Archive for May 21st, 2009

Just in Time for Memorial Day Weekend

Mikael over at Copenhagenize presents the ultimate tool for “vulnerable road users”: The Motoring helmet!

(careful readers will recall I broach the seemingly outlandish idea of helmets for car drivers in Traffic)

Posted on Thursday, May 21st, 2009 at 10:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Revolt of the Masses

This sentence stood out for me in the recent New York magazine profile of Janette Sadik-Khan, NYC’s transpo commissioner, which waved that around that favorite cudgel “elite” to describe the commissioner’s “anti-car” plans — I’m not sure how the wealthier minority who commute daily in NYC’s streets suddenly became the “masses,” and the far greater number of people who walk, take the subway, etc., became the elite.

But perhaps most important, there’s her obsession with the bicycle. Even though cycling is up in the city—levels have doubled since 2000, according to the DOT—most New Yorkers see a bike as a luxury, or don’t have the space to store it, or live and work in places that do not make for a practical commute.

Hmmm. The bike as a luxury? A quick sift of Craigslist would net you a decent ride for $150 — a far cry from the $50,000-plus Escalades the oppressed masses are tooling up Eighth Avenue in, and probably a month’s worth of subway fares (which just went up).

On the “don’t have the space to store it” issue — I don’t get it. Since the issue here is taking away space from cars to give to pedestrians and cyclists, one has the space to store a car (using up some of the world’s most expensive real estate), but not a bike? One car parking space holds how many bikes?

And yes, most New Yorkers do in fact live in a place that has not made for a practical bike commute — New York. Isn’t that the whole impetus behind the commissioner’s vision?

Posted on Thursday, May 21st, 2009 at 9:52 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Quick Thought On Epidemics

The world’s death toll from swine flu? 87 (according to the CDC)

The number of global road fatalities, using WHO’s annual figure of 1.2 million, since the swine flu outbreak was first detected (using a very rough benchmark of a month ago)? 98,630.

And yes, I know the flu could be worse (and still may) if we didn’t take all the measures, do all the reporting, etc.; and that unlike road traffic, flu offers no social/economic benefit.

Of course, a la Donald Redelmeier’s studies on elections and driving fatalities, among other things, one wonders how many traffic fatalities have been prevented by the flu outbreak, in terms of people choosing not to travel (or, have they eschewed public modes in favor of private cars, thus increasing fatalities?)

Posted on Thursday, May 21st, 2009 at 9:26 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Reporting

There’s so much on the intertubes lately, more than I can comment on, but a quick pointer to good stuff you may have already seen:

— Budapest City Hall to consider “artificial traffic jams” in weird test of biking/ped facilities

— The beautiful and terrifying geography we have wrought in the highway interchange.

— Ryan Avent on fuel-economy standards.

— New York drivers “worst in nation,” typically media-friendly, absolutely unscientific “study” finds

Texting driver hits cop.

Utica, N.Y., getting rid of surplus traffic lights (“These lights were needed when the city had a population of 100,000. Now there are about 60,000 people living here and the lights will come down in stages.”)

Posted on Thursday, May 21st, 2009 at 9:13 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Highway Supply Chain

I’ve been intrigued by the comparisons made to highway traffic behavior and supply chains (see Carlos Daganzo, et al., on the “bullwhip effect”).

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, on hiccups in supply chains caused by recent economic turmoil, contained a number of implicit, if unstated, comparisons to highway traffic.

The recession has exposed a harsh side effect of the supply-chain system. Because modern industry rewards suppliers with the leanest inventories and fastest reaction times, when economic crisis struck, tech companies up and down the line contracted as sharply as possible in hopes of being the ones to survive.

Forced to guess at demand for their products in a plummeting market, everyone hit the brakes, hard. An examination of the electronics supply chain — from retailers all the way back to makers of factory machinery — shows that, at almost every stage, companies were flying blind as they cut.

