Archive for August, 2009

New York as Motopia

Michael Frumin was intrigued by a report on 2008 subway passenger counts.

Just to get warmed up, chew on this — from 8:00AM to 8:59 AM on an average Fall day in 2007 the NYC Subway carried 388,802 passengers into the CBD on 370 trains over 22 tracks. In other words, a train carrying 1,050 people crossed into the CBD every 6 seconds. Breathtaking if you ask me.

So he began wondering what New York City would have to look like without that subway capacity — or, say, if every New Yorker decided to drive where they were going.

At best, it would take 167 inbound lanes, or 84 copies of the Queens Midtown Tunnel, to carry what the NYC Subway carries over 22 inbound tracks through 12 tunnels and 2 (partial) bridges. At worst, 200 new copies of 5th Avenue. Somewhere in the middle would be 67 West Side Highways or 76 Brooklyn Bridges. And this neglects the Long Island Railroad, Metro North, NJ Transit, and PATH systems entirely.

And that’s not all of it.

Of course, at 325 square feet per parking space, all these cars would need over 3.8 square miles of space to park, about 3 times the size of Central Park. At that point, who would want to go to Manhattan anyway?

Reading Frumin’s post, I was reminded of the early, Utopian visions, as sketched by people like Bauhaus stalwart Ludwig Hilberseimer, of cities “built for the motor age,” which would seamlessly blend great agglomerations of people with smooth, huge highway networks that always seemed to be largely empty, as in the image above. What these plans never acknowledged is the point raised by Frumin: The actual infrastructure required to move all those people by car to their massive towers, not to mention such questions as what they would all do once they got out of their cars (if they even desired such a thing), where they would park, etc. etc.

On the last point, Norman Bel Geddes, writing in the seminal text Magic Motorways, thought parking provided an easy answer to the congestion question:

There is one method, however, which does point the way to a future solution. It is the construction of parking space directly underneath or actually inside of heavily frequented buildings. The newest building unit in New York’s Rockefeller Center, for example, is provided with six floors in which over 800 cars can find parking space by means of ramps. The same idea has been incorporated, even more dramatically, into Chicago’s Pure Oil Building, in which the interior spaces of thirteen floors are reserved for tenants’ cars 300 of them.

How providing more supply would lead to long-term solutions to the congestion problem, particularly as all those drivers poured out of their massive garages at 5 p.m., was a question the modernist visions were never able to answer.

Of course, Hilberseimer’s early visions were admittedly a bit dystopian, as even an automobile city proponent like Le Corbusier was moved to note:

A wretched kind of “modernism” this! The pedestrians in the air, the vehicles hogging the ground! It looks very clever: we shall all have a super time up on those catwalks. But those “R.U.R.” pedestrians will soon be living in “Metropolis,” becoming more depressed, more depraved, until one day they will blow up the catwalks, and the buildings, and the machines, and everything. This is a picture of anti-reason itself, of error, of thoughtlessness. Madness.

And while the city pictured at the start of the post never materialized, that modernist dream of the (non-congested) automotive city never died, and its DNA carried on through GM’s “Futurama,” on through fantastic visions like Geoffrey Jellicoe’s “Motopia,” (pictured above, with its rooftop roads) through more serious (and taken seriously) tracts like Colin Buchanan’s “Traffic in Towns,” and into built places like Cumbernauld.

“Kill the street,” Le Corbusier once intoned, the old “donkey paths.” The new cities would do away, as the historian Stephen Marshall puts it in his excellent book Streets and Patterns, with things like the pub on the corner. “There would be no pub on the corner, since no building would interfere with the requisite junction visibility requirements. There would be no crossroads, since these would be banned on traffic flow and safety principles. Indeed, there would be no ‘streets’: Just a series of pedestrian decks and flyovers.”

And as the following video (sent to me by Eric Boerer at Bike Pittsburgh) from Pittsburgh, circa 1955 shows, the modernist dreams had some serious propagandistic muscle behind it; the irony of this video (and, I must say, the supposed congestion horror depicted here looks pretty tame) is that just about everything that’s proposed here is the sort of thing that, half a century later, would be seen as a nightmare from which cities were trying to awake. I don’t know the city, and I’m not sure if those waterfront highways were built, for example, but it’s hard not to see Le Corb and Broadacre City all over that image of the tall tower, surrounded by acres of parking — my initial thought was, where would you go for lunch? It’s the sort of mundane question the motopians never paused much to consider as they drafted their gleaming tomorrows.

