Archive for July, 2010

Dude, Where’s Your Car?

I’m currently holed up on Cape Cod, doing little more than eating fried clam rolls and reading Philip Hoare’s thunderously good book The Whale, hence the silence around these parts (save for a quick appearance on WBUR to talk about my Boston Globe piece, “Trooper Down”).

But just a quick note to say my latest Slate column is up; it’s on how people without cars, or who don’t drive, are depicted in Hollywood films, and many of the ideas came from your good submissions to my earlier blog post. So thanks, and I’ll be back next week.

Posted on Friday, July 30th, 2010 at 11:48 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Trooper Down

Over at the Boston Globe’s “Ideas” Section, I consider a recent spate of cases in which police were struck by cars as they conducted traffic stops.

Posted on Sunday, July 25th, 2010 at 7:57 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)

I couldn’t help but notice, reading about the tragic case of Aileen McKay-Dalton, which the NYPD has made — per usual — an absolute hash of, this early dispatch in the New York Daily News. The most charitable thing we might say about it was that it was a rush job.

Even though the article later notes that police were still investigating which of the two drivers ran the red light — and it now appears it was the SUV driver, who witnesses also say was speeding — the piece still frames the bulk of the article as to cast the burden of suspicion on McKay-Dalton. Calling it a “Vespa accident,” as if she somehow skidded out of control, the article then notes “McKay-Dalton was riding west on DeKalb Ave. when she collided with a 2005 Ford Explorer driving north on Clinton Ave., police said.” So even though the same article notes that police at that point didn’t know which driver had run the light, the construction of the sentence subtly attributes culpability to McKay-Dalton: “she collided with,” rather than, “she was struck by.”

Posted on Wednesday, July 21st, 2010 at 7:41 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)

The mayor of L.A. is cut off by a taxi; it’s “his accident.”

I particularly enjoyed the rather abstract language near the bottom.

The LAPD issued a directive instructing officers that a motorist can be held responsible for causing a bicycle accident even if he or she did not make direct contact with the rider — and can be arrested for fleeing the scene, Box said.

In other words, striking a bike with your car is “causing a bicycle accident.”

(thanks Peter)

Posted on Monday, July 19th, 2010 at 2:21 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Hoboken’s Corner Cars

I was intrigued by Hoboken’s Corner Cars program — essentially a Zipcar style car-sharing program, albeit with even more direct car access — as I had written a bit about here before, so when New York Times “City Critic” Ariel Kaminer said she was going to check it out, I gladly hopped along for the ride (and, maybe it was just lucky timing or something, but I traveled by subway/PATH train from Brooklyn to Hoboken and was there shockingly quickly, even in this age of diminishing service, with no need to brave the city’s legendarily bad parking, pay the tolls, risk my life to NYC’s quantifiably substandard drivers — three cheers for transit!). One interesting question raised by the article (and please note that’s the NYT identifying me as a “traffic expert,” not me — though who isn’t a traffic expert in this town?) is the psychic hurdle of getting people to move past car ownership (in an area, ironically, where many people rent their houses):

There is another obstacle to car sharing in New York, perhaps the biggest of all. Given the paucity of street parking, the expense of garage parking, the traffic, the insurance costs and the toll to vehicle and psyche, New York car owners who aren’t motivated by true need must be motivated by some very strong force of will. So strong, perhaps, that it is impervious to reason. Is there any dollars-and-cents argument that could persuade New York’s discretionary drivers to give up their cars?

“I asked that question back when I was in city government in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Sam Schwartz, the transportation engineer who was once New York’s deputy commissioner of transportation. “In the ’80s we did several focus groups and we tried to find out what made them drive. And a very common theme is that they felt they were smarter than the people down in the tube. They’re the Brahmins. They deserve it.” He added, “I never heard of it anywhere else.”

Not to mention the endowment effect; i.e., once people own something, they feel it’s more valuable than before (even if, of course, the very value plummets the moment you drive the new car off the lot). One question for such programs, and the reason some people buy a car to begin with, is the issue of peak demand for weekends — it’s hard for a spontaneous lets-go-apple-picking trip when all the cars have been rented weeks in advance. And I’m not sure what to do about the alternate-side problem. That’s as intractable as the sabbath, or some force of nature.


Posted on Saturday, July 17th, 2010 at 4:59 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Crosswalks on Van Brunt

Getting local for a moment, very local, as I’m right off Van Brunt at the moment, this article — about a lack of crosswalks on Van Brunt Street — is a bit odd.

The only crosswalks that span the increasingly busy Van Brunt Street are at Sullivan, Wolcott and Bowne streets. That leaves about a half-mile stretch with no absolutely crosswalks, that familiar cross-hatching pattern that alerts drivers of that pedestrians are likely to be present.

