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Thread: The long forgotten 55 MPH speed limit

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    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    The long forgotten 55 MPH speed limit

    This past week-end, I was reading an old Rand McNally road atlas from 1978. There was a table in the back listing certain regulations for each of the 50 states. In the "Speed Limit" column, most states listed 55 miles per hour, and there was a footnote at the bottom referencing the Federal Energy Conservation Act. At one time, apparently, the Federal government mandated (provided incentives?) that speed limits be set at 55 MPH in order to increase our miles driven per gallon. But sometime in the mid-1990s that went away. Here in Michigan, we raised our speed limits to 65 MPH and then to 70 MPH. Given our discussions on this board on the "peak oil debate," how likely is it that states might return to a 55 MPH standard? On the Federal level, the current administration doesn't seem all that interested in promoting policies that help us conserve energy. Does lowering the speed limit actually help us conserve energy by giving us more miles driven per gallon?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian nuovorecord's avatar
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    I know my car gets much better mileage at 55 mph vs. 70 mph. I get about 32 mpg vs. 26 mpg.
    "There's nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed by what's right with America." - Bill Clinton.

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    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    From what I understand, cars are designed to perform optimally at around 45mph -- a tradeoff between city and highway speeds. The idea of the 55mph speed limit was to push highway speeds down towards that speed.

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    Cyburbian otterpop's avatar
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    If our goal is to reduce energy consumption and thus dependence on foreign sources, the key lies not in lowering the speed limit. The solution is mandating better fuel economy in the cars we drive. I do not see we Americans either cutting back on our driving or slowing down. So we need to get the most miles out of a gallon of gasoline. Hybrid cars are one solution. Alternative fuels are perhaps another. .

    I live in a state that is big (number 4). There are not a lot of people spread out over a lot of land. The distance between out-of-town destinations is usually 90 or more miles, and often quite a bit more. Montanans consider a three hour drive not uncommon, and a round-trip in a day of six or more hours of driving time doable.
    "I am very good at reading women, but I get into trouble for using the Braille method."

    ~ Otterpop ~

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    Cyburbian abrowne's avatar
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    We own two vehicles. One of them is a truck used daily in business and is driven all over the place, often with 2000lbs in the back. Mileage isn't bad, actually, considering.

    The other is a Ford Focus wagon that gets horrible mileage because the only thing it does is go from our house to the west coast express commuter train station, and to the supermarket, et al. It never warms up and instead does hundreds upon hundreds of little trips, causing terrible mileage.

    This is something that might have been overlooked in regards to mass transit - the impact of short distance trips on mileage and pollution.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    ^-- That's a big argument used often against using Clean Air funds to build parking lots at commuter rail stations. Cars pollute most in the first five miles, so the pollution savings are small. The response to that would be that it's at least keeping cars out of the center, where pollution is the worst. I think it would make more sense to use that money to improve transit at the center, to keep people closer in from driving at all.

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    Cyburbian abrowne's avatar
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    As I was posting I was trying to formulate some thoughts on that idea myself...

    Perhaps driving your car to a transit station, parking it, and boarding a train might actually be more polluting than if you had just remained in your car and driven to where you intended in the first place? Trains are vastly polluting, but are perceived as reasonable given the number of people onboard (just as a black-smoke belching bus is not seen as a concern when packed with fifty people). But, if you were to throw in to the calculations the pollution generated by each car of each passenger on the way to the train I wonder what the outcome would be.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Plus Zoning Goddess's avatar
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    I was there for the '70's "gas shortage", remember waiting in lines for an hour on "our appointed day" to get gas. It really did increase mpg when the speed limit was lowered back then.

    Oh, and 1978 doesn't seem like an "old" (archaic) road atlas to me.... sigh...

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    Cyburbian el Guapo's avatar
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    Freaky - I was just thinking of this very subject this morning while going 70 mph in a 70 mph zone. All the while I was being passed like I was a doddering old man in a golf cart.

    Back to the physics at hand. Anyone who has ridden a bike can tell you the difference between 15 mph and 20 mph over a long sustained period is very noticable. Its all about wind resistance. Functionally it starts about 15mph. It goes up from there.

