Archive for August, 2008

‘Names on the Land’ Reading at BookCourt

Satnavs may be killing the ability to read maps (and visualize anything but roads or Taco Bells in the topographical landscape), but I for one am a resolute devotee of maps and all the knowledge and mystery they portray. This includes, of course, place names, and the often-curious tales behind them. Nowhere is this historical narrative better studied than George R. Stewart’s landmark Names on the Land (recently reissued by New York Review Books), with a fine new introduction by my pal Matt Weiland.

On every page lurks a curiosity. To wit, p. 295: “Innumerable towns and villages bear descriptive names such as Red Bank and Flat Rock; hundreds commemorate the native trees, alphabetically from Ash Grove to Willow Springs. But strangely few cities were named descriptively, and only one for a native tree. As might be expected, it is in a region where trees were few, and men had learned to prize them… [A]cross the Bay from San Francisco was a stretch of flat land scattered with magnificent California live-oaks. In Mexican times it had been known as Encinal de Temesal, “oak-grove of the sweat-house. The Americans who planned a town there may not have known Spanish, but they could see the trees. In simple description they called it Oakland.”

Passages like these will be read by me, Colson Whitehead, and Mike Wallace on Tuesday, September 2nd at 7:00 p.m. at Brooklyn’s BookCourt.  There are rumors of a place-names pub quiz — but just rumors.

Posted on Sunday, August 31st, 2008 at 9:05 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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This Information Superhighway Thing Is Getting a Bit Ridiculous

While I was abroad Randall Stross wrote a good piece in the New York Times (here or below the jump), in which I was quoted briefly, about Chrysler’s plan to equip its cars with WiFi internet access.

Given that the car manufacturers worked carefully to come up with standards for things like restricting the number of commands that could be used on nav systems while driving, it seems to me extremely negligent that they would then essentially toss that caution out the window to enable full-on internet surfing in their cars.

Unlike simple information gauges in the car, the laptop screen offers a much more immersive environment, in any number of ways: the small size of the display information, the richness and complexity of the information, the necessity to scroll through various screens, the location of the computer away from the windshield, the potential to input responses, even the slow download speeds, which might cause the driver to keep looking to see if it’s finished, etc. Lord knows how they would type and do that quaint thing that we used to call simple, non-distracted, driving.

As an example of what internet surfing would mean on the road, just imagine, in the amount of time it took you to read this sentence, you’d have traveled, if moving only at 30 mph, nearly 100 feet — imagine if you were going 70?

Chrysler says this is meant only for backseat use, presumably by children, etc., spending an ever greater portion of their childhood development strapped into the back of so-called “living rooms on wheels,” and apparently ever desiring of non-stop connectivity lest their dwindling attention spans suffer a flameout. An easy way for Chrysler to defray criticism would be to simply allow the service to only be enabled while the car isn’t in motion, as one sees with in-car DVD systems. That is a sane and useful service. I’m curious to see how the liability on this will shake out — I do know if I got t-boned by someone who was updating their MySpace page on Chrysler-provided bandwidth I’d go looking for the deep pockets in a lawsuit. Yes, drivers should be responsible for their actions, but given the myriad ways things can already go wrong on the road, why should the car-maker expand the options with its options?

There’s any number of reasons why this move only makes sense in the world of a struggling car-maker seeking anything it can to distinguish its product in a hostile environment (and have thus made the driving environment more hostile). The car manufacturers used to be rightly criticized for skimping when it came to producing safe cars. They’ve come a long way towards putting that history behind them — cars in and of themselves are less dangerous for their occupants — so it’s all the more puzzling to me that they would suddenly put the car in reverse, as it were.

I also told Mr. Stross this: “Apart from the safety issues, which are huge — this idea is, to paraphrase Ralph Nader, unsafe at any download speed — the presence of the internet connected computer in the car raises the specter of an even more unpleasant driving experience than the one we’re currently in, in which people on those same phones tend to forget they’re in a public space, with legal rules and expected norms of behavior, and fail to signal, take longer to pull away at lights, and generally annoy the drivers who are, gasp, actually driving… Drivers are already in their own private cocoons, that they would be checking their “Myspace” page hints at a further fragmentation from the public space of the road.”

