Archive for January, 2010

‘My God, It’s Full of Stars!”

I can’t help but view the image above and think of 2001, with some impenetrable black slab tilted horizontally and laid upon the city. The sign, which comes from Toronto, has been the source of some puzzlement over its origin or purpose — maybe someone in actual authority can provide the final answer as to what this signage means and why it needs to be in place (although, I will admit, the sign gains in strange, mythic stature the less one knows about it). It seems to have something to do with plowing — and monolithic refers to its construction — but are sidewalks plowed by trucks? (and if it’s plowed in the way the above image suggests, wouldn’t that dump a bunch of snow on that very sidewalk?) Why only a monolithic sidewalk there, and not anywhere else? What’s a non-monolithic sidewalk called?

And as reader Bruce notes, the sign has even prompted a searching inquiry into self-effacing signage and Canadian national identity.

Posted on Friday, January 29th, 2010 at 11:23 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Rumble Strips and Risk Compensation

Reader Richard sends along a link to this article, from the Raleigh News and Observer, on distracted driving:

“Sometimes I will zone out and forget I’m driving,” said Tyler, 23. “If I’m on the phone talking about something that takes up all my focus, I’m looking straight ahead – but not even seeing what’s there.”

(as an aside you can read in depth about this phenomenon, and others, this spring). But to continue:

Her dad, Buckley Strandberg, worries that she will never curb her dangerous habit.

But Buckley, an insurance executive, confesses his own weakness for Blackberry and Bluetooth. He feels compelled to conduct business by phone and e-mail on long, lonely drives between his offices in Rocky Mount and Nags Head.

“That’s more than two hours,” said Buckley, 49. “I’m not just going to sit there in the car. I get a lot of work done on that straight, dead stretch of U.S. 64.

“And if I run off the road, there are rumble strips that divert me back onto the road. That has happened occasionally. They seem to work, those rumble strips.”

Apart from the irony of an insurance executive engaging in risky behavior (I suppose the A.I.G. fiasco showed that insurers are hardly immune from not properly anticipating risk), I was particularly intrigued by the last sentence in the excerpt.

I had long taken shoulder rumble strips (the so-called “Sonic Nap Alert Patterns” debuted on the Pennsylvania turnpike) as a passive, essentially invisible safety device that one would only become aware of in moments of emergency and wouldn’t actually influence one’s self-selected level of what they considered safe driving activity. In other words, people’s driving wouldn’t change simply because of the presence of rumble strips (unlike other forms of risk compensation, say, driving a vehicle in which one is seated higher), and that SNAPs made people safer without making them feel safer — an important distinction, to my mind, in traffic safety.

But I may have to reconsider this.

Posted on Friday, January 29th, 2010 at 11:18 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Abu Dhabi Street Design Manual

Writing that “previous design guidance was influenced by documents such as the AASHTO Green Book, which is inappropriate for urban streets where modes of transport other than the automobile are present,” Nelson/Nygaard has made available its Abu Dhabi Street Design Manual, which provides guidance to “design streets that create a safe environment for all users; transition from a vehicle-trip based society to a multimodal society; introduce fine-grained street networks into the existing super-block pattern.”

It is, they suggest, “perhaps one of the most progressive in the world.”

Judge for yourself here.

Posted on Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 at 10:10 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Hamilton-Baillie on ‘Shared Space’ in Ashford

The town of Ashford in the U.K. was one of the highest profile experiments in ‘shared space’ when it launched over a year ago. The changes, meant to reconnect the center (severed by a hostile ring road) and make the town feel more ‘town-like,’ were quite radical — removing signals, blurring formal notation of right of way — as well as drawn from more traditional traffic-calming approaches (special pavement treatments). The reaction ranged from skeptical to hostile (Jeremy Clarkson, whose opinion on anything but the braking ability of an E-Class Mercedes should be heeded with a yellow flag, predicted ‘millions’ would die).

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, one of the leads on the project (he appears in Traffic), has sent along a Q&A he did with a local paper on the status of the project after one year. Though such things need continual monitoring, the early prognosis is positive and a sign that fresh thinking in terms of the built environment and accommodating traffic can bring good results.