    I don't care how arerodynamically slick your car is in the wind tunnel the math is a cubed root square formula and as you go from 55 mph to 80 mph - which I see every day on I-29, the energy needed to keep you going fast goes up more than proportionately. Raising CAFE standards is great. I like flowers. We could double CAFE and the resulting cars would still get us to work on time. It is just that they would be less likely to hit a 2x4 on the highway without significant structural damage, bird strikes would penetrate the windscreen, and the tires would look more like motorcycle tires. Exotic - and less environmentally friendly materials would be used in their construction. And frankly people would have to start paying attention to their driving habits, choices, and suvivability.

    I could live with a bicycle/prius/echo blend of tehnology that resulted in a carbon fiber shell wrapped around a lightweight frame and hosting a tiny efficient motor. If I can do 30 mph on a bicycle it could easily carry my but to work at 70mph and get 150mph. I could do this if I didn't have to share the road with Ford Extrusions and Cadalac Phalusi. If we didn't mix semi's, Gangsta rides, and Missouri Quality roads - Oh what a wonderful world it would be. But the reality is rasing CAFE means more people die in a mangled tinfoil car vs. Hummer traffic stream. Then the Republicans would make more babies and then most of your genes would get washed into the ditch.

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    Quote Originally posted by el Guapo
    Freaky - I was just thinking of this very subject this morning while going 70 mph in a 70 mph zone. All the while I was being passed like I was a doddering old man in a golf cart.

    Back to the physics at hand. Anyone who has ridden a bike can tell you the difference between 15 mph and 20 mph over a long sustained period is very noticable. Its all about wind resistance. Functionally it starts about 15mph. It goes up from there.

    I don't care how arerodynamically slick your car is in the wind tunnel the math is a cubed root square formula and as you go from 55 mph to 80 mph - which I see every day on I-29, the energy needed to keep you going fast goes up more than proportionately. Raising CAFE standards is great. I like flowers. We could double CAFE and the resulting cars would still get us to work on time. It is just that they would be less likely to hit a 2x4 on the highway without significant structural damage, bird strikes would penetrate the windscreen, and the tires would look more like motorcycle tires. Exotic - and less environmentally friendly materials would be used in their construction. And frankly people would have to start paying attention to their driving habits, choices, and suvivability.

    I could live with a bicycle/prius/echo blend of tehnology that resulted in a carbon fiber shell wrapped around a lightweight frame and hosting a tiny efficient motor. If I can do 30 mph on a bicycle it could easily carry my but to work at 70mph and get 150mph. I could do this if I didn't have to share the road with Ford Extrusions and Cadalac Phalusi. If we didn't mix semi's, Gangsta rides, and Missouri Quality roads - Oh what a wonderful world it would be. But the reality is rasing CAFE means more people die in a mangled tinfoil car vs. Hummer traffic stream. Then the Republicans would make more babies and then most of your genes would get washed into the ditch.
    Bravo, EG, Bravo!!!

    DAN: WE REALLY NEED AN ONGOING "POST HALL OF FAME"

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by el Guapo
    Raising CAFE standards is great.
    What is CAFE?

  12. #12
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    CAFE = Corporate Average Fuel Economy

    An initeresting side note: Along with fuel economy, short trips are also far worse for air-aquality. Cold starts are often when cars emit the most polution, the pollution emitted after the car warms up is much less. As speed increases the amount of hydrocarbons formed decreases (see EPA's MOBILE model). So faster moving cars is better for the envirionment, yet oil and energy use is bad for the economy as a whole and can lead to devestating the worlds resources.

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    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by DetroitPlanner
    CAFE = Corporate Average Fuel Economy

    An initeresting side note: Along with fuel economy, short trips are also far worse for air-aquality. Cold starts are often when cars emit the most polution, the pollution emitted after the car warms up is much less. As speed increases the amount of hydrocarbons formed decreases (see EPA's MOBILE model). So faster moving cars is better for the envirionment, yet oil and energy use is bad for the economy as a whole and can lead to devestating the worlds resources.
    And yet, the 'strict seperation of uses' tenet that is central to most conventional zoning codes today here in the USA essentially mandates that these short trips be the norm.

    Go figger....

