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 Comments Off on Transportation Fact of the Day (Mouse Edition). Click here to leave a comment.
My latest Slate column considers transportation from an iPhone-centric point of view, with an eye toward ways apps might change the experience for the better. I’d be curious to hear what I left out (I omitted some things for space) or things that are in the works, or apps you’d like to see, etc.
Given that I’m always talking about how traffic can skew our sense of time and perception, I was fascinated by a recent article in the New Scientist that was interested in a simple question: Do the moving walkways at airports actually move people any faster?
Manoj Srinivasan, a locomotion researcher at Princeton University, created two mathematical models of how people travel on such walkways (Chaos, DOI: 10.1063/1.3141428). In the first, he assumed people walk in a way that minimises the energy they expend, a standard theory in locomotion research. In the second, he assumed people walk in a way that best makes sense of the signals relayed from their eyes and legs.
Srinivasan’s models predict that when a person steps onto a moving walkway, they slow their foot speed by about half the speed of the walkway. This suggests that our desires to conserve energy and to resolve the conflict between visual cues and leg muscle signals – your eyes tell you that you are going faster than your legs are taking you – slow us down so that our total speed is only slightly greater than it would have been on regular ground.
This may save energy, but even under ideal conditions of no congestion and no baggage a walkway only makes a small difference in travel time – about 11 seconds for a 100-metre stretch.
Now, granted, this is only a model. But as someone who spends a lot of time in airports, and loves the idea of moving walkways but not often the reality (more on that in a sec), I feel as if there’s something to this. And trying to save travel time at the airport can be a futile, as with traffic: You may blaze down the moving walkway, only to be caught up in a bottleneck at security or the exit doors. And then there’s the reason I so often don’t get on in the first place: I don’t want to have to barge past the people who are simply standing on the walkway, actually going more slowly than normal walking speed (and there’s always a little hiccup of people getting off and on). This is the escalator problem: The technology was designed to move more people more quickly, by augmenting their normal motion, not simply ferrying passive passengers.
But the model above actually has an empirical counterpart, notes the magazine.
The findings help to explain earlier work by Seth Young, now at Ohio State University, who observed travellers at San Francisco and Cleveland airports slowing down on moving walkways, though not as drastically as Srinivasan’s model suggests (Transportation Research Record, DOI: 10.3141/1674-03).
If there is no congestion, people on travelators are marginally faster than on normal ground. However, Young found that the odds that other travellers will block the way are such that on average, it takes longer to get from A to B on a moving walkway.
“Moving walkways are the only form of transportation that actually slow people down,” says Young.
Posted on Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 at 5:54 am by: Tom Vanderbilt Comments Off on The Strange Dynamics of Airport Walkways. Click here to leave a comment.
The blogosphere has gone nuts over the idea that Google Mobile Maps will be showing real-time traffic maps, with information generated by the very people (at least those with Android phones, and a few other devices) navigating that traffic (yes, this is what Dash does/did, on a smaller scale). We can crowdsource our way out of congestion!
As Wired notes, “The new service takes this data from everyone and combines it, using Google’s big brain, to give a pretty accurate picture of traffic conditions, which are then piped back to your device.”
Just to get warmed up, chew on this — from 8:00AM to 8:59 AM on an average Fall day in 2007 the NYC Subway carried 388,802 passengers into the CBD on 370 trains over 22 tracks. In other words, a train carrying 1,050 people crossed into the CBD every 6 seconds. Breathtaking if you ask me.
So he began wondering what New York City would have to look like without that subway capacity — or, say, if every New Yorker decided to drive where they were going.
At best, it would take 167 inbound lanes, or 84 copies of the Queens Midtown Tunnel, to carry what the NYC Subway carries over 22 inbound tracks through 12 tunnels and 2 (partial) bridges. At worst, 200 new copies of 5th Avenue. Somewhere in the middle would be 67 West Side Highways or 76 Brooklyn Bridges. And this neglects the Long Island Railroad, Metro North, NJ Transit, and PATH systems entirely.
And that’s not all of it.
Of course, at 325 square feet per parking space, all these cars would need over 3.8 square miles of space to park, about 3 times the size of Central Park. At that point, who would want to go to Manhattan anyway?
