Archive for December, 2008

‘Zombie Driving’

Over at the Times (of London), Giles Smith tests some new semi-automated cars.

“All in all, it’s hard not to feel that today’s cars are increasingly sending drivers a message. And the message is: “You’re hopeless. You fall asleep, your lane discipline is atrocious, you can’t park, you hunt for leftover Jelly Beans in the coin tray when you’re meant to be concentrating on the road ahead and you’ve forgotten entire chapters of the Highway Code, assuming you ever really knew them. From now on, I’m driving.”

Posted on Wednesday, December 31st, 2008 at 9:37 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Four E’s

Engineering, enforcement, and education are the holy trinity of traffic safety — add a fourth, the economy, and it helps to explain encouraging stories like this one, which reports the state of Virginia is on track to record its lowest number of road fatalities in 40 years.

There’s a quote from William Lucy, whose study, “Mortality Risk Associated With Leaving Home: Recognizing the Relevance of the Built Environment,” is cited in Traffic:

Hard economic times tend to affect people’s psychology and behavior, said William Lucy, a professor of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia. They tend to act more cautiously in what they buy, whether they move, and how they regard their jobs, he said.

“Maybe [they’re] more cautious about driving,” said Lucy, who’s been tracking traffic data for 15 years.

Posted on Wednesday, December 31st, 2008 at 8:49 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On Celebrity Drivers

I’ve got a piece on the subject over at Slate.

Sample paragraph:

“Traffic is a ruthlessly democratic environment; you can drive a $300,000 Maybach with high-luster leather seats and still sit in the same congestion, still get cut off by a 1983 Corolla with a “Visualize Whirled Peas” bumper sticker, still hit the same pothole, and still fall prey to the speed gun. Driving is one of the central areas of life in which celebrities, inescapably, are “like us,” and, not surprisingly, the vérité photographs are often taken in traffic: waiting at a light on Melrose, pumping gas on Wilshire, pulled over for speeding on Sunset. (There was a curious denouement in this respect recently when David Beckham, flagged in his black Porsche for driving too fast, was let off with a warning by an LAPD officer, who seemingly wanted to prevent the assembling paparazzi —who themselves can provoke bad celebrity driving with their own bad driving—from causing any more traffic chaos themselves.)”

Posted on Tuesday, December 30th, 2008 at 4:16 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Sounding One’s Own Horn V

I’m slow to get to this in my holiday torpor, but I was thrilled that New York Times David Leonhardt included Traffic on his annual list of best economic books (particularly since I’m resolutely not an economist and only some of the book could be said to fall under that subject heading).

This came on the heels of the book being named one of the year’s best by the Washington Post,, Planetizen, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Library Journal, among others…

Posted on Tuesday, December 30th, 2008 at 8:23 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Check Your Floormats, Folks

Via Newsday:

For years before a bunched-up floor mat apparently caused a motorist to lose control of his gas pedal and careen into a storefront Hanukkah party in Woodmere, mat problems have been blamed for crashes across North America.

Posted on Monday, December 29th, 2008 at 6:47 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Habitual DUI Driver Banned “For Life” Inexplicably Posesses Valid License, Kills Another Driver

This takes lax traffic enforcement to new levels.

Police said English had been arrested six times on charges of driving under the influence. “His driver’s license has been suspended numerous times, I think an excess of 20 times,” Evansville police Chief Brad Hill said.

Posted on Monday, December 29th, 2008 at 6:31 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I Break for Holidays

I’m shutting it down for a few days, folks. Drive safe, best wishes to you and yours, etc.

And watch out for the guy below (it may be Ian Walker, conducting his latest research!)

Posted on Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008 at 9:00 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Give and Take

In Traffic I talk a bit about the curiously positive feeling you can get when you are “let in” by a driver with a friendly wave — perhaps, as some have suggested, triggering some inherent impulse towards reciprocal altruism, even though we’ll never see that driver again. Conversely, if that same driver rudely cuts in front of you with nary a glance, you might have a desire to punish them in some way, as if they would somehow learn not to mess with you the next time (even if there won’t be a next time). One question is: Were these feelings of positivity and negativity essentially equal, even if the value of the “transaction” (i.e., the right of way) was the same?

