Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Ride on Chicago


Just a quick note to say that in a month’s time, I’ll be doing The Ride on Chicago. The bike ride for better biking. Would you consider making a tax-deductible pledge to the cause here?

Posted on Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014 at 3:50 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Tom 2

One of the occasional pleasures of the job is hobnobbing with the movers and shakers (preferably they do more of the former) of the transport world, like Leon Daniels, Managing Director of Surface Transport of Transport for London, who I met recently at the Australian Road Summit (among other things, he’s the man who basically kept London moving during the Olympics).  How dedicated is Mr. Daniels?  During his spare time in Melbourne, he spent the afternoon riding the city’s tram network.  More here.

Posted on Thursday, March 7th, 2013 at 8:57 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Visible Enforcement


Via Urban Demographics.

Posted on Thursday, March 7th, 2013 at 8:44 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Brain-Sucking Tendency of Left Turns

From the Edmonton Journal:

“The study, which included collaborators from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Baycrest in Toronto, involved 16 healthy volunteers; men and women aged 20 to 30, with seven years of driving experience, on average. The team looked at the brain areas activated when driving straight, versus making simple right turns, or left turns with or without oncoming traffic.

They found that making a left-hand turn in traffic lights up a “huge” network in the brain “that was well over and above anything we saw with straight driving or even turning right,” Schweizer said. Specifically, they saw dramatically increased activity in brain regions involved in visual processing, spatial navigation and motor co-ordination.

“Think about it,” Schweiz-er says. “You’re in a busy intersection. You have to look at your own traffic light, to make sure you don’t turn on a red, and you have to look at the oncoming traffic to time your manoeuvre so you don’t get T-boned.” Drivers also have to watch for pedestrians crossing in front of them, from the left and the right.

A right-hand turn is not nearly so demanding. “You have that oncoming traffic on the left, but you don’t have to co-ordinate as much,” Schweizer said.”




Posted on Thursday, March 7th, 2013 at 8:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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America’s Unlikely Hub of Bike Sharing

Over at Slate I analyze how Washington D.C. managed to get first past the post with the country’s biggest and best bike share system.

“If you had been handed, a decade ago, a map of the U.S. and asked to predict where the novel idea of bike sharing—then limited to a few small-scale projects in a handful of European cities, might first find its firmest footing, you probably would have laid your money on a progressive hub like Portland or Seattle or the regional poles of walkable urbanism, New York or San Francisco—all of which were scoring higher, those days, in surveys like Bicycling magazine’s list of most bikeable cities. But today, the nation’s largest, most successful bike-share program—in terms of size, ridership, and financial viability—is in Washington, D.C. How did D.C. accomplish this unlikely task?”

Posted on Tuesday, January 15th, 2013 at 7:40 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

From the comments:

I did ride my bike to the gym this morning and thus only did 5 minutes on the treadmill to warm up before lifting! If I’d driven, I’d have jogged for 10 minutes.

Posted on Tuesday, April 10th, 2012 at 7:20 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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About That Moment of Silence…

While certainly sympathetic to the idea expressed by the image above, I was thinking it a bit too high-mindedly smug, too facetious, more of a sentiment than a reality, a phrase great for a t-shirt or cartoon caption but not much grounded in reality.

Then I looked at a random sample of Twitter.

My lips are sealed.

Posted on Wednesday, April 4th, 2012 at 6:50 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Can Parking Lots Be Great?

My latest Slate column is up, and via Eran Ben-Joseph’s book Re-thinking a Lot, considers the humble surface parking lot.

The parking lot is one of those forms so visible that we no longer see it (or indeed, what lies beneath: Everything from Hitler’s bunker to Henry VIII’s “lost chapel” has been covered by parking). Of course, another reason we do not see it is there is not much to see. The Onion captured the kind of shabby banality we associate with the parking lot in a story headlined “Wal-Mart Parking Lot Puts Municipal Parking Lot Out of Business.” “I’ll miss the old lot,” The Onion quotes a patron. “There were some oil stains, but there was character.” This comment invokes one by Ed Ruscha, who in works like Thirty-four Parking Lots was one of the few artists to ever make an artistic claim for parking lots, at least from above (and at least before a parking lot claimed, with cosmic irony, his very studio). “Architects write me about the parking lots, because they’re interested in seeing parking lot patterns and things like that,” he said. “I’ll tell you what is more interesting: the oil droppings on the ground.” The bigger the spot, the more desired the space.

