Archive for August, 2010

The Zipper Merge and Civil Society

Jon Stewart talking to Drew Barrymore:

JS: To me, the hallmark of civilization, and I believe this on its core foundational level, is the every-other-car merge at tunnels…

DB: Well, they don’t let you anymore, they have cones that say, like, don’t you dare.

JS: No, no, when you get up to that, and it’s like four cars, and it goes down to one. And everybody suddenly, no matter what, Jew, Muslim, gay, straight, black, white, it doesn’t matter, everybody just goes, ‘I’m next,’ ‘No, you’re next,’ ‘Please,’ and it’s like the zipper merge, and it really says, to me, this is why we don’t drink the same water we shit in anymore, because we are a civilized society. That’s my theory.


JS: Who the hell knows.

DB: I love you.

Posted on Tuesday, August 31st, 2010 at 9:38 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘A great deal of mischief occurs when people are in a rush.’

Just a quick note to point to this profile of Donald Redelmeier, who appears in Traffic, posted in the New York Times.

Sheer brilliance in the ending:

The idea came to him one day in a hallway at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine, where he had stopped to admire a century’s worth of class photos showing mostly white men.

“Some people might say, ‘What an old boys’ network,’ ” Dr. Redelmeier said. “But I thought, ‘My goodness, what a homogeneous population, akin to identical white mice, which thereby controls for all sorts of differences.’ ” Thus was born another Redelmeier classic.

Posted on Tuesday, August 31st, 2010 at 9:36 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Via The Register, a VW designer talks about self-driving cars:

Huhnke said that his group wanted to find out if drivers passengers in autonomous cars would feel safe: “If you have an autonomous car driving … do you trust your car? Do you really press the autopilot button and let the car drive you at 60 miles per hour?” So they conducted a study — and were surprised by the results.

“We created a car with a second steering wheel in the rear where the driver couldn’t see it,” he told his audience. “He or she pressed the autopilot button and thought the machine would really drive without human help. Someone drove in the rear seat without being recognized by her or him. Well, you couldn’t imagine: after a few seconds, they already took the newspaper and read the news articles. So they trusted already the machine, which was great.”

Huhnke’s group then pushed its luck: “We also initialized some emergency situations: ‘So please, go back to your steering wheel and take over, we need some help from you,’ and they did it. They put the newspaper back, and just controlled the car through the situation. Then what did they do? Immediately press the button and start it again — it was really amazing.”

The question, of course, from a human factors point of view, is how quickly the car can alert drivers to a particular emergency (and what the warning will be; either a vague “emergency” or the exact diagnosis), and how quickly they can respond (and whether it’s the correct response) after they’ve been “out of the loop.” Would a texting driver with eyes and mind off-road be able to respond to a path intrusion warning that comes just as the car detects it?

(thanks Jeff)

Posted on Sunday, August 29th, 2010 at 7:30 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Road Links

I’ve been traveling a lot the last week (currently doing the “milk run” to Australia), hence the lack of updates here, but here’s a few of the myriad things that have come across the transom (apart from those I’ve posted on Twitter):

A reminder of my own piece on Slate about London Transport posters.

London bike hire scheme data visualizations.

A “safer” way to text and drive (as a thought exercise try replacing the word “texting” with drinking as you listen to this).

Endlessly hypnotic: Bicycle rush hour in Copenhagen.

Excellent bike-related stencil art from Adelaide-based Peter Drews.

Adam Greenfield ponders the complexity of bus networks. (“You know I believe that cities are connection machines, networks of potential subject to Metcalfe’s law. What this means in the abstract is that the total value of an urban network rises as the square of the number of nodes connected to it. What this means in human terms is that a situation in which people are too intimidated to ride the bus (or walk down the street, or leave the apartment) is a sorrow compounded. Again: everything they could offer the network that is the city is lost. And everything we take for granted about the possibilities and promise of great urban places is foreclosed to them.)

New standards dictate 3.5 FPS average pedestrian walking speeds.