[UPDATE: Randy Stross sends along this link to an early candidate for this year’s Darwin Awards.]


Posted on Saturday, August 30th, 2008 at 2:49 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Self-Organized Traffic Flow

One of the oft-revisited themes in the book is that individual actors in traffic don’t often have an idea of what might be best for traffic as a whole. In a great piece in the New Scientist (sub required), “Why Complex Systems Do Better Without Us,” Mark Buchanan (whose book The Social Atom is high on my reading list), writing about the traffic physicist Dirk Helbing, makes the following point:

“Although the behaviour of individuals is often simple, the collective patterns to which it leads can be counter-intuitive, making common sense a faulty guide to what might happen. For example, it is generally true that traffic jams become more likely as traffic density increases. It’s not always the case, though, as Helbing’s group has shown.

Consider a two-lane road carrying both cars and trucks, where the cars are moving faster on average. At low traffic densities, the cars have plenty of space to overtake and can easily pass the trucks. As the traffic density increases, drivers find it more difficult to overtake because other vehicles are in the way. However, evidence from simulations and real traffic flows shows that at a critical density of traffic, the obstruction to lane-changing begins to have a beneficial effect. Because drivers tend to stay in one lane, they disturb the flow of traffic less, leading to a higher total throughput of vehicles.”

Another interesting strand in the piece is the notion that allowing traffic lights to control themselves would improve traffic flow. Instead of set timing patterns or even merely “synchronization,” the lights judge conditions for themselves and make constant adjustments (this is essentially the high-tech version of Hans Monderman’s “bottom-up” traffic scheme in the Netherlands). This is one of the next frontiers of traffic, and I’ve had described to me fascinating systems employing “genetic algorithms” for things ramp meter lights — the ramp meters would in essence keep learning over generations of traffic flow, evolving into smarter systems.

Of course, the new light schemes run the risk of not making sense to the individual driver, as Buchanan notes: “Nonetheless, the behaviour of the lights doesn’t generally fit with human notions of what ought to be efficient. “How long lights stay green is unpredictable,” says Lämmer. Yet the average journey times go down and become more predictable.”

The piece includes what may come to be a mantra: “Being in control, it seems, may increasingly demand being a little out of control.”

Posted on Friday, August 29th, 2008 at 4:45 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Troubles (1931)

Apologies again for the interruption in programming, but I’m in London promoting the book and there’s precious little time for bloggery. For your momentary amusement, however, I offer this Disney short (which predates even Motor Mania), which offers a suggestive cartoon glimpse at the state of driving conduct circa the early 1930s.

Posted on Wednesday, August 27th, 2008 at 11:30 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Jams, Part 2

I’m briefly in Dublin — lovely city but I’m trying to figure out the traffic. Is it me or do the pedestrian crossings seem harder than they should in the center? I feel as if I’ve been waiting for the lights a long time at what seem like minor streets (even after pushing the button), as a trickle of cars go by at rather high speeds. So I jaywalk when I can. On the ride from the airport, the driver of the car I was in was pulled over by a cop for being in the bus/taxi lane. Turns out there’s a lawsuit in the works to let limos use that lane too, which hasn’t been settled. But the Garda officer and the driver exchanged a few pleasantries and we were on our way. The driver said to me: “In England, the police would have given me a ticket. Here you can talk your way out of these things.”

I was just reading a profile of former Blur frontman Damon Albarn in the Sunday Times when this line jumped out: “He’s about to release an LP – the real vinyl thing – of Chinese traffic noise.” Wow. The mind reels. One track for each city? “Guangzhou Morning Rush Hour?” Anyone know any further details on this one?

Posted on Sunday, August 24th, 2008 at 1:55 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Eyes on the Street

Twin Cities reader Matt sends along this link to another kind of novel traffic calming (at least, “informal” traffic calming), a series of unorthodox signs by artist Steven Woodward, who, is apparently, former artist in residence with the St. Paul Public Works Department (and how great it is that the public works department has an artist in residence?). The artist’s goal is to help give neighborhoods a sense of place, at least in the eyes of passing drivers. My personal favorite is the one above, as it makes me wonder if the persuasive powers of eye contact, even simulated eye contact, might induce drivers to slow down. In any case, it’s certainly more interesting than a “Resident Parking Only” sign.

