Archive for the ‘Traffic Culture’ Category

Pedestrian Crossing Behavior: Lemmings or the Lone Wolf?

I was walking down New York City’s Fifth Avenue yesterday (the windows at Bergdorf Goodman are a particular pleasure this year), which as usual around this time of year was incredibly crowded — I begin to feel less like a person than a permanent obstruction to someone’s snapshot. The corners were particularly bulging with people — for some reason the police were actually blocking pedestrian crossings with yellow tape at around 51st Street — and it’s always interesting to note the little patterns: The Europeans and out-of-towners tend to wait for signals, while the intrepid New Yorkers often sail through. And sometimes, one pedestrian’s bold move can fool others into thinking the signal has changed, when in reality there is a yellow taxi bearing down on the crosswalk. At times things can get so crowded that the mass essentially sort of spills into the street, perhaps triggered by some early crosser but now possessed of an energy all its own.

In any case, I was thinking of this when I came across a study by Tova Rosenbloom, “Crossing at a red light: Behaviour of individuals and groups,” in the journal Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour (and, by the way, the idea that this journal goes all the way to ‘F’ gives you an idea of how complex and wide-ranging the field is). In any case, Rosenbloom, looking at pedestrian behavior in Tel Aviv, came to a rather different finding than what I suspected might be the case based on my Fifth Avenue perambulations, and she offers a few reasons as to why this might be.

She writes:

The first hypothesis of the study was that more people would break the law (i.e. cross on a red light) while standing alone than people waiting with others on the curb. The findings of this study support this hypothesis. The more pedestrians present at the curb, the lower was the rate of people crossing on red. Two explanations may account for this pattern: one is theoretical while the other is pragmatic.

The theory of Social Control (Hirschi, 1969) describes the mechanism behind obedient behaviour as the motivation to be rewarded just for being conformist. Normal individuals have inner controllers that prevent them from breaking the law and therefore encourage them to behave in a normative fashion. The sanctions of society are greater deterrents for normative people than are formal sanctions (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1994).

Indeed, people who reach a crosswalk alone when the light is red are less concerned with social criticism and so break the law more easily, while those surrounded by other pedestrians waiting for the green light feel more committed to social order and to social norms and therefore tend to stick to social norms, although not all of them, of course. It should be clarified that it is the immediate social constraints that make people feel more committed to social order. In other words, a transient social state operates to engage pedestrian behaviour. This is also consistent with the social learning explanatory framework (Bandura, 1969).

This being true, this tendency might potentially have some beneficial implications. Hirschi (2004) assumes that strengthening the ties to conventional social institutions might increase the commitment of individuals to normative behaviour. Authorities might want to apply this principle by implementing public educational programs for increasing self-control and hence normative and safer behaviour.

This tendency does have exceptions however. Comprehensive research (Ben-Moshe, unpublished Master’s thesis, 2003) that examined the road crossing decisions of young children and adolescents (6, 9 and 13 year old boys and girls) revealed an opposite trend. Each participant standing with his/her peer group on a crosswalk was much more lax regarding risk-taking in crossing the street than the same participant standing alone. Thus, the mechanism of social facilitation ([Corston and Colman, 1996] and [Sanna and Shotland, 1990]) works differently when teenagers are involved. Support for this notion is found in other studies ([Christensen and Morrongiello, 1997] and [Miller and Byrnes, 1997]) which point to the adolescent tendency to take more risks in the presence of their peer group. Carsaro and Eder (1990) tried to explain that values such as social acceptance, social solidarity and popularity are much more considered among adolescents than among mature people.

An important perspective of road behaviour, such as pedestrians’ road crossing, is the cultural context of the society (e.g. Levine, Norenzayan, & Philbrick, 2001). The behavioural norms of society might be reflected, for example, in the tendency to walk alone or in groups (Rosenbloom et al., 2004).

The current study was conducted in an urban setting at a pedestrian crosswalk in the largest Israeli metropolis – Tel Aviv, which is not typified by any unique features that can be found in other regions in Israel where minorities lives (such as the ultra-orthodox citizens, for example, who walk together in large families and groups as documented by Rosenbloom et al., 2004). So, it can be predicted that individualism-collectivism, for example, could play an important role in explaining people’s behaviour. Sagy, Orr, and Bar-On (1999) found that religious students scored higher in a questionnaire than the secular students on items emphasizing collectivist orientation.

