Tortoise and Hare Effect: why fast driving in cities is dumb


The Tortoise and Hare Effect

I doubt I coined this phrase, but I’m 100% sure I’m not the first person to observe this phenomenon in action: The Tortoise and the Hare Effect.  Surely you know the classic fable, where a slow but determined tortoise beats a fast hare in a race because even though the hare is faster, the hare stops a lot while the tortoise plods along, eventually reaching his destination faster.  The fable is synthesized down to the maxim, “Slow and steady wins the race.” 

Anyone who has ridden a bike or driven a car in a city knows what I’m talking about:  You’re riding along, someone in a car passes you, you catch up to them at a stop sign or stop light.   Where in this story, the Hare stops to rest and relax because he is overconfident, the car stops because it has to wait for other cars.  The fact that this even happens shows the absurdity of having high speed limits and high design speeds in an urban environment. 

Speed + distance = time.

Higher vehicle speeds do allow drivers to reach their destinations faster, thus saving time, but that saved time is only allowed to amass when a vehicle is able to travel long distances without stopping, such as on interstates or highways with limited access points.  In cities, driving fast doesn’t make any sense, because you will inevitably have to stop for traffic control devices and other cars….over and over.  Ever heard the expression “Hurry up and wait”? This is that.

In a city, the distance factor is removed or at least devalued.  Sure, you can drive fast, but all you’re doing is racing to a stop light or racing to slow for a turning vehicle (basically…hurrying up to wait).  Even drivers will notice that on roads with 4 or more lanes, you’ll often be passed by a speeding driver only to catch up to that driver waiting at a  stoplight.  You may even overtake that driver, depending when the traffic light turns green.  Sure, driving faster may allow you reach a green light instead of a red one, but it’s statistically just as likely that you’ll reach a red light before it turns green. 

Even if driving fast in a city does buy you a few minutes, it’s certainly not worth the increased risk you pose to other road users, especially those walking, biking and using mobility aids.  The faster you drive, the smaller your range of vision is, the smaller the window of reaction time you have and the more distance your vehicle requires to stop (also, the more damage it will do if it doesn’t).  It’s objectively and measurably more dangerous in every way to drive fast in a city.  It’s simple physics. That’s why it doesn’t make any sense to drive fast in an urban environment, and that’s why it really doesn’t make any sense to design for high vehicle speeds in an urban environment. 

So why are speed limits still so high in cities, such as Baton Rouge?  That’s because engineers use an arcane and dangerous guideline for setting speed limits and design speeds of roads…

The 85th Percentile (insert ominous sound effects here.)

The 85th Percentile was based on a more than five decade-old study of rural highways in response to the onset and expansion of the interstate highway system. In theory, the 85th Percentile seeks to match the posted speed limit with the speed that most drivers are driving anyway, minimizing speed disparities between vehicles and, thus, the risk of collision. At the time, driving 50 or 60 mph flat-out scared some people, so they drove slower. On a rural highway, driving 25 when everyone else is driving 60 can be dangerous.

But in cities, it’s always dangerous to drive 60.  Consider what the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) has to say about it….”Using the 85th percentile speed to set speed limits on road segments may have unintended consequences. Raising the speed limit to match the 85th percentile speed may lead to higher operating speeds, and hence a higher 85th percentile speed.” In other words, higher speed limits lead to faster driving, which leads to a higher 85th Percentile reading, which leads to a higher speed limit, which leads to faster driving, and so on….For more information on how the 85th Percentile works, go here and here

The 85th Percentile has several fundamental flaws that should disqualify its use in an urban environment:

1.       It only counts “free-flowing” traffic.  It completely ignores cars turning on and off roads. This is a problem because cities have lots of intersections and driveways.  This is how you have a speed limit of 45 mph on Jefferson Hwy at Bocage, despite there being heavy traffic congestion there due to all the businesses and driveways.  If they counted all vehicles, not just free-flowing ones, and assigned a speed limit based on the data, the speed limit would be closer to 25, which would actually be appropriate for that environment.  Speaking of….

2.       It doesn’t take into account the surrounding environment.  It’s utilized the same on roadways with schools, parks, churches, bus stations, etc. as roads with long stretches of nothing.  Sure, engineers will tell you they account for those in other ways, but you don’t have to look very hard to find a 40, 45 or 50 mph speed limit next to a school or a park in Baton Rouge.  “Why is the speed limit so high next to that school?” people will ask.  “Because that’s how fast people are driving,” say the traffic engineers.  That’s the 85th Percentile in action.

3.       It doesn’t take into account people who walk, bike and use mobility aids, such as wheelchairs.  Simply put, it’s about moving cars and is not concerned with the effect of high speeds on vulnerable road users.