Posted on Sunday, August 24th, 2008 at 1:42 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“I feel as if I am in a circus all the time”

That’s what one tourist said about Cairo traffic. But as of late there’s some new laws on the book aimed to calming the country’s famously manic traffic. Readers of the book will know of my interest in corruption and how that trickles down to traffic, and it’s no exception here. The question is: When laws are made stronger (ostensibly with a reformist goal) in a place plagued by corruption, does it improve things or simply raise the rent-seeking abilities of corrupt officials?

One problem is that some of the new regulations seem Byzantine and not particularly relevant to traffic safety, like requiring fire extinguishers and obligatory first-aid kits in cars. Political analyst Amr El Shobaki was quoted in the FT: “The new traffic law is an example of the rise of extortion in Egypt… [W]ith some effort and sensitivity, the authorities could have presented legislation that improves the situation on the roads, instead of one which seeks to extort money and spread corruption.” I’ve not seen, for example, studies showing how the presence of a fire extinguisher helps eliminate the most common causes of road danger (speed, alcohol, red light running, etc.).

And bribery is, of course, a regressive tax. “The fines are now so high it will no longer be enough to pay off a traffic policeman with E£5 or E£10 [$1.90, €1.30, £1],” said Salah Abdel Ghani, a taxi driver. “This is a law that will affect only the poor, like those who drive taxis and pick-up trucks.” On the other hand, it is noted, the children of wealthy families obtain their licenses before they’ve even learned to drive.

Of course, authorities may claim a short-term safety increase, if only because, as one wag told the Al-Ahram Weekly, “You may have noticed that there are fewer cars in the street, especially the microbuses that are often driven by people with no driver’s licence. In 6 October City about 60 per cent of microbuses have disappeared, mostly because they were operating in violation of the law.”

Posted on Friday, August 22nd, 2008 at 9:37 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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She Can Stop Traffic, Part 2

Via Boing Boing, I couldn’t resist this story of a California Mayor shutting down a neighborhood vegetable stand run by a couple of young girls.

The reason? Traffic was being stopped. This is a neighborhood street mind you, and the vegetable stand the girls were operating was well within the school of David Engwicht’s “Mental Speed Bumps,” one of those little interesting moments of human life that actually reminds drivers they’re moving around in a human environment and not simply a high-speed thru-way. Stopping traffic? That’s exactly the point — they’re stopping to buy fresh tomatoes. What next — yard sales?

This is the same sort of zoning lunacy that prevents people from growing vegetables on their own lawns to begin with, and I bet the mayor will be eating political crow on this one.

Posted on Thursday, August 21st, 2008 at 2:30 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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My Top 10 Traffic Jams

On the heels of the “traffic movies” entry, here, from the department of traffico-musicological studies, comes a list of songs about traffic that spoke to me in some way while working on the book.

These are traffic songs, mind you, not “car songs,” per se, so you won’t find (maybe with some slight exceptions) any tired old paeans to Cadillacs or homages to the lure of the open road (because I’m more interested in the less-than-open road). Rather, these are songs that somehow related to some part of the weird traffic world I’ve been investigating. Nothing against Stevie Winwood, but there are no songs by the band Traffic here; I was also dismayed to find out the song “Roundabout” by Yes is not actually about intersection treatments (though I’m still not sure what that song is about in any case).

In any case, here’s the list (iTunes mix below)… And I’d like to hear further suggestions in the comments…

1. “Crosstown Traffic.” Jimi Hendrix. OK, granted, this song isn’t really about traffic. When Hendrix sings: “All you do is slow me down/ And I’m tryin’ to get on the other side of town”; or “But darlin cant you see my signals turn from green to red/ And with you I can see a traffic jam straight up ahead,” we can assume he’s not really concerned with intersection capacity or Levels of Service. Still, it begs the question: If the narrator had congestion pricing in his town, would he be able to get that much faster to those “better things on the other side of town”?

