Archive for January, 2009

Non-compliant Signage

Posted on Friday, January 30th, 2009 at 4:56 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Gas Prices Drop, So Does Driving

Via Mobilizing the Region:

How times have changed. As of today, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline is $1.85. This may be just a temporary drop, but it’s nevertheless relatively cheap to drive again.

And yet Americans are continuing to cut back on driving. According to just released figures from the Federal Highway Administration’s Traffic Volume Trends report, Americans drove almost 13 billion fewer miles in November of 2008 than in November 2007, a decline of 5.3 percent. That is the second biggest drop in driving of any month this year, and it came even as gas prices were falling to the $2 per gallon range.

Through the first eleven months of 2008, driving has fallen an astonishing 102 billion miles, a drop of 3.5 percent over the same period in 2007. Assuming that trend holds true through the end of the year, it would represent the biggest decline in driving since World War II.

Posted on Friday, January 30th, 2009 at 4:45 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Subway Reading

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ new 2009 “Pocket Guide to Transportation” is out and available here (as a pdf or a free hard-copy, that they’ll mail to you, courtesy of your tax dollars!).

It’s chock full of information, much of it rather depressing, like the attached chart, which is titled, “Transportation’s Share of U.S. Petroleum Use: 1975-2007.”

Note how the jump begins right around 1980, when Detroit really began to starting cranking up in earnest on the ‘light truck’ loophole (wiping out all the efficiency gains of the previous decades) the one that helped kill any impetus for innovation in Detroit and thus brings us to our current sorry state of affairs…

Posted on Friday, January 30th, 2009 at 4:06 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Model Behavior

Over a lunch I recently attended at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, the talk turned briefly to the difficulty of modeling human behavior in large-scale evacuations of people in cars, as occurred during some of the recent hurricanes. “What happens when the driver turns around and sees a big black cloud in the sky?” as one person put it.

Of course, modeling routine traffic behavior presents myriad challenges of its own, which is probably why it is still such a robust activity. As Dirk Helbing notes in his article, “Traffic and related self-driving many-particle systems,” in Reviews of Modern Physics, “Altogether, researchers from engineering, mathematics, operations research, and physics have probably suggested more than 100 different traffic models, which cannot all be covered by this review.” (the article, by the way, is 75 pages long).

Some of these consider traffic flow as a kind of fluid behavior, some have looked at the behavior of “car following,” how one driver is “attracted” and “repulsed” by the person in front of them (which then laid the challenge of how to model a single driver, with no one ahead of him), others have delved into “cellular automata.” Some have tried to break driver behavior down into a complex range of attributes. But as Philip Ball notes in his excellent book Critical Mass, “the more complex the model, the harder it becomes to know what outcomes are in any sense ‘fundamental’ aspects of traffic flow, and which follow from the details of the rules.”

So while large-scale models can with some success predict, say, the formation of traffic jams, there’s an inherent amount of built-in “noise,” e.g., human behavior. For example, I have a bit of an aversion to driving right next to someone. If I’m cruising along at a comfortable speed, but then notice a car in the neighboring lane is unnervingly keeping the same speed, I will accelerate or decelerate, to have my own pocket of space. Are all drivers like this? If not, how many? How do you model something like that? (more…)

Posted on Friday, January 30th, 2009 at 2:10 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Agricultural Traffic Calming

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reports on a radical new traffic calming device potentially coming to my borough:

“It was also suggested that “barn-stands” be put in place at every intersection along Tillary, which would allow simultaneous crossing on all four sides and diagonal crossing from corner to corner — similar to what is permitted at Court and Montague streets in Downtown Brooklyn.”

What a lovely idea! Maybe even a petting zoo or two. There’s nothing nicer than a — wait, what’s a barn-stand? The stands inside a barn? A news-stand shaped liked a barn?

