Archive for September, 2008

A Miracle of Controlled Chaos

Traffic is mentioned in an elegant paean to commuting in the Guardian by Joe Moran, author of the delightful Queuing for Beginners.

After first describing examining some of the hoary cultural critiques of commuting (“dragged out of sleep at six every morning, jolted about in suburban trains” and “tossed out at the end of the day into the entrance halls of railway stations, those cathedrals of departure for the hell of weekdays,” went one 1968 screed), Moran then goes on to wonder about the psychic value of the daily grind:

“The academic Eva Illouz invented the phrase “cold intimacies” to describe this culture in which emotional literacy is prized, pop psychology defines our identities, and our workplaces stress the importance of empathy and consensus.

We live in a world, Illouz writes, that is “Rousseauian with a vengeance”, in which our “emotions have become entities to be evaluated, inspected, discussed, bargained, quantified, and commodified”. Perhaps, then, we have learnt to welcome the commute as a neutral space where we can escape this obligation to be permanently available to others, and where an informal public life can flourish, without the emotional demands of work or home.”

Further, he notes, there is something to be marveled at in the sheer logistics of it all:

“Amid all the justified moaning about jams and delays, it is worth remembering that this rush-hour movement of 36 million Britons each day is really a miracle of controlled chaos. The National Travel Survey found that more than half of commuters, both in cars and public transport, have no problems with their daily journey. And even the large minority that do have problems generally arrive at work on time and in one piece, without murdering each other.”

He concludes with a curious detail:

“One of my students told me that in Second Life, that virtual world online, no one uses the roads or railways because they can simply teleport to their destinations. Nothing comes between the cyber-citizens and their real estate; commuting has been abolished. And part of me thought: what sort of life is that?”

Posted on Tuesday, September 30th, 2008 at 7:33 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Light Neurosis

When I came across this line on the website for Time, for a moment I assumed it must be another article talking about Shared Space, Hans Monderman, etc.:

“Since it scrapped its traffic light system four years ago, busy, industrial Bayonne, N.J. has had a substantial decrease in traffic mishaps.”

Then I looked at the date of the article: 1938.

I’m not sure what Bayonne replaced its lights with —anyone know? — perhaps early traffic circles.

In any case, the rest of the article has some enduring implications for contemporary traffic:

“No scientist has explained why. But last week, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Cincinnati Physician Howard D. Fabing examined the behavior of the average motorist, found that traffic lights caused conditioned reflexes which made him as dithery as one of Russian Physiologist I.P. Pavlov’s famous third-degreed dogs.

One of Professor Pavlov’s dogs was taught that a circular light flashed on a screen meant food, that an elliptical light meant none. Then the ellipse was gradually rounded out until it was nearly circular, but no food. This psychological double-cross sent the dog into a nervous state called traumatic neurosis, from which he had to be rescued by rest and daily rectal instillations of bromides. An obedient motorist is conditioned to stop at a red light, to proceed at a green. But Dr. Fabing’s research marked the green as a treacherous come-on, since often just when a motorist steps on the accelerator the green light changes to red, so that his right foot must jump for the brake. Soon most motorists develop what Dr. Fabing calls an “anxiety neurosis in miniature,” mainly centred in an uncertain right foot, but with other noticeable effects. On himself, Dr. Fabing noted “a quickening of my pulse by 25 beats … a pilomotor [hair-on-end] response on my forearms, a dryness of the mouth, a sudden excessive sweating of the palms a feeling of epigastric distress.”

Not willing to suggest abolition of traffic lights, which most safety experts agree are necessary in heavy traffic, Dr. Fabing called attention to several patented, non-confusing systems. His recommendation: a clock-dial light with a rotating hand swinging from a green section at the top to a yellow caution light at the quarter-hour position, to a red section at the bottom, to another yellow caution light at the three-quarter-hour position— the hand always showing by its position how much green or red time remains.”

Posted on Monday, September 29th, 2008 at 12:09 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Wheels of Fortune

Which Asian vehicle manufacturer is on track for its best-ever year?

