Archive for the ‘Traffic Culture’ Category

Higher Learning

Mary Beard notes the new biblio-themed bollards outside of University Library at Cambridge University. Alas, no titles, as she notes, but certainly inspired, and hinting at the tremendous untapped potential of the bollard form.

Posted on Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009 at 3:20 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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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.

Posted on Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 at 3:55 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Strange Dynamics of Airport Walkways

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
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Back to School

I was struck by this post, about the bicycle-heavy back-to-school ritual in the Netherlands, at David Hembrow’s site. As he observes, “a few weeks before the start of the school term, banners and signs appear to remind drivers that children are to be expected to be on bikes in larger numbers again. The banner reads ‘The schools are starting again.’ ”

In the U.S., of course, it’s more common at this time of year for schools to send out notices that their “traffic patterns” have changed, meaning the location of where kids are picked up and dropped off, via car (and typically they’re changed because so many parents are driving their kids to school, and the parking lots have become not only congested, but safety hazards). Relatedly, I happened to read, over the DOT’s Fast Lane page, about Secretary Ray LaHood visiting a school in Peoria, where some young students gave him their thoughts on transportation and safety. I don’t know what they envisioned, but I was curious to note the school’s handbook, located here, which notes, “due to the volume of traffic in the parking lot, students should be dropped off and picked up and the Northmoor door of the school.”

The final thing to note, not surprisingly, is the WalkScore of the neighborhood where the school is located: 49 out of 100.

Posted on Thursday, September 10th, 2009 at 12:08 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Choosing Sides

More on Samoa here, while the BBC examines the old on-again off-again issue of the U.K. switching sides.

What if the UK were to follow? Driving on the right would make trips to the European mainland easier, when taking or hiring a car. And cars with steering wheels on the left could be cheaper.

The idea is not as fanciful as it sounds. Although the Department for Transport says it has no plans to change, it did examine such a plan in the late 1960s, two years after Sweden successfully switched to driving on the right.

Its report rejected the idea on grounds of safety and costs. But that was before Britain’s entry into the European Union and the opening of the Channel Tunnel, which for the first time established a land link between Britain and the Continent.

Posted on Wednesday, September 9th, 2009 at 3:00 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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As someone who’s not in a corporate environment, I’m always struck when, on assignment for a story or some such, I enter this world — whether it be Wall Street or Silicon Valley — and immediately become aware of curious forms of dialect. Sometimes it’s words used in ways I never heard them used before — weird verbs like “transition” or “architect” or “blue sky.”

Other times it’s some humdrum word used in a novel way, and used so often that I figure it must have been distilled from some recent management bestseller. Take, for example, “bucket.” I came across this yet again in a Sunday New York Times piece about Ford CEO Alan Mullally, who said, “So I don’t have separate buckets of my life, like my family life or my personal life or my work life.” Well, I for one am glad to hear that; one’s life really shouldn’t be in buckets. But I hear “buckets” all the time, as if I were at a farm, or in a sinking boat — some place in which buckets might truly be, er, actionable. Another favorite, which I heard out in California awhile back at a computer company, is “we don’t play in that space;” meaning, we have chosen not to enter that market (or tried and have failed). The whole undertone is we’re loose, we’re creative, we’re not buttoned-down, hell, we’re barely working! — even if those kids at Google probably work longer hours than the young marrieds at Sterling Cooper (and they got to go out for three-martini lunches).

I recognize that jargon can be useful as a shorthand in a field, as a mark of authority, or a sort of signaling device (hey, we get it), but it also strikes me that it often represents an intellectual laziness, a way of saying essentially nothing, instead of thinking up something more original. And it can also be used as a cudgel, of course, on outsiders who don’t speak the language.

As all professions seem inevitably to inculcate their own jargon (or corrupted language, if you’re being less charitable), I’m curious as to how this shakes out in the field of transportation. Walking in Savannah recently with Michael Ronkin (who, as I mentioned in an earlier post, also questioned “pedestrian”), I used the word “signage,” which brought a jovial rebuke. “Why not just say signs?” Ronkin asked. I had to laugh; I’ve absorbed that over time. I tried to think back to some recent conferences and the terms that had floated this way and that. “Stakeholder” is one I hear a lot, and while it at first glance sounds like something you might buy at Williams-Sonoma, I suppose it makes sense; the problem was, however, I heard it used in situations where the “stakeholders” were, essentially, everyone (but maybe it sounds better than the simple “people”). I always flinch a bit at “vulnerable road user.” The spirit of it its perhaps well-intentioned, but as Gerald Wilde once pointed out to me, most people killed in traffic in the U.S. are killed in cars — so who’s vulnerable?

And then Dom Nozzi pointed me to this page, which lists a whole scad of seemingly innocent words (e.g., “level of service”) that are, in their way, politically loaded. “Road improvements,” for example. “The word improvements is often used when referring to the addition of through lanes, turn lanes, channelization, or other means of increasing motor vehicle capacity and/or speeds. Though these changes may indeed be improvements from the perspective of motor vehicle users, they would not be considered improvements by other constituents of the City.”

