Archive for June, 2008

The Curious Psychology of Bumper Stickers

While I was out of the country, a new study on bumper stickers was hitting the media. As it touches upon on a number of things discussed in Traffic, the study, “Territorial Markings as a Predictor of Driver Aggression and Road Rage,” by William J. Szlemko, Jacob A. Benfield, Paul A. Bell, Jerry L. Deffenbacher, and Lucy Troup, all of Colorado State University, was right up my alley.

The study, published in the June issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, essentially seeks to explain what part of aggressive driving behavior might be caused by the very environment of traffic, and the way we understand it and inhabit it. Working partly from a previous theory (i.e., I. Altman, The Environment and Social Behavior), the authors delineate the different types of space we inhabit: Primary, Secondary, and Public. A primary territory would be one’s home; a secondary would be a space one inhabits temporarily (the office); while public territory would be a park bench. One interesting source of tension noted by Altman is when one type of space (primary) is adjacent to another (public). When these are adjacent, “the potential for miscommunication and conflict increases as a result of confusion of social norms for each territory type.”

This is exactly the kind of situation we have in traffic: We sit in our own cars, occasionally acting like they are rooms closed off from the rest of the world; but most of the time we drive, save for our own garage, we drive in a public setting. As the authors note, however, some “boundary confusion” exists: “How many times have drivers uttered the phrase ‘He just got into my lane?’ ”

If one of the hallmarks of primary space is a tendency to mark it in some way, to define one’s territory, the authors speculated, then the opportunity for boundary confusion might be highest among those most committed to marking territoriality over their primary space. Thus, they argued, people who personalized their vehicles, and reported showing the most attachment to their vehicles, would act most aggressively to defend their territory in the transitional spaces of traffic.

And this is precisely what they found, in a self-reported survey of college students: “Both number of territory markers (e.g., bumper stickers, decals) and attachment to the vehicle were significant predictors of aggressive driving.”

While I found the study novel in its approach, and its implications fascinating, I was left with a few questions. (more…)

Posted on Monday, June 30th, 2008 at 1:55 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Don’t Just Drive Less. Drive Smarter.

I’ve got a very short piece in today’s New York Times, part of a roundup of writers responding to high fuel prices.

Studies have shown significant increases in fuel economy are achievable simply by changes in driving style (a few things got cut from this piece, by the way, including an obvious one: Cruise control aids MPG — but not cruise control at 70 mph).

One question, of course, is exactly how much a price increase is necessary to spur changes — not to mention those changes are tough to measure. But an interesting study (download PDF) by Kara Kockelman and Matthew Bomberg of the University of Texas of drivers in Austin, Tx., during the 2005 gas price spike reported: “Adjustments in style of driving also appear to be a viable strategy of coping with high gas prices, as significant percentages reported increased attention to vehicle maintenance (presumably to ensure peak fuel efficiency), driving slower, and driving at steadier speeds.” Work by Phil Goodwin has also found fuel consumption tends to drop further than miles driven in response to rises in the real cost of fuel, indicating alterations to driving style.

The Australian study I refer to in the piece was conducted by the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, comparing a Ford Falcon with a Mazda Astina. If you’re still not convinced about the driving style argument, consider this note from the researchers: “A large vehicle driven conservatively can now better the fuel economy of a small car driven aggressively.”

The RACV “Fuel Smart” trial was cited within another interesting Australian study (download here), by Narelle Haworth and Mark Symmons of Monash University, titled “The Relationship Between Fuel Economy and Safety Outcomes.” Looking at a pool of fleet vehicles, they came to an interesting, though perhaps not surprising, conclusion: “The fuel consumption rate of crash-involved vehicles was higher than that of vehicles not involved in crashes.” (more…)

Posted on Sunday, June 29th, 2008 at 8:13 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Sounding One’s Own Horn, Part II

A few more early reviews have come in, including a starred review from Library Journal.

“Fascinating… could not have come at a better time.” Library Journal.