2. “Autobahn.” Kraftwerk. Who even knows what they’re really singing here — with BabelFish, you get some vaguely poetic, though no doubt mistranslated, glimmerings: “The lane is a grey volume/ White stripes, the Green edge.” But sort of in the way I wish all airports actually played Eno’s Music for Airports, instead of horribly loud CNN, I wish all highways actually sounded like this. Perhaps, as with Japan’s “melody road” paving scheme, engineers could record “Autobahn” into the pavement, like grooves on vinyl, and driving the proper speed would yield this sonic surprise.

3. “Expressway to Your Heart.” The Soul Survivors. Rather like Hendrix, this isn’t really about traffic, but about trying to “get through” to a woman. “Now there’s too many ahead of me/ They’re all the time gettin’ in front of me/ I thought I could find a clear road ahead/But I found stoplights instead.” But it’s a nice description of actual traffic woes, and who couldn’t love a song that begins with horns honking? “Expressway to Your Skull,” by Sonic Youth, also rates here — at least as a title.

4. “Traffic and Weather.” Fountains of Wayne. I’ve been in a lot of morning TV studios lately, and it’s always fascinating to me the way “traffic and weather” are lumped together, as if they were both natural forces, full of trends and patterns, both to be monitored by various sensors and “forecast.” This song uses that conceit for a bit of romantic suggestion: “Oooh we belong together/ Like traffic and weather/ Like traffic and weather.” The Fountains are also to be commended for “’92 Subaru,” which imagines the eponymous vehicle as the ultimate chick-magnet.

5. “She Can Stop Traffic.” The Television Personalities. OK, there’s not much to this song from the underrated and famously erratic Personalities. But I dare you to listen and not find yourself singing along to the inane but infectious lyrics: “She can stop traffic/ She can do magic/ Love can be magic,
but she can stop traffic.” I suppose buried in there is some notion of the role of external sources of driver distraction and its deleterious effects on traffic flow.

6. “Traffic.” The Reyes Bros. I heard this a while ago in L.A. stuck on La Cienaga and it just seemed to fit the rhythm of the actual traffic perfectly (not that I was in a low-rider or anything) . “Hit the gas/hit the brake,” and then that drawling langourous chorus, “IN TRAH-ffic…”

7. “Traffic Jam.” James Taylor. I’m no big JT fan but let’s give credit for just coming up with a little bluesy ditty about congestion (if only because he know he’d clock future royalties as it was played to death during drive-time traffic updates), with its surreal moments: “Now I almost had a heart attack/ Looking in my rear view mirror/ I saw myself the next car back/Looking in the rear view mirror/’Bout to have a heart attack.” Actually, I should really rather cite Artie Shaw’s “Traffic Jam” instead, which does a nice job of simulating the flow of traffic (at least as it sounded in the 1930s) vis a vis big-band arrangement.

8. “Long Line of Cars.” Cake. This SoCal band’s actually a little traffic obsessed. In “Comfort Eagle,” for example, they sing: “We are building a religion/ We are building it bigger/ We are widening the corridors/ And adding more lanes.” And in the aptly named “Long Line of Cars,” they offer suggestive nuggets like “There’s no single explanation/ There’s no central destination,” before concluding with what every driver should probably keep as their mantra in traffic: “And this long line of cars/
Is all because of me.”

9. “Don’t Think About Her When You’re Trying to Drive.” Little Village. The John Hiatt & Co. “supergroup” offer this subtle reminder about the dangers of distracted driving as the narrator looks to put a little distance between himself and his ex-love. There’s a kind of companion song here recently out from Ry Cooder in I, Flathead, “Drive Like I’ve Never Been Hurt.” We could go down this road all day, with Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” etc., but I’ll stop now.

10. “Traffic Light.” The Ting Tings. Another entry in the strange love-as-traffic metaphor sweepstakes comes this number, from the English indie-poppers. Not totally my cup of tea, but I do llove that they worked a roundabout into a song: “…and don’t you be a round-a-bout/ no not another round-a-bout/ we’ve come so far, yet back to the start/ don’t you be a round-a-bout.”

(thanks to Aaron Cohen)

Posted on Thursday, August 21st, 2008 at 1:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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How’s Our Driving?