Giant, the Taiwanese bicycle manufacturer, notes The Economist. Supply is so short in its home market that Giant buyers put money down months ahead of receiving their wheels.

Posted on Monday, September 29th, 2008 at 8:25 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Here’s another in the ongoing series of unconventional traffic-calming treatments. Over at Cognitive Edge they’ve got photographs of a recent community project to put up so-called “scare-cars,” or traffic-calming scarecrows, in a small English village that apparently gets occasionally overrun thanks to sat-nav-enabled shortcut seekers. This taps into the idea that people slow for novel things, or when reminded they’re in a human place.

Bonus points for socio-economic realism: There has been a documented outmigration of “Polish plumbers” from England back to the more favorable climes of Poland.

(thanks to John Dodds)

Posted on Friday, September 26th, 2008 at 2:06 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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This Takes Some Doing

From the BBC:

“Sao Paolo police who pulled over Armando Clemente da Silva were shocked to discover he had clocked up nearly 1,000 violations, local media report.

Mr da Silva had accumulated the fines for speeding and running red lights over a seven-year period.

The driver, 36, said he had not received any penalty tickets because he had been too busy to register his car.”

The driver, incidentally, owes close to two million dollars. The car is worth about $6500.

Posted on Friday, September 26th, 2008 at 1:51 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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We Are Using Up Each Other’s Lives

I last read Martin Amis’ novel London Fields ages ago, before I ever started thinking about traffic. But this passage begs a revisit:

“Now — the streets, the traffic. We know that traffic reflects the temperaments of the great capitals (and here in a farewell flourish I invoke my world citizenship): the unsmiling triumphalism of Paris, the fury and despair of old New York, the cat-and-mouse audacity of Rome, the ragged murder of Cairo, the showboat longevity of Los Angeles, the industrial durance of Bombay or Delhi, where, four times a day, the cars lash the city in immovable chains. But here, in London — I just don’t get it.

They adore doubleparking. They do. This is true love — a love whose month is ever May. They park in the middle of the goddamned street. I turned into the All Saints Road — and it wasn’t a road any longer. It was a lot, a doubleparking lot. The traffic lights are barely more than decoration, like Christmas lights. You hit a red at the crossroads but you inch forward anyway, in the lock, into the headlock. You may even decide the time is ripe to get out and run an errand. Why? Why not? Everybody else does it. It seems clear to me, after five seconds’ thought,t hat if everybody does it then nobody gets around, nobody gets anywhere. But everybody does it because everybody does it. And here’s the other thing: hardly anyone seems to mind. At the crossroads the drunken youth drops out of his van and waddles into GoodFicks or Potato Love or the Butchers Arms, and the cars don’t mind. They just nudge and shove each other, the old heaps, and not angrily, in this intimacy of metal and rust and not getting anywhere.

That was more or less how it was ten years ago. That was more or less how it was ten days ago. Now, in the last little packet of time, it’s all changed. We have moved from purgatory to full inferno. And suddenly everybody minds. Even the gentler sex. And if plump mums scream over the grizzle of their strapped kids, if old ladies in old Morrises parturate with venom and smack freckled fists on the horn, then how are the men taking it? Four times in the last few days I have sat tight in the car, gridlocked under the low sun, with no way out, while jagged figures discover what the hard machine can do to the soft: what the hood of the car can do to the human nose and mouth, what the tyre-iron can do to the back of the human head. Traffic is a contest of human desire, a waiting game of human desire. You want to go there. I want to go here. And, just recently, something has gone wrong with traffic. Something has gone wrong with human desire.

I don’t get it. No — I do! Suddenly I do, though there’s no real reason (is there?) why anybody else should. In traffic, now, we are using up each other’s time, each other’s lives. We are using up each other’s lives.”

(Honk o’ the horn to The Monuments We Build).

Posted on Friday, September 26th, 2008 at 1:48 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Ramping Up in Atlanta

One of the themes in Traffic is the difficulty individual drivers can have in understanding how the system as a whole functions. Ramp meters are a perfect example: Many drivers, particularly at the moment they are asked to pause at the ramp-meter light before joining the freeway, are under the impression that they make congestion worse than if the highway were left to its “natural” state.

