Archive for February 12th, 2009

Liberty City

A few months ago, I was pretty intensively playing Grand Theft Auto IV. As an urbanist, I was curious about its immersive, complex representation of the city — or maybe I just wanted to blow things up after a long day’s work.

Naturally I took an interest in the traffic life of “Liberty City,” which, like the New York that is its inspiration, is a multi-modal mix of pedestrians, cars, subways, motorcyclists, taxis — though, curiously, no cyclists (I thought it might be a programming issue, but there are motorcycles). Its protagonist, the amoral Niko Bellic, presumably not in the country legally, is also presumably an unlicensed driver (that’s the least of his legal violations, of course). At first, I drove quite cautiously, as I thought the omnipresent police might nab me for violating red lights, or even speeding. I soon learned, however, that traffic infractions were not part of the Liberty City PD’s bailiwick — even though, of course, a routine traffic stop might have netted them a gangster. In fact, you pretty much had to commit full-scale mass pedestrian vehicle homicide to even attract the attention of the police. For Niko the driver, Liberty City was pretty much a place where he was at liberty to disregard any rule of the road.

Hmmm… a city where one can routinely drive at high speeds, even in crowded urban environments, with little repercussion, where even striking a pedestrian will get you little more than a few pointed questions from the police (and in fact it may have even been the police that did it), where traffic signals are treated as optional… This is where the line between Liberty City and New York City really does get blurry.

To wit, via Streetsblog:

A new report from Transportation Alternatives confirms what New York pedestrians and cyclists have been forced to accept as a fact of life: A high number of drivers speed through city streets, regardless of the potentially deadly consequences for those around them.

“Terminal Velocity: NYC’s Speeding Epidemic” shows that 39 percent of observed motorists were driving in excess of the 30 mph speed limit. Using radar guns and speed enforcement cameras at 13 locations, TA volunteers clocked speeds in excess of 60 mph in school zones and other areas with heavy pedestrian traffic.

Most speeding drivers were traveling between 31 and 40 mph. While a pedestrian struck at 30 mph has a 60 percent chance of surviving a collision, the likelihood of survival drops to 30 percent when the vehicle is moving at 40 mph, TA notes.

The name Liberty City was well chosen by GTA’s creators as its NYC stand-in, at least in the case of many Gotham drivers: You are at liberty to ignore laws. Of course, as John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community” is “to prevent harm to others.” There’s plenty of harm, let’s get exercised.

Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 2:37 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Removing Lines as a Traffic Calming Measure: Data, anyone?

Reader Bob Widlansky, from Wilmette, Illinois, writes in regarding a problem on his street that is perhaps the most universal complaint in the world of traffic: Drivers going too fast on residential streets.

As he notes, “I live on a very wide street [pictured above] residential built in the early 1900’s to accommodate a street-car line that used to run down the middle. In an effort to slow down traffic on my residential street, the Village has painted edge-lines and a yellow centerline. The majority of residents believe this has actually increased traffic speeds.”

He has begun pushing the idea (rather unsuccessfully — the city engineer cites safety concerns) at local meetings to remove the center lines, a concept that I describe in Traffic, based on some research done by the TRL and demonstrated in some rural English towns — where it was found that removing the center-lines not only reduced speeds, it led drivers to put more distance between themselves and the opposing stream of traffic. The theory is that lines reduce vigilance, reduce thinking, and potentially increase speeds.

Bob is very passionate about the subject. He’s looking for any data/experience/case studies, preferably from the U.S., where striping and lines were beneficially removed. He’s actually already located some guidance, from the city of Pasadena’s rulebook. He notes that page 22, from the official policy on “Markings/Striping Changes — Removal of Centerline on Residential Streets,” states:

“Centerlines can provide drivers with clear delineation of travelways. On residential local streets that are relatively narrow (36′-42′) with low traffic volumes, centerlines may induce speeding because drivers’ travelways are clearly delineated. Experience has shown that the removal of centerlines on local streets results in more cautious driving behavior. Painted edgelines have a similar effect. Edgelines visually reduce the width of the roadway causing drivers to be more aware.”

I thought I’d open this to the audience: Can anyone help out Bob with studies (before/after observational would be best here, I’d imagine), or have you successfully had lines removed? Or is this even the right way to go about this? Do you have any other suggestions for calming Greenleaf Avenue? Judging by the photo, there are already parked cars, and interestingly, there’s already a sort of differential pavement treatment, a bit confusing to my eyes but apparently not to speeding drivers. What else can be done?

Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 1:36 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Signal Art

I recently mentioned artist Robbie Conal’s discovery a while back that traffic light signal boxes made the perfect venue for his art in Los Angeles. Via Mike on Traffic, I was intrigued by a public art program in the Texas town of North Richland Hills that turns these overlooked bits of traffic infrastructure into an officially sanctioned canvas (evidently it was also done to preempt graffiti).

The video below, produced by the city’s Art in Public Spaces program, shows some more iterations. I’m all for public art, though I do admit the concept of cars sitting at an intersection being “public space,” while technically true and a fact of life in most of the U.S. (and already realized by people like Conal), still strikes me as a bit odd (particularly since drivers in cars exist in a strange netherworld of coexisting private spaces) — although admittedly the picture above looks like a pretty walkable sort of environment. And how many yellow boxes can you have, anyway?

Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 11:21 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Dangerous Roads, or Dangerous Driving?

This piece from Fox News (after the jump as well) claims to identify the “top 10 most dangerous roads in America,” implying as well that stimulus spending might somehow be directed to these corridors of death.

But reading through the piece, the overwhelming impression left with me is not design or infrastructural shortcomings, but driver shortcomings: Speed, alcohol, fatigue.


Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 8:15 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.

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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
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June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
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July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
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August 12-14
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September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
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Honda R&D Americas
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INFORMS Roundtable
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October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
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Yale University
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Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

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University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
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International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
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Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

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Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

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Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

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Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
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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
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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
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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
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Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
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September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
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of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



February 2009

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