Archive for the ‘Environmental factors’ Category

American Idle

In my latest Slate column, I consider the drive-through.

One thing that struck me was the historical novelty of the form; McDonald’s didn’t begin to unroll them until the mid-1970s, and they now, rather shockingly, account for the majority of their restaurant business. It’s a subtle, yet indicative, symbol of how much American society has changed, driving-wise, in a few decades. At one moment, most children, like me, were walking to school, and while we may have driven to McDonald’s, we actually got out of the car to eat our meal (and something like McDonald’s, pre-drive-through, was then an occasional novelty, at least for me).

Posted on Saturday, December 12th, 2009 at 1:26 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Your Baby and EZ-Pass

Daniel Pink points me to an interesting new study via NBER: “Traffic Congestion and Infant Health: Evidence from E-ZPass,” by Janet Currie and Reed Walker.

The abstract states:

This paper provides evidence of the significant negative health externalities of traffic congestion. We exploit the introduction of electronic toll collection, or E-ZPass, which greatly reduced traffic congestion and emissions from motor vehicles in the vicinity of highway toll plazas. Specifically, we compare infants born to mothers living near toll plazas to infants born to mothers living near busy roadways but away from toll plazas with the idea that mothers living away from toll plazas did not experience significant reductions in local traffic congestion. We also examine differences in the health of infants born to the same mother, but who differ in terms of whether or not they were “exposed” to E-ZPass. We find that reductions in traffic congestion generated by E-ZPass reduced the incidence of prematurity and low birth weight among mothers within 2km of a toll plaza by 10.8% and 11.8% respectively. Estimates from mother fixed effects models are very similar. There were no immediate changes in the characteristics of mothers or in housing prices in the vicinity of toll plazas that could explain these changes, and the results are robust to many changes in specification. The results suggest that traffic congestion is a significant contributor to poor health in affected infants. Estimates of the costs of traffic congestion should account for these important health externalities.

I’ve not read the paper yet (if anyone has a PDF I’d love to see), but one interesting question is whether this is longitudinal as well — were the rates tracked before and after the introduction of EZ-Pass? And would this vary depending upon the number of lanes that actually offer EZ-Pass (roughly half at most NYC-area toll plazas). A provocative thesis in any case, coming on the heels of David Owens’ interesting piece in the WSJ.

Congestion isn’t an environmental problem; it’s a driving problem. If reducing it merely makes life easier for those who drive, then the improved traffic flow can actually increase the environmental damage done by cars, by raising overall traffic volume, encouraging sprawl and long car commutes. A popular effort to curb rush-hour congestion, freeway entrance ramp meters, is commonly seen as good for the environment. But they significantly decrease peak-period travel times—by 10% in Atlanta and 22% in Houston, according to studies in those cities—and lead to increases in overall vehicle volume. In Minnesota, ramp metering increased overall traffic volume by 9% and peak volume by 14%. The increase in traffic volume was accompanied by a corresponding increase in fuel consumption of 5.5 million gallons.

One thing I’d be curious to know about the papers Owens’ cites is whether the introduction of ramp metering simply brought more vehicles back to the metered-facility, and away from other roads they may have been traveling on (perhaps those were covered in the “overall vehicle volume,” but it typically seems smaller roads are not as well measured in those terms compared to highways).

Posted on Tuesday, October 13th, 2009 at 7:36 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Silly, Controversial, Progressive, Then Obvious

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.


Posted on Friday, July 31st, 2009 at 10:53 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Mile and a Half Plume

The Infrastructurist notes a new study on freeway pollution:

Living “close” to a freeway means being right next to it, right–like overlooking it pressed up against one of those ugly noise walls? Sadly, no. Researchers at UCLA have found that a large freeway’s pollution plume extends as much as a mile and a half from the roadway–in this case, I-10. “This distance is 10 times greater than previously measured daytime pollutant impacts from roadways and has significant exposure implications.” Those nasty carcinogenic ultrafine particles–not to mention polycylic aromatics–don’t obey the niceties of staying in those close to the roadway. No, the call is coming from inside the house for plenty of rich people in Santa Monica and other communities around the country. Even if you’d never be one of those poor unhealthy schlubs who lives next to a freeway — practically speaking, you’re probably already one of those poor unhealthy schlubs who lives next to a freeway.

Clever When a Stranger Calls reference there, but I found this interesting — not only as someone who lives within a mile and a half of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway trench (I will be buried long before it is), but someone who was recently having some questions about daycare facilities in my neighborhood. One of these has a play area very close to the BQE, and several parents have hinted to me of asthma problems. Correlation is not causation, yadda, yadda, yadda, but in this case I’m less inclined to take this as typical Brooklyn parent neurosis.