But a recent example from Atlanta provides yet another example of how ramp meters generally help, not hurt, traffic flow. Drivers may have to wait briefly on a ramp, but this typically means a faster trip on the “main line.” The concept is in some ways similar to way “congestion windows” are used to manage things like Internet traffic, holding up bits of incoming data if the network is already crowded.

Atlanta, by way of introduction, home of some of the U.S. worse congestion, has embarked on a ramp-meter spree, with 70 new signals coming online. In a recent paper presented at the Institute for Transportation Engineers conference (by Marion G. Waters III at Gresham, Smith and Partners), I came across this curious example of “before and after” (the after is in the photo above):

“A completely unexpected event occurred in March 2008 to validate the benefits of the existing ramp meters in use in Atlanta and to encourage their use in a system of traffic management.

A tornado hit downtown Atlanta for the first time (or at least in a very long time). It damaged one ramp meter and virtually destroyed another one. This was two of the four ramp meters being operated as a traffic-adjusted system on southbound I-75/85 in the downtown area.

The results were dramatic. Congestion on the main line of the freeway was noticeably worse, and the ramp congestion at the adjacent ramps became worse because the main line was completely full. Mainline operating speeds dropped (peak hour operating speeds) and were measured to be lower by as much as 16 mph in the most congested hour.

When these ramp meters were restored to full actuated operation, the conditions were reversed, demonstrating the effectiveness and value of the ramp meters working together in a system along a segment of freeway.”

The report goes on to note that since the meters were turned on in June, “the first indications are that free flow was extended an additional 10–20 minutes.”

Posted on Friday, September 26th, 2008 at 12:54 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Audi’s Dumb New Smart Technology

Do you remember how, in the early days of the personal computer, you would constantly hear of all the amazing things you could do with it, such wondrous tasks as “balancing your checkbook”? In other words, you were being asked to spend a significant sum to do something that would more easily and efficiently be done on the cheapest calculator.

I get something of that vibe — I’ll call it “egregious technology” — from a new Audi project called “Travolution” (thanks Jalopnik), which the company describes as such:

“Communications modules built into each traffic light are able to send messages to cars in the vicinity, alerting them to the time remaining until their next green phase. The car’s onboard system is then able to calculate the speed which the driver must maintain in order to pass through the light during this green phase, and displays this via the Multi Media Interface display.”

In other words, the traffic lights send a signal to the approaching Audi, which then gives the driver an approach speed that will allow them to fluidly sail through the intersection, avoiding fuel-wasting stops and starts.

I’m skeptical of this for a few reasons. The first is that my 2001 Volvo already happens to have this technology. What’s more, it cost me nothing to add it.

What’s the wonder device? My brain. Partially because I like to drive in a way that maximizes fuel efficiency, and partially because I don’t get much of a kick at idling at traffic lights, I tend to slow down ahead of time if I see I’m approaching an intersection whose traffic signal is red (conversely, and who doesn’t do this, if I see the green is “fading,” based on flashing ped signals, I will speed up, within reason).

I’m constantly astounded how often, in New York City, drivers — particularly taxi drivers — often blaze past me, only to find themselves lingering at the light (maybe it’s because we’re wired to focus on short-term gains). Then, even though I was going slower to begin with, but because I haven’t had to make a complete stop, I typically drive right past them.

Avoiding unnecessary stopping and acceleration is one of the main precepts of “eco-driving” or “hyper-miling,” but it’s really just a function of being an alert, thinking driver (and some studies have noted the connection between fuel efficient driving and safe driving).

This leads me to my second big complaint with Audi’s system. Not only is it asking the driver to take their eyes off the road to look at a gauge to get information they could more or less discern by looking ahead, at the road, it presumably wouldn’t know things like the length of the queue of vehicles waiting at the light (unless, perhaps, they were all Audis) — so any stated approach speed might be completely inappropriate given the necessary start-up and clearance time of all the other vehicles. The simple fact of being given an approach speed for the intersection might induce some kind of “automatic” thinking, in which a driver may focus on maintaining the correct speed as their key task rather scanning the intersection (where close to half of all crashes occur) — in the way drivers can focus too much on the light itself rather than, say, vehicles that haven’t cleared the intersection for some reason.

