Archive for October, 2008

How Do You Say ‘My Bad’ in Welsh?

This is priceless. The bit in Welsh there, rather than translating the traffic info in English, is actually an “out of office” auto reply that made it in by error.

What went wrong?

All official road signs in Wales are bilingual, so the local authority e-mailed its in-house translation service for the Welsh version of: “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only” The reply duly came back and officials set the wheels in motion to create the large sign in both languages.”

Posted on Friday, October 31st, 2008 at 1:02 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Ten Things You Should Know About New York City Traffic

I’m back at home and my thoughts turn to local traffic. And so continuing in the “Ten Things” series of my utterly unscientific, sample-size-of-one observations and picked-up-pieces of trivia:

1. The nation’s worst bottleneck is in the Bronx. According to INRIX, the exit 4B segment (.30 miles) of the Cross-Bronx Expressway is congested 94 hours a week. The average speed when congested is 9 mph. (the average New Yorker walks 3.4 mph).

2. The clearance phase here is about 1.7 seconds (e.g., when one set of lights turn red, the others will go green approximately that much later).

3. Access-a-Ride drivers are the worst in the city — I’m not sure if this is because they’re put on a too-tight schedule or they’re just trying to increase their numbers of passengers. Empty school buses are a close second, followed by off-duty ambulance drivers.

4. Smokers, and people on cell-phones, walk more slowly than other New Yorkers (4.17 f/s and 4.20 f/s, respectively, versus an average of 4.28 f/s for all pedestrians).

5. Every third car in Brooklyn has North Carolina license plates (insurance fraud, anyone?)

6. New York is the only major U.S. city without residential parking permits (see item #5).

7. The only thing harder than trying to park a car in NYC is trying to park a bike.

8. Bloomberg deserves reelection for his Janette Sadik-Khan appointment alone.

9. After a decade of investigation I still do not know the fastest approach lane on the massive funnel-like, ten-lanes-to-two entrance to the Holland Tunnel (once you’re past the tolls, on the Jersey side). The outside lanes sometimes seem better to me; not sure if this correlates to say, rice moving through a funnel.

10. New York City is home to the world’s first traffic circle, Columbus Circle, designed by William Phelps Eno (note, however, there is a countering claim that the ‘carrefour a gyration’ in Paris, by Eugene Henard, deserves the prize). Also note this has nothing to do with the modern roundabout, of which NYC has none.

Your further suggestions are welcome.

Posted on Friday, October 31st, 2008 at 8:05 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“Maximum Capacity” in Lowell, Mass.

I’m not quite sure what that phrase means in this article, particularly if, as the article also states, people are doing 55 mph right through the heart of town (which would indicate plenty of road capacity), but is it me or does Lowell, Mass., based on this article, appear to be on the verge of getting things wrong in fixing their traffic problems?

Note this paragraph:

“For the next four years, MassHighway has slated $42 million in projects to improve Lowell intersections, including traffic signal improvements, bridge betterments and replacements, realigning the intersections, and the construction of a pedestrian bridge over the busy downtown thoroughfare, Thorndike Street .”

A pedestrian bridge? Why does this retrograde idea, imported from the anti-urban totalizing fantasies of modernist architects and itself a symbol of a decline of a place, still enchant traffic people? Well, actually it doesn’t much anymore, except in the developing world. How about a boulevard? A road diet? I dunno, a roundabout (if left turn crashes are as big as they say)? I don’t know Lowell or that street — anyone care to weigh in?

Posted on Friday, October 31st, 2008 at 7:48 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Scary Holiday for Pedestrians

Halloween presents one of the classic cases of risk misperception. Growing up, like most kids, I lived in terror of the vaporous threat of razor-bladed apples and butcher-knife wielding escapees from local insane asylums. But the real threat was right there in the road. As the Center for Disease Control has found in a much-referenced study, “the number of childhood pedestrian deaths increased fourfold among children on Halloween evenings when compared with all other evenings.” It’s not hard to imagine the reasons: Children clad in dark costumes, etc. Or, perhaps more to the point, drivers (perhaps liquored up) moving at improper speeds through residential neighborhoods. And pedestrians of all ages (but especially children) tend to have little idea of just how far away the driver of a car can see them (they tend to think it’s twice as far as it really is) — so maybe you should chuck out the Ninja costumes.