In addition, the decision to cross streets when the light is red is probably influenced by the traffic law associated with crossing on red. In Ireland, for example, crossing in red light for pedestrians is not a traffic violation but rather a warning for pedestrians to be careful while crossing the street. In Israel it is forbidden by law, and those who violate this law take the risk of being fined by the police ( In a way, the current study’s findings are in line with these norms since people usually do not intend to violate the laws but do control each other’s behaviour.

What then, could be the pragmatic explanation for crossing intersections on red when alone? From past experience, people know that the larger the group of people waiting on the curb, the shorter the waiting time is likely to be. In a quick ‘cost-benefit’ calculation they decide it is worth investing a few more seconds to be on the safe side. Here, our recommendation is to install more traffic lights that also indicate the time remaining for the light to change. Further research on this topic is recommended.

From a pragmatic point of view, large groups of pedestrians should have a stronger feeling of safety than individuals have, due to the “safety in numbers” effect (Harrell, 1991) that they feel when many other pedestrians are also crossing. One might assume that oncoming traffic is better able to see pedestrians and come to a stop when there are many of them grouped on the crosswalk or many of them beginning to cross on red. Consequently, there may be greater confidence that drivers would stop under these (crowd) conditions, eliminating the need for caution by the pedestrians.

Posted on Thursday, December 10th, 2009 at 9:38 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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End-of-Year Holiday Road Read Roundup

Seeing Traffic positioned on a reading list recommended by Foreign Policy’s “Top 100” thinkers had me in mind of book lists, and so I thought I’d round up the transportation-related books (or at least marginally so) that have crossed my desk this year and would make good holiday purchases for your mobility-minded friends (or yourself).

In no particular order:

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1.) Joe Moran, On Roads. I’ve noted my interest in this book before, but suffice it to say it’s cracking cultural history of the U.K. motorway system, a must-buy for bitumen boffins everywhere.

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2.) Ted Conover, The Routes of Man. OK, this one’s not out until February, but the galleys of this book accompanied me on a cross-country flight, and I was hooked. A far-flung, elegiac, honest examination of roads and their impact on us and society, Conover’s book ranges from the tangled “go slows” of Lagos, Nigeria to an (illicit) “capitalist road” trip in China.

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3. The Yugo: The and Fall of the Worst Car in History, by Jason Vinc. If you’re old enough to remember actually riding in one of these things, and enough of an automotive-cultural obsessive to remember, say, the Yugo’s appearance in the plot-line of Moonlighting, then this tale of geo-political commerce is for you. And as Vinc reminds us, the Yugo was the “fastest-selling first-year European import in American history.”

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4. Carjacked, by Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez.
OK, this is turning into next year’s list — this one’s not out until early January — but in Carjacked, an anthropologist and writer delve into American car culture — the romance that longed ago turned into marriage — and offer a thorough, gimlet-eyed assessment. Sample quote: “In the period from 1979 to 2002, the period in which seat belts, air bags and other improvements in vehicle crashworthiness were installed, U.S. crash deaths declined by just 16 percent, while those in Great Britain declined by 46 percent, in Canada by 50 percent, and in Australia by 51 percent.”

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5. Waiting on a Train, by James McCommons. Shifting from road to rails, McCommon’s book is a cross-country trip into the modern-day heart of U.S. passenger rail (“service that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of,” notes James Howard Kunstler in his intro), laying bare the roots of its decline and offering a way forward for the country’s most embattled mode. And I’ve not read it yet, but Matthew Engel’s Eleven Minutes Late, a “train journey to the soul of Britain,” is definitely on my list.

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6. Jeff Mapes, Pedaling Revolution. Another one I’ve banged on about before about, but the go-to work on cycling as a form of transportation in America today. And full disclosure: The guy did lend me a bike to ride in Portland.