Posted on Tuesday, August 25th, 2009 at 2:49 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The U.S. is still not paying congestion charging fees in London, reports the Guardian.

“TfL and the UK government are agreed that the congestion charge is a charge for a service and not a tax, which means that diplomats are not exempt from payment. All staff at the American embassy should pay it, in the same way as British officials pay road tolls in the United States. TfL continues to engage directly with those embassies that refuse to pay in order to increase compliance with the scheme by diplomats.”

Posted on Monday, August 24th, 2009 at 8:00 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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New York Cares

A friend sent along this photo, taken at a laundromat around 110th St. in New York City. Gives the word “load” a whole new connotation.

Posted on Monday, August 24th, 2009 at 6:47 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The paperback edition, which came out last week, has landed on the New York Times paperback bestseller list. Thanks to all who have purchased the book (in print, on audio, or in Kindle), and talked it up on your own blogs, etc.

Posted on Saturday, August 22nd, 2009 at 7:39 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)

Via the Ithaca Journal:

ITHACA — The Tompkins County grand jury has indicted an Ithaca man in connection with an accident involving a motorcyclist.

The grand jury charged Larry Ross, 52, with second-degree vehicular assault, a Class E felony, along with criminal mischief, reckless driving, driving while intoxicated and driving with more than .08 percent blood alcohol content.

(thanks Brian)

Posted on Friday, August 21st, 2009 at 11:10 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Back to the Future

Mark Wagenbuur has put together a fascinating video (thanks to David Hembrow) on the evolution of a Dutch street (in Utrecht) over time; of particular interest is the creeping automobilization of the street in the 1970s-80s, only to see a subsequent reversion to historical precedents (or what we now call “complete streets”).

Posted on Thursday, August 20th, 2009 at 4:21 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Chew On This

From the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety report, “Improving Traffic Safety Culture in the U.S.” (large PDF available here):

The low priority accorded to the highway safety problem and the attribution of the problem to the “other” driver has two consequences. First, it means that the field is woefully underfunded. This is evident when you “follow the money.” In 2004, the U.S. federal budget for the National Cancer Institute was $3 billion, for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute $2.3 billion, and for highway safety research (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration) $164 million. These are huge differentials, even though in terms of adjusted years of life lost before age 75, cancer and heart disease are each only 2 to 3 times that of motor vehicle injuries. The National Institute of Dental Research received $349 million for research in 2004, more than twice what was spent for highway safety research.

Posted on Thursday, August 20th, 2009 at 7:35 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The End of Driving

One way to resolve the distracted driving issue is to simply remove the driving part from the equation. The industrial design firm of Mike and Maaike has been theorizing just that in their “Autonomobile.”

This line stood out for me in their brief:

Most cars can go 120 mph yet they are mostly used at moderate speeds and sitting in traffic. It’s time to look at performance in a new way. Dismissing the need for extreme MPH and acceleration as irrelevant, ATNMBL proposes a new standard of performance: one of time-saving, quality of life, and increased exploration. Freed from the monotony of driving, we can enjoy quality time while in transit: socializing, gaming, movies, business, videocalls, web surfing, sleeping or discovering new places with powerful voice controlled search and navigation.

(Horn honk to Dave)

Posted on Wednesday, August 19th, 2009 at 2:56 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Accidental Journalist

From Time:

One state where a lot of public attention is being paid to texting while driving is New York. After several fatal accidents there involving text messaging, State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz says constituents began calling his office to demand action. He is now sponsoring a text message ban in the state assembly; the state senate has already passed a similar bill.

There are many words for what happens when people texting while driving crash, but “accident” is not one of them.

Posted on Wednesday, August 19th, 2009 at 2:18 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Roads That Kill, Drivers Who Kill

A few kind readers have sent along an op-ed in the Boston Globe, which the website sums up thusly:

“Traffic injuries kill more than a million people a year worldwide, including 40,000 a year in the United States. Yet when a fatality occurs few people blame the roadway for the death.”

