Archive for May, 2010

Too We Tolerate Too Many Traffic Deaths?

Presumably with the Memorial Day weekend upon us (though I’ve cautioned against the “holiday traffic deaths story” before) The New York Times “Room for Debate” section has opened this question to a number of people, including myself. I won’t spoil the suspense, but you can read it here.

But that’s all I’ll say for now, as I’m about to (very safely) drive away for the weekend. Stay tuned on Tuesday, however, for the debut of “The Hive” project at Slate, to which I’ll be hoping you contribute.

Posted on Friday, May 28th, 2010 at 9:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Reader David sends in this reminder, via Failblog, that even the best systems cannot account for the behavior of every last driver.

Posted on Thursday, May 27th, 2010 at 9:32 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Motorway Sightseeing

Joe Moran writes about a book called What’s That Over There?, a travel guide for the English motorway system:

I hadn’t come across Noel’s book before but it forms part of a long if sporadic tradition of motorway sightseeing. Margaret Baker’s 1968 handbook Discovering M1 was the first ever ‘glove-compartment guide to the motorway and the places of interest that can be seen from it,’ written for car passengers and ‘arranged for easy assimilation at around 60mph’. It valiantly listed visual highlights like the radio aerials at Daventry, the granite rocks of Charnwood Forest and the medieval ridge-and-furrow fields near Crick. The vogue for motorway sightseeing enjoyed a brief revival more recently with the motorway sights guides written by Mike Jackson, a director of location shots for Antiques Roadshow, who got the idea for them while driving round the country with its then presenter, Michael Aspel. Jackson spent months travelling up and down the motorways, writing about landmarks like the Penrith factory where they make the dough balls for Domino’s pizzas and the globular salt barn on the M5 in Worcestershire known locally as the ‘Christmas pudding’.

According to Jackson’s M5 sights guide, it costs £1m a year to maintain a Moto service station, which means that each square metre of toilet area costs £2350 a year – and that’s at 2005 prices. Since the service stations are obliged by law to supply free toilets 24/7, you might think about this figure the next time you pause over the price of a Ginsters pasty in the service station shop. I am also indebted to Jackson for the information that traffic police on the M5 are rumoured to play a game called ‘motorway snooker’, which involves stopping a red car for speeding, then looking for another colour equivalent to the colours of snooker balls (ideally a black car, worth seven points) then another red, and so on until the highest break wins.

I think I’ve just figured out my summer vacation.

Posted on Thursday, May 27th, 2010 at 8:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Sorrows and Travails of India’s Autorickshaw Drivers

Over at The City Fix, I picked up some facts about urban autorickshaw drivers in India, via a study by Leslie Phillips and her team at the University of Texas:

It is more than 50% likely that a driver has a family of up to 8 people to support, and in order to do so, a driver works an average of 10-12 hours per day. Recent statistics from Delhi suggest that nearly 80% of auto rickshaw drivers rent their vehicles, and pay out roughly half of their daily revenue in rental fees.

They are socially distanced from the government and the manufacturers of their product:

While they are an integral part of transportation in almost every major Indian city, the auto rickshaw drivers are perceived as a nuisance to the system. The findings of our study corroborated this point: auto rickshaw drivers are a struggling population caught in a system where they are treated with utter disregard by the government and are often resented by their own customers. Most of the recent auto rickshaw reforms have been reactionary, as regulatory authorities and traffic police attempt to crack down on poor behavior (traffic violations, emissions) as opposed to implementing systemic reforms. Meanwhile, manufacturers generally do not perceive rickshaw drivers as their end client, but rather focus on the passenger when designing and positioning their vehicles. This has created a crucial disconnect in the auto rickshaw industry, where the very people who ultimately drive the success of the industry (the drivers) are left out of the process.

