Archive for May 20th, 2009

‘a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning’

Slightly tangential here, but I couldn’t resist this image, via Space and Culture, of what, at first glance, resembles the kind of aerial landscape one sees upon immediately departing Newark’s Liberty Airport but is actually a “tapestry made out of old motherboards”

It reminded me of something that Kazys recently reminded me of, which is the following reference in Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49:

“She thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had … There were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.”

Posted on Wednesday, May 20th, 2009 at 11:22 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Sense of Being Stared At (in the car)

As we’re on the topic of curious psychological effects, have you ever, as a passenger in a car, stared to the side, at a driver in the neighboring lane, and suddenly had them turn to face you?

This is a game I sometimes play when bored in the back of a taxi, and it can be quite disconcerting. I have often wondered: Am I simply remembering with greater frequency and fidelity those times when somebody actually looked back, and forgetting all the times they didn’t, invoking a sort of memory bias (e.g., because I think that people stare back I am primed to remember the times they actually do)?

The rogue psychologist Rupert Sheldrake has explored the “eyes in the back of the head” phenomenon (or what he calls the “non-visual detection of vision”) in his book The Sense of Being Stared At, which has occasioned a good amount of critical commentary. But, as Sheldrake has noted, the feeling that this sense exists is quite strong:

Most people have had the experience of turning round feeling that someone is looking at them from behind, and finding that this is the case. Most people have also had the converse experience. They can sometimes make people turn around by staring at them. In surveys in Europe and North America, between 70% and 97% of the people questioned said they had had personal experiences of these kinds (Braud et al., 1990; Sheldrake, 1994; Cottrell et al., 1996).

When I do in this car, of course, I am more properly considered to be alongside the other person, or just behind, so it’s perhaps not as much as a “non-visual” detection as a peripheral detection. But still, it seems quite powerful — what would make someone take their eyes off the road and return my glance? (another proviso here is that they may simply have been turning to look at my car, out of idle curiosity). Is it some primitive apparatus for detecting hazards? Is it that incredibly powerful ability we humans have (and which the non-human primates do not) to detect, and make, eye contact?

What’s interesting too is what happens once that driver in the other lane meets my eyes. Often, they look a bit startled, or uncomfortable, and I myself try to look away, having been uncomfortably caught out. This too has been examined by psychologists, as this piece in Scientific American notes:

In one version of the experiment, the research assistant pulled up in his motor scooter next to a car waiting at a red light and stared expressionlessly at the driver until the light turned green. In another version, the research assistant stood on the street corner, turned to face an approaching pedestrian, and again stared expressionlessly at this person’s face for an uncomfortable length of time.

As predicted, being stared at prompted people to ‘flee’ measurably faster than not being stared at. In the case of the motor scooter, car drivers who were in the staring condition stepped on the gas pedal harder when the light turned green than those in the control condition, as measured by the length of time it took them to cross the intersection. Likewise, pedestrians who were stared at also picked up their step.

In any case, I’m curious to hear from readers: Do you ever notice this effect? Are there any other explanations I’ve left out?

Posted on Wednesday, May 20th, 2009 at 10:48 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Warning: Zeignarnik Effect Ahead

Reading Roadguy’s account (I’ve got the Twin Cities on my mind, I guess) of his trip to this year’s American Planning Association meeting, I was intrigued by his description of a panel on “digital billboards.”

Roadguy noted a delicious sort of Catch-22 during the talk: “Fellow panelist Marya Morris, a Chicago-area consultant, pointed out the conundrum that owners of digital signs face: They argue that the signs aren’t distracting while simultaneously telling advertisers that such billboards “can’t be ignored.”

I’ve not yet seen a good, peer-reviewed study on the safety (or lack thereof) of digital billboards (and if anyone has, please advise). Anything from the industry must be viewed as suspect (guess what: they’re safe!), and a controlled, before-and-after study of a highway section where a billboard has been added would be a tricky proposition (unless it became an immediately apparently crash hotspot). One study I’d like to see done, just of out curiosity, would be to gather loop data near the billboards: Do they have a deleterious effect on traffic flow itself?

Roadguy noted something else of interest: “Morris and Baker both spoke about the Zeignarnik effect, a psychological compulsion to focus on a task not yet completed, and how it causes drivers to look at digital signs repeatedly. Baker cited a billboard in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as particularly perilous: it displays multi-part riddles.”

Not having had any psychology as an undergrad, this Zeigarnik effect was new to me, but as I love a good effect (who doesn’t?), I cast a cursory Google-glance over at 43folders and found this delightful account:

“While sitting in a restaurant in Vienna—every good story about a psychologist takes place in Vienna—Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that a waiter could remember a seemingly endless number of items that had been ordered by his customers. However, once he had delivered the orders to the waiting diners, he no longer remembered what he had just served….