The piece makes some good, worthy points (and it’s important to remember that the concept of safer road design can also entail — gasp — forcing drivers to slow). It’s a bit like the concept of “fire-safe cigarettes.” We can try to educate people not to smoke in bed, we can fine them if they do; or we can build a device that extinguishes itself, lowering the potential for a human mistake.

But it also reminded me of a story in today’s New York Times about the deadly crash on the Taconic Parkway (in which the driver was subsequently reported to have a BAC twice the legal limit; before this, there was a grasping search to blame improper road design or poor signage). The story tries to insinuate that the parkway, designed in the 1920s, is no longer safe — the reason, of course, having less to do with the road itself than that drivers no longer feel compelled to drive the 55 mph speed limit (partially because it became a conduit for a sprawl-based commuter-shed). Curiously, though, the piece notes that the Taconic turns out to be safer than comparison roads, thereby somewhat deflating the sense of urgency that this is a road in need of serious examination.

And yet, after the crash, officials put up additional “wrong way” signs at the particular intersection where the driver joined the highway. A natural response, perhaps, but one done more out of reflex (the “accident black spot” approach) than thought: What about all the other entrances? Given that the driver drove for several minutes, clearly against the flow of traffic, what would another ‘wrong way’ sign have done? The point here is that road engineering can only get us so far in reducing deaths; driver behavior matters.

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 2:05 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Real Clunkers

The New Scientist reports on an often-overlooked topic: Truck fuel efficiency, and some efforts to improve it:

While the average fuel efficiency of the US car fleet has almost doubled in the last 40 years, today’s heavy trucks guzzle the same amount of fuel – roughly 30 litres per 100 kilometres – as they did in 1969 (see graph). In 1990, America’s truckers burned the equivalent of 1.6 million barrels (254 million litres) of oil per day, about 10 per cent of the nation’s total consumption. By 2007, this had risen to 2.5 million barrels.

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 1:40 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Significant Objects

Off-topic, but I’ve got a story up at the “Significant Objects” project — info, and story, here. Don’t be afraid to bid!

I also forgot to note another story I’ve got on Slate that you may have missed, and it’s about playpens of all things (as if traffic wasn’t a subject filled with a surplus of self-appointed experts, I’ve waded into the even more contentious subject of parenting).

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 11:34 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The High Cost of No Parking

My latest Slate column is up, and it concerns bicycle parking. I notice some of the earlier commenters, perhaps mistaking the headline for the actual story, seem to think I’ve suggested that providing better bike parking facilities will magically transform the U.S. into Copenhagen. This is not the point, of course — instead I wanted to draw attention to the often overlooked factor of parking as it applies to traffic, how this plays in as well — and even more — to cycling, and that indeed providing it (along with all the other things) may be yet another of those small ‘pull’ factors that makes it more feasible (or at least eliminates another excuse why someone cannot do it).

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 9:12 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Intexticated Yet Again

On a call-in radio program yesterday evening (a long day that began with an early appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, my first) a young driver, age 23, asked whether texting while driving should really be considered entirely negatively, given the superior texting abilities of younger drivers. There were any number of things to be said to this sort of thing; one is that the bulk of the studies showing the negative effects of phone conversation or texting while driving are indeed done using young drivers — at colleges. Researchers generally are not getting Grandma on a Blackberry and asking her to drive. A second point is that very thought — that young drivers think they are better at texting and thus “better” at texting and driving — hints that whatever manual dexterity advantages they might have, this would be squandered by more use of the device, general overconfidence, etc. I could have gone on. And there’s the above video (horn honk to Kottke) which effectively dramatizes a scene that has been playing out upon the nation’s roads.

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 8:12 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Things I Didn’t Know

Robert Puentes notes:

While we often equate the interstates to long stretches of rural roads, more than half our interstate system mileage is in ‘urban’ areas. For that reason, a broad range of tolling strategies should be considered–not solely for revenue generation but for congestion and demand management strategies such as on beltways, downtown spurs and within mega regions.

Via an interesting discussion, at National Journal’s experts forum, of whether interstate highways should be tolled (and I’m with Puentes on that one).