While Business Week notes, “Tom Vanderbilt uncovers a raft of counterintuitive facts about what happens when we get behind the wheel, and why.”

And while we’re indulging in this orgy of self-promotion, let’s not forget the original good words that will adorn the book back’s jacket:

“Tom Vanderbilt is one of our best and most interesting writers, with an extraordinary knack for looking at everyday life and explaining, in wonderful and entertaining detail, how it really works. That’s never been more true than with Traffic, where he takes a subject that we all deal with (and worry about), and lets us see it through new eyes. In the process, he helps us understand better not just the highway, but the world. It doesn’t matter whether you drive or take the bus–you’re going to want to read this book.”
–James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds

“A great, deep, multidisciplinary investigation of the dynamics and the psychology of traffic jams. It is fun to read. Anyone who spends more than 19 minutes a day in traffic should read this book.”
–Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author The Black Swan

“Fascinating, illuminating, and endlessly entertaining as well. Vanderbilt shows how a sophisticated understanding of human behavior can illuminate one of the modern world’s most basic and most mysterious endeavors. You’ll learn a lot; and the life you save may be your own.”
–Cass R. Sunstein, coauthor of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

“Everyone who drives–and many people who don’t–should read this book. It is a psychology book, a popular science book, and a how-to-save-your-life manual, all rolled into one. I found it gripping and fascinating from the very beginning to the very end.”
–Tyler Cowen, author of Discover Your Inner Economist

Posted on Saturday, June 28th, 2008 at 1:04 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Pastel Highways

“In an age when highway designers seriously considered paving the lanes of limited-access highways in pastel colors so that women drivers might negotiate them without collision—according to Carl Stelling in ‘Designing for the Ladies,’ a 1958 article on the challenges women faced on divided highways, ‘an extra, slow-speed, truckless lane would be provided for women who become nervous at high speeds’ — imagining the design of intersections of twelve-lane highways for women drivers taxed male imagination.”

That’s from John Stilgoe’s quixotic but fascinating Train Time.

Posted on Friday, June 27th, 2008 at 1:30 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Men With the Horns

Like Aaron Naparstek, I don’t much like car horns. Particularly in New York, where they seem to be used — almost always inappropriately — at a higher frequency than comparatively honkless cities like Los Angeles.

But lately there’s one place I’ve been enjoying the cacophony of automobile horns: My stereo. I missed this when it came out last year, but now Por Por: Honk Horn Music of Ghana, by The La Drivers Union Por Por Group, has been on heavy rotation. As recorded and documented by noted ethno-musicographer Steven Feld, and published by Smithsonian’s Folkways, the album documents an obscure musical form borne from the daily rhythms of Ghanaian traffic life, as experienced by drivers of the vehicles known as “tro-tros.” It’s exuberant, infectious, and unlike the guy behind you as the light turns to green, surprisingly pleasant to the ears. (more…)

Posted on Friday, June 27th, 2008 at 8:17 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I unfortunately wasn’t able to check out the recent show Pavement Paradise: American Parking Space at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Los Angeles, but I’ve just ordered the compact companion volume and have been flipping through it.

Having read a lot about parking, much of it was familiar to me, but I was still able to glean some odd and interesting facts:

* Parking lot designed is influenced by the average turning radius of vehicles (an inside diameter of 15 feet).

* Lot movement is generally counterclockwise so that right-hand turns can be made without crossing lanes.

* By the year 1961, 38% of downtown L.A. was parking lots.

* 24 inches between vehicles is the recommended minimum (the average space is 7 feet, nine inches’ wide).

* Spiral ramps are more dangerous than other configurations.

* The “dump time,” or the amount of time it takes to empty a major lot (like after a concert) should not exceed one hour, or drivers will get nervous.

* Retail parking is typically three times the size of the retail itself.

Also, parking-heads should not miss the excellent short film by Ryan Griffis of the Temporary Travel Office.