Engineers will say that simply lowering the speed limit isn’t enough to make people drive at slower, safer speeds.  They’re not wrong.  Road design features have every bit as much effect on driver behavior, if not more, than signage.  This is where advocates and engineers agree. Where we commonly disagree is what to do about it. There are two approaches:

  1. Engineering Approach - use 85th Percentile to set posted speed limit at what speed 85% of drivers are driving at or below. The primary function of the roadway is moving cars with safety coming in a distant second place (IF there’s money in the project budget…IF there’s sufficient right-of-way….IF it won’t impede vehicle traffic, etc).

  2. Safe Systems Approach - Set posted speed limit at what’s safe and appropriate and if people are consistently driving faster, implement design features that encourage people to drive slower, increasing safety. Safety is first and foremost. This approach is better in many ways for many reasons, however…

Engineers won’t even consider slowing traffic on the most dangerous streets, which they classify as “arterials” or “collectors.”  Why?  Because they carry the most cars.   The reason why certain streets need slower design speeds -volume of vehicle traffic- becomes the reason why they cannot have them.  This rationale is self-serving, self-defeating and leads to a circular logic that is rarely challenged from within the engineering community.  This is especially frustrating for advocates because, as we see all the time…


If it did, Baton Rouge, which is full of streets with high design speeds and subsequent high speed limits, would be congestion-free.  According to these same engineers, elected officials and the public in general, this is not the case. In fact, congestion was deemed so bad, that we all agreed to spend another $1 Billion over the next two decades to try and build our way out of it.  Will it work?  That’s another issue for another day.  (But no, it won’t. )

So what can be done?

We have to SLOW. THE. CARS.  We need a comprehensive vehicle speed reduction plan: 

a.       An updated Traffic Calming Manual which allows for calming measures on arterials and collectors and a greater focus on safety rather than consensus and road classification.

b.       Automated traffic enforcement, the proceeds of which are used for three purposes only:

           i.      Administrative/operating costs of the program

           ii.      Supplemental operating fund for law enforcement agencies’ traffic control divisions

       iii.      Implementation of road design changes that make roads and intersections less dangerous

c.       Updated road design standards which begin with safety of ALL road users and accommodate vehicle volume if possible….not the other way around

d.       Discontinue use of the 85th Percentile metric on all roads within municipal limits or at least supplement it with the Safe Systems Approach

 We need our city officials and elected leaders to have the courage and vision to understand that congestion does not result from slow cars; it results from too many cars.  High speeds can actually worsen congestion as they make crashes more frequent and severe and, ironically enough, cause chain-reactive “over-braking.” Now, will we stop trying to accommodate all the cars?  No.  Not in my lifetime.  But we have to be willing to examine decades of past experience when it comes to prioritization of vehicle volume and speed over roadway safety.  Baton Rouge roads didn’t become congested AND dangerous because we were doing things well.

There’s no reason we should be driving at highway speeds through neighborhoods.  Even if the speed limit sign says it’s ok, which it shouldn’t, it won’t do us any good.  Slow and steady wins the race, folks.   The humble Tortoise understood that.  Let’s not be like the Hare.  Life is hard enough without wasted effort.  And there’s no bigger waste of effort than racing to a red light. 

Doug Moore, Vice-President

Meet the Board - Elise Alexander

Did you know you can  bike  the Boston Marathon the night before? Elise did.

Did you know you can bike the Boston Marathon the night before? Elise did.

Where are you from?/ Where have you lived? How long have you been in Baton Rouge? I grew up in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. I moved to Cambridge, MA for college (and for the excellent bike lanes!) After graduating this May I traveled a bit, spent some time back in Colorado, and moved down to Baton Rouge in July.

Advocacy/volunteering/non-profit background: Advocacy-wise, I've worked in disability and education advocacy in activities from lobbying on Capitol Hill to writing letters of support/opposition on behalf of an organization to organizing community events to call and write to elected officials. I've also participated in my fair share of rallies and protests.

What do you like best about biking? What's your ideal bike ride or day of bike riding? I love how connected to my surroundings I feel when biking around. This is pretty specific, but the sounds you pick up on while out biking (versus when you're enclosed in a car and drown them out with the radio) always really excite me. It's neat to get that sense of your community in an otherwise-mundane task like commuting to work or running errands. I also love the feeling of pedaling hard up a hill and the sweet payoff of gliding back down - even in a relatively flat city!

The perfect day of riding for me would involve a bunch of good friends, not too much humidity, and some sweet views along the way. There'd be a picnic break at some point in there too. I also have a dream of biking to New Orleans and back...someday!

