Archive for the ‘Traffic History’ Category

The Nazca Lines of the Twentieth Century


Over at Politico, I offer an appreciation of the aerial photographs of highway interchanges by the Canadian photographer Peter Andrew.

“What is it that makes the patterns of highway interchanges so captivating? Perhaps we are drawn in by our pattern-hungry brains, mentally tracing the loops and parabolas, looking for connections and symmetries. Perhaps we gain a pleasurable synaptic charge from mastering the routes. Or, in the way the contours of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings have been shown to follow a strongly fractal logic, perhaps a well-designed highway interchange hits some kind of subconscious geometric sweet spot. (Long before highways, braided knots were figuring into various religious symbologies, and Pictish knot imagery from the Book of Kells seems curiously evocative of modern day interchanges.)”

Posted on Friday, August 7th, 2015 at 4:10 pm by: admin
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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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The Leftist Insurgency in Samoa

I’ve got a new piece up at that considers that ever vexing question: Which side of the road should we drive on? And should we all do it the same way?

Here’s the opener:

A revolution is afoot in the small Pacific island nation of Samoa. Mass demonstrations, the biggest the country has ever seen, have rocked the capital. A new political party has formed in an attempt to depose the prime minister. The airwaves crackle with dissent.

As is often the case in political strife, a left-right divide underpins the Samoan turmoil. In this case, left vs. right refers to which side of the road Samoans are meant to drive on. At 6 a.m. on Sept. 7, Samoans, who for over a century have navigated on the right — like their neighbors in American Samoa — will change over to the left.

Posted on Friday, August 14th, 2009 at 9:55 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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How New York Might Have Looked

In recently doing some research on the historical traffic problems at Times Square, I came across the article above in the New York Times, circa 1911, which described the call of one Charles R. Lamb (formerly of the Municipal Art Society) to have another diagonal boulevard built in Manhattan, originating at 34th street — apparently in a massive, terrifying traffic circle — and running up to a plaza at 53rd Street.

Interestingly, the article makes the following claim, which runs precisely counter to what we now think of the way the diagonal of Broadway functions:

“The real difficulty with New York is this: that the only diagonal we have is Broadway. You can easily see the force of this point if you will remember that every man instinctively takes an angle street if he can because it makes the least distance. The automobile man does it: so does the truck-man; so does the pedestrian; everybody does.

And to just the extent that a person can turn from an angle, he will do it. You can see that at Times Square where Broadway cuts across Seventh Avenue. You can see it in Washington where the men that planned that city were wiser than the men that planned ours and where they cut frequent diagonal avenues with spacious circles at regular intervals. Just imagine what New York would be if the Times Square situation were repeated so frequently that a man could make his choice of taking an angle street or going around the block whenever he felt like it.”

Imagine indeed…

Posted on Wednesday, August 5th, 2009 at 6:41 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Silly, Controversial, Progressive, Then Obvious

I had come across the above slide, via a post at Kottke’s blog, and it is taken from a talk by a Harvard University researcher named Lant Pritchett. I was intrigued by the progression Pritchett had theorized in the way that once-seemingly controversial issues (his slide illustrates changing attitudes over interracial marriage) had, over time, simply become part of the normal state of affairs. Now, clearly this is not always a linear, teleological dynamic, but it’s interesting to try and think of other examples where it applies (a woman’s right to vote, recycling, smoking is bad for you, etc.).

I was also interested in what areas of traffic safety and the larger culture of traffic to which it might apply — seat belt usage, for example (or the idea of laws for same), driving while drunk, motorcycle helmets (or helmets in hockey and other sports), etc. And I found myself reaching for the concept in a recent column for Reclaim, the magazine of NYC’s Transportation Alternatives (of which I’m a member; if you think, by the way, that this makes me some anti-car radical, I’m also a member of AAA). The column was prompted by some recent commentary in the press, in light of the recent closing to traffic of a few blocks of Broadway in Times Square, that the NYC DOT was running a series of “elitist” reforms.

Whether this would in and of itself be a bad thing is another issue altogether — for all kinds of civic reforms we now take for granted and that make cities livable places began as the work of progressive “elites” — but I took exception with the idea that programs meant to benefit pedestrians and transit users, who represent by far the majority mode of Manhattan, were “elitist” policies causing harm to some disenfranchised majority of New York car users. But I am interested also in the reception of this and other projects via Pritchett’s evolution; in certain quarters of the media, they have been branded in the “silly” and “controversial” vein, though as this “Q Poll” indicates (the poll found early support for the Times Square project, support that might rise if the media didn’t always frame the story so negatively, or if the project’s benefits were explained to more people), we might already be moving closer to obvious.

In any case, the essay is here, or after the jump.


