Archive for the ‘Etc.’ Category

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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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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Illegal Trafficking in Arizona

You see, Arizona really is concerned about privacy issues.

Citing the Constitution, that’s a nice touch — how much you wanna bet the biggest opponents of red light cameras are the biggest supporters of Arizona’s unconstitutional immigration law?

Posted on Monday, May 10th, 2010 at 10:55 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Copenhagenize Shanghai

I’m in Shanghai at the moment, hence the gap in communication. Yesterday I trekked out to the World Expo (the typically anodyne theme: “Better City, Better Life”), a frenzied display of national industry, easy-to-digest cultural narratives, and pinpoint logistics (all those teams of marching soldiers, all those Disney style queue management systems). I began with the choreographed uplift of the USA and finished, reeling from the sun, with an earnest summation, from some rump sub-deputy minister, of all that Turkmenistan, that curious Caspian outpost rich in natural resources and the government corruption that goes along with it, had to offer (in short, architecturally decadent monuments, nice rugs, and pipelines — miles of pipelines; and now, Air Turkmenistan).

Where most countries went with grand, overarching messages of prowess, benevolence, and inclusivity, the day’s most rewarding experience had to go to the Danish pavilion, designed by Bjarke Ingels (who’ve interviewed several times in the past). Rather than overwhelm with several dozen messages, the approach at the Danish pavilion was simple: A white circular building, with perforated brise soleil style apertures, housing a white corkscrew ramp, rising from a pool containing Copenhagen’s famous Little Mermaid, up which one could walk — or, as pictured above, cycle (and that’s me, rather baking in the Shanghai sun) — along the way picking up a few discrete messages comparing Denmark and China across various indices. The whole way up, meanwhile, a long curving bench ran along the edge of the bike path, so people could sit, drink a Carlsberg, and watch the bike and pedestrian traffic go by, much like in Copenhagen itself (and I know Mikael from Copenhagenize will object to the helmets accompanying the bikes, but they were very nice helmets). It was charmingly low-key (yet somehow dramatic at the same time) and a more purely enjoyable experience than the multimedia fireworks going on elsewhere. I was wishing I could take the bike with me when I left — the Oman pavilion, so close on the map, was endlessly far away.

Posted on Monday, May 3rd, 2010 at 7:00 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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2 Easy to Get, 2 Hard to Lose

I never really had a mantra for the Traffic book, the way Michael Pollan does: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

I tried to think: Drive safer, not so much, mostly walk (ok, that’s for New Yorkers). But you get the picture.

I noticed a few people responded to an offhand comment I made in the Streetfilms interview: “It’s too easy to get a license in this country, too hard to lose one.”

By this I mean our driver’s education and licensing system is in need of a number of reforms — we treat driving like a right, as in voting — and the newspapers (and courts) are filled with recidivist drivers. Read a random article about a fatal crash, and I’ll be you, that by about the sixth or seventh paragraph, you’ll begin to see examples of previous incidents or some underlying pattern of behavior that seriously undermines the “accidental” nature of any crash (e.g., the driver in the Taconic minivan crash). And yes, I am aware that many people with suspended licenses simply drive without a license, and yes, we need to look in many cases at the behavioral questions, yadda, yadda, yadda, but why we should continue to legally pander to people with a reckless disregard for human life is beyond me.

I was thinking of this again while watching, in Edmonton, a poignant talk by Melissa Wandall, whose husband was killed by a (repeat) red-light runner (the red-light law she’s worked for has just cleared the Florida senate; and despite what you often hear from the fringes of the right, most people, when polled, actually support such devices, when used judiciously). The offending driver already had 10 points on her license, a number of which kept getting bumped down by visits to traffic schools (the efficacy of which has been seriously called into question by several studies). Shockingly, she’s back on the road today.

Let’s go back to John Stuart Mill: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

It’s that ‘civilized’ bit I sometimes wonder about these days.

Posted on Thursday, April 29th, 2010 at 7:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Numerology at the DMV

I could have spent the rest of my life parked behind this vehicle and never gotten the “meaning” of a license plate bearing the characters ’14CV88′:

A few hours later, the DMV agreed that the plate contains a coded message: The number 88 stands for the eighth letter of the alphabet, H, doubled to signify “Heil Hitler,” said CAIR’s Ibrahim Hooper. “CV” stands for “Confederate veteran” — the plate was a special model embossed with a Confederate flag, which Virginia makes available for a $10 fee to card-carrying members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. And 14 is code for imprisoned white supremacist David Lane’s 14-word motto: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

Wow. Now I’m wondering if there’s something jinky in my own plate. Does that ‘669’ bit connote some weird Satanist thing, or some kind of creative sexual liaison?

But apparently there was something a bit less subtle about the vehicle.

(via Boing Boing)

Posted on Tuesday, April 27th, 2010 at 10:21 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Talking Traffic on Streetsfilms

I stopped by the offices of Streetsfilms recently for a chat with Mark Gorton, founder of the Open Planning Project (among many other things). Have a look here if you’d like.

Posted on Tuesday, April 27th, 2010 at 3:52 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)

Reader Joshua points to this story, via The Strib. All the usual suspects: Alcohol, no belts, previous crashes.