Posted on Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012 at 3:17 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Let the Robot Drive

My feature on autonomous vehicles is the cover story in this month’s Wired. You can find the story here.

The last time I was in a self-driving car—Stanford University’s “Junior,” at the 2008 World Congress on Intelligent Transportation Systems—the VW Passat went 25 miles per hour down two closed-off blocks. Its signal achievement seemed to be stopping for a stop sign at an otherwise unoccupied intersection. Now, just a few years later, we are driving close to 70 mph with no human involvement on a busy public highway—a stunning demonstration of just how quickly, and dramatically, the horizon of possibility is expanding. “This car can do 75 mph,” Urmson says. “It can track pedestrians and cyclists. It understands traffic lights. It can merge at highway speeds.” In short, after almost a hundred years in which driving has remained essentially unchanged, it has been completely transformed in just the past half decade.

Posted on Monday, January 23rd, 2012 at 9:54 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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All About the Docks

Amidst all the bike share discussion in NYC at the moment, I thought I’d post the ‘director’s cut’ of a (very) short article on the subject of bike sharing I have in the current Outside, written of course before yesterday’s (expected) announcement of the program, to be run by Alta.

Faster than you can say “feasibility study,” bike share programs have been popping up in American cities large and small. And we’re not just talking the usual coastal metropoles: Sure, places like D.C. (100,000 trips in its first seven months) and Montreal (3.3 million trips in 10 months) have popular bike share programs, but so too do San Antonio, Des Moines, and, very soon, Chattanooga, Tennessee. By this time next year, New York and San Francisco should be on board. Proponents, with an intensity approaching Springfield’s mania for the Monorail, see bike shares as not only a valid mode of sustainable transportation but a veritable economic development tool, while the less enamored see them as a trendy, taxpayer-supported vanity project taking up valuable parking space.

But what makes for a successful bike share program? The first, and rather obvious, rule of thumb is that the more bike friendly a place is — the more lanes, the more fellow cyclists — the better bike sharing will be received. But bike sharing in turn makes the city more bike friendly; in the French city of Lyon, for example, more than 90% of people had never biked in the city center prior to bike sharing.
And lest you think bike share seems redundant in an already bike friendly city like Minneapolis, close to 80% of riders on its “Nice Ride” system already own a bike.

But you don’t have to be Portland to have a bike share, argues Alison Cohen, who heads Alta Bike Share, the company that runs the programs in D.C., Boston, and elsewhere. No one ever thinks they’re ready. “We went to Melbourne, Australia, and we were floored by the number of lanes,” she says. “And they were like, ‘how will address the fact that there are no lanes?’ We said, ‘you should see Dallas.’ ” What matters, she says, is political will (and funds). When Boston started looking into bike sharing a few years ago, it had 180 feet of bike lanes — by the time it introduced it, it was up to 38 miles. New York, she notes, delayed its request-for-proposals for a year as it firmed up its bike infrastructure.

This points to another no-brainer: Bikes need to be where people want to go, whether it’s transit hubs or tourist hotspots (a common theme in failed “first generation” bike share programs, often halfheartedly promoted by advertising companies, is that they started too small to be seen as useful).

Then there’s the nitty-gritty details, like capacity. “It’s all about the docks,” says Cohen, who says a two-to-one bike-to-dock ratio is ideal. But in crowded cities, finding space downtown to accommodate the morning flow is a challenge (in D.C, users complained when a Groupon promotion brought thousands of new users online). A related issue is distribution — how do you spread bikes throughout the system if users aren’t doing it themselves? Bike-carrying trucks is the brute force solution. But herein lies another problem. “The time when you need the trucks to be most mobile, when the trucks are getting filled up, is rush hour,” Cohen says.

