Archive for the ‘Traffic Signs’ Category

Signed Out

Duke University’s John Staddon makes the case for less, and more effective, road signage in the U.S.

Posted on Friday, December 19th, 2008 at 12:50 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Sign of Confusion

As reported by the Austin-American Statesman, an Austin, Tx., woman went to court over receiving a ticket for making a right turn that, based on the signage, appeared legal.

It wasn’t quite the case of Bill Clinton and “what is the definition of is,” but the case got into some pretty fine-grained legal analysis:

“Gilchrist asked for and was granted a jury trial on May 20 to fight her $185 ticket. Scott Cunningham, a TxDOT traffic engineer, said he testified before the jury that the placement of the state’s traffic sign on Lakeline Boulevard was misleading. A prosecutor argued that the straight arrow painted on the lane itself, along with the presence of the traffic island, was evidence enough that the lane was not a turn lane. Cunningham said state law dictates that traffic signs take precedence over anything painted in a roadway.

(Thanks David!)

Posted on Thursday, November 20th, 2008 at 3:57 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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How Do You Say ‘My Bad’ in Welsh?

This is priceless. The bit in Welsh there, rather than translating the traffic info in English, is actually an “out of office” auto reply that made it in by error.

What went wrong?

All official road signs in Wales are bilingual, so the local authority e-mailed its in-house translation service for the Welsh version of: “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only” The reply duly came back and officials set the wheels in motion to create the large sign in both languages.”

Posted on Friday, October 31st, 2008 at 1:02 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Europe’s Worst Road Sign

I know most of you are paying attention to only one election, but let’s not overlook that the results of another ballot are in. It’s “Europe’s Most Stupid Road Sign”.

Posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 4:04 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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So Many Ways to Stop in Canada

As just a short note following up on my comments on Montreal’s strange “Stop” signs, another thing to note of course is the linguistic variation. I’ve just returned from the Westmount region of the city, where the signs are in English (as in the one posted below, which, as notes, seems a bit odd since the English bit on the street signs has been blacked out).

But one also seems to find bilingual English/French, as well as signs in Mohawk, Inuktitut, and Kahnawake — there may be more. In any case, an interesting reminder of how culture trickles into the standardized regime of traffic safety.

Posted on Monday, October 13th, 2008 at 5:14 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Montreal’s Curious Stop Signs

I was struck by these “arret” signs in Montreal, which have an additional sign informing the driver of which other roadways have a stop sign. In theory, I suppose, this is meant to be a good thing, giving the driver information as to who will be stopping, etc.

But there are a few problems. The first is that it took me a few weeks to even notice the supplementary information. The second is that often the sign is just providing redundant information (informing the driver, on say, a one-way street that the opposing street will not be stopping — but of course there will be no oncoming traffic as it’s one-way!). The third, as you can see in the photo, is that it just adds more information to an already complex and quite garish bouquet of warnings.

But the most objectionable thing about these signs is that they exist at all. These are scattered all over “Vieux Montreal,” which has a warren of narrow, pre-automobile streets, with an abundance of pedestrians and cyclists (and horse-drawn carriages). Drivers should be looking at the streets, looking around, not glancing up at a sign to discern who will be stopping and who won’t (that is, if they obey the sign in the first place).

Posted on Saturday, October 11th, 2008 at 10:23 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Here’s another in the ongoing series of unconventional traffic-calming treatments. Over at Cognitive Edge they’ve got photographs of a recent community project to put up so-called “scare-cars,” or traffic-calming scarecrows, in a small English village that apparently gets occasionally overrun thanks to sat-nav-enabled shortcut seekers. This taps into the idea that people slow for novel things, or when reminded they’re in a human place.

Bonus points for socio-economic realism: There has been a documented outmigration of “Polish plumbers” from England back to the more favorable climes of Poland.

(thanks to John Dodds)

Posted on Friday, September 26th, 2008 at 2:06 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“The Whole Village Has Become More Human”

An alert reader sends along some more coverage, this time by Isabelle de Pommereau in the Christian Science Monitor, of Bohmte, a German village that has become another waypoint in the evolving “Shared Space” movement (I was in the town a few years ago, for a Shared Space conference, but haven’t been back since things were changed). The town, like many, felt overwhelmed by the 13,000 vehicles per day coursing through its small center.