One might stretch this further to think of a term like “mobility.” Who could argue against it? (actually, John Adams has questioned “hyper-mobility”). But, to take my local street as an example, one form of mobility — the car — runs against another form of mobility — walking. The more mobility in the first mode, the more my mobility is constrained. So mobility should too be questioned: Whose mobility? What kind of mobility? Mobility at what expense? Mobility from where to where? As commenters here have pointed out as well, “traffic” tends to take on a homo-modal (I’ve just invented that piece of jargon) sort of meaning — cars; and as I point out in the book, it has come to have instinctively negative connotations on the road (but not elsewhere, as on the Internet, where my inbox is flooded with spam promising ways to “boost traffic”).

In any case, I’m curious as to what those of you in the transportation professions might see as odd turns of phrase, lingo that baffles people or conceals some kind of ulterior meaning, words you yourself are trying to purge from your vocabulary.

Posted on Wednesday, September 9th, 2009 at 2:11 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Phantom Trains

The late, lamented Rochester subway:

Most people have no idea that Rochester, NY even had a subway. But from 1927 until 1956, red and cream colored trolley cars and four-car commuter trains rushed thru tunnels beneath downtown Rochester — above ground from the General Motors plant all the way to Elmwood Avenue and Rowlands. Known to most simply as the “Subway,” it was built to ease interurban traffic from the streets of Rochester. It also served as an interchange for the five railroads that entered the city and as a link to interurban lines serving the east and west.

There were several proposals in its final years that would have significantly expanded the line from downtown to Pittsford, Charlotte Beach, and the airport. The Subway was never really meant to die. This map shows how the system might have looked today – had it survived.

A few other details, via Strange Maps:

For much of late 19th and early 20th century, Rochester was among America’s two dozen biggest cities. But not anymore, not by a long shot: the former economic powerhouse by Lake Ontario’s southern shores has slipped to 97th place, and into relative obscurity. At its peak, Rochester had a third of a million inhabitants; now, at just over 200,000, it at least has the consolation to be still the biggest Rochester in the world. It out-sizes all 18 other Rochesters, including the original one (in England, with under 30,000 inhabitants). More importantly, metropolitan Rochester (about 1 million inhabitants) still is the second major economic hub in New York State, after – obviously – New York City.

And has anyone read Smugtown U.S.A.?

Rochester also attracted a significant amount of garment factories, became the centre of copying industry as the headquarters of Xerox and generally was a hub post-world-war-two high-tech – creating a self-confident culture mocked in the novel Smugtown USA (1957).

Posted on Tuesday, September 8th, 2009 at 2:41 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Random Fact of the Day

That might be useful, but a compelling study has already revealed that teens taught to drive by their parents are 2.7 times more likely to get into a fatal accident than those who take formal driver’s ed courses. The 2007 study focused on Texas and was funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

This via an interesting article on reforming driver’s ed in Texas.

Posted on Tuesday, September 8th, 2009 at 12:08 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I’ve Looked at Life From Both Sides Now

Samoa switches over.

As sirens and church bells wailed across Samoa just before 6am on Monday, drivers obediently stopped their cars. Then, after instructions issued over the radio by the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, they shifted to the other side of the road and ushered in history.

“After this announcement you will all be permitted to move to the other side of the road, to begin this new era in our history,” Mr Tuilaepa told his people, warning: “Don’t drive if you are sleepy, drunk or just had a fight with your wife.”

Sage advice for normal driving as well.

Posted on Tuesday, September 8th, 2009 at 12:01 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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If you’re reading this in Samoa, you have one day left to drive on the right. In case you forget, these stickers might help.

Posted on Sunday, September 6th, 2009 at 10:37 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Via the BBC:

There has been traffic chaos in two Paris suburbs after their feuding mayors declared the same busy road one-way, but in opposite directions.

Posted on Tuesday, September 1st, 2009 at 12:36 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Safety Film of the Week

They really get the tone of these things so right.

Posted on Sunday, August 30th, 2009 at 3:04 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Drive Like Hell

Bumper sticker just seen on the Hutchison River Parkway: “Relax, God Is In Control.”

The driver, in an SUV (natch) was tailgating, weaving, speeding, and otherwise acting like a maniac (and in full violation of the Vatican’s recent edict on the “pastoral care” of fellow road users).

Who knows, maybe they were running late for the Rapture.

Posted on Sunday, August 30th, 2009 at 3:03 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Commuted Sentence

Gives “traffic justice” a whole new meaning. Man cheats on wife, has to tell rush-hour commuters about it.

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 2009 at 9:24 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Kafka at the DMV

Via the Detroit News:

Ferndale — After pulling over a reportedly stolen car early Wednesday morning, police discovered that the driver, Renee Lashon Beavers, 33, of Detroit, had been issued 45 license suspensions from the Michigan Secretary of State.

“Actually, she has never had a driver’s license from us,” said SOS spokesman Fred Woodhams. “She definitely has a record with us, but we show that she’s never had a license.”

According to the SOS, it is possible to receive driving suspensions without ever having acquired a valid driver’s license.