These pressures result in some unsavory practices (though this no doubt made for fascinating fieldwork):

While the interviews with randomly selected auto rickshaw drivers went relatively smoothly, the MBA group’s experience in India with the auto rickshaw drivers (what could be considered the “tourists’ perspective”) was the complete opposite. The majority of students who rode in auto rickshaws in Delhi and Bangalore were not given the option to use the fare meter but rather had to negotiate the fare from one destination to the next. Despite the agreed upon destination, drivers often took us to a different tourist location (commonly a souvenir shop) while still demanding to be paid. Many of our classmates speculated that there must be a kick-back for drivers who delivered tourists to these locations. Indeed, two auto rickshaw drivers who we interviewed revealed the details of the tourist payment scheme: If they succeed in bringing a group of tourists to a local shop, the driver will receive a two-liter gas coupon from either the owner of the shop or the “rickshaw boss.” A two-liter coupon is enough to keep a rickshaw tank full for at least a day and thus provides a strong incentive to break the agreed-upon route – and trust – with the tourist customer.

There’s hope yet for the drivers, with organizations like NyayaBhoomi, a cooperative that is “intended to create a brand image for auto-rickshaws by providing radio (call) auto-rickshaw service, improving driver behavior through training, instituting a formal fare collection system through GPS devices installed in vehicles, and creating an organized sector with employment benefits (i.e. insurance and pension policies, uniforms, regular vehicle maintenance) for drivers from revenues obtained through advertising.”

This advertising revenue would come from advertisements on the autorickshaws themselves, which already tend to be fairly well adorned, as the painted mudflaps below indicate (though, sadly, this is a somewhat fading art form, replaced by sticker-based art, or none at all).

Posted on Thursday, May 27th, 2010 at 8:16 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Crashes and Standard of Living

In an article from the New Scientist from 1972, I came across this interesting little note:

“In the US a recent survey demonstrated how serious can be the social consequences [of a serious injury from a road crash]: half of the severely injured in one year were forced permanently to lower their living standards.”

I don’t know what the survey was and the exact mechanism used in gauging living standards but the finding is striking; it also points to something that is often overlooked in road safety, which tends to emphasize fatalities — the consequences of non-fatal crashes.

Posted on Wednesday, May 26th, 2010 at 11:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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And You Don’t Stop!

The stop sign column has occasioned a variety of interesting responses, including this visual piece from reader Tony which, needless to say, presents a mixed message.

Posted on Wednesday, May 26th, 2010 at 10:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Man Who Cycled the Americas

One of those minor irritants about living in the U.S., apart from the increasing prevalent of hipsters with pit bulls on my local streets (“there are no bad breeds, only bad owners,” yeah, still, you ever hear of a fatal pug attack?) is lack of easy access to things on the BBC. Like this. I mean, we can’t even watch the preview videos?

Posted on Tuesday, May 25th, 2010 at 12:02 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Stopping Occasions

After a brief hiatus, my latest Slate column, in which I consider the humble stop sign (and its discontents), is up.

Also, please watch this space, as well as Slate itself, for the imminent launch of a project (working title: “The Nimble City”), which will solicit hive mind solutions to improving urban mobility in the 21st century — and which yours truly will write about and oversee.

Posted on Tuesday, May 25th, 2010 at 11:06 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Externally Speaking

Charles Komanoff gets a deserved star turn in this month’s Wired, courtesy of Felix Salmon.

In the end, Komanoff found that every car entering the CBD causes an average of 3.23 person-hours of delays. Multiply that by $39.53—a weighted average of vehicles’ time value within and outside the CBD—and it turns out that the average weekday vehicle journey costs other New Yorkers $128 in lost time. At last, urban planners could say just how big the externalities associated with driving are, knowing that the number was backed up with solid empirical analysis.

Posted on Tuesday, May 25th, 2010 at 8:28 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Now That’s What I Call Vertical Deflection

For your late Friday perusal, via Gawker, apparently rogue asparagus are causing havoc on the streets in Hokkaido, Japan. I’ll leave the punchlines to you (this is almost like a photographic version of the New Yorker cartoon contest).