What would you, personally, like to do as a board member of Bike Baton Rouge? I'd like to help grow Bike BR's membership as both a community of people who like to ride and an engaged bunch of advocates who together can impact the biking landscape in this city. I'd also love to help grow the events Bike BR has put on in the past and think about ways to make them even better. As someone who just moved to Baton Rouge, I think these events have a lot of value in bringing people together to have a good time riding and to demonstrate the bike community of our town.

What would you like to see Bike Baton Rouge do over the next year? I would like to see the organization engage with people in Baton Rouge who might not, for a variety of reasons, see biking as a safe and viable way to get around and get outside. Part of that means advocating for expanded bike lanes, safe driving around bikers, and other concrete changes to improve the biking experience here. The part that excites me the most, though, is the cultural change around biking becoming a mainstream form of transit. I think that happens by building community through continued group riding and social media engagement, spreading the word about the great bike infrastructure that already is in place here, and growing a grassroots group of bikers that can lead this movement of safe and accessible biking around Baton Rouge.

PRESS RELEASE : Bike Baton Rouge Statement regarding North Boulevard bicycle fatality

PRESS RELEASE : Bike Baton Rouge Statement regarding North Boulevard bicycle fatality

Baton Rouge, LA

Bike Baton Rouge is deeply saddened to learn of the deaths of two bicyclists in separate incidents involving vehicles in Baton Rouge in the last twenty four hours. Bike Baton Rouge would like to extend our condolences to the friends and family of the victims.

The incidents (one on West Grant Street, and the second on North Boulevard) are still under investigation by police and no fault has yet been determined. Bike Baton Rouge notes, however, that Louisiana is the third deadliest state in the country for bicycle fatalities per a Center for Disease Control study. Baton Rouge largely lacks sufficient bicycling infrastructure, something the upcoming bicycle master plan hopes to resolve.

“If people in Baton Rouge had bike lanes or other facilities to get around town safely and easily there’d be less risk, fewer injuries and fatalities, as well as better experiences for both drivers and bicyclists.” said Bike Baton Rouge President Mika Torkkola,

Bike Baton Rouge provides safety tips for both bicyclists and motorists at, but Torkkola notes that they're a less than ideal solution to a problem that could be better solved by doing a better job separating vulnerable road users, such as bicyclists, from cars.

For more information, visit, look up Bike Baton Rouge on facebook, or email Bike Baton Rouge at

Mika Torkkola
225 571 2906

Bike Baton Rouge is a local non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization and has been dedicated to making bicycling trips in Baton Rouge safer and more enjoyable since 2006.

Fall Newsletter: It's a long one....but please read

Hey bike folks!  It's been a busy summer with a lot going on!  Since we don't do email blasts often, the ones we do are full of info!  So til the end.  

Bike the US for MS is a non-profit raising money and awareness  for Multiple Sclerosis.  A group of them will be biking from California to Florida and are stopping through BR Oct 14 - 16.  They need places to stay.  If you can host some riders on 10/14 and 10/15, please contact them.   Also, there will be fundraiser for their sister organization at Radio Bar on Sept 15 from when doors open til 9 pm. Facebook event for that is here

Halloween is a comin'!  If you'd like to volunteer to help lead the Pumpkin Pi Race - Oct 27, 7:30 AM, please sign up here (4 people needed).  If you'd like to ride in the Halloween Parade downtown on Oct 27 - 4:00 PM, please sign up here.  We'll coordinate a costume theme prior to the event.  We try to get between 10 - 20 people.

Cemetery Ride - Velo de los Muertos! is a really fun ride where we see many of the historic cemeteries around town.  It's a slow, easy-paced ride.  Bring your cameras, water and snacks!  

Front Yard Bikes - FYB just finished its awesome bike rim igloo sculpture by the Knock Knock Children's Museum.  The Capital Heights Social Ride will be swing by there this Wednesday to check it out.  Also FYB at Mid City will now be open on Mondays from 12 - 6 to accommodate increased demand. 

Capital Cyclery - Capital Cyclery is now in Gonzales too!  Very awesome to see Cap Cyc generating enthusiasm for biking to our neighbors to the southeast!    

Infrastructure update:

  • the path alongside River Road, from the Florida Blvd trailhead at the levee going north to the Hollywood Casino has reached substantial completion! 
  • Construction on the missing section of the Levee path from Farr Park to Ben Hur was scheduled to begin last week.  It did not.  We're trying to get more information on a new projected start date.  Project is slated to take one year once started.  Once finished, there will be 13 miles of car free continuous path alongside the Mighty Mississip!  Pretty cool stuff.
  • The Gardere Lane project is seeking its last bit of matching funding from the Metro Council, which is meeting 9/26 to discuss.  Please take time to contact your Council Member and voice support and if you are able, to attend the public meeting on 9/26.  
  • The streets connecting Southdowns and Woodgate/Pollard neighborhoods are just about complete!  There is one small section (a design element, perhaps) that is missing by N. Pointer Ct. but other than that, it is now possible to ride (on asphalt) from Southdowns to Kenilworth without ever having to use Perkins or Highland.  Very exciting.

