Archive for April 27th, 2009

Past as Prologue: The Detroit Edition

Fuel efficiency standards, government bailouts, intransigent corporate cultures, Americans’ undying thirst for large cars… it’s beginning to sound like 1980 again. Where’s my K car?

From the archives of the New Yorker, this Detroit dispatch, by Joseph Kraft and titled “The Downsizing Decision,” (interestingly, the word only seems to refer to making cars smaller, and not laying off workers) is worth a look.

Sample paragraph:

Then, in April, 1979, G.M. introduced a compact four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive vehicle, produced as the X-Car and marketed as the Chevrolet Citation, the Pontiac Phoenix, the Oldsmobile Omega, and the Buick Skylark. Thanks to the comprehensive reduction in size, G.M. more than held its own at the time of the second round of gas lines. Its share of the market for American-built cars soared to over sixty per cent—and set new monthly records, which, among other factors, put Ford in trouble and sent Chrysler running to the government for help. Even though hard hit by the recent slump, with first-quarter profits down eighty-eight per cent from a year ago, G.M. is the only major American car manufacturer in the black. In April, it has accounted for sixty-five per cent of sales of American-built cars. Robert Stempel, the general manager at Pontiac, told me, “These days, it’s exciting to be at G.M.”

Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2009 at 3:34 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Where’d You Learn to Drive?

On a rooftop, actually.

The image (of a “super driving school”) comes from the Japanese architecture firm Atelier Bow Wow. It is one of many urban oddities found in their fascinating study Made in Tokyo, an offbeat and highly recommended “guidebook” I’ve only recently gotten around to reading. The rooftop-driving-school in Kanamachi is part of a category they call “da-me architecture,” or “no-good architecture”: “Anonymous buildings, not beautiful, and not accepted in architectural culture to date.”

A number of these odd buildings seem to have an unusual relationship to cars and roads (in particular, the expressways, which as the book points out were put up rather frantically ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, and thus are “mainly sited over public land, parks, the palace moat and rivers”); as the authors note, “traffic space has introduced into architecture in order to allow the execution of the highly developed goods transportation systems.” An “expressway patrol building” in Roppongi abuts directly on the freeway, its parking lot bleeding into a line of highway traffic. There’s a car park buried underneath a city park in Shibuya; also in Shibuya is the aptly named “bus housing,” a big apartment complex built over a bus terminal. If you went looking for a driving range (golf, that is) in Meguro, your best bet would be the roof of the taxi office. In Nishikahei, meanwhile, there’s a set of tennis courts within the spiral interchange linking the expressway to the Kannana (seventh) traffic ring road. And at the giant AutoTech department store in Kitamachi, you can head to the store’s in-house bowling lanes while you wait for your car to be repaired.

Not to mention the famous automated parking garages, for cars and bikes alike.

Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2009 at 1:34 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Safety Film of the Week

The latest from the U.K.’s Think! campaign, a bit in the “j-horror,” ghostly revisitation school of traffic safety film making (sans the girls with long black hair).

As an aside, given that there’s some tooth-brushing here, have you ever noticed how 99% of feature films feature a shot of dental hygiene? I sometimes wonder if it’s some great conspiracy by the ADA, or if it’s just a quick and cheap way to show “humdrum domesticity.” Start making a census of this and you’ll be surprised (when you’re finished with that game, you can move on to regurgitation; I mean, it really is shocking how many films feature people throwing up).

Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2009 at 11:36 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Bike Locally

I found the most telling — and really, the only actionable — bit of this whole piece in the New Scientist piece about a computer model on the pros/cons of mandatory cycle helmet laws came in the last line:

However de Jong, a native of bike-loving Holland, makes clear that he would not discourage people from wearing helmets. “I go to Holland and places like that, and I don’t wear a helmet,” he says. “I used to live in London, and I wore a helmet all the time.”

Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2009 at 11:14 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Is this Love or Congestion?

Sydney’s transport commissioner was recently talking about congestion in his city and made this analogy:

“It’s like being in love. If you think you are in love, you are in love. If you think you are in traffic, you are in traffic.”

He was trying to make the point that people tend not to think of traffic in relative terms. To wit: “It’s no good for me saying, ‘Oh, it’s much worse in New York or Paris.’ ”

I’m not sure if this is some kind of power-of-positive thinking exercise, in which case the next time you encounter heavy traffic you could repeat the following mantra: “I am not in traffic. I am not in traffic.”

It also hints at how elusive traffic is; sure, the engineers have their “level of service” designations and all that, but there is no universal standard for “bad” or “good” traffic. People in North Dakota might get itchy when they fail to make it through a traffic light on the first pass; a person in L.A. might feel lucky to make a left turn on the second arrow. And when one hears figures comparing early 20th century urban speeds in London or Manhattan being the same as they are now, should this even be termed as congestion or “bad traffic” and not simply be the default operating condition?

(thanks Richard)

Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2009 at 8:14 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Not on My Block

This story from the Houston Chronicle details a very typical traffic happening: A group of residents on a well-to-do street got their block cut off to through traffic, which has resulted in more traffic on every other nearby street.

There is a kind of paradox that exists in terms of how people feel about traffic in their neighborhoods: Everyone wants a.) to drive, and b.) wants quick access to fast roads, but no one wants traffic on their street. But you can’t have one without the other, unless, of course, as in the story above, you redistribute inequitably.

Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2009 at 7:34 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



April 2009

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