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7. City: Rediscovering the Center. By William H. Whyte.
One of those rare books — reissued in paperback in 2009 — that actually lives up to the promise of “changing the way you see the world.” Along with the writing of Joseph Mitchell, I can’t think of any other title that has so influenced my experience of living in New York City.

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Cars: Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Everything (text by Stephen Bayley).
Because sometimes you just really want to look at a pretty picture of a 1955 Citroën DS.

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9. Jeff in Venice, by Geoff Dyer. One of my favorite writers, and his description of driving in India does not disappoint.

Suggestions are welcome for others I may have left out.

Posted on Monday, December 7th, 2009 at 4:19 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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DIY Streets

The device at right — the “Plant Lock,” for locking bikes, not plants — was new to me.

It’s one of a number of features employed in a so-called “DIY Street” in the East End of London.

Writes the Guardian:

Getting cars cars to slow down instead of racing through backstreet rat runs benefits everyone from cyclists to residents. But a windswept street on a November night in the East End of London is not the first place you’d expect to find inspiration for how to do that – not only cheaply but also with the total approval of the people who live there.

Clapton Terrace is one of 11 “DIY Streets”, a nationwide project launched by sustainable transport charity Sustrans as a cheap solution to local traffic problems. By narrowing and raising sections of road to pavement level, planting trees and using street furniture and bollards, the scheme forces drivers to slow down by blurring the distinction between space dedicated to cars and pedestrians.

Two years ago locals were fed up as drivers were using their street as a shortcut to avoid a busy junction nearby. They resurrected their residents’ group and got together to vote on their own DIY Street. Lyn Altass became what Sustrans calls a “community champion”.

“We leafleted every house for ideas and 40% of people responded. Hackney council only gets 25% during elections,” she says when I meet her. She points proudly to the new trees and new access to the green opposite, which means the road now looks more like an entrance to a park.

Residents described the street as previously being “an accident waiting to happen.” By raising a section of road in the centre of the road to pavement height, traffic is forced to slow down. The road now feels a lot more spacious as two trees were added beside the road, communal wheelie bins replaced 64 individual bins, and a fence around the nearby green was removed. The site also uses Plantlocks – boxes of plants with bike-friendly bars – where residents can lock bikes.

“We were expecting a 20mph sign and we got all of this!” a local told me.

More on the project here.

Posted on Thursday, December 3rd, 2009 at 9:13 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Safety Film of the Week

I couldn’t resist this image of an autonomous truck versus autonomous car showdown at the DARPA urban challenge race a few years back. One wonders what the algorithm is for determining propensity to back up — if the other guy is bigger than you?

Posted on Monday, November 16th, 2009 at 3:03 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Crash Cab

You thought those TVs in the back of New York taxis were supremely annoying?

South Korea has legalized TVs in the front of cabs, for the drivers.

Posted on Monday, November 9th, 2009 at 7:25 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Latest Slate Column

Headlines stretch things: I wouldn’t call it so much a “defense of jaywalking” as a challenge to the idea that it ranks as the key issue in pedestrian safety. In any case it’s here.

And my Slate colleague Christopher Beam, in my absence, contributed this excellent column on the eternal issue of bicycles and traffic laws.

Posted on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009 at 7:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Guns, Germs, and Bikes

I was struck recently, as I read David Byrne’s The Bicycle Diaries, by this passage, which refers to the author’s time in Buenos Aires:

Built on the floodplain of La Plata River, the city is fairly flat, and with the temperate weather and the streets more or less on a grid it is perfect for cycling around. Despite this I could count on one hand the number of locals I saw on bikes. Why? Would I inevitably find out the reason no one else was pedaling around here? Was there some dark secret explanation about to pounce on me? Am I a naive fool? Is it because the driving is so reckless, the theft so rampant, the gas so cheap, and a car such a necessary symbol of status? Is it so uncool to ride a bike here that even messengers find other ways of getting around?

I don’t think it is any of those reasons. I think the idea of cycling is simply off the radar here. The cycling meme hasn’t been dropped into the mix, or it never took hold. I am inclined to agree with Jared Diamond, who claims in his book Collapse that people develop cultural affinities for certain foods, ways of getting around, clothes, and habits of being that become so ingrained that they will, in his telling, persist in maintaining their habits even to the piont of driving themselves and sometimes their whole civilization to extinction.