Interstate 10 widening project - as many of you have heard, DOTD is planning to widen the interstate from the "new" bridge to the 10/12 split.  They've already had their round of public meetings, but they've extended public comment period until 9/12.  PLEASE write in, asking them to keep the bike/pedestrian design elements they have included thus far and add bike/pedestrian elements they've so far omitted, such as sidewalk along the east side of S. Acadian and along College Dr.  DOTD has a habit of including nice design elements to garner public support for projects only for those elements to be eliminated later in the project due to faulty cost projections.

MOVEBR - the Mayor's office and DTD is pushing a new sales tax that will fund road projects for the next 30 years.  The public will vote on it in December.  Details of the plan can be found here.  The list of projects included in the document will NOT change.  As a 501c3, we won't say whether or not you should support it, but please do familiarize yourself with the details of the plan so you can make an informed choice in December.

Cranksgiving!  November 17, City Park - We'll send out another email closer to the event, but please save the date!

Light the Night - Thanks to all of you, we raised enough $  to buy 1000 light sets!  So far we've given out a little over half to the following organizations:  Front Yard Bikes, Open Air Bike Repair, Capital Area Alliance for Homeless, St. Vincent de Paul, It Takes a Village, BRPD, LSUPD... plus, some regular folks have volunteered to be Bike Light Ambassadors and are giving out lights to people they see riding at night.  If you'd like to be an Ambassador, please contact us -  

Yeah Bike! t-shirts - we still have a few of the Yeah Bike! limited edition t-shirts left, awesomely designed by a grant from Giraphic Prints.  If you haven't gotten yours yet, there's still time!  

 LCI Certification - Would you like to be a League Certified Bicycle Instructor?!  There are dreadful few of them in this area.  Go here to register for Traffic Safety 101, which is a prerequisite.  Click here to register for LCI training.  There are even scholarships available to the first few who sign up!  Registration closes 9/14.

Critical Mass is Back!  Though not an official Bike Baton Rouge event, Critical Mass meets the last Friday of every month at 5:45 at the LSU Clock Tower.  It's a really fun way to start the weekend and a great way for bike riders to make ourselves "big" enough that we can ride anywhere in the city safely.  

 Next meeting - Our next All-members, open meeting will be Thursday 9/20 at 6:30 PM, location TBD.  If you've got a good space for about 25 people to meet in relative quiet and perhaps enjoy an adult beverage, or if you have agenda items, please let us know-

Phew!! You made it.  Thanks to everyone for wanting to be involved and for being awesome in general!  Yeah Bike!!

Designed to Fail


Does it ever seem like certain streets and intersections were designed to be dangerous for those who walk and bike?  Well....they were.  Maybe not intentionally, but they most definitely were.  In many cities across the county, transportation officials, planners and engineers are figuring out ways to make their cities more hospitable to those who walk and bike.  As we've mentioned many, many times, this approach is a great investment.  Why are some cities making such great strides when Baton Rouge remains stagnant?

It all comes down to this: finding ways to accomplish things versus finding reasons not to.  

There exist a number of road design guidelines and regulations that engineers cite when explaining why there can't be a crosswalk where it's needed, why your neighborhood can't have traffic calming measures or why there are speed limits of 45 or 50 mph in the middle of dense urban neighborhoods.   Engineers will argue that they can't institute design reform, as that would compromise "level of service" or "capacity."  Level of service for whom?  Capacity for whom?  Well.... guess.  

These regulations result in arterial roadways with very high traffic speeds that are virtually impossible to cross safely on foot....neighborhood streets with hundreds of cars traveling too fast....successful bike/pedestrian improvement demonstration projects that are rolled back or never made permanent....and needlessly dangerous streets, making Baton Rouge one of the most dangerous cities in the country for people who walk and bike.  

Click the box below to see which regulations both at the local and state level are hindering efforts to advance the Complete Streets mission.  It doesn't have to be this way.  Guidelines and regulations can change.  And if Baton Rouge is going to become a safer, more enjoyable place for people to walk and bike, they'll need to.  Soon.

**An earlier version of Designed to Fail included outdated information on parking minimums.  Most of the reforms we called for have already been implemented in recent years.  More on that in a later report...