I was intrigued by the conceptual art piece pictured above, Luther Thie’s LA Interchange, which I read about recently via BldgBlog.

The piece, which would sit at the intersection of the Santa Monica and Harbor Freeways, “uses real-time automobile accident information culled from the California Highway Patrol Incident Report website and would activate the enormous water fountain at the intersection of the freeways. Visitors on location at the park would also see a digital display streaming from the CHP website (location/region, date, time, accident type and status). This real-time data display system creates a real-time memorial to California highway accident victims. Highway activity can be viewed as a kind of “life-pulse” of the State transportation system. The fountain is, in a sense, the heart of the roadway system, reacting to the endless accident events on the highways. When a fatality occurs, the fountain rises to its highest possible point and blue lights illuminate the water feature, evoking a sublime moment of reflection for the spectators.”

This idea put me in mind of several things. First, the fountains at the laweiplein in Drachten, in the Netherlands, home of the famous un-signed “squareabout” pictured below. These water levels rise with congestion, however, not fatalities.

More directly, however, it reminded me of something I had seen in Hanoi, Vietnam, in the busy intersection near the Daewoo Hotel off of Kim Ma Street: A giant billboard (pictured below), sort of Fenway Park meets Socialist Realism, one section of which reported ongoing road fatalities (and thanks to Greig Craft at the nearby Asia Injury Prevention Foundation for pointing this out to me). It’s not quite visible in this shot, but there are categories like “traffic fatalities this year,” “today,” etc. — as well as time and temperature.

It’s an interesting idea, and one that I’ve not seen replicated anywhere else. It recalls the sort of factory-floor safety campaign signs one sees (“X days since accident”), depicting information that we generally don’t have access to as we drive — feedback if you will (and apparently this has been tried at least one other place, as the photo below shows). I’m not sure to what extent this would change behavior, or what people would draw from the information, but as it now stands the only way we are reminded of the danger of the road is the impromptu roadside memorials (or “ghost bikes”) that are erected (and typically removed by highway departments). But I’ve often wondered if leaving those memorials up would be more effective than other traditional warning signs, in terms of influencing behavior.

Posted on Thursday, August 21st, 2008 at 9:37 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Steampunk SatNav?

When in London next week I will certainly be headed to the British Library at some point to see the small exhibit on weird and wonderful gadgets collected by Maurice Collins.

Of particular interest here is this wrist-watch style navigation system, called the Plus Fours Routefinder, on which the driver would wind the little scrolled paper maps along as he drove (not sure what to do if the main route was congested). The Routefinder, which covered a variety of routes, featured updated distances as well as a “Stop” instruction — but hopefully you would realize you were in, say, London before the little device said so. Not sure if listed petrol stations and the like.

(via Company Car Driver)

Posted on Wednesday, August 20th, 2008 at 12:02 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Waitin’ for My (Green) Man

Over at Copenhagen Cycle Chic, a website that plumbs the probing question — just how good can Danish people look on a bike? — there’s a nice little photo series under the heading “Things to Do at Traffic Lights in Copenhagen.” One answer, as in the photo to the right, is to simply “pause for thought.” (and look tres chic while doing so).

As readers of the book will know, the question of Danes waiting at the lights is of great interest to me. Sitting in warm cafes, looking out the window at crosswalks, I came to find an almost poetic stillness to their modal repose, these pauses of breath, as if the traffic lights were bits of punctuation in the midst of a long stream of urban thought. Like Cycle Chic, I found these activities and poses interesting in their own right, the way even the infrastructure was casually deployed, as in the photo below, in the momentary rest.

The other enduring topic of fascination is that scrupulous compliance at the lights, by all modes — but most noteworthy, in my mind, with the pedestrians. I watched this chap below sit at a empty intersection on a cold winter’s morning, one that I would have dashed across as no cars were coming (given the cold I may have dashed across with cars coming); but for him, it just seemed a good moment to stop and reflect on something (he could, of course, have just been thinking, “when will this damn light change,” but I somehow doubted it).

