Archive for September, 2009

Traffic Safety Film of the Week

Helmut, a German traffic psychologist working in Belgium, sends this example of wry, clever Low Countries humor.

Posted on Thursday, September 10th, 2009 at 10:40 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Back to School

I was struck by this post, about the bicycle-heavy back-to-school ritual in the Netherlands, at David Hembrow’s site. As he observes, “a few weeks before the start of the school term, banners and signs appear to remind drivers that children are to be expected to be on bikes in larger numbers again. The banner reads ‘The schools are starting again.’ ”

In the U.S., of course, it’s more common at this time of year for schools to send out notices that their “traffic patterns” have changed, meaning the location of where kids are picked up and dropped off, via car (and typically they’re changed because so many parents are driving their kids to school, and the parking lots have become not only congested, but safety hazards). Relatedly, I happened to read, over the DOT’s Fast Lane page, about Secretary Ray LaHood visiting a school in Peoria, where some young students gave him their thoughts on transportation and safety. I don’t know what they envisioned, but I was curious to note the school’s handbook, located here, which notes, “due to the volume of traffic in the parking lot, students should be dropped off and picked up and the Northmoor door of the school.”

The final thing to note, not surprisingly, is the WalkScore of the neighborhood where the school is located: 49 out of 100.

Posted on Thursday, September 10th, 2009 at 12:08 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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52 Pickup

I thought the driver with 45 suspensions who was still driving in Detroit was remarkable, but that record has been bested.

Posted on Wednesday, September 9th, 2009 at 3:31 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Choosing Sides

More on Samoa here, while the BBC examines the old on-again off-again issue of the U.K. switching sides.

What if the UK were to follow? Driving on the right would make trips to the European mainland easier, when taking or hiring a car. And cars with steering wheels on the left could be cheaper.

The idea is not as fanciful as it sounds. Although the Department for Transport says it has no plans to change, it did examine such a plan in the late 1960s, two years after Sweden successfully switched to driving on the right.

Its report rejected the idea on grounds of safety and costs. But that was before Britain’s entry into the European Union and the opening of the Channel Tunnel, which for the first time established a land link between Britain and the Continent.

Posted on Wednesday, September 9th, 2009 at 3:00 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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As someone who’s not in a corporate environment, I’m always struck when, on assignment for a story or some such, I enter this world — whether it be Wall Street or Silicon Valley — and immediately become aware of curious forms of dialect. Sometimes it’s words used in ways I never heard them used before — weird verbs like “transition” or “architect” or “blue sky.”

Other times it’s some humdrum word used in a novel way, and used so often that I figure it must have been distilled from some recent management bestseller. Take, for example, “bucket.” I came across this yet again in a Sunday New York Times piece about Ford CEO Alan Mullally, who said, “So I don’t have separate buckets of my life, like my family life or my personal life or my work life.” Well, I for one am glad to hear that; one’s life really shouldn’t be in buckets. But I hear “buckets” all the time, as if I were at a farm, or in a sinking boat — some place in which buckets might truly be, er, actionable. Another favorite, which I heard out in California awhile back at a computer company, is “we don’t play in that space;” meaning, we have chosen not to enter that market (or tried and have failed). The whole undertone is we’re loose, we’re creative, we’re not buttoned-down, hell, we’re barely working! — even if those kids at Google probably work longer hours than the young marrieds at Sterling Cooper (and they got to go out for three-martini lunches).

I recognize that jargon can be useful as a shorthand in a field, as a mark of authority, or a sort of signaling device (hey, we get it), but it also strikes me that it often represents an intellectual laziness, a way of saying essentially nothing, instead of thinking up something more original. And it can also be used as a cudgel, of course, on outsiders who don’t speak the language.

