Local leaders demand the power to make city streets safer

12 June 2024

There’s an invisible power struggle happening on city streets across Europe. While local leaders are working to implement traffic-calming measures to make roads safer, address noise and air pollution, and promote active mobility, their efforts are increasingly being hampered by legislation at the national level.  

In Germany, control over local speed limits is currently only permitted on a case-by-case basis for individual roads. In England, the national government has even proposed a “plan for drivers”, which would similarly restrict cities from lowering speed limits and implementing other critical safety measures. However, cities are challenging these restrictions. More than 1,000 German towns and cities have called for more authority over their streets. Likewise in France, the road safety association Association Prévention Routière has launched a petition for 30 km/h limits in all urban areas.  

With more than 70% of Europeans living in urban areas, local governments must have the authority to make decisions to ensure the safety of their citizens. “Cities are uniquely positioned to determine what speed limits and traffic measures are needed to keep their roads safe,” says André Sobczak, Secretary General of Eurocities on the matter. “Restricting their ability to implement those measures puts vulnerable road users at a higher risk.” 

In an open letter in the Financial Times, city leaders across Europe describe the issue as “an emerging and worrying trend of national governments attempting to make it difficult for cities to take action.”   

A local issue with local impacts  

Among the letter’s signatories is Matteo Lepore, Mayor of Bologna. In Italy, the national government has proposed a new road traffic law that would severely hinder local authorities from creating low-traffic zones, installing speed cameras and setting lower speed limits. These top-down restrictions cause real harm on the ground. 

Today 70% of Bologna’s roads already have their speed limit set at 30 km/h, but it hasn’t been without a struggle. In 2019, the municipality and the Metropolitan City of Bologna adopted a Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan which included a 30 km/h zone. However, despite the plan being adopted in 2019, there was no mention of implementing these measures during the political campaign in 2021.  

Cities are uniquely positioned to determine what speed limits and traffic measures are needed to keep their roads safe
— André Sobczak, Secretary General of Eurocities

Later that year, ten-year-old Margherita was riding home from school on her bike when she was hit by a car. The impact threw her several metres and left her fighting for her life in the hospital. Led by her father, the incident spurred Bologna residents to take action. They organised a flash mob at the site of the accident demanding more speed bumps and speed limit enforcement to protect vulnerable road users. Following this, a committee of organisations came together with the goal of accelerating the implementation of the planned 30 km/h zones.  

The numbers speak for themselves  

Study after study shows the benefits of lower speed limits. The Beratungsstelle für Unfallverhütung, or Swiss Council for Accident Prevention, found that lowering the speed limit to 30 km/h led to a major decline in serious crashes – by 38% on average. In another study by the Norwegian Institute for Transport Economics, data from six European cities with recently introduced general speed limits of 30 km/h prove they lead to fewer traffic collisions – specifically, serious collisions and those involving pedestrians and cyclists.  

Brussels introduced its ‘City 30’ plan in 2021 creating a general 30 km/h speed limit. Three years on, Brussels Mobility Minister Elke Van den Brandt reflects in The Brussels Times how the plan has transformed the city: “A quieter city: that is the result of thousands of motorists who have adapted to the City 30. Fewer accidents, fewer casualties, less noise: the City 30 makes our city more pleasant, more liveable.”   

In Bologna itself, road accidents fell 21% in the first two weeks of implementing the controversial 30 km/h plan. Data from the same period in 2023 reveals that there were 25 fewer accidents, 14 fewer accidents with injuries, and 27.3% fewer pedestrians involved.  

Where mobility meets politics  

With these impressive figures coming from lower speed limits, why would national governments hinder their implementation? Signatories of the open letter point to politics. The letter states, “National policies like these, based not on science but political expediency, harm the ability of local authorities to make decisions on improving the safety and health of their citizens.” 

Valentina Orioli is Deputy Mayor of New Mobility in Bologna. She says, “Mobility policy should be based on science. The decisions we make should align with our desired outcomes. It isn’t left or right politically.”  

Mobility policy should be based on science. The decisions we make should align with our desired outcomes.
— Valentina Orioli, Bologna's Deputy Mayor of New Mobility

Contrary to how the issue is often framed politically, traffic-calming is not about restricting the freedom of car drivers. It’s about making the roads safer for everyone. Orioli is no stranger to the controversy attached to political and cultural ideas around cars. She is often targeted with negative comments online about the new 30 km/h zone.  

“I’m a researcher. My responsibility is to make difficult decisions using my knowledge of good practices and my own good intentions to improve my city, so it can be difficult to be so misunderstood,” she says. Despite these challenges, she persists in her mission. “I know that I’m in a position of power, so I must use that power to make Bologna a better place to live.”   

Slowly communities are beginning to connect the dots between safety, livability, and speed limits. During her time in office, she’s already seen attitudes begin to shift.  

“One of the things that everybody asks us for is to improve the safety in front of their home, on their route from school or work… Everyone cares about safety on their own cycling or walking path. The next step is to make the connection between that desired safety and lower speed limits.”   

Lower speed limits in our cities and towns are a low-cost, no-regret move to improve safety, reduce noise, and encourage walking and cycling.
— Antonio Avenoso, Executive Director of the European Transport Safety Council

If the issue of road safety is to be addressed, local leaders must have the ability to implement simple, effective ways to tackle it. Antonio Avenoso, Executive Director of the European Transport Safety Council, comments “Lower speed limits in our cities and towns are a low-cost, no-regret move to improve safety, reduce noise, and encourage walking and cycling. There is absolutely no good reason to restrict the freedom of local authorities to take such measures.” 

Joining forces  

In the face of this worrying trend of national legislation impeding local action, Bologna’s push for local authority on their streets remains steadfast. Eurocities’ paper recommending sustainable mobility policies,  ‘A better mobility starts in cities’, cites EU guidelines on reduced speed limits as a key measure for the next European mandate. 

As cities like Bologna join forces, leveraging collaborative platforms and EU-funded initiatives, they signal a unified front against restrictive policies. Bologna is very active on the European scene, attending events and participating in many EU-funded projects. As part of Reallocate, they are creating a safe and sustainable school district to ensure children make it home safely. The  Knowledge Path is a bicycle and pedestrian path that will connect cultural, educational, and civic hubs that cross the territory northwest of the historic center of the city. 

For us, collaboration with other cities is crucial...
— Valentina Orioli, Bologna's Deputy Mayor of New Mobility

Orioli explains, “For us, collaboration with other cities is crucial because we can learn from each other and produce better results.” In this collective effort lies the hope for safer, more livable urban environments, where local empowerment and shared knowledge pave the way forward.  


Alyssa Harris Eurocities writer