I’ve not been to Buenos Aires, and it would certainly make an interesting South American point of comparison to, say, Bogota, where an activist mayor and many others helped to transform cycling in that city (and did I just read that Santiago is pursuing bike lanes rather energetically?). But it is an interesting question: The mixture of infrastructure, social norms, behavioral change, incentives, and whatever else is needed to get a bike culture off the ground. After all, as Mikael has noted of Copenhagen, for example, these things are not necessarily a fait accompli; Copenhagen could easily resemble Madrid or any other more auto-intensive European capital today were it not for a set of discrete historical events — and ongoing campaigns. Any cycling Porteñas happen to be reading and care to comment?

I thought of this again recently when an old chum from Portland, Steve Johnson at PSU, sent along his interesting essay on the prehistory of Portland’s bike renaissance. In the early 1970s, for example, he writes: “Sam Oakland estimated there to be about 400 people riding bicycles into downtown Portland on a daily basis (Frazier, 1971).” The number over the Hawthorne Bridge in 1975? 200. It’s a bit higher than that today, and the piece chronicles the long story of bureaucratic finagling, community activism, the endless hours of debates — bike lanes or bike education? — the entrenched opposition, the long miles traveled, etc., that have all led to this historical moment.

Posted on Monday, November 2nd, 2009 at 2:14 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Shibuya Circus

London’s Oxford Circus is one of those Yogi Berri-esque ‘so popular no one goes there anymore’ sorts of urban spaces — I once did a little bit there for the BBC with Scottish-Sikh funnyman Hardeep Singh Kohli on “pedestrian rage” on the overcrowded street. It’s just gotten some relief in the form of a diagonal crossing (i.e., “scramble”), modeled on the crossing at Hachikō Square in Shibuya, Tokyo, a place one can easily lose a few hours just watching the action from a nearby donut shop). The video above describes the dynamics and shows the “before.” The impressive “after” can be viewed here.

Notes the BBC:

In homage to its Far Eastern inspiration, Mr Johnson struck a two-metre high cymbal as Japanese musicians played taiko drums.

A giant X, in the form of 60m (196ft) of red ribbon was also unfurled by devotees of cult Japanese Manga characters dressed in colourful costumes.

As with elsewhere in the city, pedestrian barricades have been removed (“giving shoppers and workers that visit annually around 70% more freedom to move,” notes the BBC).

I don’t know precisely when the first diagonal crossing was unveiled, though its popularity is certainly linked to Henry Barnes, NYC’s former traffic capo, who first unveiled it in Denver (where it earned the name ‘Barnes Dance’; he himself noted it had been tried elsewhere previously).

Here’s Barnes from his memoir, The Man with the Red and Green Eyes:

As things stood now, a downtown shopper needed a four-leaf clover, a voodoo charm, and a St. Christopher’s medal to make it in one piece from one curbstone to the other. As far as I was concerned–a traffic engineer with Methodist leanings–I didn’t think that the Almighty should be bothered with problems which we, ourselves, were capable of solving. Therefore, I was going to aid and abet prayers and benedictions with a practical scheme: Henceforth, the pedestrian–as far as Denver was concerned–was going to be blessed with a complete interval in the traffic signal cycle all his own. First of all, there would be the usual red and green signals for vehicular traffic. Let the cars have their way, moving straight through or making right turns. Then a red light for all vehicles while the pedestrians were given their own signal. In this interim, the street crossers could move directly or diagonally to their objectives, having free access to all four corners while all cars waited for a change of lights.

It’s hardly common, but does pop up in places with extraordinary pedestrian volumes or some other special circumstances, as in the historic-entertainment district of San Diego, where fellow INFORMS attendee Sean Devine snapped the photo below (alas, I didn’t experience the crossing myself, as I was out looking at seals).

Here’s another one, in Toronto, captured in time-lapse glory.

Scramble from Sam Javanrouh on Vimeo.

(thanks James)

Posted on Monday, November 2nd, 2009 at 8:13 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Sufjan on the BQE

New Sufjan Stevens album, The BQE.