The writer actually misheard, in the style of “Kiss this Guy” and other misunderstood lyrics, a reference to a “Barnes Dance,” not a quaint Amish tradition but named for former NYC traffic commish Henry Barnes (though he invented the concept in Denver), and it refers to an “all-way pedestrian scramble” in which pedestrians briefly have right of way at all intersection crossings.

Still, I wouldn’t mind buying my NYT from a little red barn…

Posted on Friday, January 30th, 2009 at 8:46 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Shared Space’ Comes to Montgomery, Alabama

In an article in the latest Scientific American, titled “Removing Roads and Traffic Lights Speeds Urban Travel,” (concepts which are well familiar round here), I was intrigued to see a reference to a so-called “shared space” (a.k.a. “livable streets,” etc.) project in Montgomery, Alabama. In brief, the project entailed turning the city’s languishing ‘Court Square’ (pictured above) from a conventional signalized intersection to a cobble-stoned urban ‘plaza,’ with fewer obvious forms of traffic control. While these projects are becoming common in Europe, they can still be a hard sell stateside. So I got in touch with Chris Conway, an engineer with the city, to see how it had happened. Here’s what he told me:

“The project began as just a way to reopen an area closed during urban renewal in the 70’s, and bring our Court Square fountain into focus as the anchor of Capitol Hill. The urban renewal had essentially killed all commerce in the area it had intended to enhance.

In an effort to “renew the renewal”, we began looking at a concept to reopen Court Square as it had originally functioned. This was more or less a traditional roundabout around our historic Court Square fountain. Plans were drawn to implement the roundabout, but it just so happened that Dover/Kohl and Partners had just been engaged to do our downtown master plan at the same time.

[as a brief interjection, this serendipitous event is similar to the way one of Hans Monderman’s first traffic calming experiments unfolded in the Netherlands, as described in Traffic]

We asked their traffic engineers, Hall Planning and Engineering to review the roundabout. Again, as it so happened, Rick Hall (who describes himself as a “reformed” traffic engineer) was in Paris when he received the plans and was inspired to recommend a European style plaza for the space.

[another brief interjection: Should someone form an ‘Institute of Reformed Traffic Engineers’?]

This caused a quick redesign essentially scrapping the original plans. Rick’s concept was to remove all traditional traffic control letting drivers “intuitively” navigate the space in an attempt to make the space more than just a traffic control device, but a thriving “marketplace” that could serve the many functions it had once enjoyed. This was a low volume but historically attractive area, so although his ideas were “outside the box”, they were well received by our leadership.

The key points of Hall’s design, says Conway, were:

Lack of traditional traffic markings and control, forcing drivers to be more alert and aware at eye level with other users of the space – other motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc.

Use of Belgian cobbles as a roadway surface to give a rumble effect to drivers as they moved through the space – again in an attempt to make them intuitively move slower.

No raised curbing within the plaza to accommodate street closings for fairs, marching bands for parades, and easy pedestrian navigation.

This wasn’t without some controversy, he notes. “Our traffic engineers were uncomfortable with the lack of “direction” given to motorists. Our drivers were also thought to be too unfamiliar with such a “complicated” intersection. There were fears that drivers would be going the wrong way and chaos would result.”

Hall, for its part, describes the lack of markings as a kind of symbiotic relationship. As they note on their website: “HPE designers assured the city that a design speed of 25 mph would make explicit pavement markings, or guide lines, unnecessary. The lack of extensive markings would, in fact, help manage the vehicle speeds to the pedestrian friendly 20 to 25 mph range. Rough pavement texture and traffic enforcement will also help manage vehicle speeds.”

And the safety? “Drivers for the most part act as Rick predicted they would. The occasional driver goes the wrong way, but since the plaza is wide open and the speeds are so low, no accidents have resulted. There has actually not been a single accident involving vehicles or pedestrians due to the plaza concept.

We have had one intoxicated driver drive his Hummer straight into the fountain at 3am claiming he never even saw the always well lit 30′ fountain. No injuries other than our wrought iron fence and his Hummer damage.”

