As states, cities and municipalities scramble to counter years of “car first” thinking with regard to pedestrian safety and walkability, we begin to peel back the top layers of the deeply rooted over-reliance on the American automobile. Anger and dismay abound as people like myself try to preach the importance of increasing safety and economic growth by slowing traffic, not speeding it up.
Many counter with the almost universally accurate response that there is simply not enough robust transit, be it local, regional and national, to strip away our superhighways of automobile paradise. Our hunger to drive has vanquished nearly every form of mass transit, and what’s left is often and unfortunately seen as “transportation for poor people.”
And to some extent, they’re right. The rate at which people making above $25,000 per year take public transit is amazingly low. With the exception of a handful of large urban metro areas, the United States is, for the most part, practically navigable only by car. Our thorough network of 70+ MPH highways paired with our rural 55 MPH roadways allows us to travel anywhere, regardless of the fact the car travel is literally the most inefficient form of transit there is. The automobile is and always will be king in this country, unless something drastic and monumental happens to negate the convenience and relatively simple attainability of the car. But there’s no chance of that ever happening right? Well, what if it did? Humor me for a bit.
Imagine one morning the nation woke up to a shocking mandate… the Federal Government declared that no car will travel above 30 miles per hour, citing public safety, infrastructure impact, and economic and environmental sustainability. Without a doubt, we would be a nation in panic, as our personal freedom to speed about our cities, counties and states would suddenly restricted. But what would the long term, large scale effects be? How would we, as a nation change if autos were permanently held to such a slow speed?
The safety impact of this nationwide speed limit cannot be understated. About 40,000 automobile fatalities would be erased each year, as very few auto-related deaths occur at speeds 30mph or less. The number of lives saved would be slightly less than finding a cure for breast cancer, and more than ending prostate cancer and colon cancer combined. How about compared to crime? More than twice as many die in auto-related accidents than in homicides each year.
Pedestrians and cyclists would also be much safer as reaction time and awareness would increase… as would the likelihood that a cyclists or pedestrian would survive an accident.Our streets, roads and communities would suddenly be tremendously safe places for children and families, as traversing roadways on foot or by bike would become easier and more predictable.
Perhaps I should have clarified this earlier, but in this “what if” scenario, let’s say buses (in their own lanes) and trains could still move at higher speeds, rewarding commuters and travelers for making a more sustainable choice as they move about their communities and their regions.In urban centers, we would likely see a universal expansion of bike and pedestrian infrastructure. State of the art protected bike lanes would become the norm, not the exception, as more and more people would see biking as a more affordable and perhaps even a faster alternative to driving. Electric bikes would also become universally legal, and the demand for them would become so high that quality, longevity would increase tremendously.Pedestrian infrastructure would once again take center stage, as slower traffic would mean walkers would have a fighting chance when navigating their urban environments.
Outside of cities, highways would likely be narrowed and accompanied/replaced by rail or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Like an America gone by, local and metro transit would once again flourish, becoming as the fastest, least expensive and most efficient way of commuting and moving about.Regionally, high-speed rail would be a necessity, as private companies would likely compete for the rights to build new track and carry passengers at speeds in the hundreds of miles per hour. Imagine traveling from Buffalo to New York City in less than three hours without the hassles associated with flying (baggage restrictions, weight limits, cramped space, long lines, parking issues, landing more than an hour outside the city, etc.). We could move massive amounts of people across our nation at high speeds at a fraction of what it would cost to maintain high-speed roadways.
The Return of Centralized Living
Perhaps the most significant change resulting from a 30mph speed limit would be reduction of suburban and rural sprawl. As commutes, trips and even grocery runs would become longer and more inconvenient, more and more people would once again seek housing closer to urban centers in an effort to minimize astronomical travel times. Rural living would become tremendously impractical, and suburban living would likely be limited to the “first tier” suburbs. The number of people who would choose city living would increase dramatically, as our urban centers would once again become places where people could live, work and play without the need for an automobile.
Furthermore, as people moved closer to urban cores, employers would almost surely follow. Additionally, in response to the resulting transit boom, it would be more important than ever for companies to build around transit stations, acknowledging that a high percentage of their work force would now arrive at work via train or bus instead of by car.
Based on the above, we can assume that transit and centralized living would play a far greater role in American life. Suddenly, the heightened advantages enjoyed by those who could afford a vehicle would be considerably lessened, and as more and more people would likely choose transit and car-free life as an option, the playing field between wealthy and poor would be significantly leveled. This leveling would be magnified by the fact that employers would move closer to urban centers, seeking locations adjacent to transit stops/hubs, making jobs that were once only accessible by car a possibility for those who could not previously afford one. Urbanists understand that, for large parts of our communities, jobs (and thus upward mobility) are simply inaccessible for people who cannot afford an automobile. Poverty and the inability to transcend its clutches has as much to do with lack of access to transit as it does to anything. Holding cars to a 30mph speed limit would likely give rise to centralized living and a robust transit network once again, giving our poorest citizens a fighting chance.
While spending on infrastructure would dramatically increase initially as our communities laid the groundwork for more efficient modes of transit, the need to maintain our crumbling road and bridge network would lessen over time as an increasing number of people would likely choose transit alternatives over cars. The need to maintain our ever-eroding and vastly underfunded automobile paradise would slowly fall, and our nation would experience a fighting chance as citizens would begin to seek faster and more efficient transit options.As stated previously, roads would likely be narrowed and shortened to make way for other modes of transit… and they wouldn’t be the only thing. With the probable return of more centralized living, power and water distribution infrastructure would become more more centralized and efficient as well.
With a new restricted top speed, the driver-less car would quickly become a comfortable reality. With the shifted emphasis away from power and performance, cars would likely become smaller, with a wide variety ranging from stripped down and affordable to luxurious and tech-heavy. There would likely be an extreme experiential polarization with priority on comfort, technology and amenities including anything from a coffee maker to a mobile office workstation. “Working Commutes” would likely become a part of any workday.
And Finally, The Reality
While a 30mph automobile speed limit is a thing of dreams for many, the vast majority would revolt with fire, and that might be an understatement. The belief that the automobile is and always should be king is so ingrained in our sense of the American experience that any deviation from this government subsidized freedom would likely lead to a revolution. At the very least, anyone who voted for it would never again see the political light of day. Anyone who supported it would be harassed with unfathomable regularity and persistence. And even if by some chance the legislation did go into effect, it would take years and probably decades to overcome our high-speed automotive dependence. On the front end, there would be a tremendous loss in productivity, and general life tasks like going to the grocery store would suddenly be far more time consuming. From travel soccer leagues to tripling commute times, life would suddenly be very very difficult for so many.
But over time, Americans would find a way to adapt. Over time, more and more people would once again move to live closer to the things and the people they need and love. Implementation of fast-moving transit would slowly increase convenience once again, and likely in a decade’s time, everything would be back to normal, without the extreme need for the government (and thus the taxpayer) to pay for an explosive wealth of sprawling infrastructure.
Obviously, this entire piece is a dramatic oversimplification. Fundamental changes in perspectives and priorities would have to be so drastic, and details would have to be ironed out so carefully and strategically that it would be nearly impossible to undertake. Furthermore, there is little doubt that a huge number of unforeseen circumstances would arise that nobody predicted, making us vulnerable to, or dependent on, a different kind of costly element of physical or social infrastructure. Still, it’s something to think about… what if we slowed it all down? Most likely, and unfortunately, we will never know.