Blog post

The Letter
Last week we received a letter at the Post Carbon Institute office from Scott B., a sports car owner/engine rebuilder/computer programmer, whose frustration is boiling over at the lack of attention paid his Big Idea to Save the Planet (BISP).

The Idea
Scott’s letter presented a very, very simple idea, one that has been gnawing at me since I read it, forcing me to take a closer look at a perhaps unsolvable equation (more on the Great Puzzle below). Scott’s idea:

Cap the national driving speed limit at 34 MPH (55 KMH).

The idea is so simple and so perfect, that at first blush it seems impossible. While Scott isn’t the first to suggest such a bold plan, he’s the first to put this particular BISP in front of me. His writings on the subject can be found at

The obvious benefits of this proposed national slowdown:

• Massive reductions in oil consumption
• Immediate and significant C02 reductions
• Smaller, lighter vehicles = less materials consumption
• Instant surge in demand for high-speed rail (with vehicle docking stations)
• Large drop in tire-related particulate pollution (650,000 tons/year in U.S. alone)
• Plunging traffic fatality rates + reduced health industry expenses
• Constriction of suburbs

The list goes on, but you get a taste.

My Drive
Every morning I take my son, Justice, to his school located seventeen miles across the county. Adhering to Scott’s rules will take me ten extra minutes each morning. I don’t see this as much of a penalty to do the right thing by my boy, his classmates and the rest of the planet. The tradeoff is a no brainer.

But, Do Brains Matter?
Slowing down is an obviously great idea, one that is perfectly logical and hard to argue against using facts and logic. Some may gripe about ‘lost productivity’ or some such nonsense, but let these stone throwers first curtail their daily at-work Facebook excursions or email addiction. In fact, many studies show that many of our ‘productivity’ tools like email and smart phone applications actually create more work and chew up more time than their technologically inferior antecedents. In slowing down, we can gain time, free up mental space and increase clarity.

I digress. No matter the power of this idea, most of us will rail against it. Why? For starters, because most of us, myself included, are terrifically f$cking stupid. Stupid when and where it matters most (look around if you need confirmation). What good is our human intellect when we consistently disassociate it from our actions?

I invite you, gentle readers, to consider your very first thoughts on Scott’s idea. What was your immediate reaction? Skip your well-thought, logical answers, as the merits of the idea are inescapable. Rather, I want to know about your emotional reactions, because these seem to have a greater impact on our everyday habits and decisions.

Now reread Scott’s idea above. Though you’re pre-armed with knowledge of the concept, odds are good that it will still elicit some sort of reaction. There. Did you feel it? Did you chafe at the idea of such a drastic slowdown? Did you shudder a bit, deep down on the inside? Did you reach for an immediate compromise (“How about 50 mph instead?”)? Be honest. I really want to know.

[Let me take a split second to head off a potential distraction: To the O.G.’s who have been car-free for years: Bravo. I commend, respect and admire you.]

The next task is to explain your emotional reaction. Assuming, of course, that you’re being honest with yourself about your reaction (this type of honesty can be surprisingly difficult to achieve).

The Great Puzzle
I’m hoping your insights will be the critical hints that will help solve the Great Puzzle of the Well-Intentioned Do-Nothings (GPWIDN). To solve the GPWIDN we must learn to bridge the deep chasm between passionately professed beliefs and real-world actions. Much more than simple hypocrisy, this disconnect is in no small part responsible for the lack of movement in, to take one trite example, the reduction of greenhouse gases despite the awesomely urgent need. While some embody GPWIDN in the idea of ‘cognitive dissonance’, I prefer awkward acronyms linked to barely defensible positions.

Regardless of how we define it, if we can crack this puzzle, or at the very least locate a backdoor workaround, we’ll transform conflicted, impotent WIDNs like me into powerful agents of rapid and immediate change.

