Archive for September, 2009

Traffic Safety Film of the Week

Talking to David Cronenberg a little while back about J.G. Ballard, I somehow had 1960s era crash testing on my mind. And YouTube obliges. I also couldn’t help be drawn back to the archival images of the nuclear testing of domestic architecture (and its inhabitants) that I wrote about in my previous book, Survival City; the style, and the eerie slow-motion contortions of the test dummies, are curiously consonant.

Posted on Tuesday, September 29th, 2009 at 3:38 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Distracted Driving Summit

I’ve got a number of journalistic irons in the fire at the moment, so it’s been exceedingly hard to post, but here’s something to fill your time: Live, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Distracted Driving Summit, beginning September 30.

Posted on Monday, September 28th, 2009 at 9:09 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I Wonder if It’s Taken for New York State

Reader Bossi, a traffic engineer, sends in this pic of his new tags. I have to say I’d neglected this potential marketing opportunity in publishing the book.

Posted on Friday, September 25th, 2009 at 8:03 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Higher Learning

Mary Beard notes the new biblio-themed bollards outside of University Library at Cambridge University. Alas, no titles, as she notes, but certainly inspired, and hinting at the tremendous untapped potential of the bollard form.

Posted on Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009 at 3:20 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Express Lane Isn’t Faster

Reader Mike had sent along this great post from a California math teacher who analyzed supermarket checkout times (data, as pictured above, was provided by the supermarket manager). I’m slow to post this and it has now been around a lot, but this was catnip to me as I love these sort of operational/logistical/queue problems (and this relates a bit to the airport walkway problem), particularly when they seem to exhibit that classic “slower is faster/faster is slower” effect. Not to mention that “other lane is always moving faster” problem that plagues us in traffic is a very real issue in queuing as well (and is partially why some outfits use single lines).

Among the many interesting findings:

The express lane isn’t faster. The manager backed me up on this one. You attract more people holding fewer total items, but as the data shows above, when you add one person to the line, you’re adding 48 extra seconds to the line length (that’s “tender time” added to “other time”) without even considering the items in her cart. Meanwhile, an extra item only costs you an extra 2.8 seconds. Therefore, you’d rather add 17 more items to the line than one extra person! I can’t believe I’m dropping exclamation points in an essay on grocery shopping but that’s how this stuff makes me feel.

There’s ways this can be applied to traffic, but reader Mike was wondering about those express/local lanes on highways. I only know anecdotal stuff here, like stories of engineers changing the estimated times on both segments when they really want people to use one or the other. But this is a bit of a guessing game every time I approach the George Washington Bridge on I-80. I’ve been burned many times by the express lane — is it the very wording, which fools me into thinking it’s a better way to go than that inevitably cluttered and slower “local” lane? It of course depends on many variables, like the intended destination of traffic, etc.

Maybe there’s some geeky studies somewhere of tolling as well; exact change lanes versus others, etc.; though those are likely to be outmoded with EZ-Pass etc.

Posted on Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009 at 9:36 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)

C’mon, you guys make this way too easy.

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) – A man was booked into the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on a DWI charge and numerous traffic violations after he slammed into a Baton Rouge police car early Friday morning.

Baton Rouge police arrested Leper Lewis, 49, of Baton Rouge in the crash. It happened around 1:30 a.m. on Evangeline Street near I-110.

Lewis was charged with second offense DWI, reckless operation, failure to maintain control, driving on the wrong side of the road, expired driver’s license and no insurance.

According to police, he hit the police car after coming around a curve in the wrong lane on Evangeline. The collision was almost head-on and the impact spun the police unit around and off the road.

The 31-year-old corporal suffered only minor injuries and was okay. His police dog was also fine. However, the corporal’s police-issued 2008 Dodge Charger was heavily damaged and had to be towed from the scene.

It received some damage to the front of it and along the side. The entire length of the passenger side of the police car was damaged.

The other vehicle was damaged to the point where it had to be towed as well. Its damage was primarily to the front of the car.

The officer was patrolling in the 2500 block of Evangeline when the crash occurred. The street was temporarily closed to traffic while police investigated the accident.

Posted on Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009 at 8:43 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Geography of Traffic Tickets

Where you get pulled over in Chicago and environs influences your chances of getting a ticket.