Posted on Friday, May 21st, 2010 at 1:09 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)

The first thing that jumps out in this piece is the identification of the victim as “homeless.” A subtle detail, or some kind of implied pejorative — hmm, maybe he was one of those crazy guys you see wandering willy-nilly across the street, and perhaps he was asking for it. Can you imagine the headline: McMansion Owner Struck and Killed by Car in Santa Barbara?

The victim had already been struck by a car before — the driver was cited with failure to yield — but the circumstances here beggar belief:

Castillo, according to McCaffrey, told investigators that he thought the man would clear the intersection before he drove through, but wound up striking the victim with the right front of his car. The victim was reportedly swept up onto the hood of the vehicle before falling to the pavement.

Yes, it’s always a good idea, when approaching an elderly pedestrian, to continue at speed in a multi-ton vehicle towards someone crossing in a crosswalk, owing to your own faith in your driving abilities and your estimation of their walking speed. There’s certainly nothing that can go wrong there, unless, oops, you have an “accident.”

Posted on Thursday, May 20th, 2010 at 9:21 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Approaching Zero

After my post on the 14 mph speed limit sign in Orlando, reader Phil was moved to send in this photo, taken from a parking lot in Austin, Tx.

How low can we go? Anyone got a 2 mph? A one?

Posted on Thursday, May 20th, 2010 at 8:23 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Crowded Rush-Hour Roads in Utrecht

Via Donald Shoup. I could watch this stuff all day. Not a helmet in sight.

Posted on Thursday, May 20th, 2010 at 8:16 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Bike Tolls on the Triborough

With some out-of-town visitors to entertain, my destination yesterday was (where else!) the MTA’s Transit Museum. There I noticed a small detail that had escaped my notice prior — i.e., the presence of bike tolls on the Triborough Bridge. Can any transpo geeks out there enlighten us as to any more details about this? What was bike traffic like across the bridge when it opened? Was there a special toll booth, or did cyclists merge into a car lane? When was the toll scrapped? And for that matter, when did the (little-observed) policy of cyclists walking their bikes across the bridge(s) come into being?

Posted on Wednesday, May 19th, 2010 at 3:13 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘It eliminates all diversions, it eliminates all emotions’

Tom Farrant is a photographer in the U.K. who’s been documenting the experience of people in the peculiar form of private space in public; i.e., interiors of cars (viewers of Jacques Tati’s Traffic may recall his montages of a similar variety). The above is a photomontage taken from English motorways. What’s striking, apart from the rather blank (verging to unhappy) expression on most people’s faces, is how many turn to look at the camera (that old “sense of being stared at” trope).

I also couldn’t help think of the song by Black Box Recorder:

The English motorway system is beautiful and strange
It’s been there forever, it’s never going to change
It eliminates all diversions, it eliminates all emotions
(All you got to do to stay alive is drive)

Posted on Monday, May 17th, 2010 at 9:16 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘The People’s Way’ in Ahmedabad

For an excellent case study of incredibly thoughtful and detail-oriented transportation planning — see a few of the details below — I recommend this dispatch by Meena Kadri, reporting from Ahmedabad, in the Indian state of Gujarat.

On board the buses the most applauded feature is the provision of at-grade boarding — a hallmark of the best BRT systems, whereby passengers enter and exit buses at raised station platforms, without having to climb or descend stairs. Not only does this improve accessibility for the elderly, challenged and very young; it’s also been hailed as a plus point by many saree-clad female passengers. The span of income groups using the service is immediately evident and signals one of the BRT’s biggest impacts in Ahmedabad. Even motorists are being lured by the efficiency of Janmarg. Raju Schroff, who owns a local factory, now takes the bus to work. As a result, he says, “My daily commuting time has been more than halved, and I arrive at work calm rather than hassled from being stuck in traffic.” Jagu Desai, a tribal laborer, affirms her appreciation of its speed and comfort, and she seems pleased that her views were as much of interest to me as Schroff’s. Voice announcements and LED displays in both Gujarati and English — also a new feature for public transport in the city — are appreciated by the diverse passengers. As bus operator Panchal Kirti reports: “Not only can deaf people watch and blind people listen but people who can’t read are not excluded from being informed. So everyone on board can relax till their destination is announced.”