Trick-or-treating through New Jersey a few Halloweens ago with my nephews, I was appalled to notice a number of children simply being ferried from house to house in cavernous SUVs, which then sat idling as the children rang the doorbell and received their corn-syrup-ey treats. In true L.A. Story fashion, the behemoths would then literally drive a few dozen feet to the next house. Thus enters the classic cycle: The roads are perceived to be more dangerous, so more parents drive their kids, thus raising the very same risk.

The U.K.’s Ted Dewan and friends had an interesting method for reducing the Halloween risk: Staging a quite ghoulish mock crash on their street to calm (or frighten?) traffic.

Posted on Friday, October 31st, 2008 at 7:24 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Art That Stops Traffic (or Traffic That Stops at Art?)

I was listening last night to Frances Anderton’s interview with agit-prop artist Robbie Conal on KCRW’s Design and Architecture and was quite surprised to hear, out of nowhere, a discussion of traffic lights.

Why? Because, Conal noted, at every intersection in L.A. there are controller boxes for the traffic signals — “virulent spawn of HAL” — I think he said. These, it turns out, make perfect surfaces for displaying things like posters. So Conal, when he was starting up, went out and actually measured the dimensions of these boxes, and created appropriately sized posters (also using Helvetica Bold so that it could be read by drivers). He noted that if a driver missed one at a certain intersection, he could serially repeat them at a number of intersections so he’d be guaranteed a viewing (depending on the cycle timing!)

This makes Conal, I suppose, LADOT’s unofficial ‘artist in residence.’

Posted on Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 3:13 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Drive-in Voting

Like those human specimens on the off-world colony in Wall-E, is there anything Southern Californians won’t do in their cars?

P.S. What if you happen to hear an ad on the radio while you’re pulling up to the ATM/voting machine? Doesn’t that violate rules?

Posted on Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 1:14 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Behavioral Revolution

Reading David Brooks’ elegant summation of how behavioral psychology and economics can help explain the dynamics of the financial crisis — to explain, as he puts it, “why so many people could have been so gigantically wrong about the risks they were taking” — I couldn’t help but think of another area rife with questions of risk and decision-making, namely ‘the way we drive.’

Whether from personal on-road experience, or from reading studies, or from examining in-car footage of crashes and near-crashes, I am often struck by how often people seem to put themselves, and others, at great risk. Following closely at high speed on the interstate, or driving fast through a neighborhood street, they act in a way that suggests they believe that nothing could go wrong, or that they would be in control if it did. Over time, this behavior is typically rewarded, perhaps through sheer luck, until the ‘black swan’ event that they never expected actually happens. Then, as is often the case, begins a process of denial, an attempt to assuage the cognitive dissonance that has come between the image of themselves as a good and cautious driver and an event that was ‘beyond their control.’

Some quite literal connections can be drawn between the behavior of traders and the behavior of drivers. For one, both activities are prone to the ‘above-average effect’ — studies have shown how both large groups of traders and drivers define themselves to better than average. What’s also interesting is the gender question; research has also shown men seem to be more susceptible to the above-average effect. As Brad Barber and Terrence Odean showed in their paper Boys Will Be Boys, a study of a large brokerage house found that men made many more trades than women, per account, seemingly indicating a heightened sense of confidence, but that their portfolios on average earned less than women. Given the male dominance in the trading sector, it’s not hard to extrapolate these findings to the larger financial crisis. It also need hardly be pointed out that men are involved in more fatal crashes than women — overconfidence mixed with a greater propensity for risk-taking.

Another connection is the way we act on the information we perceive. “And looking at the financial crisis,” writes Brooks, “it is easy to see dozens of errors of perception. Traders misperceived the possibility of rare events. They got caught in social contagions and reinforced each other’s risk assessments. They failed to perceive how tightly linked global networks can transform small events into big disasters.”

This passage reminded me of a recent conversation I had had with a journalist in Abu Dhabi, who was telling me about the massive, fatal chain-reaction crashes that have occurred on fog-bound highways there. Fog is a classic perception problem: Differences in contrast affect how we perceive speed. Moving through fog, drivers actually feel as if they are moving more slowly than they are. So they continue to drive fast, much faster than they should. They may also drive close to the vehicle in front of them, thinking, falsely, that seeing the taillights of the driver ahead is safer than not seeing anything. All this is fine until the rare event happens, and that ‘tightly linked’ network, full of people reinforcing each other’s risk assessments and acting on what they think is sufficient information (but which may disguise hazards around the bend), find themselves in a calamitous crash.

