How to Drive Efficiently on the Streets

This is the next building block that comes after my tips on driving efficiently on the freeway/highway. I’m trying to share everything I know to transform driving from a wound up, stressful experience to an efficient and relaxing one.


After driving in Los Angeles all my life, one of the most congested cities in the world, it wasn’t until I started riding my bicycle on the streets that I realized how inefficient drivers (including me!) were generally behaving on the streets.  When I would be on my bike, I caught on really quickly that if I were coming up to a RED light, there was no need to pedal anymore.   I could simply stop pedaling and coast toward the intersection.  Why waste energy pedaling up to a red light?  So that I could arrive at the intersection faster only to come to a stop?

Funny enough, as I would coast toward a red light, cars would pass me and I could clearly hear their engines often accelerating toward the intersection as if they were blind to the fact that they have to brake very soon.  When I hopped back into my car, I realized that many of these cycling concepts are directly translatable to improving gas mileage and efficiency!

Why rush to this red light? You’re just getting in a line to get into another line. We’re all in the same boat.

1. It’s all about Average Speed, not “Top” speed

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The time it takes to get to your destination does not depend on you hitting any particular top-speed.  It is all about your average speed because you are constantly at the mercy of the traffic lights on the streets.  On the freeway, you’re at the mercy of other drivers getting in “your” way. (It’s not your road btw, we’re all in this together.)  Even if you are in the left lane (the ‘faster’ lane), you’re most probably just speeding to get to a red light faster.

In a perfect world, we’d have a nonstop ride to our destination. But we don’t!

2.  Your car uses the most fuel going from 0-25mph, so minimize the number of stops.

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A car engine uses the most fuel per distance covered when it’s accelerating from 0-25mph.  To maximize efficiency you need to minimize the number of stops you make.  You can do this by looking ahead, be aware whether the light is red or green and regulate your speed accordingly.  Please remember that a car engine idling at a red light is getting zero mpg.

When accelerating from a standstill, your engine needs to generate a tremendous amount of energy to get the car going. Accelerating with a very heavy foot (purple line) worsens efficiency even more.  The green line is moderate-acceleration and the red is light acceleration.

3. Stop following others like sheep and look BEYOND the car in front of you!

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There are traffic signals at nearly every block and people drive as if they don’t see the red lights in front of them.  And that’s because they DON’T!  Most people are automatically following the actions of the car that’s directly in front of them.

Instead, look far ahead and note the following:

It’s easy to tell if you’re going to come to a red light when you see this.

  1. Am I driving up to a red light?
    • If so, then ease off the throttle and adjust your cruising speed in such a way that the light will be green when you arrive.  If you take into account the time it takes for the stopped traffic to start moving again, even better!
  2. Am I driving up to a green light?
    • If it’s a green light ahead, great!  But can you see a countdown timer on the Pedestrian Crossing?  If it looks like you’re not going to cross the intersection in the number of seconds shown, then you should assume you’re going to have to stop so back off on the gas.

The point is, don’t be myopic.  Leave some distance between you and the car in front of you so you don’t have to immediately brake when they brake.  Don’t press the gas immediately if they press the gas.  Sounds ridiculous in writing how sheepish we are, but this is the reality.

4. Learn to Coast.

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For the love of efficiency, practice not pressing either of the pedals once in a while.

A lot of people seem to either be pressing the gas or pressing the brake.  Coasting means you are not pressing the gas and not pressing the brakes too.  When you see it’s a red light far up ahead, just coast and and let the car slow down gracefully so that it will take longer to arrive at the red light.  Ideally, by the time you get to the intersection, the light will have turned green and you wouldn’t have to accelerate up again from a fresh start.  The slower you drive, the smoother your ride will be with less stops.

Obviously you have to consider the people behind you and not do it too far ahead or else the drivers behind you will go APE-SHIT-BANANAS cause they’re so stressed out anyway.  But the point is, don’t mash on the brakes 50 feet before the traffic stop.

Note: This may sound like a REALLY simple thing but I OFTEN see people accelerating up to red lights all the time.

5. Slow down!  Consistently Drive at 35mph.  (Not 40-50mph in a 35!)

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If the posted speed limit is 35mph, almost everybody seems to be accelerating until they reach 45mph.  What’s the point of driving 45mph if you’re going to come to the same red light as the person who was driving 35mph?

Traffic signals are the great equalizer, constantly penalizing and ridiculing those who speed.

Everybody speeds beyond the speed limit because they think it’s going to help them get to their destination faster but in reality it does nothing but waste more gas, forces you to brake harder and come to a stop faster. Conversely, if you are looking ahead, driving slower and taking longer to get to red lights, you will actually have to spend less time at the red light, less time idling and actually increase your gas mileage dramatically.

An incredible side effect of driving efficiently: Less encounters with police officers

If you limit yourself to 55-60mph on the freeway and 35mph on the streets, you’ll never get a speeding ticket and you won’t give any reason to attract officers attention.  Cops are trained to notice people who are speeding.  You are literally invisible to them if you are a slow poke, obeying all the lights and just moseying along in the slow lane.

driving slow

tl;dr: SLOW DOWN.

These little things add up to make a big difference in smoothing out your entire ride.  Leaving some distance from the car in front of you and looking ahead to time the lights makes everything smoother, literally.  And don’t forget simple things like making sure your tires are properly inflated! (They probably aren’t and are reducing your fuel efficiency probably.)  If you enjoyed this article, check out the one about driving efficiently on the freeway!