Posted on Wednesday, June 25th, 2008 at 1:59 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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In a recent post over at Freakonomics titled “What Exactly Concerns Us About Gas Prices?”, I was struck by this note, from the comments: “The price for gas is displayed loudly at gas stations (unlike any other product or utility we buy – quick, how much do you pay per kW-h for electricity?). This extreme price advertising leads us to view the price of gasoline differently than prices for other goods: we track pennies of difference between gasoline vendors and will cross town to save a nickel per gallon. For what other product would we drive across town to take advantage of what equates to a “1% off sale”?

I’m always intrigued by moments of irrationality in traffic. We risk our lives by driving at higher speeds to “save time,” instead of simply wasting less time during other activities with less direct bearing on our life and limbs (e.g., standing in front of the supermarket freezer choosing ice cream). But the commenter’s reference to driving “across town” reminded me of the classic discussion of “mental accounting” by the behavioral economist Richard Thaler. Using surveys that asked whether people would “drive across town” to save $5 on a particular item, he found that people were more likely to do so when the cost of the item was $15, rather than $125 — even though the absolute savings was exactly the same.

As a New Yorker, my rules on gas purchasing are pretty simple… (more…)

Posted on Tuesday, June 24th, 2008 at 1:10 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Most Dangerous Place to Drive in California

According to the state’s Office of Traffic Safety, the most dangerous spot (according to 2005 stats; takes a while to tally these up and analyze presumably) to drive in California is…

Malibu. It was tops out of 105 cities of its size across the state (and based on vehicle miles traveled). I was a admittedly a bit surprised, but upon further reflection there’s little surprise. It’s not hard to puzzle out the reasons: Speed, booze, and distraction. The Pacific Coast Highway runs right through residential and often crowded areas; although the speed is marked for an already high 45 mph, as the road is engineered to highway standards there’s little immediate incentive for drivers to slow (watch here to see the speed limit compliance patterns of California drivers in action).

Then there’s the alcohol factor — people coming off the beaches are often more than a little liquored up (and let’s not forget that Mel Gibson, who told police he ‘owns Malibu,’ was busted for drunk driving after a night at Moonshadows; the fact that Gibson could have killed someone got rather overshadowed in the hue and cry over his drunken rantings to the cops).

Posted on Monday, June 23rd, 2008 at 10:41 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Air Traffic

In the sort of urban future envisioned by Buckminster Fuller and others, urban traffic congestion would be conquered by personal flying cars, which could use all that empty vertical space to avoid gridlock. There’s something of that spirit found in contemporary Brazil. Sao Paolo, which has legendary traffic, also has some of the highest helicopter traffic rates in the world, as Tom Phillips reports in this Guardian podcast. Wealthy Paulistas, it seems, eschew the city’s cluttered roads, whisking from helipad to helipad, turning two hour slogs into 17-minute jaunts.

I couldn’t help notice one strange detail, lurking in the captions accompanying the wonderful photographs by Eduardo Martino. One of the frequent destinations of helicopters, it seems, is a place called “Alphaville.” It’s a luxury exurb, begun in the 1970s, that seems something of a piece with J.G. Ballard’s Super-Cannes. I know that real estate naming schemes are often risibly pompous or woefully inaccurate, but there’s something astoundingly perverse in naming a city that shares its namesake with the dystopian metropolis of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film, a place where emotion is banned and absolute conformity assured. Then again, the motto of Alphaville in the film is “Silence – Logic -Safety – Prudence,” (these are not necessarily overabundant qualities in Sao Paolo) so maybe the developers were sticking closer to Godard’s vision than we know. I’m just not so sure about that “silence” bit with all the helicopter traffic.

Posted on Monday, June 23rd, 2008 at 9:20 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Boy Racers

I went karting earlier this week in London, at the excellent Docklands Raceway in Greenwich, with the fine folks at Penguin and a number of intrepid, lead-footed souls from the top UK bestsellers (Waterstone’s, WH Smith, Borders, etc.). The kindly track manager told us only afterwards (thankfully), as we sipped Peronis in the bar, that in one instance a kart (they can go 45 mph) had flipped, albeit at a former facility, and the driver had to be air-lifted to the hospital.