You can read what Ben had to say after the jump. (more…)

Posted on Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 at 8:21 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Myth of the Rational Voter

Via Infrastructurist:

The survey was done from June 30 through July 2, 2009, and involved 800 adults, with a +3.46% margin of error. And a whopping 60% of the respondents — Republican and Democrat alike — believe the federal gas tax is raised annually. Geographic location didn’t make much of a difference — 61% believed this incorrect statement in the Northeast, 58% in the South, 54% in the Midwest, and 67% in the West.

It was, of course, last raised in 1993.

Posted on Tuesday, January 26th, 2010 at 9:46 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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China, India, and Smeed

From the Guardian:

Last year road accidents claimed more than 130,000 lives, overtaking China, where fatalities have dropped to less than 90,000, and prompted a government review into traffic safety, which until now has been best summed up by local drivers as “good horns, good brakes, good luck”.

As Smeed pointed out long ago, this divergence is unfortunately predictable via economics; China’s GDP (per a quick Wolfram Alpha search) per capita is more than three times that of India — and presumably it has risen faster in the last few years, and has now surpassed the “break even” point where traffic fatalities now begin to decline, for a variety of reasons. The upward surge in India, as per Smeed, is accompanying a move towards increasing motorization and may signal the high-water mark of traffic fatalities (or so we can hope). And from limited personal experience, there is certainly something to be said for road design and infrastructure, which uniformly appeared to be superior in China. In the latter country, I saw men in uniforms sweeping roadsides of debris; in the former, I saw children sleeping there.

Posted on Tuesday, January 26th, 2010 at 8:57 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)

Via Biking Bis, credit the judge for not simply shrugging off another “accident” on the roads:

The text-messaging motorist who struck and killed his former high school teacher told the court: “This was not intentional. It was an accident. I’m so sorry.”

Clark County (Vancouver, Washington) Superior Court Judge Roger Bennett didn’t buy it.

“I’ve heard the term ‘accident’ used quite a bit today. But this was no accident.”

He then sentenced Antonio Cellestine, 18, to five years in prison after he pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and felony hit and run.

(Thanks Brian)

Posted on Monday, January 25th, 2010 at 8:37 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Parking Availability Bias’

Driving home from the Yale event last night (which was packed, and filled with all kinds of interesting traffic types, ranging from Norman Garrick to Anne Lutz Fernandez), as I was listening to various renditions of La Boheme on Doug Fox’s wonderful program (Mr. Fox, I didn’t catch the details on that second act), which I discovered for the first time, a warm presence amidst the eerie fog-tinged, arc-lighted Stygian gloom of I-95, I was thinking back to Donald Shoup’s reply to a question I had posed to him, which itself was related to Brian Pijanowski’s study of parking-lot sprawl in Indiana. Despite a huge and quantifiable overabundance of parking in the county he studied, he was interested to note that people still complained “there wasn’t enough parking.”

I asked Shoup, who of course from the groves of academe has helped ignite a quiet but fomenting revolution in parking policy, to what extent this question of perception in the parking equation had been studied or quantified — keeping in mind that perception is a crucial, if often under-appreciated part of the traffic/planning nexus (e.g., commute times, etc.). One part of Shoup’s answer stuck with me: He talked of studying a parking garage in West Hollywood. On the bottom floors, there were cars, and in the empty spaces, plenty of oil stains to indicate past users. On the upper floors, he noted, it looked as if the spaces had never been graced by a single car. And yet the word from drivers was that there was ‘nowhere to park.’ But the problem, Shoup noted, is that drivers’ perception parking supply is informed by the parking spaces they can actually see. Call it “parking availability bias” (ode to Tversky and Kahneman). And the spaces that are most easily seen, of course, are curb spaces, hence the importance of rational market pricing policies to ensure turnover and vacancy. A few empty spaces (15%) can go a long way.