As Monderman once told me, similarly about a drunken driver, “there’s not a street that can cope with that problem.” And blog readers will of course know of Hummer drivers’ particular aversion to pesky things like laws.

I’ve not been to Montgomery, and I don’t know what the space was like before, but judging by the historic photo below, it almost seems like ‘back to the future,’ an era before the passenger vehicle had monopolized or helped destroy every last inch of urban space. As Monderman put it, “when you want people to behave in a village, you have to build a village.” Montgomery’s project suggests that design and context can be strong enough to guide proper driving behavior — and it doesn’t hurt to design places that actually want to make you leave your car.

Posted on Thursday, January 29th, 2009 at 3:53 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘A Culture of Accountability on Our Roads’

A bill in Maryland looks to fill that “big gaping hole” between felony manslaughter and a minor traffic ticket:

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, D-Montgomery, the bill’s chief sponsor, called it “cosmically absurd” that a driver can speed, run a red light and kill someone and not face criminal prosecution because his actions did not meet the high standard required to prove vehicular manslaughter. He said his measure would not criminalize “ordinary negligence,” such as taking your eyes off the road momentarily, but would be targeted at more serious deviations from reasonable care.

The legislation will create “a culture of accountability on our roads,” Simmons said.

Hear, hear.

This parallels a similar move in Washington State.

A bill to be introduced in the state legislature would make it a crime to kill or seriously injure a person with a car while violating a traffic law—a response to the killing of City Council aide Tatsuo Nakata by driver Ephraim Schwartz, who struck Nakata in a crosswalk while talking on his cell phone.

“The problem we’re trying to address is that there’s a big gap between a civil infraction”—a traffic ticket—”and a felony,” says City Attorney Tom Carr, who’s pushing for the legislation. “It’s my view that if you speed regularly through school zones and 99 percent of the time nothing happens, but one percent of the time you seriously injure somebody, that should be more serious” than a mere traffic violation, Carr says.

Posted on Thursday, January 29th, 2009 at 9:17 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Revolutionary Road

In the new Times of London Literary Supplement, I have a review (available here) of two different sorts of books about one subject, i.e. the curious history of the Soviet automobile: Lewis Siegelbaum’s Cars for Comrades, and Andy Thompson’s Cars of the Soviet Union.

Here’s a snippet:

If apparatchiks could be retroactively airbrushed from photographs, so could their influence be stripped from car design: the GAZ M21, the “Volga with the star,” added at the request of war hero General Zhukov, “lost” its star after the General had a falling out with Krushchev. If this is apocryphal, it is not alone: The engine of the ZAZ, or “Soviet Mini,” was rumored to be the starter motor from a Soviet tank; Stalin’s limo, it was said, had no wing mirrors — for who would be foolish enough to overtake?

Posted on Wednesday, January 28th, 2009 at 1:52 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Random Fact of the Day

Via the New Scientist: “Cannabis intoxication raises a driver’s risk of crashing by 1.3 to 3 times. By contrast, alcohol intoxication raises the accident risk by up to 15 times.”

Posted on Tuesday, January 27th, 2009 at 3:01 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On the Road

Regular posting will resume soon. For what it’s worth I’ve updated my ‘appearances’ page (although there’s already a few more to add), so if you happen to find yourself near any of these events…

Posted on Sunday, January 25th, 2009 at 9:51 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Study: Hummer Drivers Rack Up Most Tickets

Quality Planning, whose previous studies appear in Traffic, has a new one out looking at which vehicles draw the most traffic tickets.

Number one? Hummer. (We knew this crapulous ride, a malignant tumor on the flatlining patient that is GM, had to be tops in something, given that it’s got some of the worst gas mileage on the road and, according to Consumer Reports, is consistently ranked one of the worst cars in America — poor handling, no visibility, frequent visits to the dealer, etc.).