Reading Frumin’s post, I was reminded of the early, Utopian visions, as sketched by people like Bauhaus stalwart Ludwig Hilberseimer, of cities “built for the motor age,” which would seamlessly blend great agglomerations of people with smooth, huge highway networks that always seemed to be largely empty, as in the image above. What these plans never acknowledged is the point raised by Frumin: The actual infrastructure required to move all those people by car to their massive towers, not to mention such questions as what they would all do once they got out of their cars (if they even desired such a thing), where they would park, etc. etc.
On the last point, Norman Bel Geddes, writing in the seminal text Magic Motorways, thought parking provided an easy answer to the congestion question:
There is one method, however, which does point the way to a future solution. It is the construction of parking space directly underneath or actually inside of heavily frequented buildings. The newest building unit in New York’s Rockefeller Center, for example, is provided with six floors in which over 800 cars can find parking space by means of ramps. The same idea has been incorporated, even more dramatically, into Chicago’s Pure Oil Building, in which the interior spaces of thirteen floors are reserved for tenants’ cars 300 of them.
How providing more supply would lead to long-term solutions to the congestion problem, particularly as all those drivers poured out of their massive garages at 5 p.m., was a question the modernist visions were never able to answer.
Of course, Hilberseimer’s early visions were admittedly a bit dystopian, as even an automobile city proponent like Le Corbusier was moved to note:
A wretched kind of “modernism” this! The pedestrians in the air, the vehicles hogging the ground! It looks very clever: we shall all have a super time up on those catwalks. But those “R.U.R.” pedestrians will soon be living in “Metropolis,” becoming more depressed, more depraved, until one day they will blow up the catwalks, and the buildings, and the machines, and everything. This is a picture of anti-reason itself, of error, of thoughtlessness. Madness.
And while the city pictured at the start of the post never materialized, that modernist dream of the (non-congested) automotive city never died, and its DNA carried on through GM’s “Futurama,” on through fantastic visions like Geoffrey Jellicoe’s “Motopia,” (pictured above, with its rooftop roads) through more serious (and taken seriously) tracts like Colin Buchanan’s “Traffic in Towns,” and into built places like Cumbernauld.
“Kill the street,” Le Corbusier once intoned, the old “donkey paths.” The new cities would do away, as the historian Stephen Marshall puts it in his excellent book Streets and Patterns, with things like the pub on the corner. “There would be no pub on the corner, since no building would interfere with the requisite junction visibility requirements. There would be no crossroads, since these would be banned on traffic flow and safety principles. Indeed, there would be no ‘streets’: Just a series of pedestrian decks and flyovers.”
And as the following video (sent to me by Eric Boerer at Bike Pittsburgh) from Pittsburgh, circa 1955 shows, the modernist dreams had some serious propagandistic muscle behind it; the irony of this video (and, I must say, the supposed congestion horror depicted here looks pretty tame) is that just about everything that’s proposed here is the sort of thing that, half a century later, would be seen as a nightmare from which cities were trying to awake. I don’t know the city, and I’m not sure if those waterfront highways were built, for example, but it’s hard not to see Le Corb and Broadacre City all over that image of the tall tower, surrounded by acres of parking — my initial thought was, where would you go for lunch? It’s the sort of mundane question the motopians never paused much to consider as they drafted their gleaming tomorrows.
Mark Wagenbuur has put together a fascinating video (thanks to David Hembrow) on the evolution of a Dutch street (in Utrecht) over time; of particular interest is the creeping automobilization of the street in the 1970s-80s, only to see a subsequent reversion to historical precedents (or what we now call “complete streets”).
I’m currently in Texas, and just heard an item on the radio about a curious new law: That it’s illegal to use a (hand-held) cell phone in a “school zone.”
And, as an article by Ben Wear (who was on my panel back at the Texas Book Festival last year) in the Statesman notes, cities like Austin now have to (or don’t, it’s still a bit up in the air) post signs alerting drivers to the presence of this law, otherwise police cannot enforce.
Robert Spillar, the City of Austin’s transportation director, said the city has not set aside money for the signs. Nonetheless, it will begin installing them this fall, starting with elementary schools. It could take two years to get them all up, he said.
