Archive for July, 2009

When You Truly, Absolutely Need Stop Sign Compliance

Here’s an extreme case of where stop sign compliance is really a life or death situation: U.S. military checkpoints in Iraq and Afghanistan. A fascinating brief in the New Scientist notes that:

When a vehicle approaches a checkpoint at speed, ignoring warning signs to slow down, troops do not know whether the driver is simply careless or a suicide bomber. They need a clear and harmless way of forcing drivers to stop.

Green laser “dazzlers” were created for this purpose, the magazine notes, “but at short range they can damage the eye, and a number of US troops and civilians have ended up in hospital with eye injuries after ‘friendly fire’ incidents.”

But a more benign solution is in the works:

Now the US Department of Defense’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD) in Quantico, Virginia is developing a pulsed laser designed to prevent eye damage. Its wavelength means a portion of the light is absorbed by the vehicle windscreen, vaporising the outer layer of the glass and producing a plasma. This absorbs the rest of the pulse and re-emits the energy as a brilliant white light that is dazzling but harmless. Because the light is emitted from the windscreen, the effect on the driver’s eyes should be the same regardless of the vehicle’s distance from the laser.

I don’t suppose this sort of thing would fly on civilian roads; but, for example, as a can’t-miss traffic light, or a way for police to disable drivers in pursuits, or a form of extreme neighborhood traffic calming…

Posted on Tuesday, July 14th, 2009 at 6:06 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Problem With Signalized Intersections

This video demonstrates in startling fashion the design and safety problems of signalized four-way intersections (not to mention large pickup trucks).

(via The Huffington Post)

Posted on Tuesday, July 14th, 2009 at 5:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Dismal Science Indeed

Coming home late last night from Newark Airport, I was passed by three ‘Ninja’ cyclists doing at least 90 mph, and couldn’t help but think of a paper I had read on the flight, “Donorcycles,” by Stacy Dickert-Conlin, Todd Elder and Brian Moore, which argues there is a link between higher organ-donation rates and the lack of a helmet law in certain states. Reading the last paragraph in particular somehow really just put me in mind of Thomas Carlyle’s famous dictum about economics being the “dismal science”:

Understanding the unintended consequences of helmet laws allows for more informed
policymaking by providing a more complete picture of the costs and benefits involved. Although our estimates point to a sizeable effect of helmet laws on motor vehicle accident-based organ donations, the repeal of all helmet laws as a measure to reduce the severe shortage of organs in the U.S. would be ineffective in isolation, primarily because over 80 percent of organ donors die due to circumstances unrelated to motor vehicle accidents. Our preferred estimates imply that nationwide elimination of helmet laws would increase annual organ donations by less than one percent.

Posted on Tuesday, July 14th, 2009 at 5:48 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Intexticated: Texting Teen Falls Into Manhole

Full story here.

The family is planning a lawsuit, notes the story.

Pursuant to my post on roadway factors, maybe we need to start building “forgiving sidewalks”?

(Horn honk to Nathan)

Posted on Sunday, July 12th, 2009 at 7:48 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Mile and a Half Plume

The Infrastructurist notes a new study on freeway pollution:

Living “close” to a freeway means being right next to it, right–like overlooking it pressed up against one of those ugly noise walls? Sadly, no. Researchers at UCLA have found that a large freeway’s pollution plume extends as much as a mile and a half from the roadway–in this case, I-10. “This distance is 10 times greater than previously measured daytime pollutant impacts from roadways and has significant exposure implications.” Those nasty carcinogenic ultrafine particles–not to mention polycylic aromatics–don’t obey the niceties of staying in those close to the roadway. No, the call is coming from inside the house for plenty of rich people in Santa Monica and other communities around the country. Even if you’d never be one of those poor unhealthy schlubs who lives next to a freeway — practically speaking, you’re probably already one of those poor unhealthy schlubs who lives next to a freeway.

Clever When a Stranger Calls reference there, but I found this interesting — not only as someone who lives within a mile and a half of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway trench (I will be buried long before it is), but someone who was recently having some questions about daycare facilities in my neighborhood. One of these has a play area very close to the BQE, and several parents have hinted to me of asthma problems. Correlation is not causation, yadda, yadda, yadda, but in this case I’m less inclined to take this as typical Brooklyn parent neurosis.

But this led me to wonder: Has anyone done a “PollutionScore” application, similar to WalkScore? It would be a nice, and useful, GIS overlay — and why not on WalkScore itself? (as an aside, I’ve noticed that, even within my general neighborhood, which is close to 100 on the WalkScore, the number drops as one heads towards the elevated section of the BQE and the large traffic artery of Hamilton Avenue; and not surprisingly, I try to walk down there as little as possible).