Posted on Friday, July 31st, 2009 at 10:53 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Raymond Loewy on the Future of the Car

“The public may admire a corporation for its impressive size. Who in the United States doesn’t? But when a business, however gigantic, gets smug enough to believe that it is sufficient only to match competition on trivial points instead of leading competition in valid matters, that business is becoming vulnerable to public disfavor.”

That’s from a piece by industrial designer Raymond Loewy (who worked outside the Big Three), published in the April, 1955 issue of The Atlantic.

He makes a number of interesting prophecies about the car in America, most of which have come true (e.g., “Semiautomatic driving will become the rule. Driving will be easier—therefore more relaxing; therefore more dangerous.”)

Interestingly, he was well off on one point: “In fifty years, even if the rate of fatal accidents declines (as it does annually, based on the number of miles traveled), we may expect as many as 120,000 killed annually. Obviously, something will have to be done about this, by driver education—the biggest factor—and by the automotive industry itself.”

He apparently wasn’t listening to Smeed. I suspect the safety gains have more to do with the cars themselves than with driver education.

Piece is after the jump… (more…)

Posted on Monday, November 24th, 2008 at 4:15 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Strange History of Sight Lines

“Already in 1285 central government intervention decreed in the Statute of Winchester that a passage should be cleared for two hundred feet on each side of the road ‘so that their neither be dyke nor bush whereby a man may lurk to do hurt’ — a provision of sight-lines on a scale even dwarfing that of modern motorways.”

That’s from Sylvia Crowe’s The Landscape of Roads, 1960.

Posted on Tuesday, October 21st, 2008 at 2:59 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Why More Roads Create More Traffic: The Jazz Age Version

The “induced travel” argument has a long history. This comes from Alvan Macauley, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, in a 1925 pamphlet titled City Planning and Automobile Traffic Problems:

“Since the advent of the automobile, however, the amount of traffic carried by a main thoroughfare seems to be dependent largely upon how many the thoroughfare can carry. Increasing the width of roadway and making possible an additional lane of travel each way will in many cases find the added capacity entirely taken up within a few months, either by diversion from other less favorable routes or by actual increase in the use of cars by those living in and passing through the city in question.

Just how this problem can be solved and what provision should be made for future increase in traffic it is difficult to state definitely, and to this extent a count of present traffic might seem to be void of direct results or even of value.

Posted on Friday, October 3rd, 2008 at 2:32 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Light Neurosis

When I came across this line on the website for Time, for a moment I assumed it must be another article talking about Shared Space, Hans Monderman, etc.:

“Since it scrapped its traffic light system four years ago, busy, industrial Bayonne, N.J. has had a substantial decrease in traffic mishaps.”

Then I looked at the date of the article: 1938.

I’m not sure what Bayonne replaced its lights with —anyone know? — perhaps early traffic circles.

In any case, the rest of the article has some enduring implications for contemporary traffic:

“No scientist has explained why. But last week, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Cincinnati Physician Howard D. Fabing examined the behavior of the average motorist, found that traffic lights caused conditioned reflexes which made him as dithery as one of Russian Physiologist I.P. Pavlov’s famous third-degreed dogs.

One of Professor Pavlov’s dogs was taught that a circular light flashed on a screen meant food, that an elliptical light meant none. Then the ellipse was gradually rounded out until it was nearly circular, but no food. This psychological double-cross sent the dog into a nervous state called traumatic neurosis, from which he had to be rescued by rest and daily rectal instillations of bromides. An obedient motorist is conditioned to stop at a red light, to proceed at a green. But Dr. Fabing’s research marked the green as a treacherous come-on, since often just when a motorist steps on the accelerator the green light changes to red, so that his right foot must jump for the brake. Soon most motorists develop what Dr. Fabing calls an “anxiety neurosis in miniature,” mainly centred in an uncertain right foot, but with other noticeable effects. On himself, Dr. Fabing noted “a quickening of my pulse by 25 beats … a pilomotor [hair-on-end] response on my forearms, a dryness of the mouth, a sudden excessive sweating of the palms a feeling of epigastric distress.”

Not willing to suggest abolition of traffic lights, which most safety experts agree are necessary in heavy traffic, Dr. Fabing called attention to several patented, non-confusing systems. His recommendation: a clock-dial light with a rotating hand swinging from a green section at the top to a yellow caution light at the quarter-hour position, to a red section at the bottom, to another yellow caution light at the three-quarter-hour position— the hand always showing by its position how much green or red time remains.”