“I don’t see how we can not put them up,” Spillar said. He said he isn’t sure the mere presence of signs will change driver behavior, and said some sort of education program might be necessary to get the message across. “It’s an unfunded mandate that has our backs against the wall. We can’t enforce it if the signs aren’t up.”
This is the first I’d heard of such a particular distinction being made in a particular zone, and I’m having trouble seeing the reasoning, or the safety impact. The first thought that jumps to mind is that a driver on a cell-phone is hardly likely to pick out a “no cell-phone” sign, much less expeditiously hang up their call as they approach. The second is that signs warning of “school zones” themselves, while a bit better — particularly when backed up flashing lights — than the ubiquitous (and absolutely ineffectual) “Slow Children” signs that are not officially recognized by engineers, tend to be little regarded as well, at least based on various tests in which drivers were still found to be routinely exceeding the speed limit; typically it’s the parent bringing their kids to the very same school. The entire concept of “School Zones” is a bit wanting, really, prone to driver and legal confusion, not to mention that it raises that eternal question: One is supposed to drive slowly and attentively on this stretch past a school, but it’s then OK to accelerate to higher speed a block later (a block on which there may be just as many children)?
And then, on the cell phone issue, we’re again making odd distinctions: We’re admitting that cell phones are a hazard to use when driving around groups of children at schools, but somehow OK when driving among groups of pedestrians or cyclists or children on the blocks in front of their homes — or in fact every other car on the road? And that it’s OK for drivers to zip past schools while talking on their hands-free-not-brain-free unit?
And then there’s the aesthetic blight of all the extra signage — more signs for drivers to ignore — not to mention all the money going to put the signs up, just so a law can be enforced; it seems rather ridiculous that if a state law is passed declaring it illegal to use cell phones in a school zone, one would have to expensively repeat that statement at every already marked school zone. After all, we don’t feel the need to erect signs announcing that driving while impaired is illegal, in school zones or anywhere else.
As always, any experiences or technical clarifications welcome.
Reader David notes that when bottlenecks develop at intersections in Ghana, or traffic grows abnormally congested, it’s not uncommon for people to spontaneously take matters into their own hands. The video is of an American friend (perhaps the advertised ‘D.J. Mayonnaise Hands’?) of his who decided to pitch in; I’m not sure he’s accomplishing much, traffic-wise, but I’d give his technique an ‘A.’
I had come across the above slide, via a post at Kottke’s blog, and it is taken from a talk by a Harvard University researcher named Lant Pritchett. I was intrigued by the progression Pritchett had theorized in the way that once-seemingly controversial issues (his slide illustrates changing attitudes over interracial marriage) had, over time, simply become part of the normal state of affairs. Now, clearly this is not always a linear, teleological dynamic, but it’s interesting to try and think of other examples where it applies (a woman’s right to vote, recycling, smoking is bad for you, etc.).
I was also interested in what areas of traffic safety and the larger culture of traffic to which it might apply — seat belt usage, for example (or the idea of laws for same), driving while drunk, motorcycle helmets (or helmets in hockey and other sports), etc. And I found myself reaching for the concept in a recent column for Reclaim, the magazine of NYC’s Transportation Alternatives (of which I’m a member; if you think, by the way, that this makes me some anti-car radical, I’m also a member of AAA). The column was prompted by some recent commentary in the press, in light of the recent closing to traffic of a few blocks of Broadway in Times Square, that the NYC DOT was running a series of “elitist” reforms.
Whether this would in and of itself be a bad thing is another issue altogether — for all kinds of civic reforms we now take for granted and that make cities livable places began as the work of progressive “elites” — but I took exception with the idea that programs meant to benefit pedestrians and transit users, who represent by far the majority mode of Manhattan, were “elitist” policies causing harm to some disenfranchised majority of New York car users. But I am interested also in the reception of this and other projects via Pritchett’s evolution; in certain quarters of the media, they have been branded in the “silly” and “controversial” vein, though as this “Q Poll” indicates (the poll found early support for the Times Square project, support that might rise if the media didn’t always frame the story so negatively, or if the project’s benefits were explained to more people), we might already be moving closer to obvious.