The next step for a proper study would be to correlate each jurisdiction’s traffic safety rates with ticketing rates, as with the study by Thomas Stratmann and Michael Makowsky.

Posted on Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009 at 8:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Police say Hunt told them shortly after the May 2 accident that she was applying red polish to her nails as she drove at about 50 mph toward an intersection and did not see motorcyclist Anita Zaffke until after she hit her.

Zaffke, 56, who lived in Lake Zurich, was stopped at a traffic signal when she was struck.

The driver, by the way, was charged with reckless homicide.

(thanks Alex)

Posted on Monday, September 21st, 2009 at 8:33 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Vehicle Factors

The IIHS pairs a big hullking 1959 Chevy Bel Air versus a 2009 Chevy Malibu. The results show how far car safety has come in 50 years. Now for the hard part: the drivers.

(thanks Darren)

Posted on Monday, September 21st, 2009 at 8:28 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Los Angeles

The main leg of the paperback tour ended last week (as very nearly did my mental and physical health) with an event at the great Zocalo series in Los Angeles. Eric Morris of Freakonomics provided the questions, while the sold-out audience was star-studded, with Donald Shoup, John Fisher of LA DOT, Nate Berg of Planetizen, not to mention a bunch of folks from UCLA and CALTRANS. Thanks to all who came out.

Posted on Monday, September 21st, 2009 at 8:12 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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an artificial noctilucent cloud

Last night, I happened to step outside on my terrace for a breath of air, and saw a curious light high up in the sky; at first I took it for an outbound Kennedy flight, or maybe an NYPD helicopter. But then it seemed to emit a large vaporous exhalation, which glimmered briefly and then, like the point of light, was gone.

It turned out I was looking at a NASA sounding rocket. I feel rather privileged to have stumbled across this in this way, and briefly, before I turned to the tools of empiricism, I was able to regard the strange light as some ancestor on the plains might have, with a tremulous shudder of wonder and unease. This may launch some star-gazing (and, per Trevor Paglen, “the other night sky”) kick on my part, though New York’s probably the worst place in the world for it.

Posted on Sunday, September 20th, 2009 at 7:38 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Cattle and Cars

A few facts Houstonian, courtesy of reading Michael Lewyn’s paper, “How Overregulation Creates Sprawl (Even in a City without Zoning),” which I was reading, appropriately, in Houston, a city of which I admittedly have only a fleeting grasp.

Houston has a reputation as an unusually sprawling, automobile-dependent city. For example, one newspaper article describes Houston as “a city of 581 square miles of unruly urban sprawl… (where) no one walks.” Similarly, an article in Houston’s own newspaper asserts that “Houston’s sprawl is as ugly and pervasive as any city’s in the nation.” And Houston’s reputation has ample basis in reality.

For example:

*Houston is far less densely populated than most other cities of comparable size. The city of Houston has only 3372 people per square mile, less than half the density of any of the three cities larger than Houston, and fewer than six of the eight American cities with over 1 million people.

*Houston is as automobile-dependent as any American city. Only 5.9% of the city of Houston’s employed adults commute via public transit — fewer than in any of the cities larger than Houston.

*Houstonians drive more than other Americans: The average Houstonian travels 37.6 miles per day by automobile, more than residents of any other large American region.

*As a result of all that driving, the average Houston household spends $9566 per year (or 20.1% of its income) on transportation-related expenses, more than its counterparts in all but one of America’s large metropolitan areas.

Thus, Houston’s reputation as a poster child for sprawl is richly deserved.

The interesting blog Keep Houston Houston has some further thoughts on how regulations keep this system flourishing.

And a few very random, scattershot impressions of inherent import:

1.) The highways are huge, and, in the late morning to early afternoon time I was out, they looked, by my New York eyes, virtually empty.

2.) I was out driving for 10 minutes when I happened upon a pedestrian injury; an older woman trying to cross a large, multi-lane road, with huge sweeping turn lanes, and barely visible crosswalks. Another comment from Lewyn:

The Houston city code provides, subject to certain exceptions, that major thoroughfares must have a 100 feet right-of-way, and all other streets must generally have 50-60 feet rights-of-way. Because Houston sidewalks are typically either 4 feet wide or are nonexistent, the practical result of this ordinance is that some of Houston’s major streets are 90 or 100 feet wide, while other streets can be up to 60 feet wide. By contrast, most American streets are 32 to 36 feet wide, and some municipalities allow commercial streets as narrow as 30 feet wide and residential streets as narrow as 18 or 20 feet wide.