“It’s a great insight into the psychology of man: Put a human being behind the wheel of a car and put them on the BQE,” Stevens says.

Don’t I know, brother, don’t I know.

Posted on Friday, October 30th, 2009 at 8:10 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Best Paragraph I read Today

From the Journal of Mammalogy:

There are several non–mutually exclusive hypotheses for why bears selected minivans. First, it is possible that minivans were more likely to emit food odors regardless of whether they contained meaningful amounts of food available. This argument is based on the fact that minivans are designed for families with children and small children in particular are notorious for spilling food and drink while riding in vehicles. Thus, vehicles transporting children would emit greater food odors, making them attractive to bears. If this hypothesis is correct then any vehicle transporting small children, regardless of class type, should be targeted by bears. To test this supposition, park personnel collecting information on vehicles broken into should also note whether car seats were present, or whether small children are regularly transported in the vehicle, or both.

From a fascinating study looking at which vehicles seemed to occasion the most ursine break-ins in Yosemite National Park (“SELECTIVE FORAGING FOR ANTHROPOGENIC RESOURCES BY BLACK BEARS: MINIVANS IN YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK,” by STEWART W. BRECK, NATHAN LANCE, AND VICTORIA SEHER); perhaps inevitably, in terms of animal/vehicle adaptation, it reminded me of the observations of crows using pedestrian signal crossings to retrieve the nuts they had dropped into the street (where they could be “opened” by passing cars).

Note to thieves: Another reason bears favored minivans is that they’re easier to break into.

Posted on Tuesday, October 27th, 2009 at 6:38 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Electric Chair

Justice has been finally served (though not as swiftly as the eight or nine beers that got this fella into trouble) in the case of the Minnesotan caught driving under the influence of alcohol in his motorized lazyboy recliner —back in 2008.

Posted on Monday, October 26th, 2009 at 4:02 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Curious Traffic Safety Fact of the Day

Via USA Today:

State traffic agencies are tailoring safe driving campaigns to reflect growth in minority groups and even refugee communities where English is not fully understood.

In Ohio, officials designing a seat-belt campaign aimed at the state’s large Somali refugee population wanted to adapt the popular “Click it or ticket” slogan but found that “ticket” doesn’t translate.

“They don’t have a government in Somalia, so ‘ticket’ doesn’t mean anything to them,” says Tina O’Grady, administrator of the state’s Traffic Safety Office. “We ended up translating it as ‘Strap it, or lose your livestock,’ which also means your money or income or livelihood.”

Posted on Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 at 11:14 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Random vanity plate facts of the day (and I have a question: Which other countries permit vanity plates? I can’t recall seeing them in Europe, for example, but I may be wrong):

That’s how we know 1 in 26.15 registered motor vehicles have vanity plates, which translates into nearly 9.3 million or 3.8% of the nearly 243 million registered motor vehicles in the US. And that’s where we get the term, “vanity plate penetration,” and are able to use it in this sentence: Virginia has the highest vanity plate penetration with 1 in 6.18 registered cars (or 16%) being vanitized.

After Virginia, the next five states with the highest vanity plate penetration are New Hampshire (1 in 7.14); Illinois (1 in 7.45); Nevada (1 in 7.8); Montana (1 in 10.2); and Maine (1 in 10.21). The state with the lowest percentage of vanity plates is Texas, with only .56%, or 1 in 178.3 registered cars.

Via the wonderfully obsessive, if imperfect, Book of Odds.

Posted on Tuesday, October 20th, 2009 at 10:24 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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There are many things to recommend about Rich Cohen’s elegiac paean to car salesman in The Believer, but this was one of those lines that, to my mind, fairly screamed off the page:

An early problem was how it spooked horses, which snorted and fled in terror before its engines—a problem not addressed until 1900, when the designer Uriah Smith attached an imitation horse head to the grille of his “Horseless Horsey Carriage,” which, he believed, would cause the pack animals to register the carriage as “friend.”