In Mass Mind
The makeup and rules of the political arena are far from my area of expertise, and daily I pray for this to remain so. Yet, in thinking on Scott’s crusade, I’ve been trying to imagine how damned difficult it must be for a well-intentioned politician (yes, I also believe in unicorns and omnipotent invisible creatures who live in the clouds), an elected representatives of the mass mind, to champion a good idea if that idea in any way conflicts with the creature comforts of a largely self-entitled populace. Magical legislation that would slash per capita emissions 80% but increase the price of HBO? You’d have an easier time electing the ghost of Harvey Milk to the Presidency. And that’s just damned sad.

While I’m daily frustrated at a lack of commitment by the U.S. government to tackle the overwhelming, overlapping resource and climate crises that threaten to obliterate life as we know it, Scott’s letter has reminded me (I’m a slow learned and very forgetful) that I can’t expect top-down change until the bottom-up folks get well and truly serious. It’s easy to envision great and heroic personal sacrifice for a cause. Many of us think of think of ourselves as leaders in and members of a resilience building army. But the moment we have to step up and truly embody the mission, a lifetime of conditioning dulls our charge.

And so today if you ask me if we’ll ever, ever voluntarily make the changes required as a society in time for them to be meaningful, I’d say there’s no way in hell. Thanks, Scott. Way to put a hitch in my giddyup. Fortunately, the odds are pretty darned good that tomorrow someone else will show me an inspiring example of mass behavior change, and I’ll be reinvigorated as I zoom down the road at 75 in my gas-guzzling Volvo wagon.

For the record, I’d vote the Milk ticket. With Lenny Bruce as his running mate, I’m seeing shades of Perot/Stockdale.

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Reader Comments


go slow

From: Karen, Mar 2, 2010 04:34 AM

My honest reaction was fine, no problem. Not that I am a saint, but I am a middle aged woman and all my young urges are gone and replaced with thinking. Surging testosterone and estrogen are most of the problems with this world. Although I loved your statement "Most of us are terrifically f$cking stupid." Yes we are and it will be our downfall. We are a very poorly educated country. Half of Americans do not understand that evolution created us. You can't get very far with this crowd.

Another benefit

From: Bud Smith, Feb 27, 2010 01:41 PM

Freeways would have far fewer traffic jams with this rule in place. A freeway can actually carry more cars more efficiently at slower speeds. Also, I believe this idea could be adopted at a state level, without waiting for a nationwide commitment. (I'm not sure if it would be possible or practical to implement it at a county or city level.)

Sexy speed

From: Korky Day, Feb 27, 2010 06:19 AM

People's gut reaction is tied to sexual frustration. Men, especially, feel more potent driving fast. So we'll need speed governors installed on all vehicles. Then Viagra sales will spike.


From: Andrée Zaleska, Feb 26, 2010 04:41 PM

Scott, These comments are in response to the article posted above, which cites your blog. When you respond with exasperation that the readers did not read your entire ouvre, you should realize that weren't presented with that.

Your tone is a perfect example of how judgmental exhortations to do the right thing do not bring about major behavior changes in others.

I like it...

From: Robert, Feb 26, 2010 08:56 AM

I like this idea because it opens up opportunities for transportation that aren't as feasible today (i.e. golf carts traveling on the major street they are currently restricted from using).

Personally, I've been maintaining a self imposed 12mph speed limit. That's about as fast as I can pedal my bike without sweating too much. I'll admit that my city is too spread out to make biking everywhere possible, so I still own a car and use more frequently than I'd like.

My initial emotional reaction was "great idea, but the masses just won't go for it".

critical mass needed

From: Jeff Siemers, Feb 26, 2010 08:46 AM

Some of us (myself and other commenters) are willing to adopt a 34 mph limit. But in order for it to work, we need many, many people onboard. The only reason that it probably will never work is that not enough people will want to do it, and that is why the post was more about people's refusal to do anything.