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 8:04 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Catch-22 in Virginia

A good article in the Washington Post unpacks some of the vagaries of laws prohibiting texting and cell-phone use while driving. My favorite passage, concerning Virginia, notes:

The law makes texting a secondary offense, so an officer has to stop a driver for some other reason before writing a texting citation. In court, the driver can say he was dialing a phone call, which is legal, or using his phone’s GPS function, which is legal. Short of getting texting records from a phone company, which isn’t allowed because the crime is a misdemeanor, an officer has no way to prove a driver was texting.

If the law seems laughable, the fine is a real joke: $20.

Maryland’s forthcoming law, by contrast, sets the fine at $500.

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 7:16 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Umbrellas of Pyongyang

Via Korea News Service comes news of an interesting traffic development in Pyongyang (a place, when glimpsed on Google Earth, doesn’t appear to have much traffic):

Pyongyang, August 13 (KCNA) — Unique platforms under umbrellas are being set up in traffic control posts at intersections of Pyongyang these days, attracting attention of people.

The round platform under well-shaped large umbrella is clearly seen at far distance.

The umbrella shields the traffic controllers from sunrays and rain and the platform shuts out heat from the heated asphalt.

The female traffic controllers are commanding the traffic with a bright face on the platform under the umbrella even in the hottest period of summer.

Passers-by stop walking for a while to see the new scene.

They say it can be seen only in the country led by Kim Jong Il.

The traffic controllers are moved by the warm affection shown for them by General Secretary Kim Jong Il who saw to it that the platforms with umbrellas are being set up this time after raincoats, rain boots, sunglasses, gloves and cosmetics as well as seasonal uniforms were provided to them.

I suppose the free cosmetics help ensure the bright face? And I don’t suppose any readers have been to the city lately, to verify whether or not these really are attracting the attention of passerby?

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 7:09 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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How Aware Are We of Our Own Distraction?

One factor that promotes overconfidence in one’s ability to “safely” multitask while driving is the idea that we cannot often correctly monitor our own level of vigilance.

To wit, a study reported in the New Scientist notes:

A CAR’S judgement on the driver’s levels of alertness could be more reliable than the driver’s own perception of it.

So say Eike Schmidt of car manufacturer Daimler in Böblingen, Germany, and his team, after tests on volunteers during a 4-hour drive along the autobahn. To make the drive as boring as possible, the drivers were asked not to chat or listen to the radio.

Every 20 minutes, the team asked the volunteers how attentive they were feeling. They also tested the volunteers’ reaction times by asking them to push a button attached to their thumbs every time they heard a certain tone. Each driver’s heart rate and brainwave frequency, which are indicators of attentiveness, were also recorded during these tasks.

The team found that while all measures of alertness declined over the 4-hour period, in the final hour the drivers reported feeling more vigilant than the physiological tests suggested.

This relates to a point I tried to raise in Traffic — that drivers are not only distracted, but unaware of their level of distraction.

William Horrey and colleagues found a similar result in a study that looked at drivers on mobile devices on a closed track. As other studies have found, their were “performance decrements” while using a hand-held and hands-free device versus “baseline driving,” but what was interesting here is that subjects’ estimates of how distracted they were had little to do with the actual level of distraction:

[I]n some cases, the subjective measure of distraction was in the opposite direction of the actual distraction effect. That is, drivers that estimated the smallest (or no) distraction effects exhibited the largest ones. In general, a disconnect between performance and awareness was consistent across driving measure and phone type.

Interestingly, in this study, the researchers suggested it was not overconfidence per se, but a “failure of perception,” underpinning the disconnect. Just as a fatigued driver does not quite know the point at which his fatigue will become deadly, nor does the distracted driver know the exact tipping point moment where they will miss something they might have otherwise detected.

Posted on Monday, August 17th, 2009 at 3:20 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Mysteries of Road Repair

Reader Steve wants to know:

Do you know why there is always a delay, sometimes of weeks, between the scarification of a road surface and the repaving? In my experience, this occurs regardless of whether the project involves a low volume city street or an interstate highway.

Any infrastructure types out there care to weigh in? Is it part of some carefully planned process, or just lack of coordination between the scarification guys and the paving guys?

Posted on Monday, August 17th, 2009 at 7:24 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Safety Film of the Week

From the U.K.’s always provocative Think! series.

Posted on Monday, August 17th, 2009 at 7:22 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:

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Order Traffic from:

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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



August 2009

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