The not so crazy case for eliminating speed limits
HERE data scientists have uncovered the true average speed of vehicles on major highways throughout the world versus the average posted speed limit. As you will discover, actual speeds differ enormormously from city to city and actual speeds tend to be based on the efficiency of the road networks rather than the law.
According to the National Motor Museum Trust, back in 1896 Walter Arnold of East Peckham, Kent, was the first person in Britain to be charged for speeding. He was ticketed one shilling for traveling a whopping 15kph (9mph), exceeding the 3kph (2mph) limit at the time.
While we don’t dispute the significance and road safety benefits of maintaining speed limits, this blog post is for the Walter Arnold in all of us, for those who’ve been stuck in rush hour traffic on the highway muttering ‘I can walk faster than this!’
Our HERE data scientists harnessed the power of the company’s Real-Time Traffic product to analyze the average speed of vehicles versus the posted speed limits on highways around London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Walter Arnold would be none too pleased with this reality: on average, vehicles traveling on highways around London never reach the speed limit. That’s right, the average speed limit is approximately 103.30kph (64mph), yet vehicles reach an average speed of roughly 90kph (50mph) early morning, and sink to around 72kph (45mph) during rush hour.
Ahh Paris the magnificent “City of Light,” which in this instance can be attributed to car brake lights. Similar to London, those traveling by vehicles on highways around the city centre never reach the average speed limit during the week. While the average speed limit is approximately 93kph (58mph), vehicles reach a max average speed of roughly 90kph (56mph). The evening rush hour commute is even worse, vehicles average a measly 65kph (40mph) on the highway around 17:30.
The average posted speed limit on highways around Berlin is approximately 81kph (50mph). Drivers are able to average speeds far higher than the limit from 19:00 thru 6:00. We can then see a steep decrease in average speed during morning rush hour, from 6:00 to 10:00, before speeds reach just above the average speed limit around lunchtime, before dropping off again during evening rush hour where vehicles at 16:30 are creeping along at approximately 73kph (45mph).
Remarkably, on highways around Munich vehicles are on average going faster than the speed limit at all times of the day. Drivers reach a low speed of approximately 84kph (52mph) during evening rush hour, and a peak speed of nearly 105kph (65mph) late at night. To put it in perspective, the average lowest speed of vehicles in Munich is nearly equivalent to the highest average speed reached by drivers in London, Paris and Berlin.
New York City
New Yorkers hold many deserving titles, from their famed sports teams to style of pizza, but unfortunately for this analysis they are number one for vehicles traveling at the lowest average speed during rush hour, at approximately 64kph (40mph). In fact, vehicles only reach the average speed limit for less than 6 hours.
Similar to New Yorkers, Chicago residents face the dreaded trough in average vehicle speed during morning and evening rush hours, with speeds bottoming out at roughly 70kph (43mph) around 17:30, and reaching a high of approximately 96kph (60mph) in the middle of the night.
Los Angeles matches London for the highest average speed limit on surrounding highways; and similar to London, drivers in L.A. can’t quite reach the speed limit during the weekday. The average peak speed of vehicles in L.A. is approximately 101kph (63mph) at 5:00. Morning rush hour speeds bottom out at 80kph (50mph) around 8:00 before increasing to roughly 93kph (58mph) at noon, and then falling to a low of 67kph (42mph) during peak evening rush hour at 17:30.
This is what the average vehicle speeds look like in each city compared to one another, throughout the day.
Why the differences in speed?
So how come these major global cities have such variance in the average speed of vehicles? Well, it’s a complicated answer based on a dynamic set of variables that boils down to a road network’s ability to balance supply (capacity of transportation infrastructure across all modes) and demand (volume of individuals traveling particular routes at given times). Simplistically, when demand outweighs supply average traffic speeds lower and congestion occurs.
HERE 360 recently explored both the physics of traffic and psychology of traffic in great detail. All the while, since the early 1970s, academics, urban planners, engineers, mathematicians and economists have all scrutinized the relationship between supply and demand and traffic congestion. There are volumes of research papers on the topic – such as the U.S. Federal Highway Administration’s 100-plus page report, “Mitigating traffic congestion: the role of demand-side strategies” – in case you’re interested.
Now let’s all fast-forward to the decades ahead when vehicle connectivity, and ultimately full automation, will create remarkable new levers to balance road network supply and demand.
It’s an exciting time to be in the business of transportation and mobility.
Note on methodology
To create this analysis our team leveraged the historical traffic speed data from HERE Traffic Analytics, targeted at the highways (controlled access roads) of seven cities in the U.S. and Europe, averaged the speed data in 15-minute increments, and compared the averaged real-speed with the averaged speed limit. The range of the dataset is from November 2015 to January 2016, weekdays (Monday to Friday), and the peak hour data is from morning (7:00 to 9:00) and evening rush hours (17:00 to 19:00).
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