Posted on Tuesday, April 27th, 2010 at 7:05 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On Airport Congestion and City Congestion

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld once observed that “closest thing that we have to royalty in America are the people that get to ride in those little carts through the airport.”

He continued: “Don’t you hate those things? They come out of nowhere. “Beep, beep. Cart people, look out, cart people!” We all scurry out of the way like worthless peasants. “Ooh, it’s cart people. I hope we didn’t slow you down. Wave to the cart people, Timmy. They’re the best people in the world.” If you’re too fat, slow, and disoriented to get to your gate in time, you’re not ready for air travel.”

Now, I do believe these carts have their authentic purpose, though recently navigating the airports of Houston and Atlanta — two travel hubs as sprawling as their host metropolises — I found myself, as I walked, constantly buffeted by their passing presence, or subjected to the very same imperious announcements that Mr. Seinfeld decries (and sometimes they were really quite nasty), and I’d watch as hapless travelers were often forced to execute rapid evasive maneuvers to avoid the onrushing conveyances. And sometimes, looking over, I’d see a boatload of what looked like utterly able-bodied people, looking rather smug. After the fourth “beep beep” in a row I was starting to see the world from Seinfeld’s point of view. Like, who regulates who actually gets on these things?

I thought of this when recently penning a short bit for the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” blog, which discussed the city’s plans to reduce and restrict the amount of vehicular traffic on sections of 34th Street, in favor of creating swifter bus facilities and improved pedestrian access.

The airport courtesy cart is a wonderful way to travel. Who wants to walk Houston’s or Atlanta’s long dendritic corridors (dodging those spillover queues from Auntie Anne’s) when you could be whisked, in comfort if not exactly style, directly from security to your gate? Sure, there’s plenty of mass transit options, like shuttle trains and moving walkways, and there’s always good old walking (which I frankly find a welcome respite after four hours of impersonating David Blaine’s latest act of extreme deprivation in 12F), but who wouldn’t want that private door-to-door ride?

The problem, of course, is that if everyone wanted to travel this way, the airport corridors would quickly bog down in a teeming, thrombosed mass of Lagosian proportions. Airports are able to process huge amounts of people because of mass transit, or because they walk.

And I think there’s something of a metaphor here for the presence of the car in the city of the 21st Century. On 34th Street, as the NYC DOT reports, one in ten people who travel on the street go by car. And yet they are granted an inordinate amount of space, and they exact a toll in time on the vehicles carrying many more people. It’s not difficult to imagine the car, forcing its way through a crosswalk during a right turn (as so many do), as the equivalent of that individual courtesy cart disrupting the larger flow of the stream of airport pedestrians for the sake of its few passengers. Or the driver honking as he passes a cyclist as that shrill cry of “beep, beep, cart coming through” that so vexed Seinfeld. Imagine now if, at the airport, courtesy carts were given wide swaths of real estate in which to navigate, and people on foot were relegated to a smaller, crowded, space, and you have something of an idea of the routine spatial imbalance that exists in New York City.

As with the courtesy cart, the car is a wonderful way to travel — the problem, of course, is that it gets less wonderful with each additional driver. Beep-beep.

Posted on Monday, April 26th, 2010 at 11:32 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Phantom Highway

Via Education for the Driving Masses, a story of an outdated GPS being implicated in a fatal crash.

This came shortly after receiving this dispatch, from Germany, of another GPS-assisted crash.

One wonders if a new form of cognitive distraction needs to be explored — “GPS blindness.” As the graphics get better, the instructions more precise, the real-time traffic more real-time — and all of this becomes more integrated with the vehicle itself — will we yield more of our situational awareness to the machine itself? To quote my colleagues at the Invisible Gorilla, “If you devote all of your attention to the augmented roadway navigation aids, your “situation awareness” is reduced. That narrowing of attention helps explain how a driver could “blindly” follow the friendly, but flawed directions of their GPS onto a pedestrian walkway and into a cherry tree.” Which you can read about here.

Posted on Saturday, April 24th, 2010 at 1:23 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train

Sorry, I’ve always enjoyed the title of that Patrice Chéreau film and wanted to use it for something, and that’s the best title I could come up in the moment.

In any case, I remember reading (and reviewing) Francis Cairncross’ Death of Distance way back in 1998, and I think I’ve actually flown more miles with each passing year since then. A fact I was reminded of reading Anthony Townsend’s interesting dispatch over at IFTF, particularly this comment, a reprise of an earlier post:

At many times people on one side of the debate or the other have wrongly forecast that one side of this equation would overtake the other – we would see the death of cities, the death of distance, and the end of travel. But what’s important here is that these things happened because of each other, not in spite of each other. This particular kind of presence, international business presence, is facilitated by a hybrid set of infrastructure and human activities – making calls and getting on planes.

Now, today, the Internet, for all its distance-diminishing potential isn’t really breaking this relationship. In fact. much of what we use our network technologies for is arranging travel. If you look in your email in-box or keep a diary of mobile phone calls — a safe bet is that 75-90 percent of the messages are about arranging travel or planning meetings.

