Archive for October, 2009

Sufjan on the BQE

New Sufjan Stevens album, The BQE.

“It’s a great insight into the psychology of man: Put a human being behind the wheel of a car and put them on the BQE,” Stevens says.

Don’t I know, brother, don’t I know.

Posted on Friday, October 30th, 2009 at 8:10 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Why We Need DNA Testing at the DMV

The genetic correlates of bad driving.

(thanks Peter)

Posted on Thursday, October 29th, 2009 at 12:53 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Best Paragraph I read Today

From the Journal of Mammalogy:

There are several non–mutually exclusive hypotheses for why bears selected minivans. First, it is possible that minivans were more likely to emit food odors regardless of whether they contained meaningful amounts of food available. This argument is based on the fact that minivans are designed for families with children and small children in particular are notorious for spilling food and drink while riding in vehicles. Thus, vehicles transporting children would emit greater food odors, making them attractive to bears. If this hypothesis is correct then any vehicle transporting small children, regardless of class type, should be targeted by bears. To test this supposition, park personnel collecting information on vehicles broken into should also note whether car seats were present, or whether small children are regularly transported in the vehicle, or both.

From a fascinating study looking at which vehicles seemed to occasion the most ursine break-ins in Yosemite National Park (“SELECTIVE FORAGING FOR ANTHROPOGENIC RESOURCES BY BLACK BEARS: MINIVANS IN YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK,” by STEWART W. BRECK, NATHAN LANCE, AND VICTORIA SEHER); perhaps inevitably, in terms of animal/vehicle adaptation, it reminded me of the observations of crows using pedestrian signal crossings to retrieve the nuts they had dropped into the street (where they could be “opened” by passing cars).

Note to thieves: Another reason bears favored minivans is that they’re easier to break into.

Posted on Tuesday, October 27th, 2009 at 6:38 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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More Lazy Anti-Pedestrian Commentary

I could write this post every day, but here’s another piece, this time from San Francisco, equating pedestrian death rates with careless pedestrian behavior — and no other potential causal factor (i.e., speeding, drunken, distracted drivers running on sidewalks, violating rights of way, etc.).

Posted on Monday, October 26th, 2009 at 4:06 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Electric Chair

Justice has been finally served (though not as swiftly as the eight or nine beers that got this fella into trouble) in the case of the Minnesotan caught driving under the influence of alcohol in his motorized lazyboy recliner —back in 2008.

Posted on Monday, October 26th, 2009 at 4:02 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Safety Film of the Week

One can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t had a running start. Given that the other pedestrian signal was red, presumably he had the green.

(Thanks Mikael)

Posted on Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 at 11:15 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Curious Traffic Safety Fact of the Day

Via USA Today:

State traffic agencies are tailoring safe driving campaigns to reflect growth in minority groups and even refugee communities where English is not fully understood.

In Ohio, officials designing a seat-belt campaign aimed at the state’s large Somali refugee population wanted to adapt the popular “Click it or ticket” slogan but found that “ticket” doesn’t translate.

“They don’t have a government in Somalia, so ‘ticket’ doesn’t mean anything to them,” says Tina O’Grady, administrator of the state’s Traffic Safety Office. “We ended up translating it as ‘Strap it, or lose your livestock,’ which also means your money or income or livelihood.”

Posted on Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 at 11:14 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Random vanity plate facts of the day (and I have a question: Which other countries permit vanity plates? I can’t recall seeing them in Europe, for example, but I may be wrong):

That’s how we know 1 in 26.15 registered motor vehicles have vanity plates, which translates into nearly 9.3 million or 3.8% of the nearly 243 million registered motor vehicles in the US. And that’s where we get the term, “vanity plate penetration,” and are able to use it in this sentence: Virginia has the highest vanity plate penetration with 1 in 6.18 registered cars (or 16%) being vanitized.

After Virginia, the next five states with the highest vanity plate penetration are New Hampshire (1 in 7.14); Illinois (1 in 7.45); Nevada (1 in 7.8); Montana (1 in 10.2); and Maine (1 in 10.21). The state with the lowest percentage of vanity plates is Texas, with only .56%, or 1 in 178.3 registered cars.

Via the wonderfully obsessive, if imperfect, Book of Odds.

Posted on Tuesday, October 20th, 2009 at 10:24 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Shoupism in Santa Monica (and Beyond)

Via the Los Angeles Times:

Santa Monica’s discussion reflects a vexing reality — that parking has an “unbelievable power . . . to shape and distort cities,” said Ventura City Manager Rick Cole.

“It’s illegal for a car to be homeless but not for people,” he said. “As a result, we devote a huge amount of extraordinarily valuable real estate to asphalt and concrete and then we give it away.”

Ventura, which does not charge for street parking, plans to install meters in January, three years after it first committed to market-based pricing. “You have to break the initial barrier of charging for parking,” Cole said of the delay.

He speaks from experience. As mayor of Pasadena in the early 1990s, he helped broker a deal with Old Pasadena retailers that paved the way for paid parking. All the meter revenue went into area amenities, which strengthened demand, turning Old Pasadena into a municipal cash cow.