At my reading at Brazos Bookstore, someone told me that Houston’s streets were laid out in order to run cattle drives down them a long time ago, and that longhorn cattle required a certain distance (owing to the, er, long horns). Is this a tantalizing urban legend, or is there any truth? Anyone seen any reputable chatter on this?

3.) At 2:30 at one school there was already a queue of SUVs to pick up children. The person I was with told me there was a special parking lot for the “walkers” — i.e., those parents who pick up their children on foot — to wait. I got the sense a child actually couldn’t be released into the world if a guardian was not there.

Posted on Wednesday, September 16th, 2009 at 11:55 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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My latest Slate column considers transportation from an iPhone-centric point of view, with an eye toward ways apps might change the experience for the better. I’d be curious to hear what I left out (I omitted some things for space) or things that are in the works, or apps you’d like to see, etc.

Posted on Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 at 3:55 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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My Airport Reading

Thanks to all who came last night to the great event at the beautiful K.C. library. I passed the time this morning at the airport (nary a moving walkway in sight!) reading Roundabouts of Kansas City, which celebrates circular yield-entry intersection control in the Show-Me state and neighboring Kansas and now takes pride of place on my roundabout shelf, right next to Roundabouts of Great Britain.

Thanks to Brian for the book and Kyle for the BBQ.

Posted on Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 at 3:50 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Let the Car Drive

Robert Scoble talks to Ford’s Steve Kozak about radar-based collision warning systems and adaptive cruise control. One big question is how willing drivers will be to stay within the parameters that the car’s computers say is the safe following distance; human drivers regularly go past those thresholds, in part because of overconfidence and in part because the average driver doesn’t have a clue as to what the car’s actual stopping distance is (unlike the precise radar and algorithms). Then there’s the issue that most of us don’t have to conduct full-on emergency braking on an everyday basis. I’m also still not sure how these systems avoid the “off-ramp problem” — at the moment you should be braking, the cruise control, sensing no cars ahead, may accelerate to your desired speed. Does anyone have any experience with this? On balance though I’d say, if commercial aviation is any guide, these systems can’t help but improve safety, given the natural perceptual limitations (and psychological quirks) of humans.

(thanks Peter)

Posted on Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 at 6:26 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Nothing to Sneeze At

Here’s a curious reminder of the dangers of moving at speed in a car: Simply sneezing — closing your eyes for a second — can get you into trouble.

Posted on Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 at 5:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Strange Dynamics of Airport Walkways

Given that I’m always talking about how traffic can skew our sense of time and perception, I was fascinated by a recent article in the New Scientist that was interested in a simple question: Do the moving walkways at airports actually move people any faster?

Manoj Srinivasan, a locomotion researcher at Princeton University, created two mathematical models of how people travel on such walkways (Chaos, DOI: 10.1063/1.3141428). In the first, he assumed people walk in a way that minimises the energy they expend, a standard theory in locomotion research. In the second, he assumed people walk in a way that best makes sense of the signals relayed from their eyes and legs.

Srinivasan’s models predict that when a person steps onto a moving walkway, they slow their foot speed by about half the speed of the walkway. This suggests that our desires to conserve energy and to resolve the conflict between visual cues and leg muscle signals – your eyes tell you that you are going faster than your legs are taking you – slow us down so that our total speed is only slightly greater than it would have been on regular ground.

This may save energy, but even under ideal conditions of no congestion and no baggage a walkway only makes a small difference in travel time – about 11 seconds for a 100-metre stretch.

Now, granted, this is only a model. But as someone who spends a lot of time in airports, and loves the idea of moving walkways but not often the reality (more on that in a sec), I feel as if there’s something to this. And trying to save travel time at the airport can be a futile, as with traffic: You may blaze down the moving walkway, only to be caught up in a bottleneck at security or the exit doors. And then there’s the reason I so often don’t get on in the first place: I don’t want to have to barge past the people who are simply standing on the walkway, actually going more slowly than normal walking speed (and there’s always a little hiccup of people getting off and on). This is the escalator problem: The technology was designed to move more people more quickly, by augmenting their normal motion, not simply ferrying passive passengers.