Effects of speed limit

From: Shodo, Feb 26, 2010 08:46 AM

I sold my car last year. It would be so much safer on the road if everybody was driving slower! But this is a top-down solution and therefore won't happen. Can't be done individually.

fuel economy justification

From: seatbatterybox, Feb 25, 2010 10:00 PM

The comment that fuel economy is best at freeway speeds is a perfect example of fossil fuel delusion. If you had to push a car 35 mph or 60 mph, which would be easier? It's basic physics; going slower uses less fuel. It's like when the natural gas company man said to my mother that it was more efficient to leave the thermostat up all night than to have to heat the house up in the morning. Time to use our brains.

read the BLOG

From: Scott B, Feb 25, 2010 07:39 PM

For all the people posting here"

No, "Ralph Nader" didn't try it.
Look, I'm sorry my blog is not a YouTube video. You actually =have= to read it. It might take twenty minutes!! I mean, every year, not just glancing at one or two entries. Start at the beginning date.

I was living, driving, at the time of the 1970s oil embargo. I know that mere legislation doesn't work.

That is why I advocate an escapement, to affect the 220 million cars in this country.

I didn't simply have a "crazy idea" while taking a shower. I read, and re-read, Robert Q Riley's book, "Alternative Cars in the 21st Century". It will =blow= all your preconceptions away. It was from this book, that 35 mph jumps out, over and over. It's not simply a "plucked number" out of the air, like maybe 45, maybe 25, ooooh! yeah! 35! It's the physics.

When you look at my blog, look at the STUDENTS with the SAE Supermileage Contest results. Over 3000 miles per gallon!! HOW?? And many teams...1600 miles per gallon! How did they do it??

Read the blog.

The best gas mileage

From: Scott B, Feb 25, 2010 05:46 PM

I see that a reader thinks the "best gas mileage is at 55 mph". That is not true, or close to true. Read "Alternative Cars in the 21st Century". The amount of energy needed to power a car is graphically shown to increase significantly at above 34 mph. The reason people get good mileage at 55 is because, it's ON A FREEWAY!! Starting and stopping, that is the real fuel killer. But 34 mph would get SIGNIFICANTLY better mileage on that same freeway. I'd say with no other mods, you'd get 20-40% better mileage, over a constant speed 100 miles. And, if you're only going 34 top speed, you could trade in your V8, V6, for a two cylinder engine. You'd earn back the difference in fuel savings (figuring 30K miles per year) in two years, then ahhllll gravy.


From: W D Hunt, Feb 25, 2010 04:03 PM

The comment from Peter that "In order for something to evolve it must transcend and include" is utter rubbish. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evolution does not work that way. The expression "survival of the fittest" is a euphemism for the death of the weakest. Evolution is catastrophic. In the Serengeti, all the giraffes had necks of different lengths. Until the Big Drought came. Then the ones with the longest necks who could get to the top of the tallest trees got to eat, and the rest of them died. Then they went on to breed long necked giraffes. Thats the way evolution works. In the post carbon world, homo sapiens that can live without fuel will have the longest necks.

Slow Down

From: Edward Metcalfe, Feb 25, 2010 03:49 PM

Emotionally I didn't like the idea. To be honest it comes down to status. The "small" people will have to slow down. The military isn't going to slow down, neither is the president. Neither will Wall Street, top sports people, celebrities.

You see it's built into my genetic code that MY offsprings survival is more important than YOUR offsprings survival. This instinct (which you also have) translates into a competition for energy and resources.

Natural selection is coming back to haunt us.

speed limits

From: Steve Funk, Feb 25, 2010 03:42 PM

The EPA fuel economy says most cars get their best fuel economy arount 55. American V8's often do best at 65 (phase them out). Diesels do better at lower speeds, generally. So the direct impact of a speed limit lower than 55 is pretty marginal.


From: Peter, Feb 22, 2010 03:27 PM

I think it's human nature to encapsulate the BISPs so they don't have wiggle room to evolve. Almost every comment here has passion about their idea, but do we have to do it just so to the letter of the idea at the expense of the spirit of it.

I like the Eskimo travel comment. When you slow down you never know where the day will take you. When you fully explore the BISPs you might wind up in a very different place. For example, why would you even consider the loss of jobs in suburbia when there is so much to be gained over a period of time that Scott's BISP would require?