But this led me to wonder: Has anyone done a “PollutionScore” application, similar to WalkScore? It would be a nice, and useful, GIS overlay — and why not on WalkScore itself? (as an aside, I’ve noticed that, even within my general neighborhood, which is close to 100 on the WalkScore, the number drops as one heads towards the elevated section of the BQE and the large traffic artery of Hamilton Avenue; and not surprisingly, I try to walk down there as little as possible).

In any case, here’s more on the study.

Posted on Friday, July 10th, 2009 at 7:23 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Century of Progress

The above chart, which shows the negligible gains in fuel economy cars have seen over the last century (what efficiency gains there were have been plowed into horsepower and more weight), is from “Fuel efficiency of vehicles on US roads: 1923–2006,” by Michael Sivak and Omer Tsimhoni, published in the most recent issue of Energy Policy.

The authors note:

After the 1973 oil embargo, vehicle manufacturers achieved major improvements in the on-road fuel economy of vehicles. However, the slope of the improvement has decreased substantially since 1991. Specifically, from 1973 to 1991, the efficiency of the total fleet of vehicles has improved by 42% (from 11.9 to 16.9 mpg). This represents a compound rate of improvement of 2.0% per year. On the other hand, from 1991 to 2006, the efficiency has improved by only 1.8% (from 16.9 to 17.2 mpg), representing a compound rate of improvement of 0.1% per year.

The curve will begin to look dramatically different by the end of the second Obama administration.

Posted on Friday, May 29th, 2009 at 2:22 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Giving ‘Spare Tire’ a Whole New Meaning

If greater car dependency is linked to higher obesity rates, as some studies have suggested, a Los Angeles doctor seemed to offer a self-sustaining remedy to the problem.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Dr. Bittner defended his use of discarded body fat from his patients to fuel his car and said he received signed consents from patients who were told of the intended use. Still, “the medical board went ballistic” about this practice, he said.

Using medical waste obtained from liposuction as a biofuel “is not currently an approved alternative treatment technology,” according to the California Department of Public Health. To seek approval, an individual would have to submit an application to the department for this alternative use. There is no record of Dr. Bittner filing such an application, a department spokesman said.

The practice spurred “death threats against me and my staff,” Dr. Bittner said. “I thought it was a great thing to demonstrate to the world how many ways there are to solve the energy crisis.”

Shades of Soylent Green

Posted on Tuesday, February 17th, 2009 at 8:48 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Germany’s Wreck Premium

Germany’s trying to stimulate its economy by giving new car buyers a $2500 Euro for junking their old car in exchange for a model that meets the latest emissions standards. The new car need not be German. One wonders if there’s an interesting long German word for this program.

Not everyone is convinced the plan from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is best for the car industry or the environment.

Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, a professor of automotive economics at the University of Gelsenkirchen, said Merkel’s move was little more than a political gift to the car market and predicted only 20 per cent of the new cars sold would be from German companies.

“One could say the wreck premium is an economic program for the factories in Italy, France, eastern Europe and Korea. For workers in Germany, the bonus will contribute little,” Dudenhoeffer said.

Posted on Thursday, February 5th, 2009 at 7:44 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Trouble with Off-Peak Buses

Via Berkeley’s Center for Future Urban Transport is a new study that I imagine will be generating some discussion. The work, by Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath, is meant to: “develop comprehensive life-cycle assessment (LCA) models to quantify the energy inputs and emissions from autos, buses, heavy rail, light rail and air transportation in the U.S. associated with the entire life cycle (design, raw materials extraction, manufacturing, construction, operation, maintenance, end-of-life) of the vehicles, infrastructures, and fuels involved in these systems. Energy inputs are quantified as well as greenhouse gas and criteria air pollutant outputs. Inventory results are normalized to effects per vehicle-lifetime, VMT, and PMT.”

Among the more eye-raising findings noted:

• Roadway construction particulate matter emissions are as large as tail-pipe emissions for the automobile per passenger-mile-traveled.

• Urban buses with peak-hour occupancies have the best energy and greenhouse gas performance, followed by rail and then air systems, and trailed by automobiles. But off-peak bus travel is the worst performer.

• Air travel is environmentally competitive with rail travel and can outperform rail modes when the aircraft is about 80 percent utilized.

• The use of ground support equipment at airports contributes roughly one-third of the total carbon monoxide lifecycle emissions for aircraft.

• While rail systems are the best energy and greenhouse gas performers, they exhibit the largest shares from infrastructure effects in the lifecycle. This results from environmentally much larger infrastructure requirements per passenger-mile served.

Posted on Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008 at 3:23 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:

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



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