The parallel here is a group of cars traveling at high speeds, and close following distances, on the highway — an inherently unstable regime. If one car hits the brakes, the succeeding car, not fully aware from the weak signal how much the vehicle ahead is actually braking (or, for example, if a car’s view of the traffic ahead is blocked by an SUV — for we often make our braking decisions by what drivers further up the chain are doing — the car driver’s “clarity” of the highway supply-chain ahead has been reduced), also hits the brakes — perhaps more than necessary — which amplifies up the chain, often in an erratic fashion. One driver’s underreaction may even penalize another driver six or seven cars up the chain.

And so it is with supply chains:

In March, Best Buy Co. said it could have sold more electronics equipment in the three months ended Feb. 28, but its suppliers’ deep cuts made it tough to keep shelves stocked. Suppliers “all decided to build a lot less,” says Best Buy merchandizing chief Michael Vitelli.

As the contraction raced down the supply chain, its effects became amplified. Rick Tsai, CEO of chip manufacturer Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., has said that, in last year’s final quarter, consumer purchases of electronics gear in the U.S. fell 8% from the prior year. But product shipments fell 10%, and shipments of the chips that go into the gear dropped 20%.

Everyone “braked” more than they had to, thus consuming in essence Best Buy’s travel potential.

There was another interesting parallel, in light of a potential economic recovery, and an opening of the supply-chain spigot.

Still, “It’s easier to turn the switch off than turn it back on,” says David Pederson, Zoran’s vice president of corporate marketing.

This has its highway equivalent in the fact, as noted by Dirk Helbing and others, that it takes longer to emerge from a congested state than it does to enter one.

Posted on Thursday, May 21st, 2009 at 8:47 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Sounds Electric

Many years ago, when I was living in Spain, I traveled by train to Basel, Switzerland. In Spain my ears had gradually become accustomed to the sounds of Iberian urbanity — the one that always registered foremost was the toxic whine (and acrid whiff) of cheap motos, clattering off the narrow streets. Stepping out onto the streets of Basel (on a Sunday, no less), I was almost overwhelmed by the stillness. So much so that, as I wandered about in a near fugue state, I was almost struck by one of the city’s trams. But it sounded a polite bell to alert me to its presence, and I survived Switzerland.

I thought of the episode when reading Dan Hill’s brilliant exposition on a recent Economist article on the idea that electric/hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius, which of course make much less noise than traditional cars, represent a grave threat to urban safety, and that traditional (loud) car noise will have to be retro-fitted back into the car. I had always thought the car of the future, as depicted in sci-fi and the like, would proceed past with nothing more than a soft whoosh, but one wonders: Is this is a real issue?

Hill writes:

Let’s quickly deal with the safety issue first. People will adapt easily enough. We’ve adapted to numerous successive modes of transport in the past without the need to artificially increase the noise that mode of transport generates (though the first automobiles required a man with a flag walking in front of them. Is this not the aural equivalent of that, and so equally likely to fade away?)

One of the numerous reasons why bicycles are a more civic mode of transport is that they do not make much noise. Even at the speeds cyclists can get up to, this near-silent mode is apparently still safe enough not to warrant a pedal-powered drone, say. A bell suffices, and after that it’s about taking due care and attention on both sides. As bikes slowly become the dominant mode of personal transport in cities, this shouldn’t change. Cyclists, a few idiots aside, have to rely on individual responsibility to a greater extent than motorists, partly due to their relative fragility. This is not a bad thing necessarily – it forms a thin undulating layer of civic substrate.

Of all the possible threats cars pose to pedestrians in cities, lack of noise seems an odd crusade for the Economist to get behind — why not the speed of cars (which is a de facto explanation in all urban pedestrian fatalities), the provision of pedestrian facilities (a key reason behind literally hundreds of thousands of pedestrian fatalities in a country like India), visibility in car design (some current models have a dreadful range of sight), the weak legal penalties for striking a pedestrian, etc. etc.