Posted on Friday, October 16th, 2009 at 3:00 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Jaywalking Redux

For more shockingly dangerous pedestrian behavior, I present Streetfilms and Mark Gorton.

Posted on Thursday, October 15th, 2009 at 10:26 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Jaywalking Menace

Also in the Globe, is it just me or nowhere in this story is there any actual indication that the crash statistics referred to are the result of jaywalking or other pedestrian action? Given that academic studies attribute the vast bulk of pedestrian-car crashes to driver —not pedestrian — behavior, I’m always amazed by the sheer torrent of anti-jaywalking stories in the country’s newspapers, reflective of an old bias against non-vehicular modes.

After giving these eye-catching scare statistics about pedestrian danger, the story then interviews a number of people who are jaywalking — the only problem being they actually weren’t struck by cars, which doesn’t exactly prove the main point.

In Peter Norton’s book Fighting Traffic, there’s an interesting discussion of an old campaign to come up with a term, a particular pejorative, for “jaywalking” drivers. Maybe it’s time to revisit that idea.

Posted on Thursday, October 15th, 2009 at 10:03 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The $600 Speeding Ticket

Around 1909, a speeding ticket was a price proposition in today’s terms, notes the Boston Globe:

Speeding fines were enormous, starting at $25 – the equivalent of $600 today, according to the scholarly website

Of course, no one had a speedometer in his car to know how fast he was going. Nor did the police have any way to record speeds, or patrol cars to catch violators – though they probably could have tracked them down.

Posted on Thursday, October 15th, 2009 at 9:50 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Questions We Should Ask

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Advocates for a new law argue that families of those killed or maimed deserve greater sense of justice than a traffic ticket brings. However, a conviction for negligent driving doesn’t carry much steeper punishment. Typically, a first-time offender gets probation or a deferred sentence.

“Do they need an automatic license suspension or do they need driver retraining. These are the questions that we should ask,” Hiller said. He noted that people who don’t control their vicious dogs face more criminal culpability than drivers for negligence behind the wheel.

New York’s own traffic justice symposium is coming up — details here.

Posted on Thursday, October 15th, 2009 at 9:42 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Passengers of Drunk Drivers: Victims or Accomplices?

The Shanghai Daily notes that Chinese police are considering a plan to charge the passengers of drunk drivers:

CHINA has already mounted a massive crackdown on drunk drivers and is now considering even tougher legislation, including a clause that will penalize passengers who aid and abet offenders.

The nation’s police authority is seeking public opinion on a draft that outlines this proposal.
According to the draft, passengers in the same vehicle as a drunk driver will be fined if it is deemed they did not make all reasonable efforts to stop the offender from getting behind the wheel.

As the draft has not classified the type of vehicle covered by the clause, some commuters have expressed concerns about whether they will be held accountable if a bus driver is under the influence of alcohol. Xu Yuan, a Shanghai architect, said the regulation was senseless as passengers were likely to have no idea about whether their bus driver had been drinking. Zhan Yan, a Shanghai student, thought the draft was reasonable if the passenger was a relative or close friend of the driver.

The proposal seeks to increase penalties on drunk drivers, including detention and life-long driving-license bans for multiple offenders. Drunk drivers involved in fatal accidents deemed as manslaughter face up to seven years’ jail instead of three years at present.

Drunk drivers in Shanghai already face the maximum penalties allowed by law. They could also be charged with the crime of “endangering public security by dangerous means,” which has happened in two cases in Chengdu, in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, and Foshan, in the southern Guangdong Province. Sun Weiming, who killed four people while drunk driving in Chengdu last December, has been jailed for life. Drunk driver Li Jingquan, who killed two people on September 16, 2006, in Foshan, was also imprisoned for life.
The national blitz from mid-August was sparked by an increase in alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

Posted on Wednesday, October 14th, 2009 at 7:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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There are many things to recommend about Rich Cohen’s elegiac paean to car salesman in The Believer, but this was one of those lines that, to my mind, fairly screamed off the page:

An early problem was how it spooked horses, which snorted and fled in terror before its engines—a problem not addressed until 1900, when the designer Uriah Smith attached an imitation horse head to the grille of his “Horseless Horsey Carriage,” which, he believed, would cause the pack animals to register the carriage as “friend.”

Posted on Tuesday, October 13th, 2009 at 9:08 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Your Baby and EZ-Pass

Daniel Pink points me to an interesting new study via NBER: “Traffic Congestion and Infant Health: Evidence from E-ZPass,” by Janet Currie and Reed Walker.

The abstract states:

This paper provides evidence of the significant negative health externalities of traffic congestion. We exploit the introduction of electronic toll collection, or E-ZPass, which greatly reduced traffic congestion and emissions from motor vehicles in the vicinity of highway toll plazas. Specifically, we compare infants born to mothers living near toll plazas to infants born to mothers living near busy roadways but away from toll plazas with the idea that mothers living away from toll plazas did not experience significant reductions in local traffic congestion. We also examine differences in the health of infants born to the same mother, but who differ in terms of whether or not they were “exposed” to E-ZPass. We find that reductions in traffic congestion generated by E-ZPass reduced the incidence of prematurity and low birth weight among mothers within 2km of a toll plaza by 10.8% and 11.8% respectively. Estimates from mother fixed effects models are very similar. There were no immediate changes in the characteristics of mothers or in housing prices in the vicinity of toll plazas that could explain these changes, and the results are robust to many changes in specification. The results suggest that traffic congestion is a significant contributor to poor health in affected infants. Estimates of the costs of traffic congestion should account for these important health externalities.