Lastly, as with any consumer transaction, user experience is key, from payment to pricing to pedals. Anything that stands between the rider and a potential ride will dampen the program. Where D.C.’s bikes average five rides a day, notes Cohen, in Melbourne, they get just one. The primary reason? A mandatory helmet law. For various reasons (including hygiene), no bike share system in the world provides a helmet. Nor should they, some would argue. But Cohen feels the market may provide a solution — and indeed, a London-based designer, Anirudha Rao, has already crafted the prototype Kranium, an inexpensive, custom-made cardboard helmet which he envisions could be sold in vending machines (replete with 3-d scanners and printers) at bike share stations.

Posted on Thursday, September 15th, 2011 at 7:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Jersey Jughandles, Michigan Lefts, Diverging Diamonds

My latest Slate column.

“Every highway intersection is obsolete,” thundered Norman Bel Geddes—the designer and showman perhaps most noted for the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair—in his 1940 tract Magic Motorways. “The intersection is the chief stumbling block for highway designers and the chief headache for the traffic police,” he noted. “Why should the crossroads most heavily traveled today be the ones that are least adapted to the safe flow of the vehicles that use them?”

Posted on Monday, August 1st, 2011 at 8:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I joined the stable again over at the New York Times’ Room for Debate, this time on the idea of full highway shutdowns.

Just for historical curiosity, here’s my original, somewhat more fanciful (but contextual) submission:

It’s perhaps appropriate that the town that produced Michael Bay should summon such a bombastic bout of overblown apocalyptic fury as the forthcoming “carmaggedon.” Given the life-support functions of the 405 in the L.A. region’s transportation monoculture, perhaps the hype is warranted, but the truth is, highways are closed all the time, and there’s been much study and practice into how to do it most effectively.

The perturbed driver may be asking, ‘why do they have to close the whole thing down? Why can’t they just do it a lane at a time?’ And indeed, any number of strategies have been tried to mitigate traffic impacts during construction, from nocturnal work crews (which has been found to add 6% to the base price of a project) to various incentive plans for road contractors.

But as research by the Federal Highway Administration has shown, closing down a highway entirely means the job gets done, on average, 63 to 95 percent faster than projects that tried to maintain a semblance of traditional traffic. Why? No traffic means no interference from drivers, no work-zone crashes (in 2007, for example, 835 people were killed in work zone crashes) or other bad behavior, not to mention that the trucks hauling materials and workers don’t have to sit in the same congestion as everyone else as they go back and forth.

The secret to making this happen, as is happening in Los Angeles, is to enact a comprehensive “Traffic Management Plan,” with careful study of alternate routes and “network effects.” Implicit in this is to issue a prediction of Nostradamusian direness; to do for weekend driving what Jaws did for ocean swimming (“just when you thought it was safe to go to Santa Monica”).

This reason this generally works is that in any road system, there is a certain amount of elasticity; not every driver on that road has to be there at that time. There may be another route, another mode of travel. Or they just stay home. When highway segments are taken out because of disaster (as in the Minneapolis I-35 W bridge collapse, or the collapse of Manhattan’s West Side Highway) the surrounding roads do not automatically filled up with all the diverted drivers; rather, some traffic “disappears.” To quote two of the main findings of a report analyzing any number of road closures, planned or otherwise, by transport researcher Phil Goodwin and colleagues: “When roadspace for cars is reallocated, traffic problems are usually far less serious than predicted” and “Traffic reduction is partly explained by recognizing that people react to a change in road conditions in much more complex ways than has traditionally been assumed in traffic models.”

When Los Angeles partially closed the 710 expressway for eight weekends, it was able to reduce traffic by 37%. Interestingly, though, traffic was lowest through the work zones the first weekend, and then grew gradually on each successive weekend, as L.A. drivers, in a kind of city-wide learning curve, began testing the drive. In the case of the 405 closure, of course, drivers won’t have that option. There’s no knowing how bad or how good it’s going to be, until you’re in it.

Posted on Friday, July 8th, 2011 at 6:46 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Park on Parking

By the (appropriately named) June Bum Park, a piece of art after the hearts of transportation engineers (seen earlier today at the ‘Otherworldly’ show).

Posted on Friday, June 24th, 2011 at 2:04 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Feet of Street

The above infographic comes via Mapping the Strait, who notes:

Of course, there are many ways to measure infrastructure. Perhaps the most ubiquitous type of infrastructure, streets and highways, is the best single indicator. By this measure, feet of street per resident – “FSR” – Detroit has a lower density than 9 of the 10 largest American cities.