After a day or so in Copenhagen, I quickly found my own normal behavior adjusting. I too became one of those hardy, stalwart Danes, waiting patiently at the light. When I did notice jaywalking, it suddenly seemed somehow inappropriate, and when someone, as the person did below, trundled across in full view of the red man, I could sense a collective unease from the other pedestrians. Typically this seemed to reveal the offender as a tourist. Or maybe they would just regard the jaywalker with a touch of concern, the way it was anecdotally told to me by a queuing theorist: One day, a line of cars sat waiting for a ferry in Denmark. Someone came driving up alongside the queue, in the shoulder, essentially cutting in front of everyone else. The typical response from the waiting drivers: Oh, something terrible must have happened to that person to make them act that way.

Posted on Tuesday, August 19th, 2008 at 4:02 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Politics of Late Merging?

My favorite letter in response to the New York Times Magazine Cynthia Gorney merging piece (in which I’m mentioned) was this one, from Mike Adamsky in Mendham, N.J.:

“Oh, my goodness, if Gorney’s article isn’t a perfect political allegory, I don’t know what is. Gorney is the classic Democrat, fretting about power balances and whether or not someone is getting ahead “unfairly.” She rails against the sidezoomers, even though experts have told her that utilization of all lanes is the most efficient mode. She’s probably also on the side of repealing the so-called “Bush tax cuts” even though some analysts say that these “cuts” resulted in a greater proportion of overall taxes being paid from the high-income group.

Padilla, the operations worker, is the classic Republican. He sees the opening and seizes the opportunity. Is this fair? He thinks so. The open lane that allows him to get ahead is equally available to everyone. He probably supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Why? Because he wants cheaper gas, and we’ve got it sitting right there!

Morgan, the cop, is the classic libertarian. We’ve got enough rules governing behavior already. The sidezoomer is fully entitled to try to cut, the lineupper is fully entitled to try to keep him out. No blood, no foul. Morgan stays the heck out of the vast majority of interactions. Let the games begin.

Fortunately, Gorney does show us how it’s supposed to work: we all just have to learn to behave like ants — productive little creatures who don’t brood or waste energy pounding dashboards.”

Given my own conversion to late merging, I wondered what this said about my own politics. Creeping Republicanism? Well, actually, the system I advocate is the one tried by engineers in which merging instructions are carefully and precisely laid out (thus allaying feelings of wronged social justice), perhaps even backed by enforcement. So I suppose this makes me a sort of Scandinavian Social Democrat, vis a vis using “big,” rational government planning to engineer effective (yet fair) social outcomes.

One is tempted to pursue the potential implications of the politics of merging. Would there be, say, a communist merging scheme? (wealthier cars are sent back to the end of the line in favor of rusty Ladas) A fundamentalist Right stratagem? (whatever lane you are in is God’s will) Anarcho-syndacalist merging, anyone?

Posted on Tuesday, August 19th, 2008 at 7:25 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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An Absence Also Becomes Visible

As I’m going to the U.K. next week, I was particularly interested to come across these lines from Robert Macfarlanes’s scintillating book The Wild Places.

Macfarlane writes: “In Britain, over sixty-one million people now live in 93,000 square miles of land. Remoteness has been almost abolished, and the main agents of that abolition have been the car and the road. Only a small and diminishing proportion of terrain is now more than five miles from a motorable surface. There are nearly thirty million cars in use in Britain, and 210,000 miles of road on the mainland alone. If those roads were to be stretched out and joined into a single continuous carriageway, you drive on it almost to the moon. The roads have become new mobile civilisations in themselves: during rush-hours, the car-borne population across Britain and Ireland is estimated to exceed the resident population of central London…”

“…The commonest map of Britain is the road atlas. Pick one up, and you see the meshwork of motorways and roads which covers the surface of the country. From such a map, it can appear that the landscape has become so thickly webbed by roads that asphalt and petrol are its new primary elements…. [C]onsidering the road atlas, an absence also becomes visible. The wild places are no longer marked.”

Posted on Monday, August 18th, 2008 at 2:04 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Traffic Guru

Just a quick alert that my Wilson Quarterly essay on Hans Monderman is now available online. I’ve also posted the text after the jump, but I always recommend checking out the WQ site in general.


