Archive for August, 2009

The Costco Effect

Reading this interesting post led me to John Van Horn’s always provocative (for people who think parking can be provocative) blog. There, in a Shoupian riff on inefficient government-set minimum parking requirements (for so-called “free parking”), he mentioned an interesting behavioral twist he dubbed the “Costco Effect” (implicit in this is the assertion that Costco somehow has parking lots that tend to fill up quickly; I don’t know if Costco as a policy builds smaller lots than, say, Wal-Mart):

As I read through the original report one comment stood out. It mentioned that by having fewer parking spaces, even in smaller cities and towns, people would begin to change their habits and, for instance, make fewer trips to the store and stock up when they did go. This is sort of like leaving a pile of stuff at the bottom of the stairs and then carrying it up when you got a complete load rather than making numerous hikes up and down.

It occurred to me that Costco is a perfect laboratory to test this hypothesis. Out local Costco, in an area of Culver City near Venice and Marina Del Rey, is among the top ten grossing stores in the chain. It’s always busy and if you don’t get there when the store opens, its parking lot is always full. Although I find going to Costco is fun, just to look at all the “stuff” and revel at the quality of the meat and variety of wine, there is no way in hell I’m going to fight that parking lot simply to wander as I would at the mall.

Hence, R and I have a list and when we discover items we need that would be a good “Costco” buy rather than buying it at the “store” (toilet paper and vitamins for instance), we put them on the list. When the list is of a certain length. We get up early on Saturday, drive to the store, stake out a parking spot and get in line with the 300 or so others that are jockeying shopping carts waiting for the big red doors to roll up.

Our behavior has been altered by the lack of parking. Costco’s sales aren’t. This is a rocking store, among the top in the chain. They have limited parking, but it doesn’t seem to hurt business. And we smart shoppers still buy the same amount we always would. However , dare we say it, the parking, or lack of it, has caused us to think more clearly about how we go about shopping.

This is an interesting corollary to another “Costco Effect” that’s been identified by
Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School and Leonard Lee of Columbia Business: Essentially, that people spend more at discount clubs with fees than those without. I’ll leave it up to you to draw any linkages between the two effects.

Posted on Monday, August 31st, 2009 at 7:42 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I’m currently down in Savannah, Georgia, at the meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association. At an afternoon panel I was struck by a brief line of inquiry let out by Michael Ronkin. Briefly, he asked the audience to consider the word “pedestrian.” If you see someone coming down the hall toward you in an office, do you think of them as a pedestrian? If you were hiking in the woods and someone came walking along, would you say, ‘here comes a pedestrian’? The word pedestrian, Ronkin suggested, only makes sense in relation to traffic, and I suppose it’s a function of our auto-centric society that to do something we were born to do, indeed evolved over a long time to do, should be considered a “mode,” an “activity,” or some kind of “road user.”

Strange too is the confluence of its meaning; not just the sense of a walker but from the Latin pedester, meaning “plain, prosaic.” This contrasts with equester, i.e., one who goes by horse, which is decidedly not equated with the plain or prosaic. Was there even some kind of pre-automobile bias against people walking? I don’t have in front of me, but if any book would have an answer it’s presumably Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust. The irony, of course, is now that it’s driving that’s become pedestrian, and walking which is novel.

Following the talk the group assembled for a “pedestrian safety walking tour” of the historic center (such an exercise would be futile in the suburbs) of Savannah, one of the country’s “ten most walkable cities” (in part because of the squares originally put in as part of a defense regimen, and one wonders here about a thesis to be written on military defense planning and walkable cities; i.e., medieval city walls as the original urban growth boundaries). Even walkable Savannah has its issues; Bay Street, for example, is 12% heavy truck traffic (to and from the port), lumbering down nine-foot lanes — as the city’s engineer explained it, people feel they are going faster than they really are, because of their size. Then there’s Paula Deen. Her “Lady and Sons” restaurant has become so popular (following her rise on TV) that massing waiting crowds often develop on the corners; the city eventually installed a four-way stop.

But once one is on the lookout for it, one realizes how strange that word — pedestrian — is; waiting at a marked crosswalk for vehicles to stop — some do, many don’t (though the city has seemed more concerned with jaywalking than “failure to yield” by vehicles) — one sees huge signs, warning those same drivers to “Stop for Pedestrians.” I thought, ‘wait, who’s a pedestrian? Is that me?’ Simply by going out for a walk I’ve become this strange being, studied by engineers, my rights presumably codified by signs (why not: “Stop for People”). On the same signs were often attached additional signs advising not to give to panhandlers (and call 911 if physically intimidated), subtly equating walking with being exposed to an urban menace (in some places you might be considered the menace).

Lastly, I wanted to check out a restaurant that had been recommended. I punched it into the maps app on the iPhone, and noted that the default setting for giving directions, and journey times, is for car. The time mentioned was 3 minutes. Walking, the third option, was 9 minutes. I doubt that the time listed for car includes walking to the car — that moment when all of us become pedestrians — finding parking at the destination, walking to the destination.

