Bay Area drivers might have to slow down in order to speed up efforts to improve the region’s air quality.
Faced with state requirements to reduce greenhouse gases by 15 percent over the next 23 years, several pollution-mitigation efforts are being considered, including reducing the speed limit to 55 mph on Bay Area freeways.
Dropping the maximum limit by 10 mph could reduce emissions 6 percent by 2035 — the equivalent of taking 300,000 cars off the road, said Amir Fanai of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Research shows vehicles are most environmentally efficient when they travel between 40 and 55 mph, Fanai said. Accelerating by just 10 mph — from 55 to 65 — can double emissions, he said.
“A good portion of the Bay Area travel is on the freeway, and a good portion of that is spent moving over 55 mph,” Fanai said. “If we could reduce the speed limit by 10 mph, it would have a major impact on our air quality.”
The speed limit change is part of Plan Bay Area, an extensive carbon-reduction program overseen by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments, two regional groups. Under state Senate Bill 375, passed in 2008, the Bay Area must reduce its greenhouse gases 7 percent by 2020 and 15 percent by 2035. Other measures also are being considered to meet those mandates.
Howard Strassner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, said the speed limit initiative is “certainly worth a try.”
Paul Doherty, who commutes every day between Walnut Creek and Sunnyvale, said the plan could just be a ploy to collect more speeding tickets for the state.
“I’m stuck in traffic half the time, so I take full advantage when the freeways aren’t packed,” Doherty said. “I think the plan could actually cause safety hazards, because the flow of traffic just naturally moves faster than 55. It will definitely be a pain for me.”
Doherty added that he thinks, given the progressive nature of the Bay Area, there is a chance commuters would support the plan.
John Goodwin, a spokesman for the MTC, stressed that the agency has not recommended the speed limit reduction, but is merely gathering feedback. That plan is one of many options — including car-sharing and electric vehicle programs — to reduce emissions.
Scott Wiener, a San Francisco supervisor who sits on the MTC’s planning committee, said he would be surprised if the speed limit was changed.
Elon Steers, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, said changing the speed limit would likely require state legislation. Goodwin said the MTC has not explored that side of the plan.
For the next year, Plan Bay Area will be discussed with various communities. A vote on the initiative is scheduled for 2013.
A state Senate bill gave California required target years for emissions reductions.
7% Mandatory greenhouse gas reduction by 2020
15% Mandatory reduction by 2035
6% Reduction if freeway speed limit is lowered to 55 mph
300K Equivalent number of cars removed from road with 6 percent reduction
Sources: MTC, air quality district