Posted on Sunday, August 17th, 2008 at 10:27 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Natural Traffic Calming

In the New York Times Maura Casey writes about a tree in the middle of the road in her Connecticut town:

“Sometime, decades ago, town officials decided to pave around the tree instead of cutting it down for the convenience of cars despite the fact that it probably made more sense to remove it while widening the road. But it was a perfectly good tree, and someone argued, successfully, that it be left alone. In a world with little tolerance for eccentricity, it is hard to imagine that decision being made today.”

There’s absolutely no reason residential streets, like the one pictured above, shouldn’t have trees in the middle of the road. Apart from the aesthetic contribution, they’re great natural traffic calming devices. Yes, you have to slow down to navigate around them, yes they reduce the “sight distance” of whatever lays beyond (hence you have to slow down), and yes they are a crash “hazard” — if you act in a hazardous way.

Unfortunately, in too many places in America, someone would come along at a speed they shouldn’t be going — or maybe they’re otherwise “impaired” — and they smack into the tree, fatally or otherwise. The town, worried about safety and lawsuits, etc., calls for “improvements” to be made to the street — beginning with cutting down the offending tree as a “safety measure.” Of course, on the new widened, standardized road, speeds will thus increase, shifting the hazard from the drivers of cars to the residents of the neighborhood themselves. Idiot-proofed streets tend to breed idiotic behavior.

Those neighbors, grown tired of cars whizzing down their streets, may even turn to their own solution, as a group of residents in Seattle did (thanks to James Callan for the tip) when they bought speed bumps at Costco and installed them on their own streets in an effort to stop people from driving at speeds approaching 50 mph. This didn’t sit well with the Seattle DOT, who had the non-complying, offending devices removed. The kicker comes in the final line: “The city has already allocated $15,000 to the neighborhood, which can be used for traffic signs.”

Signs, as any number of studies have shown, are essentially useless at slowing drivers. That $15,000 would be better spent on a planting a tree or two — in the middle of the road.

Posted on Sunday, August 17th, 2008 at 10:13 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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More regular posting will return now that the U.S. portion of the book tour has ended. It was a dizzying week, with loads of entertaining radio appearances, and some talks before Microsoft, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and Google. The last was particularly fascinating as it was my first visit to the campus at Mountain View, an otherworldly place of lunch-time volleyball games, “Expecting Mother” parking spaces, Chinese language study groups, free smoothie bars and gyms, and, brushing right past me, a pair of cleats in hand, Sergey Brin. The Google audience was very friendly but with challenging questions, and my favorite moment came when one person asked me to sign his speeding ticket — acquired while he was listening to me on NPR’s Fresh Air! I can only imagine the interview was so engrossing he lost sight of the speedometer, or perhaps he was racing to his nearest good book store to snap it up.

In Los Angeles, I had a strange moment as I was out on a shoot with Val Zevala and a crew from KCET. Well, there were a number of strange moments. As we stood chatting on a overpass on the Ventura freeway, I saw a man come along, riding a bike in the breakdown lane, even as cars whizzed past at 60 mph. He maneuvered his way past on-ramps with some difficulty. I’m all for vehicular cycling, but this was a touch extreme. Soon enough a CHP officer came along to ask us what we were doing — someone had apparently called in a report that some people were partaking in strange activities on the overpass (though is there anything less strange in L.A. than filming?)

In the book I quote a line from the film Crash (the one moment in the film that recalls the earlier film Crash, based on the J.G. Ballard novel) when the character played by Don Cheadle notes: “We’re always behind metal and glass… It’s the sense of touch. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.” In any case, I was in a minivan driving through Beverly Hills with the crew, and as we stopped to enter a parking lot, waiting for a vehicle to exit, the trailing vehicle behind us (also from KCET) was struck by a car that itself was struck by another car. There was a loud, almost familiar sound, and the camera guys bundled out to see what had happened (NB: It’s the second crash I’ve witnessed while out on shoots for the book).