Forget trashing hotel rooms — today’s indie rockers spend their time twittering about parking tickets!

Recalls media friendly but distort true road safety picture, via the WSJ.

The Chinese used car market.

How about an “ignition interlock” for habitual speeders in Australia?

The always good Carl Bialik on “traffic math.” (and I liked this bit: Nicholas Taylor, a research fellow at the consulting company Transport Research Laboratory in Wokingham, England, says that adding road capacity can be effective if it isn’t perceived as adding capacity. Opening a highway’s shoulder to traffic during peak hours appears to work, Mr. Taylor says, because it is “not seen as a whole new provision of the road. There’s a psychological element to it.”)

Driver distracted by sex toy.

Driver who thought (fatally) he was piloting the Star Trek enterprise ruled “insane.”

Posted on Sunday, August 29th, 2010 at 3:58 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Permanent Jam

A number of people have written in, or tweeted (and don’t forget to find me in the tweetosphere), to tell me about a traffic jam in China, currently in its ninth day, that seems to be on the verge of evolving, as per Cortazar’s story “The Southern Thruway” (an inspiration for Godard’s Weekend), into some kind of makeshift settlement.

This has struck an enterprising verve in some locals, notes the BBC:

The drivers have complained that locals are over-charging them for food and drink while they are stuck.

Then again, what is the “market price” for selling food and drink to 100 km traffic jams?

Posted on Monday, August 23rd, 2010 at 12:51 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Parking lots are also surprisingly civic…’

Notes Witold Rybczynski, in an interesting slideshow of “ordinary places”:

Parking lots are also surprisingly civic. People politely observe rules of behavior for the sake of the common good, parking between the lines, staying out of the handicapped spaces, driving slowly. It is one place where cars and pedestrians happily coexist.

I’m not sure how happy that coexistence is (e.g., “bad parking”). To wit, this piece from the Washington Post:

[Montgomery County] Employees calculated the numbers and were surprised by the frequency of parking lot accidents. Of the 1,496 pedestrians struck between January 2006 and June 2009, 324 had been hit in parking lots.

Posted on Friday, August 20th, 2010 at 8:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Isles of Safety

I have a short essay (accompanied by some excellent images) on the “traffic island” — that curious embankment of legally murky space carved from urban traffic channels, on which all manner of species dwell, from certain varieties of ants to political agitators, — in the current islands-themed issue of Cabinet. It’s not available online, but Cabinet is one of those journals you really want to hold in your hand, not your iPad.

“Where are we exactly — are we near the island?”
‘The “island” — is that what you call it?
“The traffic island. The patch of waste ground below the motorway. Are we near there?”

J.G. Ballard, Concrete Island

Posted on Thursday, August 19th, 2010 at 12:05 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Things In Between

I was struck by this random footnote in Mary Roach’s delightful new book, Packing for Mars.

“The April 1995 issue of the Journal of Trauma includes a case report of a man whose pipe was between his BMW’s airbag and his face when the bag deployed. A piece of the stem shot into his eye, resulting in a “ruptured globe.” The author, a Swiss physician, has a keen globe for detail, noting that “there was tobacco all over the floor” and that the injury was similar to those seen “after the thrust of a pointed cow horn.” The paper concludes with an exhortation to “behave appropriately” — no “drinking from cups … holding articles on the lap, or wearing spectacles while driving.” Not to thrust too pointed a cow horn, but wearing one’s eyeglasses while driving surely prevents more injuries than it causes.”

Posted on Tuesday, August 17th, 2010 at 7:03 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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What’s the Most Dangerous Thing About Being a Cop? Traffic

Via Sheriff magazine:

The death of law enforcement officers (LEOs) in motor vehicle crashes have increased by 48% in the past 28 years. Between the years 2005 to 2007, 54% of all LEO deaths “in the line of duty” were motor vehicle crash involved. When comparing the fatality rate of LEOs to the general population, during the years from 1996 to 1999 LEOs deaths by motor vehicle crashes were at the same or lower rate than the general population. Since the year 2000 the fatality rate for the general population has steadily declined, but the LEO fatality rate has been increasing.

