MELISSA BLOCK, host:
There are things that individual drivers can do to improve fuel efficiency, such as driving less aggressively and at lower speeds. But there are also things that government can do to cut gas consumption by changing the roadways.
And for some of those ideas, we turn to Ian Lockwood. He's a traffic engineer and partner with Glatting Jackson, a community planning design firm. He joins us from Orlando, Florida.
Thanks for being with us.
Mr. IAN LOCKWOOD (Traffic Engineer): My pleasure.
BLOCK: And one idea for something that government could do would be to lower the speed limit. Is the optimal speed for fuel efficiency in fact 55 miles an hour, as we've been taught?
Mr. LOCKWOOD: Yeah, on the interstates 55 miles an hour would have large effects on efficiency. When we went up to 70 miles an hour, both efficiency went down and safety went down.
BLOCK: So this one idea of something that could help on the highways, but if you talk about cities and traffic patterns and cities, what things might government be thinking about, of ways to improve gas consumption?
Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, there's little operational things that local governments can do, like not put up unwarranted stop signs due to political pressure, for example, or unwarranted signals. Those sorts of things make people stop unnecessarily.
BLOCK: And stopping is bad?
Mr. LOCKWOOD: Yeah, you use a lot of energy slowing down and then speeding back up again. What we're really after in cities is a kind of slow, steady speed profile instead of this up and down speed profile.
BLOCK: I'm sure there are a lot of competing interests that come in here because people in those neighborhoods would say stop signs are good, they slow people down, we don't want people racing through here, we want them to have a stop sign.
Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, they certainly slow down in the vicinity of the stop sign, but they tend to speed up even higher in between.
BLOCK: I can imagine a lot of our listeners sitting, probably many of them is in their cars right now in traffic, listening to this discussion about changing roadways and thinking, well, you know, we're nibbling around the edges of the real problem here, which is that we're in our cars too much. Is there one sort of big behemoth idea that would really be a big fix?
Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, at the local level, changing signals to roundabouts would be a big change, and then at the end of the spectrum investing federal money into reducing vehicle miles traveled, instead of building more highways, would make a big difference.
BLOCK: Well, let's take both of those on. When you say changing traffic signals to roundabouts, what do you mean?
Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, traffic signals are designed to stop traffic. There's always two approaches that have a red light, so most of the times somebody stops at a signal. Roundabouts, on the other hand, the traffic keeps moving, so consequently they use a lot less fuel. And it's nice also that there's probably 50 percent fewer collisions and probably 80 to 90 percent fewer deaths and injuries at roundabouts compared to traffic signals.
BLOCK: So that's one idea, and the other you mentioned was?
Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, right now our federal government spends a lot of money rewarding the problem by extending and widening freeways, which promotes sprawl. And if the federal government would reward public transport and sidewalk building and other fuel-reducing practices, we would all be a lot better off.
BLOCK: And most of the way things are designed now clearly is to cater to drivers, to people in their cars.
Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, even things like subsidized parking. You know, I'll take the bus to go grocery shopping for, you know, the odd little item, and I'll pay the same for my groceries as somebody who's parking in the parking lot.
BLOCK: I'm curious, Ian, in the work you do, we are so much a car culture. We love our cars. We like big cars. We don't want to pay for things in our cars. Do you find yourself just beating your head against the wall when you're confronting attitudes like this?
Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, not anymore. I sold my car and bought a Vespa, and it's now costing me just over $6 to fill it up every two weeks. And when I'm next to the SUV guy, he's very interested in what I'm talking about.
BLOCK: And what about city planners?
Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, I think city planners understand what's going on. I think the traffic engineering community has a bit of catching up to do, and I think a lot of the big business lobby groups have a lot of catching up to do. But I think most pro-city people understand what's going on and a lot of what we're talking about increases efficiencies in so many different ways, from land use planning to, you know, getting houses next - near to jobs, and schools in the right places, this sort of thing. It all just makes a lot of sense. And the bottom line is that it's all more fuel efficient too.
BLOCK: Okay, Ian Lockwood, thanks so much.
Mr. LOCKWOOD: Oh, you're welcome.
BLOCK: Ian Lockwood is a traffic engineer and a partner with Glatting Jackson. It's a community planning design firm.
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