I’d say he’s about right on that, at least some days.

This too reminds me of an article I recently saw in some (appropriately enough) in-flight magazine: It was essentially a list of places you just had to travel to before they basically vanished, either ruined by ecological forces or placed in critical endangerment by tourism itself. The tragedy of the commons, Travelocity-style.

Posted on Wednesday, April 21st, 2010 at 2:49 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Under the Volcano

Mikael from Copenhagenize is weighing cycling from Barcelona to Toulouse, where he stands a better chance of catching a train. He needs your advice.

You see, he’s got a transport conference to get to, which seems quite ironic, though perhaps not as ironic as the news that vulcanologists are stranded at a volcano conference in Paris.

Posted on Sunday, April 18th, 2010 at 10:47 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Travel Problems Then and Now

From a Canadian historical exhibition called “In Quarantine”:

During the first half of the 19th century, many immigrants who ventured across the ocean by sailing ship never made it to America, falling victim to the terrible conditions of the voyage. At the time, transportation by sea was not regulated, and the steerage areas of the ship were designed to carry goods, not passengers.

There was a constant lack of space, ventilation, food and water aboard most sailing vessels. Some 200 to 400 passengers were crowded in steerage. Without enough bunks for everyone, they often had to take turns sleeping. When the weather was fair, the passengers could stretch out on the lower part of the deck, but the frequent storms confined them for days in a dirty, airless compartment, stuffed with baggage and all manner of garbage. Drinking water and food went bad rapidly. Provisions quickly ran short if the ship’s arrival at Québec was delayed by a dead calm, contrary winds or ice. All of these factors, plus seasickness, contributed to the outbreak and transmission of diseases that were too often fatal.

Posted on Friday, April 16th, 2010 at 11:10 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Hulot Hulot!

As a Jacques Tati devotee, how could I resist (for my daughter, of course!) the book pictured above, which comes to me via Velorution?

My visit to French also yielded this Tati treasure, a compilation of soundtracks (actually you can get this too at

Commandez vite!

Posted on Wednesday, April 7th, 2010 at 7:38 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Yes, Virginia, San Diego is East of Reno

My latest Slate column examines our cognitive biases in maps, routing, and travel.

The north-south imbalance is just one of any number of ways we rearrange objective time and space in our heads. There are the famous examples of geographical distortion, for example, in which people routinely assume that Rome is farther south than Philadelphia or that San Diego is west of Reno (when in both cases the opposite is true). Or take a simple trip into town: Studies have found that people tend to find the inbound trip to be shorter than the outbound trip, while a journey down a street with more intersections will seem to be longer than one with fewer (and not simply because of traffic lights).

Our state of mind on any trip can influence not just our perceptions of time but of geography itself. As Dennis Proffit, et al., write in the wonderfully titled study “Seeing Mountains in Mole Hills,” in Psychological Science, “hills appear steeper when we are fatigued, encumbered by a heavy backpack, out of shape, old and in declining health”—and this is not some vague feeling, but an actual shift in our estimates of degrees of inclination. Transit planners have a rule of thumb that waiting for transit seems to take three times as long as travel itself. And then, looming over everything, is Vierordt’s Law, which, applied to commuting, roughly states: People will mentally lengthen short commutes and shorten long commutes.

Posted on Thursday, April 1st, 2010 at 5:25 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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In Our Time

The always essential In Our Time is particularly good this week: A two-parter about cities. I particularly enjoyed historian Julia Merritt talking about the historical emergence of the sedan chair and how it served to isolate its riders from the public sphere, a foreshadowing of automobility and its civic discontents.

Posted on Thursday, April 1st, 2010 at 7:39 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘The ever lasting scorcher, bent like a hoop, and with sunken cheeks’

You know who you are.

But seriously, this etymological foray into the history of the word chauffeur has me, well, stoked.

Posted on Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 at 2:27 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Incidents of Insect Aerial Travel

There were only a few flies and wasps in that first trap at Tallulah. But over the next five years, the researchers flew more than 1,300 sorties from the Louisiana airstrip and captured tens of thousands more insects at altitudes ranging from 20 to 15,000 feet. They generated a long series of charts and tables, cataloguing individual insects of 700 named species according to the height at which they were collected, time of day, wind speed and direction, temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, dew point, and many other physical variables. They already knew something about long-distance dispersal. They had heard about the butterflies, gnats, water striders, leaf bugs, booklice, and katydids sighted hundreds of miles out on the open ocean; about the aphids that Captain William Parry had encountered on ice floes during his polar expedition of 1828; and about those other aphids that, in 1925, made the 800-mile journey across the frigid, windswept Barents Sea between the Kola Peninsula, in Russia, and Spitsbergen, off Norway, in just twenty-four hours. Still, they were taken aback by the enormous quantities of animals they were discovering in the air above Louisiana and unashamedly astonished by the heights at which they found them. All of a sudden, it seemed, the heavens had opened.

That’s from Hugh Raffles’ new and absolutely delightful book, Insectopedia, which happily joins May Berenbaum, et al, on my entomology shelves.

Posted on Saturday, March 27th, 2010 at 4:51 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



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