We also need more than anecdotal evidence that Priuses are causing more pedestrian fatalities than other cars (see the comments in this website for an interesting discussion; and if anyone has any real data, please advise); I might imagine there would be a statistical artifact here even if there were slightly more Priuses involved in pedestrian fatalities — i.e., Prius’ market share is higher in places where there are more pedestrians. And as Hill notes, there are certainly more effective pedestrian safety strategies — ones that would benefit blind and well as sighted pedestrians — than ratcheting up noise; Volvo’s CitySafety for one. Not to mention there are already plenty of pedestrians who don’t hear my normal-sounding car because they’re wrapped up in an iPod or on the phone.

Traffic noise, or at least excessive traffic noise, after all, is a detriment to the quality of life — shown in everything from real estate values to people’s stress responses to noisy intersections (the work of Christian Nold, for example) to the negative environmental impacts (the work of Richard Foreman) — why on Earth would we want to artificially raise it, when there were other options available?

Hill’s piece goes on to consider a number of interwoven strands of cars, sound, and urban life, and he taps a wonderful passage about the horn in New Delhi from Geoff Dyers’ new novel Geoff in Venice:

“The din of horns rendered use of the horn simultaneously superfluous and essential. The streets were narrow, potholed, trenched, gashed. There was no pavement, no right of way – no wrong of way – and, naturally, no stopping. The flow was so dense that we were rarely more than an inch from whatever was in front, beside or behind. But we never stopped. Not for a moment. We kept nudging and bustling and bumping our way forward. Given the slightest chance – a yard! – Sanjay went for it. What, in London, would have constituted a near-miss was an opportunity to acknowledge the courtesy of a fellow road-user. There were no such opportunities, of course, and the idea of courtesy made no sense for the simple reason that nothing made any sense except the relentless need to keep going. From the airport to the hotel, Sanjay had used the horn excessively; now that we were in the city proper, instead of using it repeatedly, he kept it going all the time. So did everyone else. Unlike everything else, this did make sense. Why take your hand off the horn when, a split-second later, you’d have to put it back on?”

New Delhi, an incredibly noisy city, is hardly a paradise of pedestrian safety. Pinning pedestrian safety to car noise sounds a bit suspicious to me.

Posted on Thursday, May 21st, 2009 at 8:18 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Changing Ends at Half Time

Absorbing some of the recent debate over the new fuel efficiency standards, not to mention the hovering controversy over congestion or VMT pricing — or even the closing of segments of Broadway to car traffic in NYC — I was reminded of a passage I recently came across in a lecture by Phil Goodwin, now emeritus professor at University College London, back in 1997:

I think we are engaged in one of those historic transitions which looks quite different when you are in the middle of it, from what it looks like in retrospect – a bit like the great liberal reforms of the 19th century. The abolition of slavery, and of child labour; the introduction of free, compulsory education; the concept of public health; the construction of a system of drains; running clean water; the right to vote. All of these, at the time, seemed revolutionary, or threatening, or infringements on the liberty of the citizen; or too expensive, and there were long arguments. In retrospect, they seem logical, fair, efficient, and absolutely good value for money. Subsequent generations even wonder why it took so long, and why there was so much fuss about it.

I see transport as similar. Mass car ownership offered us a control over time and space which no previous generation has ever had, and we took it up willingly and enthusiastically. But it has got out of hand. It has now started to defeat its own advantages. There is much talk of a ‘level playing field’ – but playing fields are never level, which is why we change ends at half time. It’s now half time – literally: we are probably about half way to the levels of traffic that would eventually apply if trends continue unchecked, and that just won’t do. So we need to find a better way, or better ways.

It may all seem very complicated just at the moment. But we do our children no favours if we confine them to a car-dependent mobility. And I think our grandchildren will wonder what took us so long.

Posted on Thursday, May 21st, 2009 at 7:30 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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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



May 2009

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