Archive for June, 2008

Getting My Freakonomics On…

The excellent Freakonomics blog has posted a Q&A about the book, with the good questions provided by Annika Mengisen.

The comments, as per usual on the Internet, range from intelligent discourse to reactionary fomenting.

Posted on Friday, June 6th, 2008 at 2:22 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Bear Right

When I was at Tokyo’s incredible Kiddy Land toy store a few months ago, I was overwhelmed by the range of robots available (there was a “breathing” cat from Sega I really wanted but, alas, luggage weight restrictions). But I didn’t see anything like the creature reported in the Daily Telegraph. Not only does it give directions, but it warns when you’re driving too fast, detects the presence of booze, and even offers up local landmark info when it’s rubbed. Not sure what voice it speaks in, but if it’s anything like the Sprint Navigation device I’ve been using lately, that range of vocal stylings would include everything from “Rasta man” to “cab driver.” (I wish I were kidding).

I know backseat drivers, from Hyacinth Bucket on, get a bad name, but, for the majority of drivers on the road, having someone else in the car, as many studies have shown, is generally a good thing for one’s health (at least their physical health). Not only do they provide an extra pair of eyes, but they provide feedback about our own actions that we’re often less than aware of in the moment.

But still. I get so creeped out by people who load up the back window ledges of their cars with stuffed animals (reduced visibility=bad idea), I don’t think I’m ready to put one on the dash. Chuckie, maybe…

Posted on Thursday, June 5th, 2008 at 2:46 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Sounding One’s Own Horn

FurnariSome early reviews of the book have trickled in …

Publishers Weekly calls it “Fresh and timely” and writes: “Vanderbilt investigates how human nature has shaped traffic, and vice versa, finally answering drivers’ most familiar and frustrating questions.”

Kirkus, meanwhile, opines that it is “Fluently written and oddly entertaining, full of points to ponder while stuck at the on-ramp meter or an endless red light.”

And Booklist calls it “informative and engaging,” and says “this may be the most insightful and comprehensive study ever done of driving behavior and how it reveals truths about the types of people we are.”

Posted on Wednesday, June 4th, 2008 at 10:53 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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How Green Was My Signal

Like Ken Todd and the thieves in The Italian Job remake, I have my troubles with traffic signals. But I’m always interested in the evolution of a standard technology and the various roads not taken along the way. That’s why I was delighted by this entry, via boingboing gadgets, from Charles Marshall, an Australian engineer from the 1930s.

Rather than binary lights, the signal ticks away the phases like a colorful clock or analog scale (you can see quite clearly how one direction gets more “green time” than the other). Visually, it conjures in me feelings of everything from Kandinsky to RAF Spitfires to The Hudsucker Proxy. As historian Gordon Sessions notes in his no-nonsense titled survey Traffic Devices: Historical Aspects Thereof (ITE, 1971), this sort of thing was once rather common, one of the many rival entrants for traffic control schemes jockeying for supremacy in the world’s streets. Early on, for example, there was often no “amber phase,” just green and red; in early 20th century Cleveland, Sessions notes, “at the time of the change from red to green or vice versa, a bell was sounded to warn traffic of the impending change.” Los Angeles, meanwhile, had its own version of the Marshall device, at the corner of Wilshire and Western. As described by Sessions, there was “a clock-like circular face with an indicator hand which revolved, showing the motorist the amount of ‘stop’ and ‘go’ interval that remained.”

“Countdown signals” are becoming quite common for pedestrians (and many drivers use these to “time” the lights to their advantage), but the idea of showing drivers remaining signal time is today rare — though I did come across this in Delhi, where drivers use the time indicator to decide whether to shut off their engines at the lights and save fuel. This is an obvious benefit, but as with most things in traffic, there are trade-offs: Drivers may pay more attention to trying to judge how much time is left than the actual traffic ahead, or people still in the intersection; or they may use their knowledge of the remaining phase to accelerate to unsafe speeds. Still, the Marshall device is a tantalizing alternative to the aesthetic monotony of standardized traffic signals.

Posted on Wednesday, June 4th, 2008 at 7:18 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Google Traffic, Highway Traffic (or ClickThroughs and Drive-to’s)

At the end of this recent New York Times piece, (the place where one often finds the most interesting material), Google’s chief economist Hal Varian notes that Google traffic tends to surge, perhaps not surprisingly, during bad weather and strikes. “Bad weather is good for Google,” he said, “as long as it is not too bad.”

