The Benefits of Reducing Speed Limits

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Traffic already sends drivers to the brink of sanity — and it’s only getting worse. Last year,  drivers in New York City spent the equivalent of 133 days in traffic, while Los Angeles wasn’t far behind with 128 days. If traffic is already at a standstill, who in their right mind would suggest lowering speed limits?

  • As traffic continues to get worse, some drivers are spending the equivalent of over 100 days stuck in congested conditions.
  • The current philosophy is that higher speed limits will get drivers to their destination faster, but the time differential is pretty insignificant.
  • As we shift into a new mobility model, going slower just might be the answer to get you there faster.

In a thought-provoking piece on CityLab, Andrew Small examines that logic and came up with some pretty compelling reasons to consider what seems a counterintuitive solution. Owned by the Atlantic, CityLab is a site covering the pressing issues facing the world’s metro areas and neighborhoods, with a focus on design, transportation, environment, equity and life.

(Photo: Nabeel Syed on Unsplash)

Since 1995, when the nationwide 55 mph speed cap was removed, 41 states increased speed limits to at least 70 mph on highways. In seven states, the increase brought limits to 80 mph. And, if you happen to be driving on a certain stretch of Texas tollway, then you can hit 85 mph without worry of flashing lights in the rearview mirror.

Higher speed limits cause more deaths

According to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), rising speed limits over the past 25 years were responsible for almost 37,000 more deaths. Is the time drivers save by going faster even that significant? Charles Farmer, IIHS vice president for research and statistical services, found that “driving 70 instead of 65 saves a driver at best 6½ minutes on a 100-mile trip.”

From a safety standpoint, the stats don’t lie. Lowering speed limits saves lives. But will it save the sanity of those stuck in traffic? Maybe it could.

It’s pretty telling when a girl on a 10-mph electric scooter waves and winks as she passes disgruntled drivers cooling their heels in gridlock. Increasing the speed limit in this ever more common situation seems like the counterintuitive move here. If a scooter can travel crosstown much faster during high volume traffic, then there’s obviously something effective about moving at lower speeds.

e-scooter rider
(Photo: Marek Rucinski on Unsplash)

Lime and Bird literally dropped their scooters onto the scene in 2017, kicking off the micromobility revolution. And, in less than three years, there are some varied options to choose from, whether you prefer to skate on the sidewalk or surf on the ocean.

Since the new transportation landscape is vastly different than what has come before, old models don’t hold anymore. In order to keep traffic running smoothly, cities need to reconsider the whole concept of speed in relation to travel time.

Reconceiving autonomous vehicles

Small brings up another great argument for slowing things down: it could facilitate faster adoption of autonomous vehicles. Right now, technology hasn’t developed to enable cars to drive at Level 5 autonomy, chiefly because cars don’t have common sense.  And, even if the stats and studies demonstrated autonomous cars were ready to hit the road, people aren’t yet ready to trust machines over humans. What if, instead of focusing on autonomous vehicles as high-performance speed demons on the highway making critical life and death decisions, they were re-conceived as reliable, low speed people-movers in downtown areas?

On a more philosophical note, slowing down can improve quality of life for drivers. Small references the book Building and Dwelling by urban scholar and planner Richard Sennett. Sennett discusses how speed leads people to value “space” over “place.” When you’re hurtling through a space, you don’t have a chance to understand it. People cross over from experiencing a place to just moving through that space at about 28 or 30 mph.

Increasing speed limits to get places faster is not only unsafe, it’s a fallacy. If you’re at a standstill, it doesn’t matter what the speed limit is. In our brave new world of transportation, sometimes you have to slow down to go faster.

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