The Changing Character of Traffic

nev at publix

Neighborhood Electric Vehicle at Publix in College Park

We’ve occasionally touched on how rising fuel prices will bring new, low-powered vehicles into the urban streetscape. All things being equal, I’ve always thought this would be a good thing. It certainly holds the promise of eroding the paradigm of speed dominance. It also won’t be realistic to create type-specific segregation for every kind of vehicle (I hope).

Unfortunately, all things are not equal. Products have manufacturers and manufacturers have lobbyists. Since certain NEVs fell into a gray area between human/animal powered vehicles and registered motor vehicles, the product manufacturers have had to lobby for access. The way industries lobby for access is to lobby for “regulation.” This includes both equipment standards and traffic statutes, which they helpfully write for the lawmakers.

Under encouragement from the USDOT, manufacturers of electric vehicles including neighborhood electric vehicles, golf carts, and Segways have been promoting legislation in states and municipalities that would prohibit various classes of “slow-moving vehicles” from roadways with maximum speed limits above 30 or 35 mph.

In California, the industry has lobbied for access to bike lanes on roads with speed limits greater than 35mph.

After you’ve pondered that for a moment, read this essay and open letter to the EV industry by Steve Goodridge.

Choices made by this industry could move our traffic culture toward a more integrated and equitable future, or take us all backwards 100 years.

13 replies
  1. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    Another way of describing what happened in the 1920s (as I covered in my essay on Fighting Traffic), is that the attitude changed from “High speed is incompatible with safe and equitable use of streets” to “Pedestrians and low-speed vehicles are incompatible with high-speed streets.”

    Speed is the imperative. Safety, access and equity all bow down before it.

  2. Rantwick
    Rantwick says:

    Golf carts and vehicles like them are tricky. Bicycles, by virtue of their small size, are pretty darn flexible in choosing a transportation route and playing with others. Carts, however are too wide to be welcome on the right of a roadway OR on most pathways, which are too narrow for anything else to get by.

    I wish we could say with any confidence that “speed dominance” will be challenged, which would make all of this a non-issue.

  3. Eric
    Eric says:

    “I wish we could say with any confidence that “speed dominance” will be challenged, which would make all of this a non-issue.”

    Not with traffic planners judging success or failure by the amount of “throughput.”

  4. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    The only real issue I can see is slow-moving vehicles changing lanes. It does require some extra care on the part of the slower vehicle operator to make sure he or she gives ample space to overtaking vehicles.

    I wonder why if a bicyclist going 15 mph can safely change lanes to make left turns on roads posted at 45 mph, why can’t a NEV going 30 mph do it?

    Slowing for a vehicle going 15 mph slower than you is just like stopping for a pedestrian in a crosswalk if you’re driving 15 mph. Same perception/reaction/braking distance — about 50 feet.

    Just as single-payer isn’t allowed in the US health-care debate, reducing posted speeds is not allowed in the US traffic safety debate.

  5. Keri
    Keri says:

    Speed is sacred. Just try driving the speed limit in a car. Most Americans feel entitled to drive 5-15mph more than the speed limit, because that’s become the norm.

    Mighk has discussed the decoupling of speed from safety as the linchpin of our current culture. We have actually redefined slow as unsafe. How many times have you heard how unsafe it is to be slower than other traffic — not only that you’ll get hit, but that faster traffic is disrupted, has to change lanes, increasing their crash risk. Somehow it’s unacceptable for motorists to have to slow down, pay attention and adjust.

    The NEV industry is playing right into this. Just like the bike industry has. It’s easier to play to the culture than try to change it. Selling a product has little to do with looking out for the equity interests of its users.

  6. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    An interesting discussion at a point where my experience and observation today fits in just fine. As many may have noted, there is an increase in the number of scooters on the roads. They are capable of some speed in most cases and register as motorcycles as well. FL now has a law requiring that the operators pass the MSF course, but I don’t see it on the roads, based on how some of these operators are driving.

    Today was a scooter with two large people on board. This particular stretch of road has a 12′ lane and six or eight feet of parking space, along with areas of no parking space but no reduction in roadway width.