In other parts of the country, drivers may actually stop at marked crosswalks — as the law actually requires — but in NYC, marked crosswalks (sans stop sign or traffic light) are quite rare; probably because no driver actually stops at them, which is my experience on Van Brunt. They certainly don’t seem to influence driver behavior, based on the ridiculous approach speeds of outer-borough drivers headed to Fairway.

I’m not a fan of putting in traffic signals for the sake of it, but that seems to me the only chance of bringing some order — and chances for non-harried pedestrian crossing — to Van Brunt, which by rough calculation must be one of the longest — and most populated — streets in NYC, with hardly any traffic signals.

Posted on Friday, July 16th, 2010 at 10:08 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Finger

There is the suggestion that poetry is underrepresented on this blog. Hence I give you:

The Finger
by Charles Bukowski

the drivers of automobiles
have very little recourse or
when upset with
they often give him the

I have seen two adult
florid of face
driving along
giving each other the

well, we all know what
this means, it’s no

still, this gesture is
so overused it has
lost most of its

some of the men who give
the FINGER are captains of
industry, city councilmen,
insurance adjusters,
accountants and/or the just plain
no matter.
it is their favorite

people will never admit
that they drive

the FINGER is their

I see grown men
FINGERING each other
throughout the day.

it gives me pause.
when I consider
the state of our cities,
the state of our states,
the state of our country,
I begin to

the FINGER is a mind-
we are the FINGERERS.
we give it
to each other.
we give it coming and
we don’t know how
else to respond.

what a hell of a way
to not

“The Finger” by Charles Bukowski, from Bone Palace Ballet. © Black
Sparrow Press, 2002

(thanks Dan)

Posted on Thursday, July 15th, 2010 at 2:02 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Nimble Cities: Wrapping Up

All the votes have been tallied, the loose chads swept off the floor, and “Nimble Cities,” the latest in Slate’s “Hive” series, has drawn to a close.

Check it out here, and thanks to those of you who voted/submitted ideas.

Posted on Thursday, July 15th, 2010 at 1:05 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Why not get a boat and come to Australia?’

OK, I’m coming by plane, but I couldn’t help but think of that Kinks song. But Antipodean readers who may be in Perth, Canberra, and possibly Sydney — I’ll be coming your way in late August/early September. But do drop a line if it seems our paths will cross, or if you have any recommendations for those towns.

Posted on Wednesday, July 14th, 2010 at 1:12 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Negative Energy and Road Crashes

Admittedly, when I think about pyramids and road safety, I tend to think of Heinrich’s triangle, or the so-called ‘incident pyramid.”

That phrase is taking on a whole new meaning in Nagpur, India, however.

Traffic officers in Nagpur, 870km west of Mumbai, have agreed to allow small pyramids to be placed at 10 accident-prone sites in the city to see if their claimed positive energy can reduce crashes.

Deputy Commissioner of Police (Traffic) Sahebrao Patil said the road safety initiative came about after a meeting with an expert in Vastu, an ancient Hindu system of construction which is similar to Chinese Feng Shui.

“He told me that he had placed a number of pyramids on roads outside the city and the results were excellent.The number of accidents reduced. He wanted to do it in the city, so I said, ‘OK, no problem’,” Mr Patil said.

“He’s going to be installing them in 10 spots. They won’t be on the road directly but at the corner of chowks (squares) or near traffic signals so they won’t obstruct traffic.”

While I personally have no belief in negative energy, reincarnation, the Rapture, etc. etc., I am interested in the possible “placebo” effects the pyramids may instill in those believing drivers who drive by — similar to what Freakonomics dubbed the “Hindu traffic nudge”; religious shrines erected at crash hotspots near Simla (a version of the crash memorials erected the world over). And, after all, things could hardly get worse on Indian roads — so what’s the harm in a little positive energy?

(thanks Alan)

Posted on Wednesday, July 14th, 2010 at 1:06 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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For Love Knows No Bounds of Age Nor Speed

Via the Herald Tribune (Australia):

AN elderly hoon driver has vowed to keep getting behind the wheel – even if her licence is revoked.

But police, who intercepted 81-year-old Judith Slade driving at 164km/h on Monday afternoon, will apply to have her grounded permanently.

(thanks Matthew)

Posted on Tuesday, July 13th, 2010 at 5:20 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Narrow Cars, Smart Buses, and Bike Centers at Transit Hubs

The three leading vote-getters at the Nimble Cities project, explained.

Posted on Tuesday, July 13th, 2010 at 5:04 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Conveyor City

Over at the Slate Nimble Cities project, I discuss the suggestion from a few readers to install moving walkways in cities (as it turns out, an old idea).

