Archive for August 21st, 2008

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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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:

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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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