Behavioral psychology isn’t part of the driver’s ed curriculum, of course, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be, given that attitudes and behavior are as, if not more, important than driving skills per se. And the simple vision test that’s given is fine for testing the strength of one’s vision, but left unmentioned is the idea what we see of the world does not always represent the world as it is.

Posted on Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 9:36 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The World’s Longest Pedestrian Bridge

Is apparently coming to Poughkeepsie, New York.

“Workers this fall are clanking away at the metal and laying on concrete slabs for a high-altitude pedestrian bridge organizers say will be the longest in the world at 1.25 miles. When it opens Oct. 2, 2009 _ a date coinciding with the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river that would bear his name _ the $35 million bridge will link to fitness trails on both sides of the river and be operated by the state parks department.

“We think people will come from all over,” Fred Schaeffer said on a recent day as he watched the construction. “It’s the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower, or the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Posted on Wednesday, October 29th, 2008 at 9:39 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Signs of Progress

From the Bucks Free Press in the U.K.:

“A PROPOSAL to scrap traffic signs in a radical experiment to shake up Marlow’s roads is being seriously discussed by Buckinghamshire County Councillors, it was revealed tonight.

…[Marlow Town councillor Roger] Wilson was inspired to propose the scheme after reading the research of author Tom Vanderbilt in his book: ‘Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do’.

Posted on Wednesday, October 29th, 2008 at 8:38 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Pedestrian Safety, Circa 1924

Via the fantastic Shorpy — a wonderful time-suck if there ever was one — I was intrigued by this image of a jazz-age automobile ‘cowcatcher.’ Risible though the image may seem, it does suggest an interesting lost history of sorts, as the car business, for most of the following decades, paid no attention whatsoever to the idea of mitigating pedestrian injury in car design.

Posted on Wednesday, October 29th, 2008 at 8:06 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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If anyone out there happens to be in Austin, Tx., I’ll be at the Texas Book Festival this weekend, talking about the book with Ben Wear of the Austin-American Statesman.

Posted on Wednesday, October 29th, 2008 at 7:57 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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From today’s Globe and Mail.

“Is cellphone use by drivers dangerous? Yes, it increases the risk of a crash or near-crash by 1.3 times (2.8 times, when dialling), the Alberta review found. But then, eating hikes the risk by 1.6 times, inserting a CD by 2.3 times, applying makeup by 3.1 times and looking at, say, a billboard or someone on the sidewalk by 3.7 times. An insect in a vehicle raises the odds of a crash by 6.4 times.”

It’s that last bit that caught my eye. I know my wife virtually climbed out of the seat when a spider once dangled down from the rear-view mirror. And I’ve had some scrapes with bees. I’ve no idea where the data comes from in the governmental study, or whether all insects carry equal crash risks.

Posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 4:11 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Europe’s Worst Road Sign

I know most of you are paying attention to only one election, but let’s not overlook that the results of another ballot are in. It’s “Europe’s Most Stupid Road Sign”.

Posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 4:04 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Speaking of Bikes…

Via David Hembrow, check out this trailer for Van Der Valk, an early 70s Brit cop show set in Amsterdam. Note that you only see a few cyclists (and one horse-drawn wagon); it might as well be Starsky and Hutch cruising around their fictive Southern California. It’s an interesting reminder that cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen were not just natural cycling hotbeds, but became so through very conscious decisions made by planners and politicians.

Posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 3:50 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Word of the Day: Bikeism

Adrian, a psychology grad student in Australia, wrote in with mention of a disturbing episode in Australia, recounted here, of a car driver going after some cyclists in an “Around the Bay Day” event (for charity, mind you).

What one editorialist also found objectionable, however, was the link at the bottom of the page where readers could vote on that day’s opinion question. The question was: Are cyclists responsible road users?

Not really the first question that comes to mind after reading the original article (I’m almost afraid to know what the answer was). As the writer put it, “OK. If those hooligans had bowled over a bunch of grannies going to church, would readers be having their say on whether senior citizens are responsible road users?” A more contextually appropriate question to vote on, in my opinion, would have been: Should drivers who commit what is essentially aggravated assault with a deadly weapon have their driving rights permanently revoked? (uh, yeah)

The writer went on to coin the word “bikeism” to describe the dynamics he thought were at work — tarring an entire class of people with the extreme acts committed by a few (or a stereotypical image of that behavior). “Unfortunately, many motorists who don’t ride bikes and don’t understand cycling seem to think that all cyclists are ego-driven menaces who run red lights.” (more…)

Posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 3:35 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Two Roads Diverged

I was intrigued by two different strands of thought in the news this past weekend. From the New York Times, in a piece on a car-sharing program in Europe, by Daimler.