This perception is a powerful force and leads cities into all kinds of policies that turn out to be misguided and rife with unintended consequences; take the “free holiday parking” approach. Towns hoping to lure shoppers downtown, away from the big boxes, offer up free parking. But beware the power of incentives: Given that many of the best parking spaces in front of local businesses are often occupied (it happens right here in Brooklyn) by the store keepers themselves, the free parking bonanza ends up actually enticing local employees (who would have parked elsewhere or not driven) to grab some free real estate for the day — leaving would-be shoppers with the perception (all-too-real in this case) that there’s ‘nowhere to park.’ Here’s how it went down in Providence.

This is a case where ITS may prove quite useful: Let the algorithms, not fallible human perception, guide the driver to the (properly priced) parking. In the meantime planners and politicians should take parking complaints with a healthy dose of salt.

Posted on Wednesday, January 20th, 2010 at 9:00 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Aesthetic Interchange

Reader Rich (sig?)-alerted me to this dispatch from Alissa Walker about an incredible piece of guerrilla wayfinding on the freeways of Los Angeles by artist Richard Ankrom, which lasted for the better part of a decade.

The curious denouement to the story is that the carefully pre-aged sign was taken down by CALTRANS, and then replaced with a “real” version. Ankrom was unable to locate his original, which has been turned into scrap metal destined for China.

Somehow this put me in mind of a recent line from Arthur Danto’s book on Andy Warhol, vis a vis the famous Brillo Boxes: “The challenge was to explain why Warhol’s box was art while its look-alike in common life was not.” (Danto thinks you cannot, hence pop art’s disruptive presence in the continuum of art history).

Perhaps it’s time for CALTRANS to institute an artist-in-residence program.

Posted on Monday, January 18th, 2010 at 2:06 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Consider the Yugo

My latest Slate column, a look at Jason Vuic’s new book about the Yugo, is up.

Posted on Monday, January 18th, 2010 at 10:51 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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As If Traffic In Moscow Wasn’t Bad Enough

Via the Moscow Times:

An enormous television screen showing a pornographic film caused a midnight traffic jam along Moscow’s Garden Ring Road as stunned motorists slammed on the brakes to gawk at the writhing naked bodies.

The owner of the 9-by-6-meter advertising screen said hackers had broken into the screen’s computer system and turned on the porn. “They were either acting out of hooliganism or were from a rival company,” Viktor Laptev, commercial director of advertising firm, told RIA-Novosti.

Authorities said they are investigating the incident, which lasted about 20 minutes. “Within three minutes we found it out, and within 15 minutes the screen was shut off,” said the deputy head of Moscow’s advertising committee, Alexander Menchuk, Interfax reported.

I can’t help be reminded of one of James Howard Kunstler’s favorite words: Clusterfuck.

Posted on Monday, January 18th, 2010 at 9:10 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Word of 2009: Distracted Driving

In case you missed it (I actually did, being more or less on holiday), Webster’s chose “distracted driving” as the word of 2009.

And here’s Leonard Evans on the subject:

Driving while distracted is not like drunk driving — it is far worse.

The victims of drunk driving are overwhelmingly the drunk drivers themselves, and their usually similarly drunk passengers. The majority of drunk driver deaths occur in single-vehicle crashes in the “wee small hours” when most people are asleep.

In stark contrast, the victims of distracted driving are in all too many cases random road users behaving responsibly. Sober drivers, for example, are responsible for 90 percent of the child pedestrians killed each year.

Posted on Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 at 2:01 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Drive-Through Parking

In my drive-through piece a while back, I speculated the numbers about drive-throughs somehow being environmentally superior to parking lots might be off for a number of reasons, including the idea that some drivers use the drive through and then park. In any case, I came across this curious sign that seems to connote just that behavior, rather paradoxically.

Posted on Tuesday, January 12th, 2010 at 10:10 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Up at Yale

Calling New Haven-ites (New Havinians?): I will be appearing in a talk with the estimable Donald Shoup next week at Yale University.