A new study by Boaz Keysar and colleagues at the University of Chicago, titled “Reciprocity is Not Give and Take: Asymmetric Reciprocity to Positive and Negative Acts,” (pdf here) published in the December issue of Psychological Science, based on a number of trials of experimental “giving” and “taking” games in the lab and on the street, suggests that we are much more willing to “escalate” our response in the face of “negative reciprocity” (e.g., when we’re cut off) than we’re willing to reward someone in the face of positive reciprocity. Indeed, our perception of the exchange is skewed by this dynamic. “Because giving appears to be inherently more generous than taking, an objectively more selfish giver can sometimes be seen as more generous than an objectively selfless taker.” The authors conclude by suggesting a new mantra: “You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours, but if you take my eye, I will take both of yours.”

In a University of Chicago release, Keysar made an explicit parallel to traffic:

“For instance in driving, if you are kind and let someone go in front of you, that driver may be considerate in response. But if you cut someone off, that person may react very aggressively, and this could escalate to road rage.” (of course, one problem is that it’s objectively more difficult to reward someone in traffic — you can drive courteously or safely, but that’s what you’re supposed to already be doing — than it is to find ways to harass them).

Things get worse when the offender doesn’t realize how much their offense is being felt by their victim. “The one receiving the slight cannot imagine that the slighter lacks that appreciation. And so it goes, because of such differential perception, they respond more and more strongly. Small slights could escalate to unbelievable, irrational feuds.”

Which might lead, just spitballin’ here, to something like this:

Posted on Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008 at 8:37 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Mean Machine

This guy, linebacker Jeff Ulbrich of the San Francisco 49ers, drives a Prius. Got a problem with that?

Posted on Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008 at 7:50 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Last Traffic Jam

“The auto industry must acknowledge that a rational transportation policy should seek a balance between individual convenience, the efficient use of limited resources, and urban-living values that protect spaciousness, natural beauty, and human-scale mobility. Twice as many autos and freeways as we now have would be a sentence of death for our cities. A necessary shift in public policy toward effective mass transit systems (which consume relatively little energy per passenger mile) would ameliorate the problem, but Detroit still must recognize that the time has come to begin developing external combustion engines (like the steam engine), to build sturdy engines of smaller horsepower that will travel twice as far on a gallon of gas as do today’s engines.”

A fragment lifted from some transpo-wonk’s position paper vis a vis the auto bailout? Nope. It’s an article by Stewart Udall, writing in The Atlantic in 1972 (thanks to Kottke for the tip).

Of course, we didn’t exactly see the “end of the love affair with the automobile” that Udall refers to — as historian Brian Ladd chronicles in Autophobia, that’s a rather cyclical conceit — and the cars Detroit went on to build (and we happily bought, or were encouraged by federal policy to buy) became less efficient. And as the always insightful Dan Neil notes here, in a review of the new Ford Fusion (52 MPG!), better fuel economy out of Detroit was never a technological hurdle as much a matter of overcoming its own lassitude, enabled by government and the mass of consumers who, let’s be honest, never had much altruistic interest in better fuel economy except when they began to take the hit.

In any case, Udall’s article is an interesting reminder of roads not taken.

Posted on Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008 at 7:18 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Ant Road Workers

Readers of the book will know of my fascination with ant traffic. That’s why it was a special pleasure in Trinidad, while out walking in the forest, to run across massive streams of leaf-cutter ants. Occasionally, I would glance down to look at something on the ground, only to discern the slow movement of small macerated bits of leaf glinting as they were ferried by apparently quite strong individual ants. The leaf bits are used as compost to create a harvested fungus that sustains, and is sustained by, the ants. Exposed roots were favorite “road” surfaces, but the most astonishing thing was to look off the human trail and see the trails that the ants were emerging from — a few inches of ground cleared from the forest floor by the indefatigable six-legged march of massive ant colonies.

When I returned home, I was particularly excited to find in the mail the new book by E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler, “The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies.” The book, which updates and expands upon their canonical tome The Ants, is a sheer delight. The photos alone would be worth the price of admission.

In a section on the trail construction and formation of leaf-cutter ants, I was struck by this passage:

“In most cases, [the trails] are deeply engraved into the ground and conspicuous even to the most casual observer. They are retained for months or years. Even when abandoned for a time, they are commonly used again by the ants. Serving as the superhighways of the Atta colonies, they are continuously cleaned of invading vegetation and other obstacles by ‘road workers.’ The trunk route system enhances foraging speed four- to tenfold compared with that on uncleared ground.”