Ahmedabad’s comprehensive planning has pushed well past the mere concept of BRT — right through to encouraging physical resilience and solidarity amongst bus operators. Driver Jintendra Patel recalls that the two-month training included daily yoga sessions. “Yoga helps maintain calm and focus while driving,” he says, “and it counters the back problems that develop from sitting for long periods.”

Posted on Monday, May 17th, 2010 at 8:38 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Fallacy of Speed and Emergency Response

One of the oft-cited complaints about any sort of traffic calming treatment (speed bumps, narrowing streets, etc. etc.) is ‘what about emergency response?’ This has become something of a knee-jerk response, and it’s said with such seeming authority that it seems impolite, at the very least, to question it, even if it means we allow our local streets to become a source of daily unpleasantness and danger to accommodate what are statistically very rare needs (and there has been some good work on so-called “emergency response friendly” traffic calming).

After all, what individual, when questioned, wouldn’t intuitively want to be whisked to the hospital as fast as possible, or have fire crews sent racing to their house with minimal delay? I began thinking differently on this topic after meeting Nadine Levick at a traffic conference last fall. Over lunch, Nadine, a tireless crusader on a subject outside of most people’s purview, noted to me, according to one survey, riding in an ambulance, per mile, was one of the most dangerous things a person can do. And not simply because of, as you might imagine, clueless drivers not noticing an ambulance blazing through an intersection — but often because of unsafe actions by drivers themselves, as well as alarmingly substandard ambulance design (ambulances are not regulated by NHTSA for the crash protection of the occupants in the back; she’s got loads of horrific slides of the “boxes” having flown off the vehicle in a crash, and I’d urge you to otherwise delve into the site). The underlying sense I got from her was that of a sort of macho heroic undertone to emergency response, albeit shot through with the best of intentions, to get to or from the emergency with greatest possible haste — damn the consequences.

In any case, I thought of this again today thanks to an excellent article at Slate, by two medical personnel, that points out something that Levick was getting it: Despite the notion we may have that lives are at stake and a delay of a few minutes will be the crucial difference (isn’t it better for the speeding up to happen at the hospital end, or to work on better preventative and monitoring measures?), it turns out, as the authors note, “not to be backed up by good science’; and, what’s more, as they note, the risks taken in fast transport (to those outside the vehicle as well) may exceed whatever medical benefits are gained.

Posted on Wednesday, May 12th, 2010 at 2:09 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Volvo’s Auto-Braking System Fails; Human Error Blamed

Via Drive.

Posted on Wednesday, May 12th, 2010 at 9:54 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Holy Failure to Yield!

Geez, it seems drivers won’t even stop to let the Lord Jesus Christ cross the street.

(thanks David)

Posted on Monday, May 10th, 2010 at 1:59 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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14 MPH

In Orlando recently, out at a resort complex in the Disney-sphere, I saw a sign that caused me to do a bit of a double-take: 14 MPH.

I couldn’t recall ever having seen one of these before, though as the photo above — not the sign I saw — indicates, it’s not the only one.

Anyone know the origins of this peculiar sign? The 14 MPH seems like a weird translation from KPH, or is it intended to gain attention by sheer novelty? Does 14 represent some benchmark of safety above and beyond 15?

Also strange is that the sign was a rather normal suburban office-park/hotel complex like environment, with fairly wide, smooth streets — certainly not the kind that seemingly beg for a speed that’s actually hard to consistently track on a speedometer. In other words, if the powers that be wanted people going that speed, they’re going to need more than just that sign, however eye-catching. Needless to say, the taxi I was in was going more than that.

Posted on Monday, May 10th, 2010 at 12:12 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:

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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



May 2010

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