But the model above actually has an empirical counterpart, notes the magazine.

The findings help to explain earlier work by Seth Young, now at Ohio State University, who observed travellers at San Francisco and Cleveland airports slowing down on moving walkways, though not as drastically as Srinivasan’s model suggests (Transportation Research Record, DOI: 10.3141/1674-03).

If there is no congestion, people on travelators are marginally faster than on normal ground. However, Young found that the odds that other travellers will block the way are such that on average, it takes longer to get from A to B on a moving walkway.

“Moving walkways are the only form of transportation that actually slow people down,” says Young.

Posted on Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 at 5:54 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I had a whirlwind day in Portland, Ore., on Friday, beginning with chirpy morning TV, then a chat with Mayor Sam Adams (who is fantastically engaged and forward-thinking on transportation), followed by a talk, then a panel discussion, then a bike to and from dinner with Jeff Mapes (Pedaling Revolution), planner and soon-to-be author Mia Birk, and Greg Raisman, with the city’s Bureau of Transportation (check out his more comprehensive tour of Portland cycling facilities here).

I made an offhand remark during the talk that when I first began researching Traffic, I would talk to U.S. transpo people about things I had seen there, and I would get a standard refrain: Well, that might work in the Netherlands, but it would never work in the United States. But in the last year or so, I now feel like I’m hearing a new version of that: Well, that might work in Portland, but it would never work in the U.S. Maybe down the road, there will be one last city, holding out, saying, well that might work in Las Vegas, but it would never work here.

In any case, Portland really does have the feel of some kind of transportation theme park — or a multi-modal mecca — with its aerial and city trams, its expanding light rail, its real-time transit tracking iPhone apps, and its impressive 8% — yes, 8% — cycling mode share (with zero fatalities last year). I saw a parking enforcement officer on two wheels, and an item in the local city magazine noted that banks offer special bike financing. The morning I left, the city was kicking off its new Green Line, part of a strategy to reduce the percentage of students commuting to Portland State University — from 1996 to 2009, the share of students driving alone to school has dropped from 44% to 25%.

It was quite striking to be out on a beautiful late summer Friday night and see cyclists everywhere, from neighborhood streets to busier arterials to the “floating bridge” along the river, with “bike corrals” jammed outside of local businesses and half the pedestrians seeming to clutch a helmet. I quickly had to adjust my New York City mentality, and I tried, with Mapes and company, not to violate signals. Given that I was suffering from an insomnia-and-jet-lagged kind of fugue state, I should have at this point been exhausted, but the whole effect was exhilarating. Here’s a short photo tour — via iPhone, hence the quality.

Posted on Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 at 5:25 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On the Road

For any book fans in K.C. or Houston, I’ll be at the Kansas City Public Library tomorrow evening (Monday), and then at Brazos Bookstore in Houston the following evening. I’ll also be at the Zocalo series in Los Angeles the night after that, but it’s sold out.

Hope to see you there (as you long as you don’t shout “you lie” from the back of the room!)

Posted on Sunday, September 13th, 2009 at 6:22 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Do Bike Lanes Affect the Proximity of Cars?

This picks up on a theme explored by Ian Walker, the Warrington Cycle Campaign, and others: A new study finds cars pass more closely to bikes on roads with cycle lanes.

The study, which is due to be published in the scientific journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, says that on roads without cycle lanes, drivers “consciously perform an overtaking manoeuvre”. On roads with cycle lanes, they treat the space between the centre line and the outside edge of the cycle lane as exclusively their territory and make less adjustment for cyclists.

The study concludes: “Cycle lanes do not appear to provide greater space for cyclists in all conditions.” The Highway Code tells drivers to “give cyclists at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car”.

I’ve not read the study yet, so I’ll reserve further comment — save for my own suspicions that the presence of paint can both increase driver awareness but also encourage them to stop thinking — but this brings up a whole host of interesting accompanying issues: Does that proximity lead to less safety, either real or perceived? Do the car speeds differ on either street because of the presence or lack thereof of cycle lanes? Do the cycle lanes lead to an increase in cyclists? Do cycle lanes lead cyclists to behave differently?

As a primer I recommend this essay, not to mention Jeff Mapes’ book Pedaling Revolution.

(thanks to Prashanth in London)

Posted on Thursday, September 10th, 2009 at 11:01 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



September 2009

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