Posted on Monday, August 9th, 2010 at 9:00 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Behavioral Economics and Travel

Mark Solof surveys the nascent intersection of these fields at InTransition magazine.

Much of drivers’ overconfidence stems from an “illusion of control” Ariely said. “When we control something, we feel the risk is lower, even when it is not, and this is especially strong in driving.”

Posted on Monday, August 9th, 2010 at 8:47 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On That New Japanese Pedal Design

A number of people have written in to tell me about the new pedal design in the New York Times (as an aside, I always chuckle a bit when I get NYT links, as I have essentially read the paper seven days a week cover to cover since the late 1980s, when a college professor haughtily advised me it “would make a better person” — but I digress). One even reminded me that I was “harsh” on driver behavior (e.g., in this post).

What I had raised objections to in the whole debate over unintentional acceleration was its actual importance in the overall traffic safety picture; and whether our innovative energies wouldn’t be better focused on things like better impaired driving interventions.

That said, as someone who has written quite a bit on design, I’m always in favor of design that makes everyday life better, or eliminates simple human errors all of us, on one occasion or another, are bound to make. We can chastise the “idiots” who leave their card behind in an ATM, or designers can install a simple intervention, the beep that won’t stop sounding until you’ve removed your card. Of course, there are social issues here as well: Given the older demographic that seemed to be particularly implicated in the unintentional acceleration cases, is it a question of improving the car’s design to accommodate older drivers (in essence making a “Jitterbug” version of the car), or of more closely monitoring and perhaps restricting older drivers?

The bigger issue here, as the article notes, is changing the ingrained mass muscle memory of hundreds of millions of worldwide drivers; i.e., would the shift to a new pedal actually cause more injuries than reducing the (rare) instances of accidental acceleration. After all, the new pedal is just one of a number of design tweaks that have been proposed to improve traffic safety (e.g., changing the colors of brake lights or having them give a special display when they are fully depressed), but as the CHIMSIL showed, it takes years of research and testing to actually get these things implemented — and even then the predicted safety benefits might not meet expectations.

Curious to hear what you human factors folks have to say.

Posted on Wednesday, August 4th, 2010 at 8:06 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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B.R.T. (Bus Rapid Tunnel?) in China

Like a giant urban hovercraft sucking up traffic in its wake.


Do you hate waiting behind a bus as it loads and unloads? Well, friend, does China have the craziest solution for you! A Chinese company is looking to build buses so big cars can drive right under them, which will ease congestion. The company is serious about it, too.

Being developed by the Shenzhen Huashi Future Car-Parking Equipment company, the buses are currently planned for Beijing’s Mentougou district, where tracks on the road will make sure they stay straight as cars drive under them — and they drive over cars. Passengers get on and off at elevated stations, as the bus/trolley/what-have-you are so tall.

Interesting, but left unanswered is the question of how to keep cars in their lane.

(thanks Matt)

Posted on Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 at 11:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Amazon Forces The Royal Mail Off Its Bike…

… but the ETA (the one in the U.K., not Spain) says it’s not thinking creatively.

Posted on Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 at 10:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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More on Carless in Hollywood

The comments section on Slate yields a number of further examples, including this one:

As long as you’re talking about movies that denigrate bicyclists, you should mention the ’90’s film “In and Out” in which Kevin Kline plays a guy who everyone knows is gay except himself. It’s generally quite a funny and genial movie, but they do make a point of showing him as the only bicyclist in town, which seems a way of saying that his bicycling is yet one more piece of evidence (like his love of Bette Midler and somewhat flamboyant hand gestures) that “proves” he really is gay. Even though he appears to live in a small town where bicycling would be a perfectly reasonable way of getting around.

Posted on Monday, August 2nd, 2010 at 8:42 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



August 2010

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