Archive for November, 2008


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The last time I was in Berlin, Brian Ladd’s Ghosts of Berlin was my invaluable key to the contested city’s palimpsestual history. I’ve reviewed his new book, Autophobia, in this weekend’s New York Times, and I’ll no doubt be referring to it again here. Review here or after the jump.


Posted on Saturday, November 15th, 2008 at 2:21 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I knew the car makers were in trouble, but roads are laying people off?

Posted on Thursday, November 13th, 2008 at 6:05 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Risky Business: Speeding and Trading

It’s hardly news in the traffic psychology world that people who routinely speed fall under the category of what are called “sensation-seekers.” But it’s always interesting to see just who those people are, and how this behavior correlates with other areas of their life.

A study by Mark Grinblatt, a professor of finance at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Matti Keloharju, a finance professor at the Helsinki School of Economics, titled “Sensation Seeking, Overconfidence and Trading Activity” (available here), gets at that question in an interesting way.

They had access to an interesting data set: A record of investing behavior among Finnish households that had, scattered amongst its sub-categories, the number of speeding tickets those households received. And they found an interesting relationship: “Each additional speeding ticket tends to increase turnover by 11%.” In other words, the people who sped the most, traded the most.

The economists were really looking to find evidence of whether behavioral attributes could explain trading volume, but the finding is just as relevant for driving. Whether it was down to sensation-seeking or, perhaps, overconfidence, the riskiest investors took the most risks on the road. And given that this was Finland, where speeding tickets for violations over 15 kph are related to one’s income, the risks one took could bear a high financial (and personal) cost. Interestingly, those who traded most didn’t see better performance than those who traded less (not to mention all the money they probably lost to speeding tickets). And it will surprise no one that “sports cars,” as a variable, were more linked to the most active traders, though not as much as speeding tickets.

Posted on Thursday, November 13th, 2008 at 4:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Amherst Talk

If you’re in the area, I’ll be talking tomorrow at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst tomorrow, Friday, at 11 a.m. in the Isenberg School of Management. Details here.

Posted on Thursday, November 13th, 2008 at 9:43 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Are Narrower Lanes More Dangerous?

An interesting article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes that crashes have increased on I-44 after they were narrowed to 11 feet wide, from 12 feet. They were narrowed to add a fifth lane and increase capacity in the wake of the temporary closure of another road, Highway 40. This is of interest because a key congestion-fighting measure that has emerged for an era of scarce highway funds is increasing the efficiency of existing infrastructure (e.g., by carving out new lanes).

The article notes: “The increase in overall collisions is typical whenever lanes become narrower, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The skinnier the lane, the less room there is for error. It’s why the federal government recommends that lanes on interstates be 12 feet wide.”

But there are some caveats to consider, within the same article:

1.) “Volumes on I-44 have gone up 10 percent to 30 percent during rush hour since the Highway 40 closures, according to the Transportation Department.” If the crash figure is 27 percent higher than the comparison period, it’s hard to know what percentage of crash increase has to do with narrower lanes, and which has to do with increased volume (or some other factor).

2.) Fatal crashes have actually gone down. Does that make the entire facility more or less safe?

3.) The speed limits have been reduced, but driver compliance is an issue. “You look at them and think, ‘OK, there goes another idiot,'” Stremlau said. “It’s that way on any highway. It’s just exacerbated by the narrower lanes.” Safety depends on context, and the real issue seems to be driver speed rather than lane width.

4.) The types of crashes mentioned, multi-car rear-end collisions, have little to do, theoretically, with lane width. “The bulk of them,” a police officer said, “are caused by tailgating.” Tailgating is a speed issue, not an issue of proximity to a neighboring vehicle. The police even came up with a novel suggestion: “Despite more traffic, police say the additional lane can make the interstate feel less congested, thus encouraging drivers to floor it.”

5.) There may be less room for error, but that may make drivers pay more attention, thus canceling out the increased risk.

Ezra Hauer has researched this issue rather extensively, and reports on the complexity of the issue here. Note that some crash types have been found to increase over 11 feet.