The corollary of this is that road traffic tends to dip during things like bad weather and strikes (and it would be interesting to compare the drop-off in one to the gain in another). So basically, the more people on Google, the more people who aren’t on the road, one traffic supplanted by another. But in a discussion last week with the good folks at Dash, the only “internet-connected” GPS and real-time traffic device, one of its executives pointed out to me that they tend to see increased usage of the device during peak driving hours, which is as you might expect (and I’d love to see the visualization data of all those Dash users, sort of a massive version of “cabspotting”). But as the device also features Internet searching (via Yahoo), the sort of dynamic described by Varian might not hold: Just because there’s a lot of people searching the net doesn’t mean they’re all at home. They might be on the road.

One interesting potential usage, down the road, for Dash’s device is that a company (say, BestBuy) might want to know not only how often drivers were searching for BestBuy stores, but then how often the searcher had physically driven to the parking lot of BestBuy. This is the road traffic version of the “click-through”: The Drive-To.

Posted on Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008 at 1:36 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Predictably Irrational?

“Anger and frustration are emotions Edgardo Romero has learned to suppress when, on a bad day, it takes him two hours to drive to work, a trip he swears he can walk in half the time.”

This comes from a recent piece in the Financial Times about bad traffic in Caracas, Venezuela.

Traffic is legendarily bad in Caracas, but the subtle question raised by Mr. Romero’s quote is that, if he knew he could always make the trip on foot in half the time, why he would ever choose to drive? Let’s weigh pros and cons. One the one side, the car: Expensive, slow, tiring, stress-raising, no exercise. On the other, walking. Fast, cheap, and good for you.

Caracas traffic has one culprit: Oil. Venezuela is home to the world’s cheapest gas, a mere five cents a litre, according to The Economist. With gas that cheap, time is the only disincentive to driving (and as the above quote shows, people are inexact managers of time). But it’s not just the price of gas: The oil boom has also put loads of new cars into a city that was ill-prepared to handle them.

The FT article goes on to note that many blame President Hugo Chavez for the traffic woes, and it brings up one of the stranger trades I’ve heard of since that story about the minor league baseball pitcher who was traded for 10 bats: Venezuela has been sending cheap fuel to London to help subsidize bus trips for lower-income people, while London has reciprocated by sending planning experts to Caracas to sort out the mess.

The irony of Venezuela’s cheap and subsidized gas is that, according to one IMF study quoted in the aforementioned Economist piece, the richest 20% of households received 42% of fuel subsidies, while the lowest 20% received less than 10%. Given that the wealthier classes in Venezuela are among the most committed anti-Chavistas, his policy is benefiting most those who oppose him most. By raising gas prices and using the proceeds to build things like bus-rapid transport, he could ease traffic, and the people who he might upset with such a measure don’t much like him to begin with (and besides, what driver doesn’t complain about congestion?)

Posted on Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008 at 9:53 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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10,000 Pedestrian Injuries Is a Statistic, One is…

Ozier Muhammad, the New York TimesA few weeks ago, while driving in New York City, I witnessed something I hadn’t seen in nearly two decades of living here: A pedestrian struck by a car. I wrote about the experience, and its repercussions, in the New York Times.

One section that got cut from the piece, for space, was a brief chat I had with Dr. Lewis Goldfrank, who is, among other things, the Director of Emergency Medicine at Bellevue Hospital. He mentioned that that facility’s trauma section sees roughly 15 people a day involved in “motor vehicle crashes” (like many in the medical profession, Goldfrank eschews use of the word “accident,” as many of these instances involved quite preventable circumstances, like alcohol or speed). He also stressed how the seemingly fleeting injuries picked up in a crash can have lingering effects. “Even contusions, concussions, and transient loss of consciousness can prevent return to normal activity,” is how he put it.

Thanks again to Bart Dellarmi for talking about his difficult experience, and here’s to his speedy recovery.

The full story is below the jump as well. (more…)

Posted on Monday, June 2nd, 2008 at 1:16 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:

Order Traffic from:

Amazon | B&N | Borders
Random House | Powell’s

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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