In any case, the essay is here, or after the jump.
In Shinjuku there are even some sidewalks with rules concerning pedestrian traffic. For example, this sign is indicating that on the right lane from 9 in the morning until 6 in the afternoon it is a one way lane.
But on the left lane the direction changes depending on the time. These “extreme” rules are needed only in districts like Shinjuku where more than three million people commute by everyday.
I wonder if this explicitly signed scheme happens anywhere outside of Japan?
Improve public transportation, they say. Develop housing near mass transport nodes. Form carpools at the office. These are all effective and viable measures to address the average American business commute, and we should indeed do all of these things. But what if our business commute isn’t necessarily where we have the most influence? What if it’s our kids’ activities driving us to drive more — our child miles traveled (CMTs)?
According to the 2001 National Household Travel Survey, the average vehicle travels 3,956 miles for family and personal business. In 1969, that average was 1,270 miles. We’ve tripled our family business mileage, but VMTs for business commuting only increased 36 percent during the same period. Looks like our family miles are to blame.
This weekend may mark the beginning of the end for toll-booth operators and plastic coin baskets, two institutions long associated with holiday traffic and highway congestion.
On Saturday, an authority that runs the E-470 toll road near Denver is ditching its coin handlers and going entirely cashless.
One curious thing about electronic tolls; they’re more expensive.
It is unclear whether cashless toll roads will have higher toll rates than ones offering a pay-with-cash option, but some theorists say higher rates are likely. Amy Finkelstein, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has analyzed 50 years of data for 123 toll roads. In a paper to be published in the August edition of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Prof. Finkelstein suggests electronic tolling results in rates that are 20% to 40% higher than they otherwise would be.
One reason, she speculates, is that “when tolls become less visible, it’s easier to raise the tolls.” (but is it also that electronic tolls tend to be built on new, more expensive facilities, or ones more prone to congestion?)
Do economists have a word for this phenomenon? Something about transparency? Price elasticity? But it seems a strange anti-thesis to the anchoring effect, with no frames or anchors at all.
One should be leery, given historical precedent, of any attempt to make a certain class of people wear markers denoting them as part of some group. From Indonesia, a place that is unsuccessfully trying to build urban transport models around the car, comes this absurdity:
An article in the new Traffic and Road Transportation Law passed by the House stated, “Handicapped pedestrians are obliged to wear special signs that can be easily recognized by other road users.” Lawmakers said the article aimed to protect handicapped pedestrians, but activists have called it discriminatory.
To put it lightly. There’s many other potential problems, like enforcment, or the issue of pedestrians not wearing the signs: Are they to be treated with any less caution?
Rather than scapegoating its most vulnerable residents in the name of “safety,” Jakarta would be better of dealing with its litany of actual traffic problems — ranging from lack of public transportation to police corruption.
Posted on Thursday, July 2nd, 2009 at 2:42 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt Comments Off on Indonesia’s Scarlet Letter for Pedestrians. Click here to leave a comment.
I read this seeming obit for national congestion charging while on a train to Rotterdam yesterday (hence the slow posting lately); ironically, I came across it in the Daily Telegraph, not normally what I’d be reading but it was all the train station newsstand had — in any case it was the Telegraph which had backed a petition against the scheme.
It’s the economy, in a word, that’s killed it; traffic volumes are already down, and it’s a seemingly a political non-starter to ask drivers to pay more — even if it would get them out of congestion (or help reduce other externalities). It’s probably not the end of pricing itself.
Despite ditching national road pricing, the Government is carrying on with a series of technology trials which could pave the way for local pricing schemes.
However Lord Adonis insisted that any council looking to charge motorists for driving would have to prove they had public support to do so.
His decision to drop national road pricing was condemned by Stephen Joseph, executive director of the Campaign for Better Transport.
“I think this is completely unrealistic,” he said.
“If road use continues to grow, some means will have to be found to deal with it. If we are not to have old-fashioned Soviet rationing by queues, sooner or later a Government will have to look at pricing.”
And on another subject, one of the pleasures of an old-fashioned newspaper is that, a few pages later, in the letters section on the opinion page, I stumbled upon one of those random, wonderful quintessences of Englishness: Tips — many, many tips — from readers on how to remove stains from tea-pots.