Posted on Monday, August 31st, 2009 at 7:24 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Safety Film of the Week

They really get the tone of these things so right.

Posted on Sunday, August 30th, 2009 at 3:04 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Drive Like Hell

Bumper sticker just seen on the Hutchison River Parkway: “Relax, God Is In Control.”

The driver, in an SUV (natch) was tailgating, weaving, speeding, and otherwise acting like a maniac (and in full violation of the Vatican’s recent edict on the “pastoral care” of fellow road users).

Who knows, maybe they were running late for the Rapture.

Posted on Sunday, August 30th, 2009 at 3:03 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Temporary Traffic Circles, Explained

As per the earliest post. And yes, they are ugly.

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 2009 at 1:50 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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In Praise of Traffic Tickets

Is more or less the theme of my latest column at Slate.

Coincidentally, reader Lucas had this morning sent me a horrifying story from the Atlanta Journal Constitution about a young Nepalese girl, having just arrived in the U.S., who was struck by an SUV driver who illegally passed a MARTA bus.

One particular passage stood out:

A Clarkston police officer parked on the shoulder of Ponce de Leon Avenue witnessed the accident, Scipio said. The officer had just written six tickets to other drivers for passing on a double line and he was about to go after Armwood when Sukmaya was hit.

Scipio said Armwood saw the patrolman on the side of the road and “he still passed another vehicle.”

I haven’t seen the link between enforcement and public health made quite so painfully clear and close as this example. But it raises an obvious, if often overlooked point: A majority of crashes are not only “human factors” related, but involve some traffic violation, whether speed, failing to signal, etc. — and violations are, as has been discussed in the literature (here for example), clearly different (and clearly more dangerous) than errors (though the press tends to lump both under the rubric of “accidents”). The issue here is not simply ticketing drivers (though I’m all for doing far more of that, and with more meaningful penalties), but taking more strenuous measures against those who seem to have a knack for racking them up (and often, inevitably it can seem, going on to do greater damage).

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 2009 at 1:30 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Attention Please

This morning, I had read Eric Felten’s interesting take in the WSJ on the presence of hazards in places like the Grand Canyon, and why we shouldn’t install things like hand-rails, even on dangerous trails.

Then I came across, via Brainiac, a splendid website from the U.K. called “Attention Please” that chronicles warning sign overkill. Its stated mission:

This is a Manifesto Club photo-album, capturing unnecessary, absurd or patronising safety warnings in public spaces. By turning our cameras on needless safety tape and signage, we hope to expose those who put them there – and encourage a more rational approach.

One of their gripes, vis a vis the Grand Canyon:

Even in our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty there are up to 45 signs per mile, destroying any feeling of wilderness or tranquility.

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 2009 at 12:32 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Boston Bound

The tour is cranking up in earnest and just to let you know I’ll be at the venerable Harvard Bookstore, in Cambridge, Mass., on Wednesday, September 9th, to talk about the book.

Details here. Hope to see you there.

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 2009 at 11:35 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Google’s “Real Time” Traffic Data

The blogosphere has gone nuts over the idea that Google Mobile Maps will be showing real-time traffic maps, with information generated by the very people (at least those with Android phones, and a few other devices) navigating that traffic (yes, this is what Dash does/did, on a smaller scale). We can crowdsource our way out of congestion!

As Wired notes, “The new service takes this data from everyone and combines it, using Google’s big brain, to give a pretty accurate picture of traffic conditions, which are then piped back to your device.”

Question is just how “pretty” is pretty. As Roadguy notes, the reality looks better on screen than on the street. Google’s Big Brain is still developing, apparently.

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 2009 at 9:44 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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SatNav Mashups

(Horn honk to Kottke)

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 2009 at 9:37 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Commuted Sentence

Gives “traffic justice” a whole new meaning. Man cheats on wife, has to tell rush-hour commuters about it.

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 2009 at 9:24 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Self-Enforcing Roads

Via USA Today an interesting tale of a driver tracking down another (drunk) driver who had hit him and then fled.

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 2009 at 7:45 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Learning Curve

I don’t know what the hell a “traffic calming circle” is and whether it varies from a modern roundabout, but I was needless to say intrigued by this tale.

“Please listen to us”…[said] one of several people to speak against the circle Tuesday. “It’s unsafe and definitely against our wishes. We do not want the calming circle and we don’t understand why you want it for another day. Take it out!”

Yes, killer traffic calming circles! Run for the hills!

What exactly are they doing, these vicious facilities? Terrorizing local children and small dogs? Raising the number of collisions?

But city traffic engineer Maria Esther Rodriguez said the circle has worked to reduce speed. Studies show the average speed on Holm has dropped from 37 to 30 mph since the installation, she said.

Residents wanted something else instead.

The council was skeptical of the circles from the beginning, approving the project on a 4-3 vote in April. Foes favored four-way stops, but staff said they lead to more traffic congestion.