Posted on Monday, July 12th, 2010 at 7:11 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“Leave Your Car in the Garage”

Trawling through some real estate brokerage sites, typically in fairly dense small towns and pre-war suburbs, a refrain keeps catching my eye: “Leave your car in the garage.” The listing will then note the proximity to trains, schools, etc. I’m not sure who first came up with this rallying cry — and based on what I’ve seen in some of these towns (pedestrians being mostly people moving to and from their cars) I wonder if it might be more real-estate bluster than anything else — i.e., the potential of walking is there, as is the potential for the great room to be great and the massive chef’s kitchen to produce fare worthy of Grant Achatz, but in the end this potential gives way to some real or imagined vehicular reality (I need to get groceries, it’s just easier). But I can’t say I’ve ever seen a real estate ad that promised: “Take your car out of the garage, often!”

Posted on Tuesday, July 6th, 2010 at 8:11 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Tidal Flow in Bogotá

I found myself on the carerra septima this afternoon in Bogotá just shy of 5 p.m. (having just consumed a wonderful dish of la posta negra de Cartagena at the Club Colombia, watched the Netherlands defeat Uruguay, and had a cup of tea from coca leaves to counter the effects of altitude sickness — it seemed to do the trick). In any case Carerra 7 is one of the city’s principle arteries, multiple lanes divided by an island. At 5 p.m., though, something curious happens on this street: It turns into a massive one-way boulevard out of the city, and towards the north. This is an old and much-discussed idea — contraflow lanes — one that was practiced briefly in cities like Los Angeles and made a splash recently in emergency management circles for mass disaster evacuations.

But it was striking to see it in action. At just the stroke of 5 our car was still on 7, and there was already a small stream of vehicles beginning to seep across from the other lane. Their movement was cautious, exploratory, with the first vehicles coming across employing their hazard flashers. Their numbers began to surge, and it was immediately evident that staying on 7 was not prudent. There were one or two traffic police scattered about, and there are signs advising of the change, but one got the sense this was just a bit of ingrained civic behavior, as routine as the clock itself.

Posted on Tuesday, July 6th, 2010 at 7:05 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Retrofitting Suburbia

I’m wondering if the new development pattern in the Lakewood scheme is having any effects on transportation (i.e., what’s the VMT of people living in Belmar versus others)? And on the subject don’t miss the National Academies podcast (and paper), “Driving and the Built Environment.”

(Thanks Michael)

Posted on Tuesday, July 6th, 2010 at 8:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Does Religion Influence Road Safety?

The conclusion of the study is that being a Catholic country or not seems to be as important as being a wealthy country or not. Being a non-wealthy Catholic country leads to more traffic and hence more motor vehicle accident deaths than being a wealthy Catholic country. Being a wealthy Catholic country, however, does seem to lead to more previous traffic term accidents than being a wealthy non-Catholic country.

That’s from: K. Melinder, “Socio-cultural characteristics of high versus low risk societies regarding road traffic safety,” (2007) Safety Science, 45 (3), pp. 397-414.

Posted on Tuesday, July 6th, 2010 at 7:45 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Shady Side of Transportation

Over at KCRW’s Design and Architecture, Francis Anderton considers a part of the built environment often overlooked in transportation questions: Shade. It is remarked that trees in Los Angeles are placed to provide shade for cars, not people walking on sidewalks.

Posted on Tuesday, July 6th, 2010 at 7:34 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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From an interesting post at CSV, via Marginal Revolution:

This phenomenon, where improved safety spurs on greater risk taking, is known as risk compensation, or “risk homeostasis”. Most of us became familiar with the concept from debates over anti-lock brakes (ABS), but its specter has plagued nearly every attempt to improve automotive safety, from seat belts to night vision. Yet almost nothing about risk compensation – its etiology, its prevalence, its significance – is certain.

To prove the phenomenon even exists, one particularly inspired British researcher had volunteers ride bicycles on a closed course, with half the people wearing helmets and proper attire, and the other half clad in their underwear. Graduate students positioned on the sidelines graded the volunteers performance and tallied any unsafe maneuvers. The results showed that the unclothed group practiced much safer driving habits, thereby supporting risk compensation theory – and Britain’s reputation for eccentricity.”

Posted on Tuesday, July 6th, 2010 at 7:31 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Carless in Hollywood

I finally got around to seeing Greenberg the other night, and I’ll reserve commentary on the film save for one aspect that intrigued me: The idea that the eponymous character, just coming out of a breakdown and drifting through life, does not drive. He did at one point, it seems, but after moving to New York, his license seemed to lapse (this town will do that to you). This becomes the subject of more than one joke in the film (watch Greenberg the pedestrian struggling through vehicular L.A., watch him be emasculated as he asks a woman to drive him, etc.).

It left me wondering: What other films have use car-less-ness, or a non-ability to drive, as an occasion for some kind of scorn, pity, laughable contempt or outright comedy? Has non-driving ever been presented admirably in a film?

Posted on Monday, July 5th, 2010 at 7:14 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



July 2010

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