Though Zeigarnik didn’t get her coffee cup refilled following her meal, she did get into the annals of psychology. Zeigarnik theorized that an incomplete task or unfinished business creates “psychic tension” within us. This tension acts as a motivator to drive us toward completing the task or finishing the business. In Gestalt terms, we are motivated to seek “closure…”

The implication is that people remember incomplete processes more more than those that are completed.

I’m no brain expert or psychologist, but I wonder if the waiter was simply storing those orders in short-term memory, and, having concluded they were no longer of importance, was not encoding them to longer-term memory (and just how many orders could a waiter remember, echoes of that “seven-digit” effect of short-term memory).

And I can also imagine this this effect might be served up by marketers as a bit of psychological juju to help sell their product: As opposed to a static billboard, whose message one would instantly absorb and then discard (as with one’s memory of traffic signs they’ve passed), some sort of narrative-in-progress might leave the driver/viewer hungry for a kind of resolution, “wanting more,” and thus dwelling more on the subject than they might have. But again, it’s hard to argue that the same stickiness that’s good for marketing would be good for driving.

Posted on Wednesday, May 20th, 2009 at 10:24 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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We’re All Traffic Experts Now

At the CTS conference yesterday at the University of Minnesota, I was chatting with a traffic engineer who relayed an interesting anecdote. As a traffic engineer, he is used to addressing packed rooms of people, all filled with firmly held convictions on the way things should be done. He was chatting with a colleague, a civil engineer, about whether people ever offered any input at meetings concerning things like sewer systems. The answer was no.

It should be said that I’m of the opinion that, particularly in some local jurisdictions, community residents might actually have a better idea of how to control their streets than engineers working with standardized approaches; and that, too often, streets are merely viewed as sewers of a sort, channels for simply moving as much stuff — i.e., cars — as possible, with insufficient thought for other considerations.

But the engineer also had a quite valid point, which beleaguered traffic engineers face every day at town meetings across America when trying to, say, tout the benefits of a roundabout. Suddenly, there will be a volley of criticism: Those things are dangerous, they will make traffic worse, etc., despite all statistical evidence to the contrary. Of course, people offering these opinions typically never have actual evidence, nor have they studied the problem in depth, and yet they feel comfortable to make diagnoses on engineering problems which it seems they would not feel comfortable doing in any other arena.

I thought of this morning when reading a dispatch on how Kansas City is going to introduce ramp metering to its highways (thanks Bryan).

This, not surprisingly, prompted a letter in the local paper:

Metering entrance ramps to I-435 is a terrible idea (5/13, National/Local, “Engineers turn to ramp meters to ease gridlock”). I travel to Milwaukee several times a year, and they have metered ramps onto I-94. They slow traffic down, especially during rush hour.

The meters back cars up off the ramp onto the streets, which have intersections with stoplights, and no one can go anyplace. Half the time there is plenty of room for cars to merge in on the interstate, but because of the meter you have to stop and wait.

People who live in Milwaukee and drive on the interstates hate them. Each time I drive up there I can’t wait to get back to Kansas City, where we know how to let people get around.

Ramp meters, as I mention in Traffic, are a particular case where the individual windshield perspective of drivers cannot account for the larger flow of the traffic system, with its multitude of variables; user optimality trumps system optimality in the mind of the driver. As one engineer told me, people ask me, why are you stopping me, the highway’s moving? The highway’s moving because we’re stopping you.” But hold on, K.C. engineers, throw out those models, rip up those studies — we’ve got a driver who “travels several times a year to Milwaukee,” where “everybody” hates ramp meters (everybody, except, presumably the people who are moving more smoothly than they would be without them). But there is “room” on the highway for people to enter, this driver notes. “Room,” or “capacity” as engineers might more properly say, is, alas, not the only variable to consider in highway flow, and indeed, squeezing another driver into that “room” might disrupt the flow, pushing the stream past its critical density, plunging the system from a congested synchronous flow into stop-and-go congestion. Of course, some ramp metering schemes do send traffic back up the ramps — but one might also note that those ramps might typically be backed up already, and that in some cases this is actually made worse without ramp meters. And I need hardly point out that one cannot judge the success or failure of a ramp metering scheme simply by judging one on-ramp at any one time — rush-hour traffic on a congested urban system is an incredibly complex array of networks and flows that are well beyond the ability of any one driver to fully intuit what is going on.

Posted on Wednesday, May 20th, 2009 at 9:53 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
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



May 2009

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