In any case, here’s more on the study.

Posted on Friday, July 10th, 2009 at 7:23 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Directional Pedestrian Flow

Kirai (a geek in Japan) notes that there are special uni-directional pedestrian schemes in Tokyo.

In Shinjuku there are even some sidewalks with rules concerning pedestrian traffic. For example, this sign is indicating that on the right lane from 9 in the morning until 6 in the afternoon it is a one way lane.

But on the left lane the direction changes depending on the time. These “extreme” rules are needed only in districts like Shinjuku where more than three million people commute by everyday.

I wonder if this explicitly signed scheme happens anywhere outside of Japan?

Posted on Thursday, July 9th, 2009 at 1:39 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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You Have to Pay for the Public Life

I couldn’t help feeling a creeping sense of irony in today’s New York Times. After first reading how the country’s single-largest economic engine, New York City — not to mention other big cities — is getting shafted in the stimulus transportation spending at the expense of projects seeking “to improve transportation to Appalachia” (that fertile hotbed of innovation, and so many centers of population), I then read a vaguely querulous piece about how the city is selling a number of commercial permits for events in the stretches of Times Square that are temporarily without cars. It’s a bit strange to read about concerns of commercialization in Times Square, whose genus loci is media and branding, a place where much of a large office building sits essentially empty, because it is more valuable to cover its exterior in advertising than to give office workers views; but it’s also a bit funny, a week or so after the Times was complaining about the tatty lawn chairs and rather dishabille nature of the place, to hear gripes that the city may try to make a little money off the place — and, by God, even spruce up the lawn chairs!

It reminds me of Charles Moore’s classic essay, “You Have to Pay for the Public Life,” which was ostensibly about Disneyland but had much deeper implications:

By almost any conceivable method of evaluation, Disneyland must be regarded as the most important single piece of construction in the West in the past several decades. The assumption inevitably made by people who have not yet been there — that it is some sort of physical extension of Mickey Mouse — is wildly inaccurate. Instead, singlehanded, it is engaged in replacing many of those elements of the public realm that have vanished in the featureless private floating world of southern California, whose only edge is the ocean and whose center is otherwise undiscoverable. Curiously, for a public place, Disneyland is not free. You buy tickets at the gate. But then, Versailles cost somebody a lot of money, too. Now, as then, you have to pay for the public life.

Of course, if the feds want to throw us some stimulus cash to turn Broadway into a world-class urban oasis (not to mention amping up the public transit dollars that keeps the whole enterprise of New York City alive) no one would complain. But then how would we get to Appalachia?

Posted on Thursday, July 9th, 2009 at 6:06 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Mall Flop

My latest Slate column considers the Segway.

Posted on Wednesday, July 8th, 2009 at 11:46 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Safety Film of the Week

Well, speaking of road factors and human factors and all that, here’s this campaign from New Zealand.

(thanks Warren)

Posted on Tuesday, July 7th, 2009 at 4:00 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Few Thoughts About ‘On a Crash Course,’ by Miller & Zaloshnja

I’ve finally gotten around to reading ‘On a Crash Course,’ a report by Ted Miller and Eduard Zaloshnja that’s been getting a lot of play in the media. As the Post summarizes:

Bad highway design and conditions are a factor in more than half the fatal crashes in the United States, contributing to more deaths than speeding, drunken driving or failure to use seat belts, according to Ted R. Miller, who co-wrote the 18-month study released yesterday.

Road-related conditions were a factor in 22,000 fatalities and cost $217.5 billion each year, the study concludes. By comparison, Miller said, similar crashes where alcohol was a factor cost $130 billion, speeding cost $97 billion and failure to wear a seat belt caused losses of $60 billion.

Despite being sponsored by a consortium of road-building concerns, who naturally have a vested interest in highway improvements, there are some interesting and commendable points raised, or at least implied. The first is, given that road crashes bear a larger societal cost than congestion, we should be focusing whatever stimulus dollars (too many, in my opinion) are going to roads on indeed bringing up deficient roadways to modern safety standards, rather than building new roads. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case.

Another thing that caught my eye was the high figure of deaths attributed to roadway condition: “Roadway condition is a contributing factor in more than half—52.7 percent—of the nearly 42,000 American deaths resulting from motor vehicle crashes each year and 38 percent of the non-fatal injuries. In terms of crash outcome severity, it is the single most lethal contributing factor—greater than speeding, alcohol or non-use of seat belts.”

This surprised me, as any number of previous studies, including the famous (and much more comprehensive) Indiana Tri-Level Study, as pictured below, paint a different picture of causality.