Engineers know, of course, from experience that stop signs are not a speed control mechanism.

In the meantime, the city is investigating using the sign above to ensure speed compliance. Just kidding.

Posted on Thursday, August 27th, 2009 at 3:24 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Kafka at the DMV

Via the Detroit News:

Ferndale — After pulling over a reportedly stolen car early Wednesday morning, police discovered that the driver, Renee Lashon Beavers, 33, of Detroit, had been issued 45 license suspensions from the Michigan Secretary of State.

“Actually, she has never had a driver’s license from us,” said SOS spokesman Fred Woodhams. “She definitely has a record with us, but we show that she’s never had a license.”

According to the SOS, it is possible to receive driving suspensions without ever having acquired a valid driver’s license.

Posted on Thursday, August 27th, 2009 at 3:17 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Always an Interesting Question

Enforcement, education… or engineering. Which changes behavior most effectively?

Posted on Thursday, August 27th, 2009 at 3:15 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Taking of Pelham’s Trees

Apparently this issue has been around awhile. From a letter to the New York Times, 1999:

To the Editor:

Re ”Drivers Fear Leafy Menace by the Side of the Road” (Sept. 19): Pelham Parkway is not a limited-access highway; it is a parkway, a road that connects Pelham Bay Park with Bronx Park. Coincidentally, it now connects the Bronx River Parkway with the Hutchinson River Parkway and the New England Thruway (I-95). It was designed for light pleasure traffic at speeds of 25 to 30 miles per hour, not 50 to 60 m.p.h.

When people fall asleep at the wheel, are cut off by another vehicle or seek to avoid an animal in the road and hit one of the trees transplanted from the subway construction on the Grand Concourse, it is not the fault of the tree, nor the design of the road. I would hate to see the trees removed simply because motorists are not observing the speed limit.

If the police would enforce the speed limit on Pelham Parkway, the city would make money on the road instead of spending it. If the road could have been redesigned, you could be sure the master builder (and destroyer) Robert Moses would have rebuilt it after his failure to complete the Sheridan Expressway, which would have been the main east-west roadway to compliment the Cross Bronx Expressway.


Morris Park, Bronx

Posted on Wednesday, August 26th, 2009 at 8:36 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Snow Job

Reader Pat sends along a photo he snapped of the old Glenn Highway near Anchorage, Alaska. In case you can’t make it out, the sign after the avalanche warning notes “School Bus Stop Ahead.”

Posted on Wednesday, August 26th, 2009 at 7:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Le Justice

From a very good article in the ITE Journal (“French Lessons: A Review of an Effective Road Safety Program,” by Andrew Kwasniak and Michael Kuzel) on efforts in France to reduce the country’s road fatalities (now lower than the U.S., per million population, a far cry from the 1970s):

An example of the seriousness of driving over the speed limit in France was experienced by two British drivers who were stopped after a high-speed pursuit (257 km/hr). As a result, they were arrested and spent 48 hours in a police station pending a hearing. They were fined 1,000 Euros and received a three-month suspended jail sentence. Their cars, each worth approximately 68,000 euros, were confiscated and sold at auction.

Posted on Wednesday, August 26th, 2009 at 7:25 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Dangerous Trees or Dangerous Drivers?

The Daily News notes that a number of trees are going to be cut down on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx and replaced by a guard-rail, presumably to cut down on the number of fatalities by drivers swerving into trees. “The roadway is very dangerous the way it is,” a local pol said.

But dangerous for whom? As the story notes:

According to Police Department figures, there were 185 accidents — with 29 injuries — from January to July 31 of this year along the parkway. Since 2003, there have been two fatalities, both involving struck pedestrians.

The only certainty in removing trees is that speeds will increase. I’m not sure how those pedestrians were struck, but I would guess the issue is not that the trees failed to protect them, and their risk will only increase with driver speed.

(thanks Streetsblog)

Posted on Wednesday, August 26th, 2009 at 7:15 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Dangerous Cyclists’

I just watched a solo driver in a massive Escalade with too-thin tires (new urban calculation: the thinner the tires, the longer the rap sheet) shout at two cyclists on my street as he passed (driving faster than the speed limit).

Then I came home to read this, from physician Chris Cavacuiti in Toronto, on understanding causality in car-bike collisions. I realize that science and reason often do not reign these days, if they ever did, but it’s nice, once in a while, to find there are people like this, correcting the lazy “bike-ist” misperceptions:

While there is a public perception that cyclists are usually the cause of accidents between cars and bikes, an analysis of Toronto police collision reports shows otherwise: The most common type of crash in this study involved a motorist entering an intersection and either failing to stop properly or proceeding before it was safe to do so. The second most common crash type involved a motorist overtaking unsafely. The third involved a motorist opening a door onto an oncoming cyclist. The study concluded that cyclists are the cause of less than 10 per cent of bike-car accidents in this study.

Posted on Tuesday, August 25th, 2009 at 3:49 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:

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



August 2009

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