Of course, being given the correct approach speed for hitting the green isn’t much help if you’re asked to approach at five miles an hour because the light is backed up with traffic. That’s why I suspect the money (not sure what Audi’s communicative lights would cost) would be better spent on lights that could talk to each other. Which we already have, of course, in some places — but even these need human help once in a while.

Posted on Thursday, September 25th, 2008 at 1:32 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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It’s a Jungle Out There

The strangest thing I stumbled across this morning:

“In the late 1920s, New York City’s Noise Abatement Commission conducted tests at the Bronx Zoo. Readings from a new device (the audiometer) indicated that “a lion, whose roar is generally regarded as among the most terrific and awe-inspiring of sounds, could roar his loudest in a busy city street and not be heard for a distance of more than 20 or 30 feet.” Though the lion’s roar was eclipsed by the growl of traffic, the investigators were not concerned with the humiliated lion’s pride (nor the soundness of his sleep).”

That’s by Peter A. Coates, in an article called “The Strange Stillness of the Past: Toward an Environmental History of Sound,” in Environmental History.

Posted on Thursday, September 25th, 2008 at 12:49 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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How to Create Traffic Chaos

Give away free gas:

“FORT PIERCE,FL — One man was arrested and at least four traffic accidents occurred Wednesday afternoon in a rush to get free gas, said Fort Pierce Police Capt. Greg Kirk.

Famed Stuart attorney Willie Gary and local hip-hop/R&B radio station X102.3 sponsored a free gas giveaway from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. to the first 102 listeners who went to the Wal-Mart gas station at 5100 Okeechobee Road, Kirk said.

But more than 3,000 people showed up, Kirk said.

“We would have redirected traffic and had more officers there, that’s for sure,” Kirk said, if officials had known there would be such a turnout.

From 30 to 40 police officers and St. Lucie County sheriff’s deputies were sent to the gas station to control the crowd and traffic, Kirk said. St. Lucie County Fire Rescue also responded as a precaution.

During the giveaway, officers said, they charged Michael Truitt, 21, of Fort Pierce, with three counts of battery for hitting a woman in the back of the head and hitting police officers.”

The onetime Domino’s Pizza “30 minutes or less” guarantee, which encouraged drivers to act like maniacs, was an earlier lesson that extreme financial incentives and traffic are not a good mix.

Posted on Thursday, September 25th, 2008 at 12:44 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Did You See the Way That Car Looked at Me?

Have you ever felt particularly menaced (or amused) by an approaching car as you crossed in a crosswalk, or as you looked up to see it in the rear-view mirror of your own car? Did you ever think it might be because it felt, strangely, as if an angry (or happy) face was looking at you? Would this alter the way you behaved toward the vehicle?

In a new paper by Sonja Windhager, et al., “Face to Face: The Perception of Automotive Design,” published in the latest issue of Human Nature, the authors, working from the idea that evolution has primed us to be extremely sensitive to the human face (drawing key inferences after a mere 100 ms), wonder if we might not draw similar information from inanimate objects — like cars — that just happen to have seemingly facial features.

Posted on Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 at 3:54 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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While recently driving in Maine, I couldn’t help notice the proliferation of skid marks on certain stretches of relatively empty rural roads. Sometimes, they seemed of the standard “lock ’em up” variety — straight and jet black — as if the driver had been called to suddenly stop for an obstacle in the road (and it’s said the presence of these is a good indicator of potential moose-spotting).

In other cases, they seemed tied to some actual off-road crash, as in the photo above. Skid marks, to the crash investigator, are like fingerprints, or any other bit of forensic evidence. They tell a story. Often, there is little else at a crash site from which to draw information, and so the investigators peer into the patterns, and measure the lengths, of these black tracings, to try and reconstruct a narrative. “Gap skids,” for example, show a driver was braking, releasing the brake, then braking again. “Yaw marks” hint that a tire was both rolling and skidding, suggesting a loss of control. Some skids may, of course, be due to acceleration, not braking, in which case they will begin dark and lighten in the direction of travel.