It was a classic urban crash. It’s said that close to half of all crashes occur within or near intersections, and in this case it seemed the last car, perhaps rushing to “beat the yellow” didn’t notice the queue of unexpectedly stopped vehicles, and so struck the car (a Scion) behind the second KCET van. The crash raised two issues in my mind: The first, as noted by my colleague Kenneth Todd, being the inherent danger of traffic lights as a design solution. The amber phase tends to encourage people to accelerate to “beat the light,” and they tend to look up at the lights the very moment they should really be scanning the intersection for turning vehicles, etc. Unfortunately, like all signals in traffic, drivers tend not to rigidly obey their command but use them as only another stage in the decision making process: Should I stay or should I go?

The drivers were a bit shaken up, but it was their cars that took the brunt of damage. The Scion driver, commenting on the other driver’s decision at the light, noted how she never accelerates immediately through the green, as so many people are still going through, often at high speed. And she’s right. Engineers in many places have had to lengthen the “clearance phase,” or that all-red moment when no one is supposed to go through, precisely because so many people are choosing to violate the red light.

But the strange Crash style moment came right when the Scion driver emerged and saw the news crew. She looked at Val and immediately smiled. “I love your show! I watch it all the time.” When I thought about it later, the crash was the first actual encounter with another human we had had in all the afternoon’s driving.

Posted on Saturday, August 16th, 2008 at 2:10 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The List

From the upcoming New York Times. Champagne corks are popping. The placement (just squeaking on to the big list, tied with a book I’d like to read), is funny, as an alternate title for my book could be “Driver Rant.”

Posted on Wednesday, August 13th, 2008 at 4:41 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Calling Dan Ariely

From today’s New York Times, about growing inventories of used SUVs on car lots. I’m not quite sure what psychologists would call this — perhaps a focusing effect?

“Given how much the automakers and dealers are willing to knock off an S.U.V.’s price, this is not a bad time to buy one, said Jesse Toprak, the director of industry analysis at Edmunds. Yet so many consumers are eager to avoid weekly $100 fill-ups that they are more focused on saving money at the gas pump than at the dealership.

“It’s a very psychological decision,” Mr. Toprak said. “You pay for the car just once, but you go to the pump every week, so that almost seems more important to you. Every time you go to the pump, you just want to feel good about it.”

And so thousands of Americans have been exchanging their sport utility vehicles for fuel-efficient cars, despite low trade-in values for the larger vehicles and a scarcity of small cars that has allowed dealers to charge sticker price or more for them.

“When you trade in a large S.U.V. for a compact car, you’re selling low and buying high,” Mr. Toprak said. “For a lot of people that’s not really logical, but they’re not really running the numbers.”

The story after the jump… (more…)

Posted on Wednesday, August 13th, 2008 at 4:22 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Reverse Countdown Signal

Reader Seth pointed me to this excellent article from the Boston Globe in response to my query about the “Shared Streets” signage in Boston. Seems like Beantown is trying to get its woonerven on, at least as much as an American city can.

There’s much of interest, but one bit that struck me was when queuing theorist Richard Larson, at MIT (who appears in the book), discussed his idea for a sort of reverse countdown signal, in theory to reduce dangerous jaywalking. Rather than telling pedestrians how much time they have to cross, tell them when they cancross.

“Drivers expect to have their needs served in due time. The pedestrian? Unsure. Do I have to push the button, or will it just give me the walk signal? And when? So what we do, Larson says, is serve ourselves. “Most of the time, it’s safe if you’re a rational person. That’s when people jaywalk. But a car can come out of a driveway, and that’s when trouble happens.” Larson has a suggestion to counter this self-service risk-taking: “We have these clocks that show you how much time you have to cross the street until you’re in grave danger.” Why not do the opposite – tell pedestrians how long until they get to cross the street? This sort of information, Larson says, has been shown to keep people from taking risks.”

The only catch?

“But the problem, many say, is that pedestrians would not be happy if they found out how long they had to wait. Many of Boston’s intersections with traffic lights have cycle lengths of 90 to 100 seconds. Off -peak, they may go down to 80 seconds or less. The catch, according to Ann Hershfang, one of the founders of WalkBoston, is that studies have shown that pedestrians will wait just 30 seconds before they get restless and cross.”

Posted on Tuesday, August 12th, 2008 at 9:50 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



August 2008

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