Readers of the book and blog by now may well know the drill:

“But this summer the town reworked its downtown thoroughfare, not only scrapping the traffic lights but also tearing down the curbs and erasing marked crosswalks. The busiest part of the main street turned into a “naked” square shared equally by bikes, pedestrians, cars, and trucks. Now, there is only one rule: Always give way to the person on the right.”

Bohmte is providing yet another surprising example of the types of environments in which this sort of thing can be done: “What’s revolutionary about Bohmte is that it took off its signs on a state highway with a lot of traffic,” says Heiner Monheim, a traffic management expert at the University of Trier, speaking at a recent European conference on sign-free towns convened here. Beyond that, Monheim says, the model’s real legacy is to have brought people closer to “rediscovering and appreciating cities not only as traffic places but also as human, social places.”

But I was also struck in particular by this passage:

“Two months into the experiment, ‘Instead of thinking, ‘It’s going to be red, I need to give gas, people have to slow down, to look to the right and the left, to be considerate,’ says Ms. Rubcic… The bonus? Town people recognize they have become a bit closer to one another. ‘The whole village has become more human. We look at each other, we greet each other,’ she says.”

Posted on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008 at 3:23 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Another problem with traffic signs…

They give the enemy clear directions. This from the wonderful little book, The Original Highway Code, which reprints earlier editions of the perennial British bestseller.

Posted on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008 at 6:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Make Magazine-style DIY Traffic Hack

In the ongoing series of local residents’ efforts to slow traffic in their neighborhoods, I bring you this fake speed camera, installed by a dentist in Hamburg.

Said the dentist: “This street leads to school and kindergarten. But it does not seem to interest the drivers. The limit is 60, but despite this they are always racing.”

The report notes the curious detail that because “Kaps’ fake speed radar does not emit a light which might endanger traffic, he has not broken the law.”

Posted on Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008 at 2:38 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Eyes on the Street

Twin Cities reader Matt sends along this link to another kind of novel traffic calming (at least, “informal” traffic calming), a series of unorthodox signs by artist Steven Woodward, who, is apparently, former artist in residence with the St. Paul Public Works Department (and how great it is that the public works department has an artist in residence?). The artist’s goal is to help give neighborhoods a sense of place, at least in the eyes of passing drivers. My personal favorite is the one above, as it makes me wonder if the persuasive powers of eye contact, even simulated eye contact, might induce drivers to slow down. In any case, it’s certainly more interesting than a “Resident Parking Only” sign.

Posted on Sunday, August 24th, 2008 at 1:42 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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How’s Our Driving?

I was intrigued by the conceptual art piece pictured above, Luther Thie’s LA Interchange, which I read about recently via BldgBlog.

The piece, which would sit at the intersection of the Santa Monica and Harbor Freeways, “uses real-time automobile accident information culled from the California Highway Patrol Incident Report website and would activate the enormous water fountain at the intersection of the freeways. Visitors on location at the park would also see a digital display streaming from the CHP website (location/region, date, time, accident type and status). This real-time data display system creates a real-time memorial to California highway accident victims. Highway activity can be viewed as a kind of “life-pulse” of the State transportation system. The fountain is, in a sense, the heart of the roadway system, reacting to the endless accident events on the highways. When a fatality occurs, the fountain rises to its highest possible point and blue lights illuminate the water feature, evoking a sublime moment of reflection for the spectators.”

This idea put me in mind of several things. First, the fountains at the laweiplein in Drachten, in the Netherlands, home of the famous un-signed “squareabout” pictured below. These water levels rise with congestion, however, not fatalities.

More directly, however, it reminded me of something I had seen in Hanoi, Vietnam, in the busy intersection near the Daewoo Hotel off of Kim Ma Street: A giant billboard (pictured below), sort of Fenway Park meets Socialist Realism, one section of which reported ongoing road fatalities (and thanks to Greig Craft at the nearby Asia Injury Prevention Foundation for pointing this out to me). It’s not quite visible in this shot, but there are categories like “traffic fatalities this year,” “today,” etc. — as well as time and temperature.