But I would also come across skids that made no sense. Strange elliptical loops, figure-8s at stop-signs, wavy single tracks that looked like unfurled ribbons, marks that crossed from one side of the road to the other with no apparent logic. That’s when I was told of an art form that was heretofore unknown to me. “Road art,” as one Downeaster called it, in which drivers, predominantly young males (who else?), carefully construct geometric patterns through the careful application of burning rubber. There’s even a documentary film about it.

It seems driven by two things. One, the human eternal desire to make marks upon the landscape — for territoriality or some more exalted purpose — not so distinct, I suppose, from Maine’s famous petroglyphs. Another, the film suggests, might be sheer exuberance, as a lobsterman might celebrate a good catch by doing a few doughnuts at the town pier. I suppose the “skid art” could be read as an indicator of economic health; after all, it represents sheer surplus. It costs money — in gas and in tires — to do abstract expressionism on asphalt. The blacker and more intricate the skids, the better the economy. Given Maine’s current fortunes, and the cost of fuel, fresh skid art may be a rare commodity.

One of the stranger aspects of all this, as I was told, is that sometimes drivers will try to create skid marks that look like particularly dramatic crashes — e.g., a car that veered wildly off-road. This, curiously, intersects with the work of an artist named Nancy Manter, whose work Road Art (the collection is shown below), was, she notes, “inspired by reports of several fatal car accidents on a back-country road in Maine.”

She continues:

I became aware of the overlapping skid marks on these roads, and the tragedy of the teenage drivers who lost their lives that year. Over time, I observed that these marks began to build up a history. They seemed to be a series of collaborations between “silent partners,” made up of skid marks by the intersection of cars and lost souls. I, too, began to overlay my own skid marks on top of existing ones, but with far less intensity and speed. I thought of them as an homage to these lost souls, recalling memories from my own reckless driving on back country roads in Maine.

Was there some similar impulse at work in the “road graffiti” artists? Were their furious etchings some deep response to the dangers of the road? So here’s the curious condition: Driving down Maine roads, particularly at night, when the black traces seem more ominous, you don’t know what the skid marks mean.

Posted on Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 at 9:54 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Car Capital of the World Is…


As per the just-arrived Pocket World in Figures, from The Economist, the Grand Duchy has the most cars per 1,000 population: 647. (Also a bit improbably, Iceland is second).

Ethiopia claims the lowest rate, tied with Rwanda, with 1 car per 1000.

As an example of the sometime skewed relationship between car ownership and safety (as per Smeed’s Law), Botswana, which has just 42 cars per 1000 residents, is No. 1 in terms of traffic fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants (with 30).

The strangest figure to my mind was the “most injured in road accidents” column. The leader, by far, was Qatar, with 9,989 per 100,000 population. OK, so it also seems have to the most crowded road networks. But still, its injury rate (for a place where alcohol consumption is presumably lower) seems off the charts — its near neighbor, the UAE, for example, has just 183 (maybe the Qatari police are just really good at reporting).

Or is it something else? I do know that the Qataris are terrible when it comes to seat-belt wearing rates. Any other theories/facts/experiences?

Posted on Thursday, September 18th, 2008 at 12:31 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Wait for Walk

I’ve talked before here about the curious pleasure of watching people in Copenhagen wait for the “walk man” to change from red to green.

I find I am not alone in my interest, and now Florian Bohm, a German photographer who lives in New York and Munich, has an exhibition (at Cohen Amador) and book called “Wait for Walk,” which, as the announcement puts it, captures the fleeting moments in which “the nonstop pulse of the city comes to a standstill for a brief moment.” The photographer, it is noted, waits for gaps in the passing traffic to take his shots, “so that the flow of traffic becomes the shutter curtain.”