Posted on Tuesday, October 13th, 2009 at 9:08 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Black Cars of the Guardia Civil

I came across this interesting passage in Tim Falconer’s book Drive:

Ford made and sold the Falcon in the United States until 1970, but the car had an even longer and more successful life in other parts of the world, where many saw it as a mid-sized model. In Australia, it remains the company’s best-seller. And in Argentina, the Falcon was not just the most-produced car, with half a million built between 1962 and 1991, but also a hugely important one culturally. The Falcon was a racing car, a family car, a taxi, a police car—and, from 1976 to 1983, a sinister symbol of the country’s military dictatorship and the so-called ‘Dirty War’ that the generals who ruled after the coup d’etat waged against their own people. Death squads used dark green Falcons to ‘disappear’ trade unionists, artists, students and anyone else who might oppose or question the junta. Since the squads illegally arrested, tortured or killed an estimated thirty thousand people, the car now stirs bitter emotions for many Argentines. (Lawrence Thornton’s 1988 novel Imagining Argentina does a hauntingly good job of capturing the ominous mood those dark green birds of prey created.) Even today, some people in Buenos Aires won’t get into a taxi if it’s a Falcon, and a tour operator in the northern city of Salta, who would have been just four or five when the dictatorship crumbled, told me, ‘I don’t like it when I see a Ford Falcon, I get bad memories.’

I wonder if any other car brands through the years have acquired a such an unwitting negative political and cultural connotation, at least among a certain part of the population. The “black cars” of the title seem a staple (and vis a vis the “secret police” there is an irony in their driving around in unmarked cars that became almost more conspicuous in their lack of marking); Stalin was shuttled around for a time in a black Packard (and people were always said to be seeing Stalin on the street; “God came driving by in five black automobiles,” went a line from a Soviet poet of the day). The Citroen Traction Avant (in black) was favored by the Gestapo. I imagine there was a certain Trabant (or Mercedes) favored by the Stasi, a Lada by the KGB, etc., and I’ve no idea what the SAVAK drove. But I’m curious if anyone knows of any examples of particular car makes that in and of themselves became a dreaded sight, a vehicle of repression?

Posted on Saturday, October 10th, 2009 at 9:33 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I mentioned briefly in Traffic the preponderance — and sheer size — of speed bumps, or topes, in Mexico City (as this writer for La Jornada wryly opines, Mexico City — topilandia— must lead the world in speed bumps, and it’s at least nice to be first in something).

But as this story in the Arizona Republic notes, there’s a new tope on the horizon:

It’s a speed bump that automatically lowers into the ground if drivers are going the speed limit. Though it is still only a prototype, proponents say it could save gasoline, cut air pollution and calm tempers.

“With this speed bump, people will feel rewarded for obeying the law, something that doesn’t happen now,” said Carlos Cano, president of Decano Industries, which is developing the speed bump. “The aim is not just to slow traffic, but to change society.”

Posted on Saturday, October 10th, 2009 at 8:39 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I Can Haz Cheezburger at My Steering Wheel

A very SkyMaul-ish product, that sort that seems designed to elicit mock reviews on Amazon and violate any number of Michael Pollan’s “food rules.” Needless to say, not be used while driving (that’s what your legs are for, after all, to hold french fries — and keep them warm).

And speaking of SkyMaul, did you see the first product on the list of other things customers who purchased this item purchased? Poop Freeze Aerosol Spray. Wow.

(Via Eat Me Daily, thanks Vagabondblogger)

Posted on Saturday, October 10th, 2009 at 8:11 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Extreme Makeover: Speed Bump Edition

Usually Staten Island’s in the news for its law-averse drivers, but here’s a different take: Renegade homegrown traffic engineers.

Posted on Friday, October 9th, 2009 at 8:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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What’s Missing from Google Earth? Traffic!

Via Engadget.

