Hump heaven

Humps or no humps – that is the question. And it’s a question I have been trying to answer by bringing some analysis and fact to a debate that has often generated more heat than light. The London Assembly’s Transport committee (which I chair) has just concluded an investigation into the issue.

In the beginning, it appeared that humps saved lives and serious injuries. They were driven by a groundswell of popular demand and campaigning, whilst appealing to councils as cheap and quick to implement. They spread like rashes across our boroughs. Indeed, a friend recently told me that they are one of the few things he remembers seeing on Tomorrow’s World that have actually come about.

But we are now some years on from the first appearance of the hump on our streets. As they have proliferated questions have began to arise about their effectiveness, the possibility that they cost lives through slowing down emergency vehicles, damage to cars and property, noise, pollution and discomfort caused to passengers.

The clamour has grown to fever pitch as the Borough of Barnet, led in its mission to rid the world of humps by Assembly Member Brian Coleman, began to remove humps from their roads.

At the same time – the ambulance service was reported as claiming that lives might be lost due to the slowing down of ambulances by humps. Transport for London research indicates that three seconds per hump are lost, which sounds like it might be a problem. However, much to my amazement – given how much publicity there has been about the ambulance issue – when we put the ambulance service on the spot they could not produce any actual evidence of loss of life from any study.

So what did we find? Well – the lowly hump may indeed be a poor, simplistic, third world sort of a speed reduction measure – but it is effective.

The evidence was overwhelming in terms of the success of humps in reducing death and serious injury. On average the rate was more than halved. For any public policy which councillors control to be able to have a direct effect on so many lives is, in my experience, extremely rare and a sobering reminder of the importance of many of the decisions which local government take.

But there is no doubt that speed humps are a nasty, cheap solution that councils reach for first rather than utilising the more expensive versions or other measures available.

There is very little solid evidence available (so far) about the noise, pollution and damage to properties from humps – though there is a huge amount of anecdotal evidence. Whilst many individuals report these effects, no accurate research appeared to have been carried out to establish this. The Assembly has recommended that this work be done, as it is very difficult for individuals thus affected to prove their case on their own. On such an important issue we need some solid evidence to inform future decision making.

This wasn’t our only recommendation in the draft report. Better use needs to be made of the range of speed reduction alternatives that now exist. The boroughs and the emergency services must work together to produce a locally agreed plan as to which roads emergency services use frequently and so need to be kept clear – which may be quite different from the roads designated ‘strategic’ by the Department of Transport. And we need accurate monitoring of the effectiveness of each scheme and the dissemination of results and best practise across London.

The Mayor of London has threatened to withdraw funding from Barnet if it doesn’t behave. He has also gone on record as saying he wants a speed camera in every residential street. A bit over the top I thought (well – no change there) and a hideous invasion of privacy.

I hope that the Assembly report (assuming it passes the committee stage next week) sends out a strong message to London that humps save lives and that any borough removing humps must replace them with an equal or better alternative – but at the same time makes it quite clear that humps are neither the only nor necessarily the best tool in the speed reduction box.

If you want to see the report for yourself, it’s on the GLA website.