His city of choice is New York (though Munich, where I found fairly rigorous adherence to signals, presents an interesting point of comparison), where it can of course be a challenge to find pedestrians actually waiting at the light. One of the things I enjoyed particularly about the work is the way the geographical location of the intersection determines the tenor of the pedestrians, whether hurried business types checking their Blackberries, or shorts-clad tourists holding shopping bags and looking at the buildings and people that surround them. They also evoke Walker Evans’ famous subway photographs, which, thanks to his anonymous coat-concealed camera, captured Depression-era New Yorkers in an unguarded public moment. In Bohm’s photographs we see people yawning, pointing, preening, scratching, exhaling, smiling, or just absently staring into space, the city “holding its breath for a moment,” as the text notes. I’ve sometimes thought of traffic signals in this regard as punctuation, providing a moment’s repose in the run-on sentences of daily life.

Posted on Wednesday, September 17th, 2008 at 11:50 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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All Over in the Blink of an Eye (but Not the Mind’s Eye)

From The Age newspaper in Australia, via, comes this surprising, sobering “anatomy of a crash,” the car in question being the 5-star Ford Falcon (the one made in Australia, not the one your father had when he was young).

The article leads by noting: “Survivors of serious car crashes often say time appears to slow down in the moments around the impact and that they can recall the event in extraordinary detail.” (and somehow the images we always see of crash-test dummies in slow motion tends to reinforce that).

But an actual reconstruction of the events shows the sort of reshuffling of the deck the brain is playing with memory:

“This is a reconstruction of a crash involving a stationary Ford Falcon XT sedan being struck in the driver’s door by another vehicle travelling at 50 km/h.

One millisecond equals 1/1000th of a second.
0 milliseconds – An external object touches the driver’s door.
1 ms – The car’s door pressure sensor detects a pressure wave.
2 ms – An acceleration sensor in the C-pillar behind the rear door also detects a crash event.
2.5 ms – A sensor in the car’s centre detects crash vibrations.
5 ms – Car’s crash computer checks for insignificant crash events, such as a shopping trolley impact or incidental contact. It is still working out the severity of the crash. Door intrusion structure begins to absorb energy.
6.5 ms – Door pressure sensor registers peak pressures.
7 ms – Crash computer confirms a serious crash and calculates its actions.
8 ms – Computer sends a “fire” signal to side airbag. Meanwhile, B-pillar begins to crumple inwards and energy begins to transfer into cross-car load path beneath the occupant.
8.5 ms – Side airbag system fires.
15 ms – Roof begins to absorb part of the impact. Airbag bursts through seat foam and begins to fill.
17 ms – Cross-car load path and structure under rear seat reach maximum load.
Airbag covers occupant’s chest and begins to push the shoulder away from impact zone.
20 ms – Door and B-pillar begin to push on front seat. Airbag begins to push occupant’s chest away from the impact.
27 ms – Impact velocity has halved from 50 km/h to 23.5 km/h. A “pusher block” in the seat moves occupant’s pelvis away from impact zone. Airbag starts controlled deflation.
30 ms – The Falcon has absorbed all crash energy. Airbag remains in place. For a brief moment, occupant experiences maximum force equal to 12 times the force of gravity.
45 ms – Occupant and airbag move together with deforming side structure.
50 ms – Crash computer unlocks car’s doors. Passenger safety cell begins to rebound, pushing doors away from occupant.
70 ms – Airbag continues to deflate. Occupant moves back towards middle of car.
Engineers classify crash as “complete”.
150-300 ms – Occupant becomes aware of collision.”

What’s fascinating about all this is not simply the rapid fire technology at work (I’m still trying to deal with that computer deciding whether it was a shopping trolley or another car that has struck), but how much has gone on before we even register it — and this at 50 km (31 mph), so you can imagine what’s happening at higher speeds — even though in our subsequent reconstruction of events we may have imagined that time actually slowed down the during the event.

I couldn’t help but think of the work of David Eagleman, of the Baylor College of Medicine, in this regard. In his paper “Does Time Really Slow During a Frightening Event?”, Eagleman, through some clever techniques involving a (somewhat paradoxical) “controlled free-fall system,” found that rather than time actually slowing, a la the fight scenes in The Matrix, what seems to be going on, the researchers speculated, is “that the involvement of the amygdala in emotional memory may lead to dilated duration judgments retrospectively, due to a richer, and perhaps secondary encoding of the memories. Upon later readout, such highly salient events may be erroneously interpreted to have spanned a greater period of time.”

