Why more cities across France are imposing 30 km/h speed limits

Why more cities across France are imposing 30 km/h speed limits
Photo: Dominique Faget / AFP
An increasing number of French cities are cutting speed limits to 30 km/h in a bid to encourage motorists out of their cars, save lives and -- according to advocates -- reduce pollution.

The southern city of Montpellier – which already has a large pedestrianised zone in its very centre – is the latest to join the increasingly popular 30 km/h club. The lower speed limit will apply on all but a few thoroughfares from Sunday, August 1st.

Speed limits have already been cut to 30kph in large parts of Grenoble, Lille and Nantes, while Paris is set to cut limits on many streets from August 30th

The association Ville 30, which campaigns for reduced speed limits in towns, lists some 219 towns and cities in Europe — many of them in France, as this interactive map below shows: 

Toulouse, Rodez and Blois are among those planning similar traffic-slowing measures.

Montpellier’s rules

The limit on a few key roads in Montpellier — such as Avenue de la Liberté, Avenue Pierre Mendès-France or even the RD65 — will remain at 50km/h, but most routes in the city will see speed limits fall.

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Julie Frêche, vice-president in charge of mobility in the city told France 3: “This reduction has a direct consequence on the journey time. Going from 50 to 30 means 20% more travel time, so it may encourage people to use other means of getting around.”

“It will also be less profitable to use ‘rat runs’, where limits will be 30 km/h, rather than main routes which will remain at 50 km/h.”

Promoting other transport

Cities recognise that cutting speed limits does not work in isolation. They go hand-in-hand with other so-called ‘soft transport’ measures to reduce reliance on cars in heavily urban areas.

The measures in Montpellier were announced in February, when mayor Michaël Delafosse — making good on a campaign promise during the 2020 local elections — detailed his new community €150million mobility plan for the next 10 years which aims to cut car use and encourage other means of transport. 

As well as the reduction in speed limit, the plan includes new cycle lanes, new bus lanes, and improvements to the city’s tram services — including a new line set to open by 2025.

In 2019, Lille took a step-by-step approach to its speed limit reduction, adding new areas over a period of months, while also improving infrastructure for cyclists and public transport.

Opposition

Motorists’ organisations are, unsurprisingly, unimpressed. “I think it can be dangerous. Today, areas limited to 30 km/h are danger zones, such as schools for example,” Pierre Chasseray, of the lobby group 40 millions d’automobilistes, said in an interview with France 3 on the limit reduction in Montpellier. “When we arrive in these areas, we pay special attention to this change of speed. But if we generalise to 30 everywhere, people will inevitably be less attentive.”

But the disquiet of motoring groups appears to be falling on deaf ears in an increasing number of towns and cities across the country.

Environmental impact

It is difficult to know the impact the reduction in speed would have on improvements in air quality.

“The cycles of acceleration and deceleration are reduced, resulting in a reduction in fuel consumption and therefore air and noise pollution,” a press release from the city of Lille when limits were cut there in 2019, reads.

But Matthieu Chassignet, mobility expert at the Hauts-de-France regional agency of Ademe, said: “A 2014 study by Ademe showed that the drop in speed on expressways from 90 to 70 km/h reduced fuel consumption. But in town and going from 50 to 30 km/h, it is difficult to come to the same conclusion regarding fuel consumption; at 30 km/h, an engine consumes more but there is less ‘stop-and-go’, so in the end, that does not change too much.”

The greatest improvement would be in a reduction in traffic levels. Shortly after it introduced lower speed limits, Lille reported sizeable reductions in traffic levels on secondary roads in the city centre. Traffic had dropped 78 percent on rue Faidherbe, 75 percent in the secteur des gares, 30 percent on Rue Nationale and 25 percent on Rue de Gand.

Road safety concerns

The speed reduction cuts braking distances from 35m at 50 km/h on a dry road to 18m at 30km/h — or from 28m to 14m in cases of emergency braking.

“A person struck by a vehicle at 30 km/h has a 20 percent risk of dying, compared to 90 percent at 50 km / h. So it changes everything for road safety without really changing the journey times,” according to Olivier Schneider, president of the Fédération des usagers de la bicyclette (FUB).

National speed limit rules

In 2020, the Loi d’orientation des mobilités scrapped a nationwide reduction in speed limits from 90 km/h to 80 km/h on rural roads in favour of locally administered speed limits. 

The controversial national 80 km/h limit on rural roads had been imposed July 2018 — and quickly became a cause célèbre of the yellow vests movement.


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