Posted on Monday, September 29th, 2008 at 12:09 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Never Mind the Bollards: Here’s Shared Space

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, the Bristol-based “urban movement” specialist who, along with Hans Monderman, is a central figure in Chapter Five of the book, has a new paper out, “Shared Space: Reconciling People, Places and Traffic,” in the journal Built Environment (PDF available here, along with Ben’s other writings), that fully articulates the theory behind, and application of, “shared space,” a movement that is often reduced to quick soundbites along the lines of “let’s rip out all the traffic signs.”

Beginning with the simple example of a skating rink — a place where “informal social protocols serve to keep skaters moving in a roughly consistent direction” — Hamilton-Baillie moves through the historical evolution of segregated streams of movement in cities (grade-separated tunnels and bridges), before moving on to the first experiments, by Joost Vahl and others, towards the “deliberate integration of traffic into social space.”

One of Hamilton-Baillie’s favorite examples of this, in an ad hoc way, is the Seven Dials crossing, in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood (I now try to visit the Dials whenever I find myself in London — and that’s me sitting there above — as it’s a fascinating place to sit with a coffee and watch people go by). Some Londoners even think, mistakenly, that the Dials is a pedestrian-only space, when in reality, there is a quite steady stream of cars passing by, often within feet of people sitting on the central island. In the 16 years since its renovation, the Dials has seen no serious injuries.

Hamilton-Baillie goes on to show that he implicit lesson of Seven Dials — that people and cars can seemingly coexist in a largely unregulated system (as long as the cars are driven appropriately) — is now being tested in a number of other environments. This would include the famous roundabout in Drachten, but there a number of others as well, such as the Skvallertorget (Gossip Square) in the Swedish town of Norrkoping. There, all traditional traffic markings, and “suggestion of priorities or linear emphasis,” have been stripped from the plaza (which sees some 13,000 vehicles per day), and instead a “distinctive paving pattern reinforces the spatial qualities.” Now, most pedestrians seem to walk directly through the square, mingling with vehicles (whose speeds have reduced), without any accompanying increase in crashes or congestion.

In any case, the paper is an authoritative, fascinating look at what its author terms “a radically different vision for the streets of towns and cities for the future.”

Posted on Thursday, September 4th, 2008 at 5:51 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Troubles (1931)

Apologies again for the interruption in programming, but I’m in London promoting the book and there’s precious little time for bloggery. For your momentary amusement, however, I offer this Disney short (which predates even Motor Mania), which offers a suggestive cartoon glimpse at the state of driving conduct circa the early 1930s.

Posted on Wednesday, August 27th, 2008 at 11:30 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Traffic Guru

Just a quick alert that my Wilson Quarterly essay on Hans Monderman is now available online. I’ve also posted the text after the jump, but I always recommend checking out the WQ site in general.


Posted on Sunday, August 17th, 2008 at 10:27 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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How Green Was My Signal

Like Ken Todd and the thieves in The Italian Job remake, I have my troubles with traffic signals. But I’m always interested in the evolution of a standard technology and the various roads not taken along the way. That’s why I was delighted by this entry, via boingboing gadgets, from Charles Marshall, an Australian engineer from the 1930s.

Rather than binary lights, the signal ticks away the phases like a colorful clock or analog scale (you can see quite clearly how one direction gets more “green time” than the other). Visually, it conjures in me feelings of everything from Kandinsky to RAF Spitfires to The Hudsucker Proxy. As historian Gordon Sessions notes in his no-nonsense titled survey Traffic Devices: Historical Aspects Thereof (ITE, 1971), this sort of thing was once rather common, one of the many rival entrants for traffic control schemes jockeying for supremacy in the world’s streets. Early on, for example, there was often no “amber phase,” just green and red; in early 20th century Cleveland, Sessions notes, “at the time of the change from red to green or vice versa, a bell was sounded to warn traffic of the impending change.” Los Angeles, meanwhile, had its own version of the Marshall device, at the corner of Wilshire and Western. As described by Sessions, there was “a clock-like circular face with an indicator hand which revolved, showing the motorist the amount of ‘stop’ and ‘go’ interval that remained.”

“Countdown signals” are becoming quite common for pedestrians (and many drivers use these to “time” the lights to their advantage), but the idea of showing drivers remaining signal time is today rare — though I did come across this in Delhi, where drivers use the time indicator to decide whether to shut off their engines at the lights and save fuel. This is an obvious benefit, but as with most things in traffic, there are trade-offs: Drivers may pay more attention to trying to judge how much time is left than the actual traffic ahead, or people still in the intersection; or they may use their knowledge of the remaining phase to accelerate to unsafe speeds. Still, the Marshall device is a tantalizing alternative to the aesthetic monotony of standardized traffic signals.

Posted on Wednesday, June 4th, 2008 at 7:18 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:

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Upcoming Talks

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

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

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

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

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

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

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

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

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

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

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

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

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

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

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

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

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

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

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

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

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



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