We live in a bottom up world. The sooner people just start carrying out there BISPs the better off we will be.

Ken Wilbur came up with the best definition of evolution I've come across. In order for something to evolve it must transcend and include; evolution simply doesn't reject where it is at at this point in time. Scott's idea doesn't get rid of cars and that's what is so beautiful and brilliant about it.

From: Jim Henderson, Feb 22, 2010 02:15 AM

A very intelligent and funny post. Had me laughing big time. Thanks Tod

From: LS, Feb 21, 2010 08:19 PM

@lestin: a starting point is this document:

It gives a good summary of the situation. Here's a quote from it that describes what I was suggesting:

"with each passing decade our cars have increased steadily in weight and engine power in line with improvements in engine technology. After all, what new car buyer can resist a bigger and more powerful car that costs the same to run as their previous vehicle?"

This matches what I have observed personally about the car market over the years. Pick any small car from the seventies and watch what happens to it over time. Take any of the Mazda passenger car range like: 121, 323, 626 (Australian models, could be different else where). Over forty years they have all gotten progressively larger. Bigger engines, bigger bodies, higher weights. Have a look at the 323 Wikipedia page as an example:

Look at the engine capacity and curb weights in particular.

It's been an automotive arms race between the manufacturers (more space, more power, more features etc). The improvements in efficiency of engines have just allowed us to get more "bang for our buck". We spend the same amount on cars and petrol, but consume more than we did as the efficiency increased.

This is why I have no confidence in Scott's idea to actually make a difference if it were implemented in our current society. Change the fundamental attitudes though and Scott's idea is heading in the right direction.

Increasing engine efficiency on cars

From: James, Feb 21, 2010 04:51 PM

With all the government officials and auto makers touting raising the efficiency of cars. The one big thing that will put a limitation on making cars more efficient is the general physics of running a car. Due to drag, internal engine resistance, overall physical resistance, and many other factors. The car can't be made much more efficient. The engineers will try to make cars lighter, smaller, put smaller engines into them, Etc. But, they can't make the original American dream, BIG car efficient. The battery powered cars won't be able to compete against the gasoline car because batteries also have limitations based on physics. The battery can only put out amperage's that will never achieve the power output of a gasoline engine. Again, the car will have to be made out of light weight materials and made smaller. The weight of the batteries will drag down the efficiency of the motors. Plus, Lithium, the material that batteries will derive their energy from is very scarce.

Speed slow down

From: James, Feb 21, 2010 04:39 PM

I ma all for reducing the peed limit from 55 mph to 35 mph. I really don't like to drive fast. The World really needs to slow down. The heck with those who say that we will lose productivity, for who, the fat cat corporations? They just can't wait for their money, they have to have it now. In fact,I think the corporations know that their time is coming to an and are trying to get all the money before the collapse of the U.S.economy.

an incremental approach

From: lestin, Feb 20, 2010 09:24 PM

One strategy that seems to work well with huge, impossible-seeming goals like this is to tackle a series of smaller objectives that build toward it. This generates awareness, builds a movement, etc.

One possible objective on the way to this: mandate that all car manufacturers include a fuel economy meter next to the speedometer, 120% of the speedometer's size.

LS - I'm curious about the government mandates for engine efficiency not affecting overall consumption. Recommendations for further reading?

Josh - You've got to realize that there's some irony in critiquing people for not engaging with others' ideas . . . while not engaging with their ideas.

From: LS, Feb 20, 2010 07:52 PM

@Josh said: "Utopian ideas such as a spontaneously self-regulating population - a global population that suddenly, and collectively (without government intervention) becomes willing to pull the plug on its own growth and expansion - is about as likely to happen as.... So why bother."

Why bother? Josh, if you can't answer the question of why unending growth in a finite environment is doomed to failure you need be thinking harder about the fundamental problems before you start advising people on solutions.

You are right to say that it won't happen spontaneously. Which is really the point I was making. Either we choose (that's an active thing, not spontaneous) to change, or we will inevitably hit hard limits to growth emposed by our environment. Availability of cheap oil is just one of them.