Posted on Friday, October 2nd, 2009 at 9:03 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Quick Note on The Summit

I’ve not had a chance to catch everything, but John Lee’s testimony yesterday was a high point for me — and not just because he’s in Traffic. I never thought I’d hear William James’ name show up in government testimony, and another front, one idea that intrigued me in his presentation was not just the idea that there’s temporary distraction (eyes off road time, fumbling for an object), or cognitive distraction (e.g, a cell-phone conversation), but this more meta-level distraction in which one’s role as a driver is essentially “distracted,” into some other role — busy office worker, mother tending to children in back seat, diner in mobile kitchen — which subverts what should be the most most primary role, driver (which is a job title in itself, after all). It also reminds me of something Andrew Pearce from the Global Road Safety Partnership mentioned to me, which is the different ways, through training and culture and mission, drivers and pilots address their task:

a.) The primary thought in the mind of most people who get in a car and drive it is the objective of getting to the other end of the journey.

b.) The primary thought in the mind of a pilot is getting his passengers safely off the ground and back to land.

The idea is to make a.) more like b.), with drivers considering not only the safety of their own passengers, but as fellow road users as “passengers” of a sort.

Some people are thinking this way, of course: The NTSB, appropriately, recently announced a total mobile device ban for employees using government cars; its administrator, Deborah Hersman, interestingly invoked the concept of the “sterile cockpit,” which prohibits non-mission critical conversation and activity during the most sensitive flight times. This reminds me in turn of something I heard while out at Stanford a couple weeks back, talking to Clifford Nass. He noted that someone had asked him something about multitasking in the context of Capt. “Sully” and his heroic river landing. Well clearly that shows that people can do multiple things at once, even in extreme situations. Yes, sort of, but of course, everything he was doing was integrally related to the process of landing that craft. He wasn’t phoning his wife to see what he needed at the store or trying to find just the right music on his iPod for an emergency water-borne landing.

As someone mentioned at the summit yesterday, there’s probably not the political will or even the money to train drivers with the same rigor as pilots, but I’m not just talking skills here, I’m talking about the whole idea of the culture of safety, which drivers seem to so easily disregard (and government reflects in, for example, its extreme reluctance to take away one’s license, even in the face of multiple serious infractions). In story after story I keep reading the same stock quotes from people, “we lead busy lives,” “there’s more pressure than ever before,” blah, blah, blah. Guess what, we all lead busy lives — but not all of us take it out on those around us in traffic with our negligence — and in fact they might feel less busy if one didn’t feel the need to text and talk their way home through a long commute. I’ll close with a few relevant thoughts I had on Dalton Conley’s book Elsewhere U.S.A.:

Why should such free-floating anxiety exist among people in seemingly comfortable positions? One hears of executives being constantly uprooted in a job market rife with downsizing. Parents worry that their careers are not allowing them to spend enough time with their children. No one feels as if they have any time. But Conley points out that the facts tell a different story: Fewer Americans moved in 2000 than did in 1950. The percentage of people logging more than ten years with large firms has increased. This generation of fathers, he observes, “spends more time with their children than any in recent history.” As for the time squeeze, a study has found that higher-income women, even when they work the same number of hours as those earning less, report feeling more pressed for time. As Conley notes, “when you can earn more per hour, the opportunity cost of not working feels greater and the pressure is all the more intense.”

The frenetic, self-regulating regimen of one’s inner time manager is the chief culprit, Conley argues, in the forever-harried state of postindustrial labor. For the first time in history, the more people are paid, the more they feel they must work. Income inequality has risen absolutely, but particularly within the upper echelons of the professional classes. “From any link in the chain,” he writes, “it looks like everyone else is rushing away.” So the presumed leisure time that money might buy merely breeds anxiety over how much the moment is costing.

This anxiety is all but inscribed into the software of devices such as the BlackBerry, the info-status accessory par excellence for this generation of knowledge workers. Whether the device, which corrodes the boundary between work and leisure, makes one more productive is open for debate; the science writer Stefan Klein has noted that “when we are under stress, we are no longer able to filter out unimportant matters; we become scatterbrained, flighty and reckless.” So cue the BlackBerry users, working the digital age’s own set of worry beads. “We tell ourselves that the stress comes from a lack of time, even though it is really just the other way around,” Klein observes. “We are not stressed because we have no time; rather, we have no time because we are stressed.”

Posted on Thursday, October 1st, 2009 at 12:06 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
Comments Off on A Quick Note on The Summit. Click here to leave a comment.
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.

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