Of one study, he writes: “They also note that “narrowing of lanes to 11 feet (or occasionally 10.5 feet) while maintaining shoulders did not change accident rates.” Based on the review of several projects in California the authors note that: “. . . higher accident rates had not materialized several years after lanes were narrowed and left shoulders were removed . . .”

Posted on Wednesday, November 12th, 2008 at 6:02 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The word of the year, according to the New American Oxford Dictionary. I see the word more often than I actually see people doing it.

And, going against a recent grain of thought, Car and Driver says leaving the windows down is better for mileage than A/C.

Posted on Tuesday, November 11th, 2008 at 6:56 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Bikes Not Bombs

John Adams explodes the fear of “bicycle bombs.” And his point on life jackets is well taken too.

[I should clarify, vis a vis the comment below, that Adams is talking about actual bicycles converted into bombs, rather than explosives attached to bicycles — which seems to be the case in this article — which are in theory no different than explosives strapped to human suicide bombers.]

Posted on Tuesday, November 11th, 2008 at 4:01 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Is what Mary Roach suggested my book should have been called, and every time I read a story like this one, the point is driven home.

Detailing a police sting operation in Montclair, N.J., to reduce the number of pedestrians killed in crosswalks as they legally go about their walking (the most common way pedestrians are killed in NYC and apparently parts of N.J.), the story notes:

During the operation, dubbed Cops in Crosswalks, the percentage of motorists who stopped rose from 11 percent in June to 49 percent in August, and more than 800 drivers received $100 traffic-violation tickets, said Sgt. Daniel Pronti, of the Montclair Police Department.

“Most people who committed the violations weren’t even aware they committed a violation,” Sergeant Pronti said. “We learned that education was key to our ultimate goal of making people feel safe.”

Uh, I actually thought the education was supposed to happen before the drivers got their license. And we wonder why Europeans think our driving tests are a joke.

Posted on Tuesday, November 11th, 2008 at 3:52 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Democracy in Action

I was intrigued by this story of how Newark, N.J., is installing a number of count-down signals at key intersections, and also lengthening crossing times.

“Part of the reason for the evaluation throughout town is the persistence of resident Shari Gaston, who has been coming to meetings for months to complain about the safety of crossing the street.”

And there’s a poetic justice to the way it’s going down:

Monday at Newark City Council committee meetings, Service Director Kathleen Barch intends to request $7,500 from the funds collected from enforcement of handicap parking to pay for 16 countdown overlay crosswalk lights for four downtown intersections.

Posted on Tuesday, November 11th, 2008 at 3:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

The Washington Post reports that Tysons Corner, poster child for “Edge City” sprawl, sees heavier traffic counts at lunch as it does during the morning or evening peaks.

Not everyone, like this lunch commuter, was so worked up about it.

“We drive a mile at most,” he said. “Even with traffic, it’s not more than a couple of minutes.”

Why even take such a short drive?

On a recent sunny weekday, four young financiers got out of Mike Eisenberg’s Acura in the parking lot of the Silver Diner. They took the three-minute drive from their office building, rather than walk. “We’re not willing to risk our lives crossing Route 123,” Eisenberg said.


Posted on Tuesday, November 11th, 2008 at 3:28 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Could a GPS Have Prevented World War I?

In his book Ubiquity, Mark Buchanan reminds me of the obscure traffic-related origins of the Great War:

“It was 11 a.m. on a fine summer morning in Sarajevo, 28 June 1914, when the driver of an automobile carrying two passengers made a wrong turn. The car was not supposed to leave the main street, and yet it did, pulling up into a narrow passageway with no escape. It was an unremarkable mistake, easy enough to make in the crowded, dusty streets. But this mistake, made on this day and by this driver, would disrupt hundreds of millions of lives, and alter the course of world history.

The automobile stopped in front of a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb student, Gavrilo Princip. As a member of the Serbian terrorist organisation Black Hand, Princip couldn’t believe his luck. Striding forward, he reached the car. He drew a small pistol from his pocket. Pointed it. Pulled the trigger twice. Within thirty minutes, the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, the car’s passengers, were dead. Within hours the political fabric of Europe had begun to unravel.”