Posted on Tuesday, July 7th, 2009 at 3:46 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Michael Jackson Closures

As I noted in Traffic the nexus of celebrity and L.A.’s car culture often has CALTRANS scrambling to keep up. Via the CHP incident report page, here’s a traffic-eye view of the Michael Jackson memorial service:

Incident: 0347 Type: Traffic Advisory Location: MICHAEL JACKSON CLOSURES ThomasBrothers: 563 4H info as of: 7/7/2009 11:07:12 AM
6:26AM CHP Unit On Scene

Posted on Tuesday, July 7th, 2009 at 12:14 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Influence Pedal-ing

I’m not sure if the Times was trying to start its own Daily Telegraph style expenses-gate tempest with this filament thin story in today’s paper about DOT commish Sadik-Khan’s trips to transportation conferences, paid for by such nefarious interests as “walk and bike promotion.” Tammany Jane!

This sort of thing goes on all the time, of course, with not much comment — and usually, it’s the “road gang” paying the much, much bigger bills and haunting the halls of power — note this story, for example, from Georgia, about a construction contractor who essentially got their commish fired.

I’m sure we could drum up many other examples; but when the pedestrian-cyclist complex begins flexing its substantial muscles, sending public servants to foreign shores to soak up dangerous ideas and influences of the non-motorized variety, fire up the outrage!

Posted on Tuesday, July 7th, 2009 at 10:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Cincinnati Across the Hudson

This video, from the indispensable Streetfilms and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, notes that the equivalent of Cincinnati commutes by bus every day into New York City; if all those bus riders chose to drive, traffic levels would be 84% higher.

On a similar note, Felix Salmon, running through Charles Komanoff’s “Balanced Transportation Analyzer,” notes:

After crunching the numbers, he calculates that on a weekday, the average car driven into Manhattan south of 60th Street causes a total of 3.26 hours of delays to everybody else. (At weekends, the equivalent number is just over 2 hours.) No one car is likely to suffer excess delays of more than a few seconds, of course, but if you add up all those seconds for the thousands of affected cars and trucks, it comes to a significant amount of time.

Many of those hours are very valuable things, especially when you consider big trucks, staffed with two or three professionals, just idling in traffic. Komanoff calculates (check out the “Value of Time” tab) that the average vehicle has 1.97 people in it, and that the average value of an hour of saved vehicle time south of 60th Street in Manhattan on a weekday is $48.89. Which means, basically, that driving a car into Manhattan on a weekday causes about $160 of negative externalities to everybody else.

Posted on Tuesday, July 7th, 2009 at 9:50 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Le Rond

The above image is one of a series of roundabouts photographed by Kleinefenn, a German-born photographer living in France. The complete collection is here, and will leave traffic geeks heads spinning in wonder.

Posted on Monday, July 6th, 2009 at 3:45 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Child Miles Traveled

Vis a vis the recent discussion at the Transportation Experts blog on the question of whether car VMT in the U.S. should be reduced as a matter of federal policy, I was curious about this factoid over on the Rocky Mountain Institute’s website.

Improve public transportation, they say. Develop housing near mass transport nodes. Form carpools at the office. These are all effective and viable measures to address the average American business commute, and we should indeed do all of these things. But what if our business commute isn’t necessarily where we have the most influence? What if it’s our kids’ activities driving us to drive more — our child miles traveled (CMTs)?

According to the 2001 National Household Travel Survey, the average vehicle travels 3,956 miles for family and personal business. In 1969, that average was 1,270 miles. We’ve tripled our family business mileage, but VMTs for business commuting only increased 36 percent during the same period. Looks like our family miles are to blame.

Posted on Monday, July 6th, 2009 at 1:32 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Footballers Drives

An insurance company sponsored study at a driving simulator at the University of Leicester finds that football fans drive erratically when listening to their favorite clubs on the radio.

The report also showed that the driving speed of football fans mirrored that of the match that they were listening to. For example, during a match between Portsmouth and Newcastle, the pace of the match increased with a forward movement by the Newcastle team. At the same time, the driver under scrutiny reacted by accelerating the vehicle. During this period, the throttle was set to maximum and the driver increased the simulation vehicle speed from 68mph to 77mph in 22 seconds. The driver also overtook another vehicle.

One can’t help but wonder what would have happened if they had done the experiment the day Newcastle was relegated, on a 1-0 loss to Villa on an own goal by Damien Duff.

Posted on Monday, July 6th, 2009 at 9:46 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Ancient Art of Traffic Calming

When I wasn’t watching a bit of Tour de France, or playing backyard badminton, I was hammock-bound this weekend (I was clearly out of town, as my Brooklyn apartment has neither yard nor hammock) with Mary Beard’s wonderful book The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found. Beard, a Cambridge classicist who also blogs, leaves no layer of pumice unturned as she probes the “ordinary life” of the lost town. Not surprisingly, there’s a bit about streets, and the still ongoing tension between the externalities of wheeled traffic and the other functions of urban spaces.