    Mike

  14. #14
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mgk920
    And yet, the 'strict seperation of uses' tenet that is central to most conventional zoning codes today here in the USA essentially mandates that these short trips be the norm.
    Does this, then, make a strong case for a new kind of zoning code that promotes compact urban or village centers focusing on pedestrian activity?

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    I too remember the 55 speed limit. People in Montana kept $5 bills pinned to their visors. The fine for exceeding the limit was $5! Everyone still went 80.

    Asking people to slow down to conserve energy is not going to work. If they aren't going to slow down to protect their lives, they aren't going to slow down for an abstract reason. It just isn't where the leverage for energy conservation, etc., exists.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Lee Nellis
    Asking people to slow down to conserve energy is not going to work. If they aren't going to slow down to protect their lives, they aren't going to slow down for an abstract reason. It just isn't where the leverage for energy conservation, etc., exists.
    Which is awful because it is the easiest, cheapest, and quickest way to conserve energy. I've been taking my lesiurely time on state highways when I'm visiting the parents. Rather than traveling at my usual 65-70mph (speed limit 55), I've slowed down to 55-60. It is much more enjoyable to drive at 55mph than it is to go 65+. and over 1 hr you loose only 10-15 miles of travel. Not that big of deal if you really think about it.
    Dude, I'm cheesing so hard right now.

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    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    I think one of the appealing things about the electric cars that come out from time to time is that they're low polluting for short trips. The idea is that they'd be used by people who take mostly short (a few miles) trips. Because most people in the 'burbs have a "commuting car" that is pretty much used only for commuting, you'd think they'd be able to get those things to catch on.

    I wonder if any suburban TAs (like Metra or CalTrans) have ever considered promoting them, by say, offering priority on the parking lot waiting lists, or by providing charging facilities.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jordanb
    I wonder if any suburban TAs (like Metra or CalTrans) have ever considered promoting them, by say, offering priority on the parking lot waiting lists, or by providing charging facilities.
    free chariging faciltiies. That would be a big encouragement. Unfortunately, most people work in other suburbs now. Which means, the park and ride would only help a small(er) percentage of workers in a metro area. The charging function needs to happen faster, charging services need to be provided at all parking areas, and/or technology needs to improve to allow greater charge capacity.
    Dude, I'm cheesing so hard right now.

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    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    ^-- Well, the Metra can't build parking lots fast enough. Yeah, a lot of people do work in the suburbs, but enough are driving to the train every day that if they were to get all those people in electric cars, that would save a ton of air.

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    10-15 miles difference in an hour is lot if you are working, not taking a leisurely excursion. When I was a consultant, I had numerous 6-8 hour drives. 10 minutes an hour equals an hour plus. That's really significant whether it is measured in terms of billable hours, or in terms of time spent trying to have a life.

  21. #21
    Cyburbian ChevyChaseDC's avatar
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    CAFE is a joke. So are EPA's car specifications. CAFE is full of loopholes that provide incentive for carmakers to build more trucks than cars, and do what they can to transform their cars into trucks. For example, the Chrysler PT Cruiser, which is most definitely not a truck, is classified as such by CAFE solely by virtue of the height off the ground of the undercarriage. Ditto the Subaru Outback. These "trucks" are subject to less stringent fuel economy and pollution standards than "passenger cars." "Trucks" include not just the obvious - pickup trucks, truck-based SUV's, full-size vans; but also the less obvious, including front-wheel drive minivans, car-based, front drive SUV's (e.g. RAV-4, Escape, CRV).

    Personally, though, I don't believe that further regulations of the supply side, such as mandating that carmakers produce more fuel efficient vehicles, is the right action to take. It will only further burden weak US automakers and essentially force people to buy products they don't want to buy. Further taxing gasoline, raising tolls and instituting new tolls on roads, congestion charging, charging for and limiting parking....some combination of all of these, plus financial incentive to commute via transit, bicycle, or on foot, would change the structure of the marketplace, and consumers would demand more fuel-efficient cars, not to mention better transit and non-motorized facilities, and land uses that don't require automobile use for every single trip outside the home. Unfortunately, however, there is zero political will in the U.S. to regulate the demand side of the equation.