The evening wasn’t intended as a study of driving behavior, but it was hard not to notice the gender disparity in the race results: i.e., the top finishers, in total laps, with a few exceptions, were largely male. Whether this has to do with skills per se, risk-taking, or just cultural pressure and expectation is a huge, messy issue that I won’t plunge into here. But studies bear out that males, by just about every objective external measure (speed, following distance, etc.) drive more aggressively. Perhaps some of this is hard-wired. The noted psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, for example, has noted in his controversial book The Essential Difference, that when a group of plastic cars are left for tots to play around with, the boys tend to do things like start ramming into one another, while the girls tend to ride around more carefully — when they can actually get a car (this raises a potential topic for a study: Do societies with higher numbers of women drivers have superior traffic safety records than those more dominated by men?).

And it was certainly the men who were getting into more scrapes at the Docklands (I myself netted what was said to be the evening’s only “black flag,” for having passed another racer under a yellow flag condition; I blamed, weakly, insufficient knowledge of the rules). Whatever this evening proved or disproved about gender and driving, I was reminded of a finding by the U.K. Driving Standards Agency: Males tend to have a higher pass rate on their “practical” driving tests (the in-car portion), suggesting confidence and perhaps higher ability; but ironically, the ones who do best tend to have the highest accident rates. Driving “skill” is a mixed blessing indeed.

Posted on Friday, June 20th, 2008 at 2:17 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Notes from London

Apologies for the lack of new postings, but I’ve finally returned to New York after a week in London and various outposts in the British Midlands. London is a fascinating place, traffic-wise, and I’ve a few lingering thoughts and questions.

That Petrol Emotion. As in the U.S., there was much grumbling over high fuel prices (and Glaswegian transport minister Tom Harris got in a spot of controversy when he suggested Britons were a bit too pessimistic about their economic prospects). What makes gas-grumbling interesting in the U.K. is that fuel prices are three times higher to begin with. Add London’s congestion charges, the U.K.’s higher user and licensing fees, and driving in the U.S., four bucks a gallon or not, looks like a relative bargain (which it is, when one considers the work by Mark DeLucchi that finds U.S. drivers under-paying their way on the road systems by anywhere from 20 to 70 cents per gallon). And speaking of relative bargains, Tim Shallcross, in an interesting piece in the Times of London, makes the simple, if often overlooked, point that gas, as a commodity, varies hugely in price around the world (more so than when compared to, say, beer). “If fuel for transport is so vital for the world economy,” he writes, “wouldn’t it make sense to have some sort of global standard price that we all recognise as fair and sustainable? Then we would all have the same incentives to use it efficiently and wisely.” But, until now at least, there’s been precious little incentive to use fuel efficiently and wisely in the U.S., and even less so in subsidized fuel hotspots like China or Venezuela.

Why Do London Taxi Drivers Hate the Congestion Charge? I spend a fair amount of time in cabs around the world, and I always have questions. Like Koranteng, I often wonder about the “eccentric” braking styles of their drivers. I also often wonder why taxis seem much nicer in countries outside the U.S., even countries with a lower standard of living, as in the Mercedes one sees in Morocco; or why the drivers often seem so much more professional elsewhere (e.g., the white-gloved drivers of Japan). Does our heavier reliance on the private car culturally or economically diminish the taxi market? Do the wages in the U.S. for drivers consign it to being an only entry level sort of job, and is there an ownership issue, in which cabbies here simply rent their rides and have no incentive to fastidiously clean and service them? (Theories welcome!).