The streets of Pompeei could be closed to wheeled transport by simple devices: by large stone bollards fixed in the roadway, by the placing of fountains or other obstructions across the traffic path, or by steps or other changes of level that were impassable to carts. Every one of these was used to ensure that, at least in its final phases, the Pompeian Forum was a pedestrian area. We should put out our minds any fanciful reconstruction of the central piazza criss-crossed by chariots and carts. Each entry point to the Forum was blocked to wheeled traffic…

Pompeian traffic was then reduced or, in modern terms, ‘calmed’ by the creation of cul-de-sacs, and other kinds of road block. But there remains the more general problem of narrow streets and what would happen if two carts should met in those many roads which were wide enough only for one. Needless to say, reversing a cart drawn by a pair of mules, down a road impeded by stepping stones, would have been an impossible feat. So how did the ancient Pompeians avoid repeated stand-offs, between carts meeting head-to-head? How did they prevent a narrow street being reduce to an impasse?

Well, I don’t want to give the whole thing away — read the book!

Posted on Monday, July 6th, 2009 at 8:18 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Tolls Go Cashless

Is this the end for people fumbling for dropped change on the floor of the car?

Reports the WSJ:

This weekend may mark the beginning of the end for toll-booth operators and plastic coin baskets, two institutions long associated with holiday traffic and highway congestion.

On Saturday, an authority that runs the E-470 toll road near Denver is ditching its coin handlers and going entirely cashless.

One curious thing about electronic tolls; they’re more expensive.

It is unclear whether cashless toll roads will have higher toll rates than ones offering a pay-with-cash option, but some theorists say higher rates are likely. Amy Finkelstein, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has analyzed 50 years of data for 123 toll roads. In a paper to be published in the August edition of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Prof. Finkelstein suggests electronic tolling results in rates that are 20% to 40% higher than they otherwise would be.

One reason, she speculates, is that “when tolls become less visible, it’s easier to raise the tolls.” (but is it also that electronic tolls tend to be built on new, more expensive facilities, or ones more prone to congestion?)

Do economists have a word for this phenomenon? Something about transparency? Price elasticity? But it seems a strange anti-thesis to the anchoring effect, with no frames or anchors at all.

Posted on Friday, July 3rd, 2009 at 6:27 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Crunching the Numbers

In a paper you co-authored on evaluating methods for identifying hot spots, you point out the “alarming” practice by safety agencies of using accident rates to rank hot spots. Intuitively, that would seem to be an acceptable method, but it performs very poorly in identifying them. Could you explain?

There is an ongoing misperception that one can use accident rates to level the playing field with respect to exposure when identifying high risk locations. This is marginally true at high levels of aggregation but increasingly less true as one begins to examine particular types of sites. The problem with using crash rates is that they typically decrease once exposure reaches a certain threshold. In other words, as traffic volumes increase over time with growth of VMT, accident rates generally tend to improve. So, comparing two otherwise similar sites with differing VMT often does not serve as a meaningful metric to gauge their relative safety.

Another critical aspect of the relationship between safety and exposure is the changing crash severity distribution as VMT increases—this is true on road segments and at intersections. Clearly a fatal crash is more harmful to society than an injury crash which in turn is more harmful than a property damage only [PDO] crash. A research interest of mine is to improve and standardize how we incorporate crash severity into high-risk site identification.

From an interview with Simon Washington, the new head of Berkeley’s TSC. Well worth a read in its entirety.

Posted on Friday, July 3rd, 2009 at 4:21 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Indonesia’s Scarlet Letter for Pedestrians

One should be leery, given historical precedent, of any attempt to make a certain class of people wear markers denoting them as part of some group. From Indonesia, a place that is unsuccessfully trying to build urban transport models around the car, comes this absurdity:

An article in the new Traffic and Road Transportation Law passed by the House stated, “Handicapped pedestrians are obliged to wear special signs that can be easily recognized by other road users.” Lawmakers said the article aimed to protect handicapped pedestrians, but activists have called it discriminatory.

To put it lightly. There’s many other potential problems, like enforcment, or the issue of pedestrians not wearing the signs: Are they to be treated with any less caution?

Rather than scapegoating its most vulnerable residents in the name of “safety,” Jakarta would be better of dealing with its litany of actual traffic problems — ranging from lack of public transportation to police corruption.

Posted on Thursday, July 2nd, 2009 at 2:42 pm 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:

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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



July 2009

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