“The word square,” notes James Traub in The Devils’ Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square, “does not have the same meaning in Manhattan as in Paris or Rome.” For one, New York’s squares are often not squares; the imprecise geometry of Herald or Times Square is hewn by the wily, diagonal progression of Broadway, New York City’s largest rebuke to the hegemonic grid. For another, these spaces tend to not be, as Traub notes, “punctuations or pauses in the street plan” but, instead, uneasy slivers cast like fractured icebergs amid the urban scrum. As the writer Benjamin de Casseres observed in the early 20th century, Times Square “is a ganglion of streets that fuses into a traffic cop.”
Posted on Wednesday, June 17th, 2009 at 7:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt Comments Off on Beneath the City Streets, the Beach. Click here to leave a comment.
Peter Gordon debates Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times on the federal-funded pilot project to introduce congestion (variable HOT) pricing to local freeways in L.A.
Rutten notes it’s not true congestion pricing:
Oddly enough, no solo drivers will be admitted when average speeds in the new high-occupancy toll lanes fall below 45 miles per hour. That’s to keep them from getting clogged, but the result is that there will be congestion pricing — except when the highways are most congested.
Gordon notes that, responding to the inequity claim, that Angelenos, in essence, already pay a congestion charge. It’s called time (which equals money).
First, if price does not ration road space, something else will. This means that heavy traffic on roads and highways that aren’t priced is a given. It is the default rationing mechanism. Anything made available without charge is quickly crowded. None of this is a matter of ideology, as Rutten seems to think.
Most highway improvements are paid for with state and federal taxes on gasoline. This is an extremely regressive tax, not only because rich and poor alike pay the same amount, but because poor people typically can’t afford modern gas-sipping vehicles — there are a lot more Priuses in Santa Monica than in South L.A. Congestion pricing, though, imposes a user fee; only the people who use toll lanes pay the cost, and the people who use them tend to have higher incomes. It’s hard to imagine a fairer system.
In truth, low-income commuters stand to benefit a great deal from L.A.’s experiment. Only 25% of the project’s budget will be spent on developing the new toll lanes; the bulk of the money will pay for public-transit improvements, including the purchase of 57 new express buses traveling the affected routes. And by law, the money from the tolls must be spent on transit or carpool improvements in the same corridor where the funds were generated.
A sort of social-networking version of the California Highway Patrol’s incident report page, with individual drivers reporting on Sydney congestion zones. The unpleasant implication, of course, is that people are sending and reading these Twitters while driving. And, really, is the chance of reading a Twitter about the spot you’re driving in at a useful moment any more reliable than hearing about via a radio traffic report? (i.e., about 3% of the time?)
Some kind reader asked me a while ago, by the way, about sending out Twitter updates. Being an old analog writerly type sans smart-phone, I work hard to resist data ubiquity (and I really prefer the long form), but curious if there’s any desire out there for people to get Twitter posts of what’s on the blog?
I’ve often thought it interesting that congestion charging tends to appeal to aspects of both the right (e.g., free-market economists) and the left (e.g., public transportation advocates). You might say that the economists want better roads and less trafic, while the public transport people want more government directed toward their favored mode (and away heavily subsidized roads).
In any case, this left-right alliance was made strikingly clear in the recent response to U.K. transport secretary Geoff Hoon’s recent gloomy comments on the prospect of nation-wide road-user pricing, as the FT notes here.
Stephen Glaister, director of the pro-motoring RAC Foundation, said a system of direct charging for road use was vital to providing the revenue for expanding the road network.
Stephen Joseph, executive director of the pro-public transport Campaign for Better Transport, said a road-pricing system was inevitable if growing congestion on Britain’s roads was to be tackled and demand managed.
It’s hard to immediately think of another issue which unites these disparate groups, if for different end results.
Posted on Friday, June 5th, 2009 at 2:31 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt Comments Off on The Curious Politics of Congestion Charging. Click here to leave a comment.
Philip Greenspun raises an interesting idea based on some recent (crowded) drives in California: Why should a state with a $25 billion budget deficit give away one of its most valuable assets — highways — for free?
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 Slate.com Transport column to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.