But in London, I’m constantly puzzled as to why, when I ask drivers about congestion charging, they invariably seemed opposed. Unless I’m misunderstanding taxi-nomics, I’ve always thought drivers (because of the lucrative initial surchage) made more money the more passengers they carried. The quicker you can get one out, the quicker you can get one one in. Less congestion on streets means faster trips, and more passengers. Faster flower traffic makes taxis themselves more enticing for would-be customers. Less congestion also means drivers themselves spend less on fuel (though London’s black cabs only manage a rather poor 18 mpg). And drivers, who are exposed to higher-than-normal amounts of emissions, would see a personal health benefit from less congestion.

The most common response from drivers is: It’s not working. “London’s still congested,” they say. The obvious problem is the reliability of drivers’ own windshield perspectives, versus the hard data of traffic counts and flows (which do generally show reductions, if not always by envisioned targets). Another issue is the drivers’ antipathy, as a political class, towards ex-Mayor Livingstone, for making them do things like install catalytic converters on their vehicles at a stiff price. Are they going to show him any joy, no matter how much faster their journey? I generally found it fairly easy to get around town, as compared to New York City, and this despite the huge presence of road works that were going on. The photo below shows a typical project (London’s aging pipes are said to lose as much water as people consume). What would congestion levels be like without congestion charging, one wonders? Would these projects have even been possible without inducing a colossal miasma?

Posted on Friday, June 20th, 2008 at 12:23 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Tales from the Congestion Zone

Two quick notices today from London as I navigate inside the congestion charging zone (which today, ironically, was overwhelmed with traffic due to street closures caused by the visit of George Bush). I passed this lovely little blue service station (open since 1926) today in Bloomsbury, which was said to have recently closed, a victim of declining business due to the onset of congestion charging. The word is that demolition is imminent, though it seems a natural for adaptive reuse as a lounge or cafe (special “high-octane drinks”, etc.).

Another bit of news comes from The Times. Apparently, in a sign of “unintended consequences,” parking garages in central London are finding it harder to maintain high capacities of vehicles, so in a novel scheme, variable pricing (based on demand) is being introduced. Prices, the article notes, could go as low as 20 p per hour (roughly 38 cents or so). I’m not quite sure why is this presented as being so unexpected, as wouldn’t one expect lower demand for parking as traffic levels decrease? Of course, if low parking prices merely offset congestion charges, traffic levels may accordingly creep back up. Such is the sticky wicket of supply and demand that traffic planners must negotiate. But it’s not hard to imagine a retraction in the parking garage business.

Still, gas stations and parking garages are hardly beloved icons of urban life, and, much as urban horse stables were slowly converted to residential housing as the automobile eclipsed the horse as the city transport system of choice, so too may these and other auto-based structures begin to decline in cities as they aim to curtail car traffic (one imagines some future tourist quizzically peering at a blue English heritage plaque on the side of a former parking garage).

Posted on Monday, June 16th, 2008 at 12:19 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Penguins, Pelicans, Puffins

Next week I’ll be inside “the zone” in London, meeting with the good folks at Penguin, doing a bit of Top Gear-style go-karting, going up to Nottingham to take the ‘theory test’ at the Driving Standards Agency, traffic-spotting some favorite puffin and pelican crossings, zipping round London with some big-brained taxi drivers, and basically trying not to let happen to me what happened to Winston Churchill when he came to Liberty City, er, New York.

Posting may be erratic, and it will definitely be English…

Posted on Friday, June 13th, 2008 at 11:50 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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In Defense of Traffic Cops

An astute reader named Paul writes with this query: “I work on 34th Street in Manhattan and watch traffic “cops” direct traffic as I walk to my office. As far as I can tell, these officers have nothing but a negative impact; they confuse drivers and pedestrians alike and simply offer no value above what traffic lights do. I understand the idea of having a police presence, say, on a parade day, but why always? Do you have any thoughts on this?”

The first thing to note is that in the world of traffic, every case needs to be taken on its own; so without extensive study of the flows and geometries of that particular intersection, it would be hard to offer concrete analysis. And I’ve not seen hard-core studies analyzing human control versus signalized control (but if anyone has, please let me know).