Josh also said: "The well worn habit of avoiding the question by changing the subject is tired, boring, and pretty much the reason we're still driving gasoline powered cars."

I see it very much from the oposite direction. By avoiding the question of the fundamental problems with our behaviour as a species is the reason we're still driving gasoline powered cars (and doing all of the other stuff that is damaging our environment).

make it more palatable

From: Jill, Feb 20, 2010 03:44 PM

Tie it to a decrease to a 37.5 hour work week with mandatory triple time for the first hour of overtime per day. That would make it alright by me ;)

Speed Limit 35

From: Ann, Feb 20, 2010 03:20 PM

I like it. I could drive the speed I wanted to without worrying about inconvenience to the guy behind me.


From: Tod Brilliant, Feb 20, 2010 12:18 PM

Wheeldog - There is so much richness with this concept. I wanted to talk about exactly what you mentioned...but you put it far better than I would have, so thank you for that. Yes, in slowing we gain so much.

Josh - I was reading a similar sentiment to yours over at Grist today. The poster was complaining about how people tend to respond to ideas with a 'yes and' or a 'yeah but' rather than exploring more intricately the issue before them. I think a big part of this has to do with the passion many of us feel about our own ideas...we're just patiently waiting for a time to interrupt the conversation and derail it. This isn't mean-spirited, just part of our genetic makeup, me thinks. I'd love to explore, in detail, the ramifications of this idea...and having you put forth a laundry list of concepts that need to be looked at is a big plus. Depending on the interest in the topic, I just may take a stab at addressing each of your q's, as each leads to very interesting thoughts...but I'd be able to do no more than start a new set of questions...and in a time when we need action more than ideas (we KNOW what to do), I'm not certain how much energy I want to put into pontification. We have the TED talks for that.

LS - Jevon's Paradox is absolutely to be considered here. I'm not certain this is purely a question of efficiency, however. There are many positives to be gained, only some of which may be neutralized by the paradox.

Dave - Can we compromise down to 45? I'm willing to trade 100 million lives and 40% of what's left of our natural resources to leave it as high as 45. Deal? :)

Slow Down

From: Wheeldog, Feb 19, 2010 05:58 PM

Many years ago I lived in a small Eskimo village where the primary means of winter travel was by dog team. Depending on a number of variables (weather, snow depth, terrain, etc.) the average speed of a team of six or seven dogs pulling a lightly loaded sled for 30+ miles is perhaps 6 mph. At that speed the driver has ample opportunity to study the surrounding country for signs of game or for potential hazards. Today the dog team has been replaced by mechanical snowmobiles and the average speed has increased to 30-to-40 mph. At that speed the driver must concentrate on the area immediately in front of his machine and will likely bypass all but the most obvious signs of game. The productivity of the hunter measured in energy return on energy invested is far smaller. The cost of the new transportation places a significant financial burden on him requiring him to spend less time in traditional hunting and more in seeking wage employment. The impacts of this shift affect all levels of village life.

great idea, but... is the 'real problem'

From: Josh Whipkey, Feb 19, 2010 05:07 PM

Utopian ideas such as a spontaneously self-regulating population - a global population that suddenly, and collectively (without government intervention) becomes willing to pull the plug on its own growth and expansion - is about as likely to happen as.... So why bother.

My opinion is that nothing positive will occur until the participants in the conversation who REALLY WANT change outnumber those who prefer to remain complacent, ignorant, stubbornly resistant, lazy, greedy, etc.

Don't respond to a proposition like Scott's with a 'better solution,' an insight as to what the 'real problem' is, or a 'first reaction.' None of those contribute much more than an insight into the responder's bloated ego.

Ask questions.

What kind of time frame are we looking at for such a transition?

What happens to the builders of suburbs? That's a LOT of jobs.

What happens to suburbia? Will existing development be reevaluated, and... recycled, demolished and turned back to farmland, or forest?

Rocket trains are awesome, but can they carry freight? Can they go everywhere trucks can?