    I'm on the fence about speed limits. Fuel economy does indeed suffer exponentially beyond 60mph. I like the idea of variable speed limits (e.g. 55 during rush hour, 65 all other times). I'm also a fan of traffic cameras on metro-area highways - I think that there is no inherent "right" to drive a car and that motorists can be subject to monitoring. Piloting two tons of metal at high speeds should be subject to scrutiny from big brother.

    Separately, the answer to smoke-billowing train locomotives: electrify. SEPTA, despite its seeming inability to move people from one place to another, at least uses electric trains. In fact, "At Least We're Not Diesel!" should be the new slogan (currently, it's "We're Getting There," as in both 'we're providing you with transporation to your destination' and 'we're getting better, but we're not there yet and we sure do have one hell of a long way to go'.....)

  22. #22
    Cyburbian nuovorecord's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by boiker
    Which is awful because it is the easiest, cheapest, and quickest way to conserve energy. I've been taking my lesiurely time on state highways when I'm visiting the parents. Rather than traveling at my usual 65-70mph (speed limit 55), I've slowed down to 55-60. It is much more enjoyable to drive at 55mph than it is to go 65+. and over 1 hr you loose only 10-15 miles of travel. Not that big of deal if you really think about it.
    You realize, of course, that implementing this would require the American motoring public to think logically...

    Quote Originally posted by jordanb
    I think one of the appealing things about the electric cars that come out from time to time is that they're low polluting for short trips. The idea is that they'd be used by people who take mostly short (a few miles) trips. Because most people in the 'burbs have a "commuting car" that is pretty much used only for commuting, you'd think they'd be able to get those things to catch on.
    Dan Sturges has a pretty cool website that envisions this type of community/transportation system. Check it out.
    "There's nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed by what's right with America." - Bill Clinton.

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    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ChevyChaseDC
    CAFE is a joke. So are EPA's car specifications. CAFE is full of loopholes that provide incentive for carmakers to build more trucks than cars, and do what they can to transform their cars into trucks. For example, the Chrysler PT Cruiser, which is most definitely not a truck, is classified as such by CAFE solely by virtue of the height off the ground of the undercarriage. Ditto the Subaru Outback. These "trucks" are subject to less stringent fuel economy and pollution standards than "passenger cars." "Trucks" include not just the obvious - pickup trucks, truck-based SUV's, full-size vans; but also the less obvious, including front-wheel drive minivans, car-based, front drive SUV's (e.g. RAV-4, Escape, CRV).

    .....)
    You think this is odd? you should see content rules. The Mercury Maquis is built accross the river from Detroit... well and down the 401 a bit in St. Thomas, making it a domestic car. But wait, its built in Canada, but thats okay, its still a domestic car. When they need look at CAFE and imports and the margins are slim, they make a few more wigets for it in Korea and Voila!!! its a Foreign Car! (But I'm not tellin a UAW member that they would kill me).

  24. #24
    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Wanigas?
    Does this, then, make a strong case for a new kind of zoning code that promotes compact urban or village centers focusing on pedestrian activity?
    Assuming that you do not equate 'promote' with 'mandate', I would agree on that.

    Many of these newer development ideas that include such things higher unit densities and a healthy mix of local commercial and various levels of residential at walkable (yea, I know that that word is 'discriminatory' ) scales come from developers themselves and would be built and even perhaps on their way to becoming the national norn, if not for local zoning laws that prevent it and local political resistance, especially in suburban areas, to the idea of changing those laws to allow it.

    Mike

  25. #25
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mgk920
    Assuming that you do not equate 'promote' with 'mandate', I would agree on that.

    Many of these newer development ideas that include such things higher unit densities and a healthy mix of local commercial and various levels of residential at walkable (yea, I know that that word is 'discriminatory' ) scales come from developers themselves and would be built and even perhaps on their way to becoming the national norn, if not for local zoning laws that prevent it and local political resistance, especially in suburban areas, to the idea of changing those laws to allow it.

    Mike
    Although "many" would do this, the vast, vast majority likes their safe, low-risk investement in $300,000 upper middle class housing on .5 acre lots on the periphery of cities. Developers recently came to us asking for an annexation agreement to annex 700 acres under their terms of no more than 2.5 units per acre....all residential. Predictably, the city council voted to approve it.
    Dude, I'm cheesing so hard right now.

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