As all professions seem inevitably to inculcate their own jargon (or corrupted language, if you’re being less charitable), I’m curious as to how this shakes out in the field of transportation. Walking in Savannah recently with Michael Ronkin (who, as I mentioned in an earlier post, also questioned “pedestrian”), I used the word “signage,” which brought a jovial rebuke. “Why not just say signs?” Ronkin asked. I had to laugh; I’ve absorbed that over time. I tried to think back to some recent conferences and the terms that had floated this way and that. “Stakeholder” is one I hear a lot, and while it at first glance sounds like something you might buy at Williams-Sonoma, I suppose it makes sense; the problem was, however, I heard it used in situations where the “stakeholders” were, essentially, everyone (but maybe it sounds better than the simple “people”). I always flinch a bit at “vulnerable road user.” The spirit of it its perhaps well-intentioned, but as Gerald Wilde once pointed out to me, most people killed in traffic in the U.S. are killed in cars — so who’s vulnerable?

And then Dom Nozzi pointed me to this page, which lists a whole scad of seemingly innocent words (e.g., “level of service”) that are, in their way, politically loaded. “Road improvements,” for example. “The word improvements is often used when referring to the addition of through lanes, turn lanes, channelization, or other means of increasing motor vehicle capacity and/or speeds. Though these changes may indeed be improvements from the perspective of motor vehicle users, they would not be considered improvements by other constituents of the City.”

One might stretch this further to think of a term like “mobility.” Who could argue against it? (actually, John Adams has questioned “hyper-mobility”). But, to take my local street as an example, one form of mobility — the car — runs against another form of mobility — walking. The more mobility in the first mode, the more my mobility is constrained. So mobility should too be questioned: Whose mobility? What kind of mobility? Mobility at what expense? Mobility from where to where? As commenters here have pointed out as well, “traffic” tends to take on a homo-modal (I’ve just invented that piece of jargon) sort of meaning — cars; and as I point out in the book, it has come to have instinctively negative connotations on the road (but not elsewhere, as on the Internet, where my inbox is flooded with spam promising ways to “boost traffic”).

In any case, I’m curious as to what those of you in the transportation professions might see as odd turns of phrase, lingo that baffles people or conceals some kind of ulterior meaning, words you yourself are trying to purge from your vocabulary.

Posted on Wednesday, September 9th, 2009 at 2:11 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Phantom Trains

The late, lamented Rochester subway:

Most people have no idea that Rochester, NY even had a subway. But from 1927 until 1956, red and cream colored trolley cars and four-car commuter trains rushed thru tunnels beneath downtown Rochester — above ground from the General Motors plant all the way to Elmwood Avenue and Rowlands. Known to most simply as the “Subway,” it was built to ease interurban traffic from the streets of Rochester. It also served as an interchange for the five railroads that entered the city and as a link to interurban lines serving the east and west.

There were several proposals in its final years that would have significantly expanded the line from downtown to Pittsford, Charlotte Beach, and the airport. The Subway was never really meant to die. This map shows how the system might have looked today – had it survived.

A few other details, via Strange Maps:

For much of late 19th and early 20th century, Rochester was among America’s two dozen biggest cities. But not anymore, not by a long shot: the former economic powerhouse by Lake Ontario’s southern shores has slipped to 97th place, and into relative obscurity. At its peak, Rochester had a third of a million inhabitants; now, at just over 200,000, it at least has the consolation to be still the biggest Rochester in the world. It out-sizes all 18 other Rochesters, including the original one (in England, with under 30,000 inhabitants). More importantly, metropolitan Rochester (about 1 million inhabitants) still is the second major economic hub in New York State, after – obviously – New York City.

And has anyone read Smugtown U.S.A.?

Rochester also attracted a significant amount of garment factories, became the centre of copying industry as the headquarters of Xerox and generally was a hub post-world-war-two high-tech – creating a self-confident culture mocked in the novel Smugtown USA (1957).

Posted on Tuesday, September 8th, 2009 at 2:41 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Random Fact of the Day

That might be useful, but a compelling study has already revealed that teens taught to drive by their parents are 2.7 times more likely to get into a fatal accident than those who take formal driver’s ed courses. The 2007 study focused on Texas and was funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

This via an interesting article on reforming driver’s ed in Texas.