In other words, because of the nature of the event, people may have had, essentially, more of a memory of it, so when they later thought of it, it took longer to “replay.” But in the case of the Falcon, the event was essentially over before the driver would have realized what was happening.

Posted on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008 at 4:04 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“The Whole Village Has Become More Human”

An alert reader sends along some more coverage, this time by Isabelle de Pommereau in the Christian Science Monitor, of Bohmte, a German village that has become another waypoint in the evolving “Shared Space” movement (I was in the town a few years ago, for a Shared Space conference, but haven’t been back since things were changed). The town, like many, felt overwhelmed by the 13,000 vehicles per day coursing through its small center.

Readers of the book and blog by now may well know the drill:

“But this summer the town reworked its downtown thoroughfare, not only scrapping the traffic lights but also tearing down the curbs and erasing marked crosswalks. The busiest part of the main street turned into a “naked” square shared equally by bikes, pedestrians, cars, and trucks. Now, there is only one rule: Always give way to the person on the right.”

Bohmte is providing yet another surprising example of the types of environments in which this sort of thing can be done: “What’s revolutionary about Bohmte is that it took off its signs on a state highway with a lot of traffic,” says Heiner Monheim, a traffic management expert at the University of Trier, speaking at a recent European conference on sign-free towns convened here. Beyond that, Monheim says, the model’s real legacy is to have brought people closer to “rediscovering and appreciating cities not only as traffic places but also as human, social places.”

But I was also struck in particular by this passage:

“Two months into the experiment, ‘Instead of thinking, ‘It’s going to be red, I need to give gas, people have to slow down, to look to the right and the left, to be considerate,’ says Ms. Rubcic… The bonus? Town people recognize they have become a bit closer to one another. ‘The whole village has become more human. We look at each other, we greet each other,’ she says.”

Posted on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008 at 3:23 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Offsetting Behavior?

From the new Harper’s Index:

“Percentage by which the average incidence of fires and traffic accidents on Fridays the 13th differs from that of other Fridays: —4.”

The index also features this curious entry: “Number of additional road deaths that would have been caused by a ‘gas-tax holiday’ this summer: 66.”

Posted on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008 at 7:11 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Another problem with traffic signs…

They give the enemy clear directions. This from the wonderful little book, The Original Highway Code, which reprints earlier editions of the perennial British bestseller.

Posted on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008 at 6:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Human GPS

Via the BBC comes this dispatch, from the BA Science Festival, of work by Eleanor Maguire and her colleagues in the Memory & Space Group at London’s Welcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging.

The research, first articulated in a paper, “Neural Substrates in Driving Behavior” (cited in Traffic), in the journal NeuroImage, details the many different regions of the brain that are activated during the act of driving by London taxi drivers (Maguire had famously noted, earlier, the plasticity of London taxi drivers’ brains — they seemed to have grown on the job).

By observing taxi drivers as they ran simulated runs in the PS2 game The Getaway (which reproduces London’s topography) — it’s too cumbersome and expensive to equip a car with a neuro-imaging device) — Maguire and her team noted how different tasks (route planning, dealing with unexpected hazards, even thinking about their customers — and it would be interesting to see the full implications of this, as in what regions does a hostile exchange with a fellow driver engage?) were associated with activity across different brain regions, as noted in the illustration above. Activity in the media prefrontal cortex even seemed to grow in intensity as drivers neared their routes, rather like an ETA indicator on a GPS.

No word on which section of the brain is used in offering unsolicited political opinions to cab passengers.

Posted on Sunday, September 14th, 2008 at 12:29 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I-45, 3:59 P.M. September 12th

Via TxDot’s TrafficCam page, here’s some eerie photos of I-45, between Houston and Galveston, showing something you don’t often see in that part of the country: Empty highways.

Posted on Friday, September 12th, 2008 at 3:22 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
Comments Off on I-45, 3:59 P.M. September 12th. Click here to leave a comment.
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:

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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



September 2008

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