“The sense of power that Hummer drivers derive from their vehicle may be directly correlated with the number of violations they incur,” president Raj Bhat said in statement. “Or perhaps Hummer drivers, by virtue of their driving position, are less likely to notice road hazards, signs, pedestrians or other drivers.”

Perhaps equally unsurprising, Buicks — the quintessential ‘granny’ car, oddly transmogrified into a favorite elite coach in China — rank among those vehicles getting the fewest infractions.

Posted on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 at 8:33 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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First, Do No Harm

John Van Horn issues a welcome rebuke the U.K.’s health secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, for calling hospital parking fees a “tax on ill health”:

“She is saying that if you charge people to park, you are then in essence “taxing” them for being sick. I suppose then that it’s also true that if a person has a headache, then charging them for an aspirin is ‘taxing’ them for being sick. So it would follow that all ‘over the counter’ meds should be free because we don’t want to “tax” someone who has stubbed their toe, or has a hangover, or a hangnail…

…It’s little wonder that parking is now become a “right” and that it is up to the medical insurance system to pay for those who elect to drive to the hospital. Let’s see if I get this right. Everyone pays the same amount (as a percentage of income) for their health care. However, those who take a cab, the bus, or walk, pay for the parking for those who drive. How is that fair?

I’m sure that Nicola hasn’t considered the issues of “free” parking, not only some paying for others, but the fact that it isn’t “green,” the fact that it causes congestion, and the fact that what started all this charging for parking half a decade ago was the fact that there wasn’t any parking space at the hospitals, since locals were parking “free” in the hospital lots and garages and taking all the space needed for ambulances, doctors, and dare I say it, patients.”

Posted on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 at 11:28 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Buy When Cars Are Burning in the Street?

The Economist notes that car burnings in the U.K. increase as times get tough (the title of the post refers, of course, to Baron Rothschild’s famous aphorism about making money). People also get more litigious.

The piece also notes: “This combination of higher claims and lower new business written would appear to be toxic for underwriters. But as you might expect from the insurance industry, it is a lot more complicated than that, because recessions also tend to depress some types of claims. People drive less, reducing the number of motor accidents. The industries that often shrink most in a recession—construction and manufacturing—are among the most dangerous for workers. That means fewer payouts for insurers that have written protection against injuries. And for commercial and industrial property, though damage to premises rises, the cost of finding alternative facilities is lower.”

Posted on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 at 9:20 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I love the entryway for the new Roads and Traffic Authority (Australia) crash-lab, designed by Hassell.

Posted on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 at 9:09 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Good Policy or Insitutionalized Chutzpah?

In a piece for the Guardian a while back about taking the UK driver’s test, I joked about one of the questions on the test:

“Weird cultural biases crept in. One question asked about encountering a burns victim at an accident scene. I looked in vain for the only answer a driver in the litigious US could give: “Stay in your car, call 911, and do not touch the victim as you may accidentally hurt him even more and he will sue the shirt off of your back.”

This was not, of course, the right answer. But the recent developments in the case of a California driver who sued an office-mate who tried to help her after a car crash on Halloween night rather reinforced the notion, to me at least, that this is indeed is the only proper answer in the U.S.

In an ideal world I suppose we would wait for official emergency response, but what if the person dies while you stand watching and waiting — can you then be sued for negligence? Eroding the “Good Samaritan” law in this way rather strikes me as opening the door to institutional chutzpah, the classic definition being the case of the child who murdered his parents and then threw himself upon the mercy of the court, saying he was an orphan.

Any lawyers want to weigh in?

Posted on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 at 8:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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More Distracting Fun From the DFT

An interesting play-it-at-home distracted driving challenge from the DFT. I missed five questions and my pedestrian spotting was off by one.

Obviously we aren’t asked to assign values to pedestrians while driving, nor hit space bars; but then again, we don’t have to steer, brake, turn, merge, check mirrors, or do anything else in this simulation (mind you, many U.S. drivers wouldn’t stop anyway at those marked crosswalks, unless there was a pedestrian in dead center).

