EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay was originally posted on January 30, 2015
I have noticed something interesting since returning to a car-free lifestyle. I don’t enjoy being on highways as much as I once did. They make me nervous, and I wonder how all those speeding missiles manage to avoid each other as they maneuver (sometimes erratically) between the narrow lanes.
My mother doesn’t like highways either. She’s always lived life in the slow lane and is accustomed to a much slower pace. She rarely leaves her rural city where the speed limit is mainly 25-35 mph around town. Highways aren’t her speed, and I don’t think they’re mine.
If the posted speed limit on a highway is 65 mph, traffic is generally flowing around 75 or 80 on a good day. When I’m on a highway now, I think a lot about physics. If you look at this very scientific website, it will show you how to calculate the stopping distance for a car at various speeds. At 75 mph, the total stopping distance, taking into account the reaction time of the driver, is about 433 feet. That’s assuming the driver reacts in 1 second. When I think about how distracted we all are with our lives, I’m surprised the highways don’t look like a big game of bumper cars. 433 feet is… well… a lot of feet.
I’ve ridden with people who consistently let the distance between their car and the car in front of them fall to within one car length (or around 15 feet) at a rate of 70-75 mph. I’ll let you do the math on that one.
I get it, though. Highways are efficient. They aid in distribution of goods. They connect regions to allow for free and unobstructed travel. But they’ve also increased our potential for carbon output, stolen our free time and called it a “commute,” and added a lot more stress to our lives.
Highways are not operating at a human speed, and they are not contributing to our human experience. They do not usually provide the best scenery through an area. They contribute to sprawl and disconnect neighborhoods when running through urban areas. Accidents happen, the speed of which results in horrific injuries and death.
When I am walking around my city or riding my bike, I feel safe and at one with my surroundings. I am part of the city, and it is part of me. Highways provide no such feeling of connectedness, only a feeling of isolation and sometimes hostility toward our fellow highway inhabitants.
I’ll take life in the slow lane any day and the highways only when I have to.