The second thing is that I’m instinctively sympathetic with traffic cops; after all, the only thing more dangerous than driving in traffic is standing in the middle of it. I must have spent an hour watching the police in Hanoi do their work at a massively tricky crossing, as pictured above. And Paul, you may feel better about the NYPD’s traffic cops after reading this New York Times piece.

But the question raises a number of interesting issues…

Posted on Friday, June 13th, 2008 at 8:02 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic On the Road

I’ll be hitting the road next month, and if I’m coming through one of your locales, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. If you’re a journalist or radio/tv producer and would like to set something up, please contact Gabrielle Brooks at Knopf.

Here’s the schedule as it stands so far:

Monday, July 28 and 29 NEW YORK

Wednesday, July 30 BOSTON

Thursday, July 31 WASHINGTON, D.C.

Friday, August 1 PHILADELPHIA

Monday, August 4 MINNEAPOLIS

Tuesday, August 5 MINNEAPOLIS

Wednesday, August 6 CHICAGO

Thursday, August 7 TORONTO

Friday, August 8 ATLANTA

Tuesday, August 12 SEATTLE

Wednesday, August 13 SEATTLE

Thursday, August 14 SAN FRANCISCO

Friday, August 15 LOS ANGELES

August 24th through Thursday, August 28th: The United Kingdom.

Posted on Thursday, June 12th, 2008 at 8:08 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Reports

There’s one word that’s never used in this lengthy New York Times piece about the impact high-fuel prices are having in rural areas: Carpool. When will we stop treating driving to work alone as a constitutional right?

* * * *

From the FT comes this ardent defense of congestion charging, now coming to Manchester, England. Note the final line, a nice rejoinder to the typical red herring, raised in NYC and elsewhere, of congestion charging as a regressive tax. “The case for road pricing is clear: every driver on the road imposes a cost on others, through congestion, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and the risk of accidents. The attractions of a well designed scheme are the market mechanisms that encourage drivers to travel when road capacity is cheapest and most available. By paying more for longer journeys through heavily built-up areas, motorists are encouraged to find other, quieter routes to get around. A small response from drivers can greatly improve traffic flows. Since the rich drive more than the poor, road pricing is also progressive.”

* * * *

The LA Times has been running an excellent ongoing investigation into traffic. I was struck by these sentences in particular, about a driver stuck in traffic: “He loves Los Angeles, mostly. In the last few weeks alone, he’s seen a Latin American art exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Art, a Murakami show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, an avant-garde dance performance at UCLA, and flamenco dancing at El Cid restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Tonight, he’ll meet friends at Papa Cristo’s Greek restaurant in L.A. to dine on fried octopus and feta.” This raises the question: How could one live a place where all those things were possible without encountering traffic? To do all these things in a place without traffic, say, Montana, you’d likely eat up the same amount of time merely driving from one far-flung locale to another in search of these activities. Angelenos can use the metro system to get to some of these events, but even those trips take longer than those by car. Traffic, like congestion itself, is a relative term.

Posted on Wednesday, June 11th, 2008 at 8:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The New York Times reports that South Carolina will become the first state in the U.S. to emblazon license plates with a Christian cross (and a stained glass window), along with the slogan “I Believe.” In related news, Nevada has become the first state to offer “I Want to Believe” license plates, perfect for cruising down the “extraterrestrial highway.” OK, that last bit is a joke, but if any entrepreneurial folks at the Silver State’s DMV are reading…

Apart from the church/state walls-come-tumblin’-down aspect of this, there’s some other things that bother me about this. The first is the fragmenting of civic identity into ever smaller, and more disparate, spheres — Florida, for example, has more than 100 logos one can emblazon on their plates. It isn’t enough to simply be a resident of the state, you have to be “resident of state with X affiliation.” The second is that we don’t really know how these sorts of things affect traffic. As the sociologist Norbert Schmidt-Relenberg argues, traffic, at least in anonymous environments like highways, is a case in which the “less its participants come into contact with each other and are compelled to interaction, the better it works: a system defined and approved in the reality by a principle of minimized contact.” Adding extraneous messages to license plates introduces noise into the system, reasons to interact beyond mere driving.