Posted on Monday, November 10th, 2008 at 4:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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How Drivers Decide

“Drivers’ perceptions of the speed above the speed limit at which they believe they will receive a ticket (perceived-ticket speed) has a strongly significant impact on their assessment of safety risk.”

That’s from Fred Mannering, “An empirical analysis of driver perceptions of the relationships between speed limits and safety,” in Transportation Research Part F.

“So the faster you think you can go before getting a ticket, the more likely you are to think safety’s not compromised at higher speeds,” said Fred Mannering, a professor of civil engineering at Purdue University, in Science Daily.

Posted on Monday, November 10th, 2008 at 9:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“Car Economy” Heading for Crash

So reports the Independent.

Many interesting stats here, but this one jumps out:

“The motor industry is suffering across the world, with Volvo, the Swedish giant, selling just 115 heavy trucks over the past few months, compared to 41,970 during the same period last year – a 99.7 per cent fall.”

Posted on Monday, November 10th, 2008 at 8:04 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Hanoi crazy night traffic from v!Nc3sl4s on Vimeo

I came across this entrancing video of night traffic in Hanoi, a city said to currently have the highest per-capita motorbike usage in the world. It’s hard not to watch this and be dazzled by the wonderfully organic, almost aquatic flow — no man steps into the same Hanoi traffic stream twice. “It somehow works,” you hear people say. Matt Steinglass reminds us it’s not often as pretty as it looks.

I was in Hanoi last December, on the eve of the country’s new compulsory helmet law (which according to one account seems to have brought a 30% reduction in injuries, though presumably we’ll need more time and better science to see how it shakes out), and seeing this video had me in a nostalgic mood.

So allow me to drag out the photo album for a moment, of snaps taken mostly from the back of moto-taxis:

Watching Hanoi traffic is hypnotizing, like sitting on a beach and watching waves break.

There were many stylish riders, but helmets were not generally considered a vital accessory.


Posted on Friday, November 7th, 2008 at 11:06 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Ant Traffic

“Motorists can learn a thing or two about dodging traffic jams from the humble ant, claim scientists,” goes the lead in a story in today’s Telegraph.
This is hardly news to readers of Traffic, but still, there’s some interesting stuff here (as is always the case from Dirk Helbing).

“His team set up an “ant motorway” with two routes of different widths from the nest to some sugar syrup. Soon the narrower route soon became congested.

But when an ant returning along the congested route to the nest collided with another ant just starting out, the returning ant pushed the newcomer onto the other path.

However, if the returning ant had enjoyed a trouble-free journey it did not redirect the newcomer.

The result was that just before the shortest route became clogged the ants were diverted to another route and traffic jams never formed.”

Posted on Friday, November 7th, 2008 at 9:34 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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L.A. ‘Traffic Hackers’ Plead Guilty

Readers of Traffic (the Los Angeles bits) may remember my brief encounter with Kartik Patel, the L.A. DOT engineer I interviewed on “Oscar Night” in the city’s traffic bunker. He was later accused, with another engineer, of tampering with the traffic lights during an ongoing labor action.

News comes from the LA Times that Mr. Patel and Gabriel Murillo have “pleaded guilty to a single felony count of illegally accessing a city computer connected to the center.”

I liked Mr. Patel when I met him, so I’m admittedly pleased that he didn’t appear to get a more severe penalty (at one point the DHS had been called in):

“Under the plea deal, sentencing will be delayed one year, said Jane Robison, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. The two must pay full restitution, serve 120 days in jail or complete 240 hours of work with Caltrans or other community service, and must have their computers at home and work monitored.

Defense attorney James Blatt, the lawyer for Murillo, said today that his client had been an exceptional employee and that the matter should have been handled administratively. He noted that despite pleading guilty to a felony, both men would be sentenced to one misdemeanor count and that after a brief period of probation, both sides would dismiss the count and expunge their criminal record.