It’s an interesting idea, and one that I’ve not seen replicated anywhere else. It recalls the sort of factory-floor safety campaign signs one sees (“X days since accident”), depicting information that we generally don’t have access to as we drive — feedback if you will (and apparently this has been tried at least one other place, as the photo below shows). I’m not sure to what extent this would change behavior, or what people would draw from the information, but as it now stands the only way we are reminded of the danger of the road is the impromptu roadside memorials (or “ghost bikes”) that are erected (and typically removed by highway departments). But I’ve often wondered if leaving those memorials up would be more effective than other traditional warning signs, in terms of influencing behavior.

Posted on Thursday, August 21st, 2008 at 9:37 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Natural Traffic Calming

In the New York Times Maura Casey writes about a tree in the middle of the road in her Connecticut town:

“Sometime, decades ago, town officials decided to pave around the tree instead of cutting it down for the convenience of cars despite the fact that it probably made more sense to remove it while widening the road. But it was a perfectly good tree, and someone argued, successfully, that it be left alone. In a world with little tolerance for eccentricity, it is hard to imagine that decision being made today.”

There’s absolutely no reason residential streets, like the one pictured above, shouldn’t have trees in the middle of the road. Apart from the aesthetic contribution, they’re great natural traffic calming devices. Yes, you have to slow down to navigate around them, yes they reduce the “sight distance” of whatever lays beyond (hence you have to slow down), and yes they are a crash “hazard” — if you act in a hazardous way.

Unfortunately, in too many places in America, someone would come along at a speed they shouldn’t be going — or maybe they’re otherwise “impaired” — and they smack into the tree, fatally or otherwise. The town, worried about safety and lawsuits, etc., calls for “improvements” to be made to the street — beginning with cutting down the offending tree as a “safety measure.” Of course, on the new widened, standardized road, speeds will thus increase, shifting the hazard from the drivers of cars to the residents of the neighborhood themselves. Idiot-proofed streets tend to breed idiotic behavior.

Those neighbors, grown tired of cars whizzing down their streets, may even turn to their own solution, as a group of residents in Seattle did (thanks to James Callan for the tip) when they bought speed bumps at Costco and installed them on their own streets in an effort to stop people from driving at speeds approaching 50 mph. This didn’t sit well with the Seattle DOT, who had the non-complying, offending devices removed. The kicker comes in the final line: “The city has already allocated $15,000 to the neighborhood, which can be used for traffic signs.”

Signs, as any number of studies have shown, are essentially useless at slowing drivers. That $15,000 would be better spent on a planting a tree or two — in the middle of the road.

Posted on Sunday, August 17th, 2008 at 10:13 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“Shared Space” in Boston; Weird One-Way Signs in D.C.

Just back home and going through all the good mail that’s been coming in after Week One of the tour. I had two trivial observations based on recent trips to Boston and D.C. In Boston, don’t know the particular address, I saw an interesting sign that said “Shared Space,” 10 mph. This is a European idea I haven’t seen previously expressed in the U.S., at least so literally. Anyone know its origins?

Also, while on the traffic signs tip, what’s up with the weird, yellow one-way signs in D.C., with their extremely small indications of what times the streets are one way and when they’re not? They seemed hard to scan while deciding whether or not to turn into a street. And is it just me or do they almost look like advertising notices?

Posted on Friday, August 1st, 2008 at 2:35 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Stopping Occasions…

Via Design Observer, a good parody of corporate design vis a vis the Stop Sign. I’d also love to see a parody film of a traffic study…

Posted on Friday, July 25th, 2008 at 7:42 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On “Distracting Miss Daisy”

A few readers have asked me what I thought of “Distracting Miss Daisy,” an article by Duke University psychologist John Staddon in the current Atlantic (the full text is past the jump).

To briefly summarize, Staddon, who has driven in both the U.K. and the U.S., thinks American drivers suffer from a surfeit of traffic signs and speed limits. “The more you look for signs, for police, and at your speedometer, the less attentive you will be to traffic conditions.” He argues this helps explain the superior traffic safety record of the U.K.

