James May – the surprise 20mph advocate

12.21 | 31 January 2023 | | 5 comments

Television presenter James May – known for fronting motoring shows Top Gear and The Grand Tour – has come out in support for reducing the default national speed limit to 20mph.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the presenter said the lower speed limit “makes perfect sense” in a lot of urban places, city centres, towns and villages.

Mr May – who has earned the nickname Captain Slow throughout his TV career – backed new planning guidance for designing streets, which is due to be published by the DfT this year.

A draft version titled Manual for Streets, seen by The Sunday Times (and reported by the Telegraph), said: “The default should be to work to a design speed limit of 20mph in urban environments.”

It added that “for residential streets, a maximum design speed of 20mph should normally be an objective, with significantly lower speeds usually desirable”.

This would be a reduction from the existing national speed limit of 30mph on single and dual carriageways with street lights.

While Mr May says he would agree that a blanket 20mph limit “would probably be a little bit knuckle-headed”, in a lot of places “actually 20mph makes perfect sense”.


Mr May said: “I live in Hammersmith in west London which is an area where people seem particularly fond of just running out into the street without looking, which is their prerogative because they’re people not machines, but 20mph is plenty fast enough and 30mph does feel too fast.”

Mr May also talked about the importance of bringing about a “change in attitude” from motorists.

He added: “We can become over-obsessed with things like rules, street furniture, signage, traffic lights and so on… [but] ultimately these things are cured by a change in attitude.”

Wales and Scotland are currently lowering their default national limits to 20mph, while in England, Cornwall is rolling out a 20mph-only limit in residential areas by 2026.

The new guidance would not create a new, lower national default speed limit but councils would be empowered to set the limits locally.



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Order by Latest first | Oldest first | Highest rated | Lowest rated

    A very large number of drivers seem content with their own behaviour to drive at 5 to 10mph over the speed limit, any speed limit. Behaviour change is based on changing attitudes which usually includes both carrot and stick.
    I haven’t seen much effective vehicle speed reduction without strong enforcement and/or engineering. People will drive at the speed they want to drive unless there is a significant risk to their licence (or their vehicle’s suspension). With Roads Policing just a shadow of its former self and woeful levels of funding for promoting all facets of road safety, isn’t it somewhat unrealistic and unduly optimistic to expect drivers to change their habits? Just because it is “the law” doesn’t automatically make it happen.

    Pat, Wales
    Agree (4) | Disagree (14)

    > How come we can expect drivers to obey a speed limit far less than the maximum speed of their car and the design speed of the motorway

    You’re right, we shouldn’t.

    David Weston, Newcastle upon Tyne
    Agree (0) | Disagree (2)

    I am always amused by people who say that 20mph limits require design speeds of 20mph. Have they never driven on a motorway? How come we can expect drivers to obey a speed limit far less than the maximum speed of their car and the design speed of the motorway, yet somehow feel that drivers turn into anti-social “need for speed” drivers who will break the law when in streets shared with humans.

    I wonder how much such comments are endorsing speeds and non-compliance which is simply not compatible with the aspirations that communities have to sweat their street assets around so many uses including active travel, micro-mobility, social inclusion, noise and emission reduction.

    Rod King, Lymm
    Agree (20) | Disagree (7)

    There’s a revised version being drafted, Pat;
    which is why it seems to have excited the media again.

    Paul Copeland, Beverley
    Agree (2) | Disagree (0)

    erm, Manual for Streets and Manual for Streets2 have existed for quite some time and yes ““for residential streets, a maximum design speed of 20mph should normally be an objective, with significantly lower speeds usually desirable” is written in the existing versions, so nothing new here.

    MfS2 is OK(ish) for building new residential communities for a natural vehicle speed of 20mph or less but that doesn’t stop wilful speeding as many residents in these newer developments find out. And best of luck re-constructing and retrofitting existing traditional old style residential road networks with MfS2 principles and layouts.

    Pat, Wales
    Agree (8) | Disagree (15)

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