“This was an emotional collective-bargaining strike situation,” Blatt said. “This should have been handled administratively. Mr. Murillo and Mr. Patel are outstanding citizens and have devoted a significant part of their professional lives to transportation safety in Los Angeles County.”

Posted on Thursday, November 6th, 2008 at 7:06 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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My old pal Roadguy wrote recently about a curious parking-garage pricing structure in Minneapolis:

“$2 for the first 20 minutes, a whopping $12 for the next 20 minutes, then $2 for every 20 minutes after that, with a daily maximum of $23. But if you’re in before 9 a.m. and you leave after noon, you pay eight bucks.”

Parking pricing, which in New York City can seem capricious and non-transparent, deserves its own chapter in economics textbooks — is there anything comparable? (OK, I suppose there’s plenty of things, daily versus weekly rates at hotels, for example). My bet here is that given that it’s across from a court house, the garage receives a lot of people coming in for short visits (renew licenses, etc.). Those people are in a hurry and probably not in the mood to shop around. You can further imagine that, under normal bureaucratic conditions, there’s no way you’re getting in and out from your car and back in less than 20 minutes. So you hit that ‘sweet’ spot of the next 20 minutes (perhaps the garage has ascertained the average visit is around an hour). To stop short of outright highway robbery they probably ease off after that, but the damage has been done. Perhaps the people who arrive before 9 a.m. and leave after noon are the daily commuters, and perhaps they wouldn’t use the garage if they had to pay the short-term rates. Any other thoughts?

There’s an interesting discussion of parking pricing structures over at Marginal Revolution. I like the Occam’s razor approach that one poster suggests: “Isn’t there a much easier explanation–third-degree price discrimination? People who want to park for short period have inelastic demand and as a result they end up paying higher price.”

Posted on Thursday, November 6th, 2008 at 4:28 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Cycles in London’s Bus Lanes

On the cycling theme for a moment, I’m wondering what the thinking is out there about London’s trial for motorcycles in the bus lanes (where pedal cyclists currently dwell). We’ll have to wait and see the results of the trial, but it brings up some interesting inter-modal issues. Will this really pose no risk to cyclists, as TFL claims, or would that risk be smaller than the risk posed to motorcyclists by cars? What about the increased emissions in the path of cyclists? Is there sort of thing standard elsewhere? How well do pedal and motor cycles intermingle — what about speed differences (motorcycles tend to attract much more risk-seeking users, at higher speeds, with predictable results)?

On the last point, did you know more U.S. Marines have been killed on motorcycles in the past 12 months than in Iraq?

Posted on Thursday, November 6th, 2008 at 12:41 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Stop and Roll

A reader from D.C. writes with the news that there is some very initial exploration of a “stop and roll”-style ordinance, a la Idaho, that would allow cyclists to essentially treat signalized intersections as stop signs as “yield” signs.

I know that San Francisco (whose landscape is more akin to D.C. than Idaho) has been batting the idea around, but does anyone else know of any initiatives out there have been successful, or any studies that show the effects of such a law in Idaho or elsewhere?

Posted on Thursday, November 6th, 2008 at 12:16 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“The Heavy Stuff”

I know we shouldn’t expect too much from outlets like AOL News, but note how this story replicates the classic cultural construct that “drunk driving is a horrible crime” and “speeding is OK and just something for the police to make money off of…”

After discussing how fines are rising for first-time speeding infractions, the article notes:

“Now, for the heavy stuff: drunken driving, known as DUI or DWI depending on your state.”

Speed, presumably, is the light stuff, the frothy romantic-comedy if you will in the pantheon of traffic safety, as compared to the dark tragedy of drunk driving. How light? This from NHTSA: “Annually, about 32 percent of all fatalities in motor vehicle traffic crashes were speeding-related, i.e., at least one of the drivers involved in the crash exceeded the posted speed limit or was driving too fast for the prevailing conditions.”

Not to mention things like the vast, exponential increase in chance of pedestrian death as speeds move from 20 mph to 30 mph.

Posted on Thursday, November 6th, 2008 at 11:17 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



November 2008

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