“Car2go is a daring step for an automaker. According to the Ademe survey, when car owners adhere to a car-sharing program, most of them get rid of their own cars. Car sharing works because owning a car in a city can be a pain.
“In Europe, the relationship between people and cars is changing,” said Gildo Pastor, chief executive of Venturi Automobiles in Monaco. “Young people today want a computer, a telephone. The car is not at the center of their thoughts. In the city you can’t park, and it costs a fortune to insure it.”
Venturi is one of a dozen European companies developing small electric cars for proposed car-sharing programs. In 2010, Paris plans to introduce AutoLib, a car-sharing service with 2,000 electric cars in 700 Paris parking lots with charging stations and a similar number in suburbs…
Being environmentally kind is one attraction of car sharing. People in the Paris study drove half as far each month after they joined, and some car-sharing programs compensate for carbon emissions by paying third-party companies to capture carbon.

And then this bit of alternate reality, from the head of BMW:

“There are many studies that say it took 120 years to get to 800 million cars around the globe, and that it will take only another 30 years to double that volume,” he says. “If that is true, the best is still ahead of us.”

Posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 10:43 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Car Named Sue

Via the Boston Globe Ideas section. If you believe what college undergraduates have to say on questionnaires extrapolates at all to the real world. And that people still do things like name their car once they graduate.

“YOU BETTER WATCH what you say about my car. She’s real sensitive.” Nevertheless, unless you run across a car named Christine, there’s nothing to worry about, right? Think again. A study by psychologists at Colorado State University found that almost half of the more than 200 drivers surveyed in a college class had assigned a gender to their car (more females than males) and that over a quarter had given their car a name, including ones like Lolita, the Sweat-box of Death, and Jolly Green Giant. Drivers who had assigned a gender to their car – regardless of whether it was male or female – indicated a greater tendency to driving-related aggression and anger. The students were also asked to assess their car’s personality. The personality ascribed to the car was typically somewhat different than the driver’s, and knowing this invented personality improved predictions of the driver’s aggressiveness.

The study is: Benfield, J. et al., “Driver Personality and Anthropomorphic Attributions of Vehicle Personality Relate to Reported Aggressive Driving Tendencies,” Personality and Individual Differences (January 2007).

Posted on Monday, October 27th, 2008 at 6:35 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Kerb Your Enthusiasm

A nifty little meditation on the visual language of the street, by Peter Campbell in the LRB (subscribers only; but you should really subscribe).

It begins: “Step into the street, look down, and it tells you what to do. Kerbs and gutters separate walkers from drivers. Painted words, lines and changes of material nudge you forward or make you pause. The street surface shows what is going on underground: scars left by repairs indicate new pipe work; trapdoors, lids, covers and grills point to drains, cables, coal holes and cellars. Signals of activity other than that created by people going from place to place proliferate. Responsibility for all this is diffuse.”

Posted on Monday, October 27th, 2008 at 1:28 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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NASCAR on the Hudson

From the NYT I couldn’t help noticing this detail about Brian Vickers, who seems to have followed Jeff Gordon to NYC:

“This stock car driver does not keep a car in New York, and he hates the city’s ultra-heavy traffic.

He does own a sturdy black bicycle, which he has used to explore Manhattan from tip to tip. “This city is so big, with so many neighborhoods,” he said, “and until you get here, you don’t really understand that.”

Posted on Monday, October 27th, 2008 at 9:52 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Unattractive at Any Speed

This bit caught my eye, via Paul Ingrassia’s diagnosis of Detroit’s woes in the WSJ (“a tale of hubris, missed opportunities, disastrous decisions and flawed leadership of almost biblical proportions”):

“For all the Pinto’s infamy, perhaps no car better captured America’s decade-long haplessness than the pug-ugly AMC Gremlin, which debuted in 1970 and died — mercifully — in 1980. The Gremlin’s shape, fittingly, was first sketched out by an American Motors designer on the back of a Northwest Airlines air-sickness bag.”

Story after the jump…
(thanks Jack!)

Posted on Monday, October 27th, 2008 at 9:16 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:

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



October 2008

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