On the whole, I was quite sympathetic to the spirit of the article, which was lively and well-argued — indeed, it visits a number of themes and places mentioned in my book (which has, for example, a section called “The Trouble with Traffic Signs”). His line, “we spend a lifetime on the roads after we get our licenses, and we’re being trained by our experiences every day,” could serve as a summary of Traffic. And as someone who recently took, as an experiment, a U.K. driving test (I’m writing an article about this), I’ve got my own opinions about comparative driving culture in the U.S. and the U.K., some of which are in line with Staddon’s point of view.

There were a few points in the article I thought deserved discussion, however.

1.) He says that in his experience, people “drive faster” in Britain. This just shows, I suppose, how subjective experience is. I challenge anyone to spend a week taking black cabs in London, and a week taking Yellow Cabs in New York City, and report a higher average velocity in the former. Also, the default speed limit in England of “lit, urban roads” is 30 mph. I’ve been in U.S. cities, in fairly urbanized areas, with (unobeyed) 40 mph limits. While we’re on the subject of limits, he does not mention in his piece the widespread deployment of speed cameras and red-light cameras in the U.K., two technologies which would seem “designed to control drivers and reduce their discretion” — a charge he makes against U.S. traffic safety efforts.

2.) He rightly invokes “risk compensation” in discussing why safety improvements in cars do not often produce the desired results: The safer people feel, the more riskily they act. But a bit later, he notes, “a particularly vexing aspect of the U.S. policy is that speed limits seem to be enforced more when speeding is safe.” (e.g., a sunny day). But is this not a form of risk compensation in itself? After all, most crashes occur during the day, during normal weather — the times we no doubt feel safer. As Leonard Evans notes in Traffic Safety, nearly 85% of fatal crashes happen on dry roads. There’s no such objective, quantifiable thing as a “safe” speed in traffic — plenty of people have died driving at the proper “design speed” of roads, while many children have been killed in driveways by cars going under 5 mph. The only thing we scientifically know is the higher the speed at which you collide with something, the greater the physical damage, and greater the risk of dying.

3.) And on the subject of speed, I am skeptical of Haddon’s claim that “looking at your speedometer” is an important form of distraction on the roads. First, I’m not sure how much time is actually spent looking at speedometers (in one study, drivers were asked, after they went through a slow school zone, how fast they were driving, and their estimates were wildly low). The second is that experienced drivers typically have a lot of spare cognitive workload, plenty for quick glances at gauges — and any minor distraction from a speedometer pales with the demands of, say, cell-phone conversations.

4.) I was interested that he notes that he finds roads “generally wider” here, which one might think would make things safer. In my U.K. driving test, taken in suburban London, I was quite surprised to find how often, on small residential streets, I had to pull over to let another car by. In general, I found road geometries tighter (and I was driving a fairly small car). But this is one of the ongoing debates in traffic safety: Making roads wider means you have less chance to bump into someone, but it also means you’re likely to drive faster. The experiments in which traffic control have been taken away (e.g., Drachten, Poundbury) only work because they are happening at very slow speeds, where the logic of human interaction, and not traffic engineering, take over.


Posted on Thursday, July 10th, 2008 at 10:11 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Now That’s What I Call a Zebra Crossing!

From Monocle (thanks Kottke!) comes news of an intriguing initiative in La Paz, Bolivia. In a place where pedestrians can feel like hapless toreadors weaving through lines of three-thousand pound bulls, the cebras voluntarias help calm traffic and keep order at the city’s intersections. This is similar in spirit to the “mental speed bumps” practiced by legendary Australian traffic tamer David Engwicht, the idea being to use novelty and interest to remind drivers they are in a human environment.

For some reason, South America seems to have a lock on these kind of offbeat initiatives; Antanus Mockus, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, once hired mimes to silently scorn bad drivers. Mimes, for many people, can engender a hostile response. But who doesn’t like zebras? Truly a road striping innovation.

Posted on Tuesday, June 10th, 2008 at 7:27 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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