(hat tip to Mind Hacks)

Posted on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 at 7:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Few New Blogs

I tend to have a sympathetic ear for three types of travelers, each of which often receives their own particular brand of venom and grief from ordinary drivers: Cyclists (I really mean bicyclists here, but motorized as well), truck drivers, and highway patrol officers. I’ve linked to many cycle sites before, but lately I’ve been enjoying 8 Feet Up, a blog run by “Dale the Truck Driver,” a Twin Cities hauler who documents, as he drives, the wayward mores of other drivers. I’ve also been enjoying Tales From the Road: A Traffic Cop’s Stories, as far as I know the only such blog (there may be others). I don’t know anything about this one, just that it provides a real window onto a dangerous profession (the most dangerous part of a cop’s job, statistically, is being on the highway).

Posted on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 at 7:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Stappers-Trappers-Openbaar Vervoer-Privévervoer!

Trying saying that quickly four times in a row!

But it comes via Kris Peeters, a mobility consultant for the city of Antwerp (and author of ‘Voorruitperspectief. Wegen van impliciet autodenken,’ or ‘Windscreen perspective: ways of implicit thinking on cars’, a book unfortunately available only in Dutch), who had written in to elucidate on the situation in Belgium (readers of the book will know that I puzzled over the country’s poor road safety record in comparison to neighboring Netherlands, and even France).

He notes that Belgium’s fatalities actually have been dropping:

“The number of people killed in traffic accidents decreased since 2001. In 2000 the number was 1470, in 2007 it was 1067. Most specialists think the explanation is double. First of all in 2003 “tariffs” for traffic offences have been raised substantially. Secondly the Flemish government (northern part of the country) started installing lots of “speed traps” (the word!) and reduced maximum speed limits significantly (most ‘regional roads’ previously had a speed limit of 90km/h, now it’s 70

But, he adds:

The last few years however the decrease of deaths and injuries seems to have stopped due to a hesitating safety policy: some of the fine tariffs have been reconsidered (and even canceled) and efforts done for enforcement are rather ambiguous.”

He also points me to a Flemish program, referenced in the subject line above:

In 2001 the Flemish Parliament introduced the STOP-principle (and since then it was officially adopted by many towns, e.g. Antwerp). In Dutch it is an acronym: “Stappers-Trappers-Openbaar Vervoer-Privévervoer” (S T O P), in English untranslatable as such: “Pedestrians-Bikers-Public Transport – Private Cars”. The principle says that when designing a new street or road the concept should respect the STOP-order: first we should check the interests of the Pedestrians, than those of the bikers — and so on. Of course the principle remains theory in most cases, but the symbolic worth of it can not be overestimated.

Posted on Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 at 2:42 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Why Should We Build New Roads to Crumbling Bridges?’

The Congress for New Urbanism is circulating a petition:

When a bridge collapsed in Minnesota in 2007, Americans were shocked to learn that thousands of bridges across the country were rated “structurally deficient.”

Now Congress is poised to include billions of transportation funds in the next recovery package, but the highway lobby is pushing them to spend it on road expansion, not repairs.

Fill out the fields below to send a strong message to the new Congress demanding accountability in the economic recovery package.

Sign the petition here.

Posted on Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 at 2:21 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Ten Parking Lots: Ed Ruscha Revisited

The Guardian has a slide-show of unsold car stocks around the world, arrayed in vast, serial forms, troubling landscapes of overaccumulation. Like the image of the Los Angeles ports above, which I retrieved via Google Earth, they seem like some strange take on Ed Ruscha’s parking lots. Ruscha saw those lots as a “a machine for the production of oil-spots,” a fleeting and abstract residual artistic form. The cars in these photos are more interesting in the fact that they are still there, rather than what they have left behind.

(hat tip to things magazine)

Posted on Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 at 10:43 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:

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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



January 2009

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