Of course, there may be a reason South Carolina drivers may look for a little faith-based road salvation. A recent study by Nationwide Mutual Insurance (albeit with very sketchy self-reported data) found the Palmetto State to lead the nation in texting while driving. And if you’re going to patently dangerous things like that, better to meet one’s maker, I suppose, with an appropriate calling card on one’s car.

Posted on Wednesday, June 11th, 2008 at 7:59 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Now That’s What I Call a Zebra Crossing!

From Monocle (thanks Kottke!) comes news of an intriguing initiative in La Paz, Bolivia. In a place where pedestrians can feel like hapless toreadors weaving through lines of three-thousand pound bulls, the cebras voluntarias help calm traffic and keep order at the city’s intersections. This is similar in spirit to the “mental speed bumps” practiced by legendary Australian traffic tamer David Engwicht, the idea being to use novelty and interest to remind drivers they are in a human environment.

For some reason, South America seems to have a lock on these kind of offbeat initiatives; Antanus Mockus, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, once hired mimes to silently scorn bad drivers. Mimes, for many people, can engender a hostile response. But who doesn’t like zebras? Truly a road striping innovation.

Posted on Tuesday, June 10th, 2008 at 7:27 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Of Trade Shows and Traffic

Before attending the Book Expo in Los Angeles the weekend before last, where among other things, I had a great podcast chat with Amazon’s Tom Nissley and a fabulous Knopf dinner at Suzanne Goin’s Lucques, I had written a piece for Publishers Weekly on “traffic” both inside and out of the Convention Center. It was mostly speculative, in the sense I actually hadn’t been to BookExpo in a while.

But the experience of actually navigating the convention brought up a few more things vis a vis what we normally think of when we think of traffic; namely, the flow of people through cities.

Posted on Monday, June 9th, 2008 at 1:58 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Only a Test

In case you haven’t seen this, GMAC, the insurance company, has been promoting a sample “driver’s test,” and then noting to various media outlets that New Jersey (tailgating capital of North America, in my humble opinion — at least east of the Mississippi) drivers supposedly show up as the “worst,” with Kansas as the “best.” (I’m sure the sample sizes wouldn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny, but it’s always fun as a New Yorker to pick on the Garden State)

I took the test and managed 20 out of 20 (as I bloody well should have given how much material I’ve been reading on driving), much better than I did when I actually applied for my license years ago, but a few of the questions certainly gave me pause (though one often suspects that’s simply from the wording of the question).

If all goes well I’m actually, as a bit of experiment, taking the U.K.’s written driving test (the “theory test” they call it), administered by the National Driving Standards Agency, in a few weeks. The literature I’ve been sent to study for it is a bit overwhelming.

The reason I’m taking it is that I’ve always heard, anecdotally, that tests in places like the U.K. and Germany are much harder than the U.S., and I’m curious as to how that is reflected in our comparative safety statistics. To what extent one can be attributed to the other is an open question in my mind, and from what I can see, much of the literature (and if anyone’s got any good studies on this please share).

But GMAC’s exercise does raise an interesting point about making driving tests a national standard in the U.S. The very fact that we get our licenses from the “Department of Motor Vehicles” (rather than the U.K.’s ‘Driving Standards Agency’) at least semantically implies the whole process is really about just getting cars on the road, rather than strictly regulating the quality of the drivers in those cars. Just getting people to signal these days is a bit of a challenge, much less getting them to signal the right distance ahead of a turn.

So, ‘fess up: how’d you do on the test?

Posted on Friday, June 6th, 2008 at 2:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency:

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau:

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U.S. Paperback UK Paperback
Traffic UK
Drive-on-the-left types can order the book from

For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



June 2008

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