possible to pass by these places without noticing them, which is in my view more a point in favour of limits than against).
Why should the balance not tilt in favour of those whose lives are degraded by the passage of fast traffic? They, too, pay their vehicle excise duty and income tax. Those who live in residential streets in urban areas have 30mph limits, why should the same protection not be extended to those rural communities transected by roads whose users have forgotten that "national speed limit" is a freedom rather than an invitation? The truth is that in many of the areas covered by Oxfordshire's "anti-car" 30mph limits, even the most ardent opponents of limits will freely admit that 30mph is more than fast enough for the prevailing conditions.