I’ve not read the paper yet (if anyone has a PDF I’d love to see), but one interesting question is whether this is longitudinal as well — were the rates tracked before and after the introduction of EZ-Pass? And would this vary depending upon the number of lanes that actually offer EZ-Pass (roughly half at most NYC-area toll plazas). A provocative thesis in any case, coming on the heels of David Owens’ interesting piece in the WSJ.

Congestion isn’t an environmental problem; it’s a driving problem. If reducing it merely makes life easier for those who drive, then the improved traffic flow can actually increase the environmental damage done by cars, by raising overall traffic volume, encouraging sprawl and long car commutes. A popular effort to curb rush-hour congestion, freeway entrance ramp meters, is commonly seen as good for the environment. But they significantly decrease peak-period travel times—by 10% in Atlanta and 22% in Houston, according to studies in those cities—and lead to increases in overall vehicle volume. In Minnesota, ramp metering increased overall traffic volume by 9% and peak volume by 14%. The increase in traffic volume was accompanied by a corresponding increase in fuel consumption of 5.5 million gallons.

One thing I’d be curious to know about the papers Owens’ cites is whether the introduction of ramp metering simply brought more vehicles back to the metered-facility, and away from other roads they may have been traveling on (perhaps those were covered in the “overall vehicle volume,” but it typically seems smaller roads are not as well measured in those terms compared to highways).

Posted on Tuesday, October 13th, 2009 at 7:36 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Transportation Fact of the Day (Mouse Edition)

At a conference this weekend, a Disney logistics guy told me that the number of buses Disney operates to ferry visitors around the Magic Kingdom would, if it were a municipal system, make it the 21st largest in the U.S. (Not to mention those other 20 cities don’t have monorails).

Posted on Monday, October 12th, 2009 at 10:15 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Food Network

Architect Carolyn Steel illustrates the fascinating, overlooked, and evolving nexus of urbanism, transportation, and … food. Of particular interest is the link between street names and their food connotation; e.g., London’s Friday Street was so named because of a Friday fish market.

Posted on Saturday, October 10th, 2009 at 1:24 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Mode Shift

Via the Sydney Morning Herald:

With the advent of high-speed trains, rail travel in Europe has become so popular that some intercity flight routes are being cancelled.

Why would you fly from London to Paris, for example, and tackle Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle airport check ins plus security when you can catch a high-speed train that lands you right in the centre of town?

Now about 90 per cent of people travel by Eurostar between these two cities.

And there’s no longer any flights on the Paris-Brussels route. Many now also go by train between London and Brussels.

Posted on Saturday, October 10th, 2009 at 9:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Black Cars of the Guardia Civil

I came across this interesting passage in Tim Falconer’s book Drive:

Ford made and sold the Falcon in the United States until 1970, but the car had an even longer and more successful life in other parts of the world, where many saw it as a mid-sized model. In Australia, it remains the company’s best-seller. And in Argentina, the Falcon was not just the most-produced car, with half a million built between 1962 and 1991, but also a hugely important one culturally. The Falcon was a racing car, a family car, a taxi, a police car—and, from 1976 to 1983, a sinister symbol of the country’s military dictatorship and the so-called ‘Dirty War’ that the generals who ruled after the coup d’etat waged against their own people. Death squads used dark green Falcons to ‘disappear’ trade unionists, artists, students and anyone else who might oppose or question the junta. Since the squads illegally arrested, tortured or killed an estimated thirty thousand people, the car now stirs bitter emotions for many Argentines. (Lawrence Thornton’s 1988 novel Imagining Argentina does a hauntingly good job of capturing the ominous mood those dark green birds of prey created.) Even today, some people in Buenos Aires won’t get into a taxi if it’s a Falcon, and a tour operator in the northern city of Salta, who would have been just four or five when the dictatorship crumbled, told me, ‘I don’t like it when I see a Ford Falcon, I get bad memories.’

I wonder if any other car brands through the years have acquired a such an unwitting negative political and cultural connotation, at least among a certain part of the population. The “black cars” of the title seem a staple (and vis a vis the “secret police” there is an irony in their driving around in unmarked cars that became almost more conspicuous in their lack of marking); Stalin was shuttled around for a time in a black Packard (and people were always said to be seeing Stalin on the street; “God came driving by in five black automobiles,” went a line from a Soviet poet of the day). The Citroen Traction Avant (in black) was favored by the Gestapo. I imagine there was a certain Trabant (or Mercedes) favored by the Stasi, a Lada by the KGB, etc., and I’ve no idea what the SAVAK drove. But I’m curious if anyone knows of any examples of particular car makes that in and of themselves became a dreaded sight, a vehicle of repression?

Posted on Saturday, October 10th, 2009 at 9:33 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:

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



October 2009

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