    The scooter operator was riding in that unmarked space, until confronted with unoccupied parking areas, and moved into the traffic lane, barely.

    Even with a capable motor vehicle, this operator was in inferiority mode, likely because he was operating at a speed under the usual traffic flow.

    On a directly related note, our two electric vehicles are also registered as motorcycles, exempting them from the NEV regulations with regards to speed limit roadways. We operate these vehicles in the range of 30-35 mph and accelerate slowly. I can operate on any roadway on which a bicyclist can operate and on far more roadways than those on which an NEV can operate.

    We have done so safely for more than a few years, despite having differences in speed.

    The perception is once again invalid. So much is said about how vehicular cycling won’t work, yet we are doing it. “NEVs can’t work on our roadways” but only the regulations are preventing that, in my opinion.

    I sometimes like to think of bicycles and EVs and NEVs as traffic calming devices.

  7. MikeOnBike
    MikeOnBike says:

    Rantwick said “Carts are too wide to be welcome on the right of a roadway”

    Compared to street sweepers? Amish buggies? Garbage trucks stopping every 50 feet? Buses stopping every block?

    We already have plenty of examples of wide vehicles traveling under the speed limit.

  8. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    MikeOnBike’s comment about the Amish got me curious. I was in Holmes County, Ohio last spring (largest population of Amish in the world). It’s very hilly, and they’re steep hills, so it’d be easy for a buggy to be hidden beyond the crest of a hill. Most of the buggies had orange triangles on the back, so they were easy to spot.

    I did some searching and found this:
    What I found interesting: most crashes (overtaking motorist) were on LEVEL stretches during daylight.
    And not surprisingly, ODOT did not even explore the possibility of reducing speed limits (though they did recommend speed enforcement and awareness campaigns). On the last page are legislative recommendations; all directed at the Amish, not motorists.
    Are seeing and stopping for a car stopped for left turn, and seeing and stopping for a buggy going 5 mph (or waiting to make a left turn) all that different?

  9. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    I can’t see changes in our speeding habits until there are electronic devices imbedded in cars that automatically either record excess speed (and you get tickets based on the recordings) and I can’t see that happening anytime soon.

    The only other option — someone else is doing the driving (ie. mass transit).

  10. Keri
    Keri says:

    Two of the scariest moments I’ve had were on rural Florida roads that were straight and flat and a speeding car/truck was coming at us in our lane, passing a line of oncoming cars. One skimmed past with a few feet to spare at a closing speed of probably ~80mph. Another got back in line, but caused a startle crash in our pace line.

  11. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    I’ve operated a large number of slow moving vehicles, ranging from farm machinery to gravel trucks. I have observed that the larger the vehicle, the more respect I get on the road.

  12. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    Mighk posted a very interesting link to an official Ohio government document dealing with Amish buggy traffic. A document which included the following line on page 5:

    “Horse-drawn buggies are the preferred mode of transportation for the Amish…”

    What a bizarre attitude. And certainly untrue. I have no idea what their preferred mode of transportation is, but suspect that it varies from person to person. What I do know is that their religious beliefs give them no alternative. It is not a preference.

    Although I have no problem putting this attitude into the category of “religious intolerance,” the exact same attitude informs all too much official dealings with cyclists.

    Many people are on bicycles due to their religious beliefs. Many started when Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health published his 2007 report showing that car pollution in Toronto kills 440 people and injures 1,700 so seriously that they have to be hospitalized. That’s per year, every year.

    Many people have religious beliefs that include some form of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” They concluded that driving cars and participating in the killing of 440 people every year was a violation of that religious belief.

    It seems to me that a lot of the hatred towards cyclists has at its root cause either explicit religious hatred or else a guilty conscience reaction.

  13. Wayne Pein
    Wayne Pein says:

    People hate bicyclists because of some religious belief! Now I know I’m doomed.

    Did the people in Toronto who stopped driving cars because they didn’t want to kill people with air pollution also stop heating their homes? Perhaps they should also move to a more temperate climate (or migrate by season) to reduce their energy use and how many people they kill.


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