I rather imagine tiny ant workers, dressed in DOT orange vests, clearing debris (I’m actually not sure if there’s a special caste in the ant society that clears debris, or if everyone pitches in). This is of course a direct parallel to the whole idea of “incident management” in improving human traffic flow during peak periods; one stalled vehicle can seriously compromise the flow of a system, hence each additional minute it takes to clear means that much more congestion buildup (I’m not sure, Another parallel might be to imagine the trails as major, restricted access highways, and the uncleared ground as the smaller surface streets, with their traffic lights, double-parked cars, etc. I also learned from the book there is a species known as “driver ants.” Which I what I will know refer to my fellow vehicle operators as.

A few paragraphs on, the authors note another curious fact: The foraging area of an average colony (or “superorganism,” in the authors’ view) is 1.03 hectares, which “happens to be approximately the same ‘ecological footprint,’ or average amount of land utilized to sustain one person, in developing countries.”

Posted on Monday, December 22nd, 2008 at 8:14 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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(Almost) Ten Things You Should Know about Trinidad and Tobago Traffic

I wasn’t there long enough (and I didn’t hit Tobago at all) to do my usual “ten things,” but a few observations:

1. Trinidad has the world’s largest roundabout, in Queens Park Savannah.
2. According to Thursday’s Trinidad Guardian, in a little box headlined “Mr. Death,” showing an image of the Grim Reaper, there have been over 250 road fatalities this year in T&T. By just one comparison, Northern Ireland, which this year had one of its safest years ever, has around 120 fatalities — with a population some 600,000 larger. The reasons are not hard to imagine: There are many two-lane, non-divided highways in the country, which people drive at routinely high speeds (life seems relaxed everywhere except the roads). Also, the police no doubt have there hands a bit tied up with the 535 murders that have occurred there so far this year — don’t let this deter your visit, it’s typically gang-related stuff owing to the country’s status as a trans-shipment point for South American cocaine.
3. Something I hadn’t seen before: A stretch of road (coming out of Sangre Grande) marked with a sign from British Petroleum notifying drivers that the safety signs on that road were sponsored by same BP.
4. Left-side driving (former British colony).
5. I saw several nasty looking mountain passes where the guard-rails were fashioned out of bamboo (with little strips of police ‘caution’ tape interwoven throughout).
6. Most cars seemed to be low-slung Japanese models with tinted windows and expressions decaled across the front windshield (“Serious,” “Unique Lifestyle”, and, yes, “Bitchmaster”).
7. Accidents will often be explained using the wonderful phrase, “I get ah bad drive.”
8. The trams in Port of Spain, as shown in the House for Mr. Biswas-era postcard above, have long gone.
9. Owing to its own oil supplies and oil wealth, the government has been subsidizing fuel prices. According to the Los Angeles Times, Trinidad “spent about $2 billion last year on motor fuel subsidies — equivalent to 10% of its gross domestic product.” When gas was $4 a gallon in the U.S., it was under $2 in Trinidad. Car sales have also spiked. Not surprisingly, traffic in the capital, and even at seemingly minor junctions, is bad.
10. Any other suggestions?

Posted on Sunday, December 21st, 2008 at 12:45 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“Do We Need More Freeways to Nowhere?”

No, says Robert Puente of the Brookings Institution, in this video accompanying a new report tracking the historic drop in car travel in the U.S. He also says it’s time to end the federal gas tax holiday — not the goofy one proposed during the election, but the more ridiculous one we’ve been on for the last two decades, during which time our infrastructure has been slowly going to seed (even as we busily build elsewhere).

(Via The Transportationist)

Posted on Saturday, December 20th, 2008 at 2:22 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Gizmo to Block In-Car Cell Phone Conversations

Details here. Seems oriented at teens, who are hardly the only ones who need help on the road. Still, I wouldn’t mind having one of those for the Amtrak, or New York City streets for that matter (hell, to update Sarte, is other people’s cell phone conversations).

Posted on Saturday, December 20th, 2008 at 2:00 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Boris Broods

The Environmental Transport Association notes that Boris Johnson, having already scrapped the western extension to London’s congestion charging zone, has not ruled out eliminating it entirely, apparently to provide a boost to London’s plummeting economy (which apparently depends on private car journeys whisking in to do Christmas shopping at Marks and Spencer). During “Question Time” he said he wanted to “brood” on it a bit, but did not want to do anything that make congestion worse. Well, if as every journo and taxi driver in London likes to argue, congestion is as bad now as it was before the charge — generally forgetting to mention the massive infrastructure program that has shut a once impossible number of streets, not to mention the idea of how much worse congestion would be without the charge — it’s hard to see how scuttling the charge could in any way make congestion better.