Posted on Tuesday, September 8th, 2009 at 12:08 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I’ve Looked at Life From Both Sides Now

Samoa switches over.

As sirens and church bells wailed across Samoa just before 6am on Monday, drivers obediently stopped their cars. Then, after instructions issued over the radio by the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, they shifted to the other side of the road and ushered in history.

“After this announcement you will all be permitted to move to the other side of the road, to begin this new era in our history,” Mr Tuilaepa told his people, warning: “Don’t drive if you are sleepy, drunk or just had a fight with your wife.”

Sage advice for normal driving as well.

Posted on Tuesday, September 8th, 2009 at 12:01 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Catching Up

Due to some technical difficulties, and a lot of travel, posting has suffered here as of late; thanks as always to all the tips, etc., that have come in.

Here’s a few random things from the last week in which I’m quoted, etc.

London set to expand “shared streets” trials, notes the Times. I’ve not had the chance to really look into this in depth, but the results will certainly bear watching.

Samoa turns to the left, reports Macleans.

The paperback gets some joy from William Skidelsky in the Observer.

Non traffic related, but I have a (largely positive) review of Rebecca Solnit’s new book A Paradise Built in Hell in today’s New York Times Book Review.

And for the paperback there’s been another slew of interviews, particularly on radio, like this one, among many others.

Posted on Sunday, September 6th, 2009 at 10:46 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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If you’re reading this in Samoa, you have one day left to drive on the right. In case you forget, these stickers might help.

Posted on Sunday, September 6th, 2009 at 10:37 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Human Parking’

Glancing at this story, about New York’s Time Square, I was reminded of how the press coverage has constantly depicted the people inhabiting the space as “loungers,” people just “sitting around” who should somehow be doing something better (like waiting to cross against traffic) — a touch of that hysterical productivity ethic that plagues the U.S.

When we talk about cars sitting around — as they do more than 90% of the time — taking up a significantly larger space, we call it “parking.”

Human parking bad, car parking good.

Posted on Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009 at 2:14 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Name That Sign

I got them all right — but you’d be somehow disappointed if I didn’t, right? Not that it was very difficult (though I will admit to taking a flyer on the “hazardous materials” entry). For a real run for your money have a go at the U.K.’s Highway Code (my favorite is the warning sign that says, simply, “ford”; hint, it’s not product placement).

(thanks Peter)

Posted on Tuesday, September 1st, 2009 at 8:36 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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If You Can’t See My Mirrors

Though I didn’t see the above fine specimen represented, my pal Phil Patton’s treatise on the graphic design of truck warning stickers is well worth a read. Unlike so many other segments of road safety, it is utterly unstandardized, and filled with interesting variation.

That raises an interesting point, how warning someone about the same hazard can involve different strategies. One way is to simply say DON’T, without further explanation. Graphically, this is represented by the classic circle and slash over an icon representing an activity. But another way is to show the consequences of an act. You can warn people away from a behavior by depicting its results. Think of the dramatic arched back of a person in the throes of electrocution in some signs. Verbally, a famous case of this approach is the mother’s classic warning about the Red Ryder B-B gun her son dreams of, in the 1983 film A Christmas Story: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Posted on Tuesday, September 1st, 2009 at 4:21 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Two disturbing things across the transom. The former attorney general of Ontario, charged in the death of a cyclist in Toronto (ironically in light of the recent press on Chris Cavacuiti), apparently in some kind of altercation.

And in Wisconsin, a current legislator (one account says his license was once suspended) blows a red light, striking a cyclist.

(thanks Rob)

Posted on Tuesday, September 1st, 2009 at 2:18 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Via the BBC:

There has been traffic chaos in two Paris suburbs after their feuding mayors declared the same busy road one-way, but in opposite directions.

Posted on Tuesday, September 1st, 2009 at 12:36 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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