How long until there's an alternate infrastructure in place (rail?) to compensate for the roadways?

Can roads and bridges be converted to rail?

What about traveling long distances by car? Will people be OK with doing a cross country tour at 35MPH? It would, obviously, take a lot longer.

Biting the bullet, and buying a smaller, slower, possibly safer car, and accepting the fact that it'll take ten more minutes to go one way to the grocery store is one thing, but what about the far reaching economic effect?

Would it be economically more feasible to figure out a way to get off oil - as a fuel source, anyway?

The list goes on.... I think it's a list that needs to be considered if anything is to come of Scott's idea be it implementation of some version of, or abandonment due to the impossibility of implementation.

The well worn habit of avoiding the question by changing the subject is tired, boring, and pretty much the reason we're still driving gasoline powered cars.

The real problem is not the speed

From: LS, Feb 19, 2010 03:58 PM

To answer your question: my first reaction was, "that's fine, but it is not a solution".

Scott has the right idea: reduce consumption. But implementing this idea within a society that worships the paramount right of the individual to consume as much of everything as they want is firstly impossible (as noted in the article) and secondly, it won't change anything.

It won't help because people will just divert the resources that they used to plough into cars and fuel into other things, like more expensive slow cars, bigger houses, more air conditioning. Have a look at the Jevons Paradox to understand why. An example of this is the results of US government mandates for engine efficiency after the oil shocks in the '70s. It didn't reduce consumption, the consumption pattern just changed. We still consumed as much as we could.

Scott's idea only works in the following framework:

- Humanity as a whole chooses to limit its population (preferably to a level that can be sustained without reliance on cheap oil)
- Humanity as a whole chooses to limit its consumption of energy and material

With those two things in place then Scott's dream will happen as a natural consequence. Without those two things, people will just divert their resources to other activities of consumption (like having more children, larger houses, travelling long distances on fast trains etc).

Solutions to the many problems facing our species will not come from band-aids like changing the speed limit, they can only come from realising that we _must_ curb our growth and consumption.

Great idea ... but

From: Dave Hymers, Feb 19, 2010 01:35 PM

Like the suggestion in the article says, 50 is a much more of a realistic limit and would still have a sizable impact on emissions and safety.
I don't ever drive over 65 if I can help it, Semi dodging requires that sometimes I have to speed for my life, everyone has been infront of or behind or next to a driver that has done something idiotic and had to react quickly, of course if we where all mandated to slow down, we'd have to react less quickly.
I think the idea is admirable but the reality is we're not going to slow down, but making cars lighter and stronger will save emissions and lives, but it sure as hell won't slow anyone down.
In my opinion the automatic transmission is responsible for much laziness on our roads and much wasteful driving, so I guess my idea would be to restrict the usage of them! doesn't that sound just as crazy as a 34mph speed limit ?

neighborhood redesign

From: Lar, Feb 19, 2010 12:37 PM

I admit my first reaction, as a lifelong pedestrian, is "heck yeah!" -- but my first reaction is irrelevant because I am an outlier.

But as you say, one side benefit of this would be constriction of suburbs. (Or further ghettoization of the suburbs that are too farflung.) Though the all-at-once change is a great vision, maybe one tack to take at this would be reversing that relationship, as Portland (OR) is doing in nurturing what they call "20 minute neighborhoods." In a 20 minute neighborhood, you can walk to most of your daily destinations in 20 minutes or less. This has a million other benefits, but if people don't need to be in their cars as much, they won't feel the UTTER ANGUISH of not being able to zip along as much either.

my first reaction

From: Andree Zaleska, Feb 19, 2010 11:35 AM

My reactions in the order they came to me:
1. Ralph Nader has already tried this.
2. Great, I'm about to give up my car anyway. Since I'm usually a pedestrian or cyclist, I'm certainly willing to drive any rental cars I use at a crawly pace if everyone else will.
3. A lot of people will say "It's really hard--or even dangerous--to drive that slow when the traffic on the highway is averaging 75." And I think there's some truth in that.