Posted on Saturday, December 20th, 2008 at 1:55 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Signed Out

Duke University’s John Staddon makes the case for less, and more effective, road signage in the U.S.

Posted on Friday, December 19th, 2008 at 12:50 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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My Mercedes Is Not For Sale

I was interviewed last week by Jeroen Van Bergeijk, and I’ve since had time to pick up his immensely entertaining travelogue, My Mercedes Is Not For Sale, about his odyssey to unload a used Dutch Mercedes in the second-hand car markets of Burkina Faso. Perfect staycation reading!

One passage jumped out via my own investigations into traffic culture:

“A country’s traffic a metaphor for its culture. In the Netherlands, the cars gleam, the roads are well maintained, and rules and warnings (“IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU’RE TOO CLOSE”), encourage motorists to drive safely and courteously. At the same time, if there are no cops in sight, everyone drives over the speed limit. The Dutchman likes to think of his country that way: clean and orderly but with a touch of antiauthoritarianism.”

Mauritania, on the other hand, presents a different picture, but I’ll leave that for you to discover…

There are some good photos of his journey here.

Posted on Friday, December 19th, 2008 at 9:15 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Texting While Driving Death

Via the BBC:

“Ms Curtis, 21, told Oxford Crown Court she thought you could use a phone when driving “in the right conditions”. She denies death by dangerous driving.”

The problem is that drivers, particularly younger ones, are ill-equipped to judge what the “right conditions” are — not to mention that the right conditions often become the “wrong conditions” with no advance warning.

“She also told the court she could send and receive messages without taking her eyes off the road.”

Her eyes, perhaps, but her mind? Alas, not.

Posted on Friday, December 19th, 2008 at 8:03 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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No posts this week.

Posted on Saturday, December 13th, 2008 at 3:32 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Does Diversity Lead to More Driving?

I was reading Robert Putnam’s now rather famous paper from the journal Scandinavian Political Studies, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” the one that found, to the dismay of people like Putnam himself, that “new evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”

There has been, as you might imagine, a lot of response to Putnam’s work, which I won’t get into here. But I was struck to notice, half-way through the paper, this fragment:

“Across American census tracts, greater ethnic heterogeneity is associated with lower rates of car-pooling, a social practice that embodies trust and reciprocity.”

The source is this paper, by Charles and Kline. It’s fire-walled, so I can’t read it. But Tim Harford gives the gist, noting how car-pooling as an activity is an interesting proxy for the elusive concept of “social capital”:

“And so we return to car-pooling. It is not a bad measure of a certain kind of social capital: car-pooling does not work without trust. Can you trust your fellow travellers not to be late, drive badly, or murder you? Whatever it is, social capital would seem to help you get a lift. Economists Kerwin Charles and Patrick Kline have just published a paper about car-pooling and social capital, and there’s a twist. Charles and Kline want to understand how the local racial mix affects social capital. They predict that, for instance, African-Americans will find it easier to car-pool if they live in an area with lots of other African-American, following a battery of tedious but handy statistical tests, this is exactly what they find.

They also find that not all racial differences present the same barrier to car-pooling. Asians who are a minority in a chiefly white area car-pool more than Asians who are a minority in a chiefly African-American area. African-Americans and Hispanics seem to find it similarly easy to get along. But neither whites in a largely African-American area nor African-Americans in a largely white area tend to car-pool. There is such a thing as social capital, and if you live in an area full of people with the same colour skin as you, it seems you will enjoy more of it.”

I’m not sure how good the data are, etc., or what other factors might be lurking there, but it’s a curious finding nonetheless. And I’m not how sure how this data relates to informal car-pooling, like “slugging” in San Francisco.

Traffic in general presents perhaps an extreme version of what Putnam is describing: You’re surrounded by people you don’t know, who are different from you, and in general there’s few outlets for trust and reciprocity, because you’ll never see these strangers again. As Putnam writes, “Social psychologists and sociologists have taught us that people find it easier to trust one another and cooperate when the social distance between them is less.”

Posted on Friday, December 12th, 2008 at 5:09 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

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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



December 2008

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