Posted on Tuesday, January 12th, 2010 at 10:02 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Psychological Traffic Calming on Lake Shore Drive: Some Results

I’ve written here before about the transverse bars — which get closer to one another as the driver approaches a curve — installed on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive to help ameliorate a crash hot spot where traditional signs and the like didn’t seem to be having much effect (for the primary reason that Chicago drivers seem to treat LSD like an Interstate highway facility). A discussion I had with CDOT some time ago seemed to reveal some early promise in the treatment, but now, the Nudge blog reports, some actual hard data is in, and the results are encouraging:

According to an analysis conducted by city traffic engineers, there were 36 percent fewer crashes in the six months after the lines were painted compared to the same 6-month period the year before (September 2006 – March 2007 and September 2005 – March 2006).

To see if it could make the road even safer, the city installed a series of overhead flashing beacons, yellow and black chevron alignment signs, and warning signs posting the reduced advisory speed limit. Again, accidents fell – 47 percent over a 6-month period (March 2007 – August 2007 and March 2006 – August 2006). Keep in mind that the post-six-month period effect included both the signs and the lines.

The more treatments the better is one conclusion to be drawn here, but the 36 percent reduction achieved with just the paint, without the added expense of the flashing signs, etc., is striking.

Posted on Monday, January 11th, 2010 at 6:50 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Choosing Sides

Via Nudge, a small rental-car reminder of road directionality for tourists (the reversion to old norms is an actual risk issue, one that presumably can supplant the heightened sense of awareness due to a new environment).

The comparison here is of course to London’s street warnings to “look right,” etc.; I’ve often wondered about any before-after numbers (though they’ve been in London for many decades, no?) about their effectiveness as, for example, other places with left-side directionality don’t feature the warnings.

Posted on Saturday, January 9th, 2010 at 8:22 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Where the Rubber Hits the Road

This line intrigued me from Greg Grandin’s superb Fordlandia, about Henry Ford’s quest — almost Herzogian — to build a clean-living, soy-eating company town in the Amazon, a sort of subtropical Pullman:

“Manaus is famous for its hulking Amazonas Theater, an opera house built of Italian marble and surrounded by roads made of rubber so the carriage clatter of late arrivals wouldn’t interrupt the voices of Europe’s best tenors and sopranos.”

Posted on Friday, January 8th, 2010 at 6:32 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Notes from a Cold Country

Ian Sacs on the Finns’ approach to snow on streets:

Very snowy holiday greetings from Finland, everyone! While here visiting my in-laws and friends, I wanted to take a quick moment and share an interesting observation about the way Finns handle the incessant layers of snow that blanket their chilly winter country. It seems that aside from limited access highways and some primary arterials, the Finnish standard for snow treatment is to plow to a reasonable depth, but not worry too much about an inch or two of snow base layer covering streets. Some streets get sand treatment as well, but salt is used very, very sparingly.

The result? Careful, responsible, sensible, slow moving traffic that does not take any chances – even on exit ramps! As we all know, the problem with salting is that it is a relentless maintenance effort and results in tons of unwanted salts polluting our waterways. Also, driver expectations for clean, black streets opens the door for many accidents in weather hovering near freezing where seemingly clear streets are covered with so-called “black ice”, unbeknownst to drivers traveling at merely wet (as opposed to frozen) street speeds. This can be confusing and dangerous. With black streets, the message is unclear and covers too broad a set of conditions to always expect drivers to travel at frozen street speeds. With white, snow covered streets, the message is unquestionably clear: Drive Slow! I have been happily observing on my various trips on buses, trams, and in cars here in Helsinki and other regional cities how this likely unintended side-effect of a more practical and environmentally friendly approach to winter roadway maintenance works so well, and offers a beautiful white street to boot!

As promising as this seems, I am of course skeptical about such a policy stateside. As is the case when we attempt to implement other sensible transportation measures from Europe, we often run into the wall of the polar oppisite legal framework whereby in Europe, the onus is on the individual to take proper care in any enviroment, whereas in the States, it´s always someone else’s fault. Alas!

I wonder if that “base layer” has any effect on gas/oil accumulating on streets, which as work by Harvard’s Daniel Eisenberg has shown, is the real source of increased danger — the first day of precipitation after a dry spell. Any DOT workers just back from plowing care to weigh in on the Finnish approach?

Posted on Tuesday, January 5th, 2010 at 8:45 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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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



January 2010

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