Posted on Thursday, August 27th, 2009 at 3:17 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Taking of Pelham’s Trees

Apparently this issue has been around awhile. From a letter to the New York Times, 1999:

To the Editor:

Re ”Drivers Fear Leafy Menace by the Side of the Road” (Sept. 19): Pelham Parkway is not a limited-access highway; it is a parkway, a road that connects Pelham Bay Park with Bronx Park. Coincidentally, it now connects the Bronx River Parkway with the Hutchinson River Parkway and the New England Thruway (I-95). It was designed for light pleasure traffic at speeds of 25 to 30 miles per hour, not 50 to 60 m.p.h.

When people fall asleep at the wheel, are cut off by another vehicle or seek to avoid an animal in the road and hit one of the trees transplanted from the subway construction on the Grand Concourse, it is not the fault of the tree, nor the design of the road. I would hate to see the trees removed simply because motorists are not observing the speed limit.

If the police would enforce the speed limit on Pelham Parkway, the city would make money on the road instead of spending it. If the road could have been redesigned, you could be sure the master builder (and destroyer) Robert Moses would have rebuilt it after his failure to complete the Sheridan Expressway, which would have been the main east-west roadway to compliment the Cross Bronx Expressway.


Morris Park, Bronx

Posted on Wednesday, August 26th, 2009 at 8:36 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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New York as Motopia

Michael Frumin was intrigued by a report on 2008 subway passenger counts.

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.

Posted on Tuesday, August 25th, 2009 at 2:49 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The U.S. is still not paying congestion charging fees in London, reports the Guardian.

“TfL and the UK government are agreed that the congestion charge is a charge for a service and not a tax, which means that diplomats are not exempt from payment. All staff at the American embassy should pay it, in the same way as British officials pay road tolls in the United States. TfL continues to engage directly with those embassies that refuse to pay in order to increase compliance with the scheme by diplomats.”

Posted on Monday, August 24th, 2009 at 8:00 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Umbrellas of Pyongyang

Via Korea News Service comes news of an interesting traffic development in Pyongyang (a place, when glimpsed on Google Earth, doesn’t appear to have much traffic):

Pyongyang, August 13 (KCNA) — Unique platforms under umbrellas are being set up in traffic control posts at intersections of Pyongyang these days, attracting attention of people.

The round platform under well-shaped large umbrella is clearly seen at far distance.

The umbrella shields the traffic controllers from sunrays and rain and the platform shuts out heat from the heated asphalt.

The female traffic controllers are commanding the traffic with a bright face on the platform under the umbrella even in the hottest period of summer.

Passers-by stop walking for a while to see the new scene.

They say it can be seen only in the country led by Kim Jong Il.

The traffic controllers are moved by the warm affection shown for them by General Secretary Kim Jong Il who saw to it that the platforms with umbrellas are being set up this time after raincoats, rain boots, sunglasses, gloves and cosmetics as well as seasonal uniforms were provided to them.

I suppose the free cosmetics help ensure the bright face? And I don’t suppose any readers have been to the city lately, to verify whether or not these really are attracting the attention of passerby?

Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 7:09 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Emotionally Intelligent Bollards

One of the most universal, and seemingly intractable, problems in the world of traffic is controlling drivers’ speeds on local streets, particularly those with children present. The latest approach, in Leicester, England, combines hardcore traffic engineering — steel bollards — with a more humanistic side: They literally look like small children standing on the side of the road.

There is, admittedly, a bit of a Village of the Damned look to the bollards — and yet also something rather cheerful, something like foosball players — but perhaps, echoing Daniel Pink’s “emotionally intelligent signage” proposal, they may trigger some instinctual response, reminding drivers of the presence of humans (and, after all, studies have shown that images of humans, particularly human eyes, can be as persuasive as real humans).

Not surprisingly, the locals are a bit divided.

Sylvia Thomas, who lives in nearby Greenhill Road, said: “I can’t see the point of them. If they are there to calm traffic they don’t work, because one has already been knocked over.

“They are quite strange.”

Helen Evans, 44, from Knighton, said: “They look great. I think they’re cute – and hopefully they will make people drive more carefully and remember there are children around here.”

As to the first commenter, rather than viewing it a failed solution, the idea that one has already been knocked down might simply demonstrate the extent of the problem. And the bollards are merely one part of a wider strategy, including striping and a new 20 mph speed limit.

From another story came this comment:

The RAC told Sky News Online that there was a risk “the statues will become a distraction with drivers focusing on them rather than the road ahead.”

One way to deal with that issue would be to put a few in the road. But of course there’s also the issue that real pedestrians will become a distraction — do we ban them from roadsides? Do we strip any sign of life from city streets so drivers will not have their precious roads obscured, their perilous attention (probably already compromised by their phone) fractured any further?

In any case, I’ll be curious to hear of any before/after speed comparisons.

Posted on Sunday, August 16th, 2009 at 10:21 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

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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
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June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
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July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
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August 12-14
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September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
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September 11, 2009
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October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
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November 5
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Yale University
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Eero Saarinen Lecture

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University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
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International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
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Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
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Royal Automobile Club
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Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
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Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
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Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
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Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
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California Association of Cities
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Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
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April 17, 2012
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January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
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January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
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March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
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May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
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Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
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September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
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of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



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