Would love to see someone do an equivalent for sidewalks.

(horn honk to The Transportationist)

Posted on Tuesday, June 21st, 2011 at 12:06 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Non-Compliant Pedestrian Guidance

I missed this when it was first aired. Apparently the culprit is snow that blew in. But this signal lays out more plainly the big-middle-finger reality faced by many pedestrians.


Posted on Friday, March 25th, 2011 at 8:30 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Devil’s Dexterity

In Mexico City recently, I met George Osodi, a Nigerian photographer who’s done some incredible work in the Niger Delta, among other places. One series particularly caught my eye: ‘Devil’s Dexterity,’ which captures the not-uncommon road crashes in Nigeria, a country that oil rich but infrastructure poor (anyone who can opts to fly between cities rather than make the harrowing drive). It’s not uncommon, Osodi told me, for wreckage — vehicular and human — to lie for months, years, on the sides of roads. As he explains the title of the series:

I can recall growing up as a kid in a neighborhood in Benin city, and overhearing various adult whenever there is news that an accident has occurred, especially when lives are lost and people injured. You will hear them say “Oh my God this is the Devil’s work, the Devil has done it again, the Devil is a blood sucker” it goes on and on. Therefore it is little wonder that many jobless youths take advantage of this by providing jobs for themselves acting as “Prayer Warriors” on many commercial buses. Praying for the passengers before embarking on a journey. Passengers will listen with great humility as these “Prayer Warriors” step into a commercial vehicle and start to pray, using words like “this vehicle is covered with the blood of Jesus so any evil demon on the highway will not succeed, I bind and rebuke the devil in the name of Jesus, I ask the holy ghost fire to burn all demonic agents looking for blood on the highway” and many more such prayers. At the end of these prayers passengers are asked by this “Prayer Warrior” to make a donation, which some will happily do.

The Devil’s Dexterity was born out of a curiosity, having survived many road accidents myself, one in particular very serious. I seek to change the psyche of people in context of what things really are, and not justify living an illusion.

What interests me is that the sort of ‘magical thinking’ as evidenced in the above paragraphs, while we might consign it to those of a particularly religious worldview, is expressed by a great many of us when it comes to thinking about risk and safety on the road — e.g., the problems of talking on the phone and driving can be eliminated by removing the phone from one’s hands and moving it wirelessly to one’s ear; or the idea, oft-floated, to build what are in essence more dangerous roads for the illusory safety offered by “fast” emergency response times. Or witness the apparent seriousness given in the U.S. to a recent “survey” from Allstate (which it was forced to apologize for) ranking drivers’ safety based on their astrological signs. While the insurer said it was for “entertainment purposes only,” the original release had more than a whiff of certainty about it: “But, can an astrological sign really influence driving habits? Generally, the signs with the fewest number of reported accidents were those associated with traits like “compassion,” “graciousness” and “resourcefulness” where those with more accidents tended to be more “uncompromising,” “arrogant” and “impatient.” ”

Posted on Friday, March 11th, 2011 at 5:44 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Rise and Fall of the American Paperboy

I have a short essay in the next issue of Time magazine (it will be online a week later) looking at the historical career of the American paperboy. Due to the vicissitudes of publishing, the piece had to be rather severely cut, but here is the longer, original version.

* * *

Walking downstairs the other morning to retrieve the newspaper, I realized I was the last person in my Brooklyn apartment receiving the daily New York Times and Wall Street Journal. The number swells a bit on weekends, but Monday through Friday find me alone in my ritual.

Trudging back through the snow, thinking about the future of this physical object and its delivery, I suddenly wondered: Were there any paperboys left in America? Certainly not on my block: The Times shifted to all-adult carriers over a decade ago. Mine wasn’t the image of Norman Rockwell and Leave it to Beaver — a boy on a bike — but a guy in a van from Staten Island. But did this once familiar cultural icon still exist? Where had he gone? And why should we care?

The paperboy has been subject to two distinct forces. The first is the newspaper business: Not just circulation — which peaked in 2000 and has been dropping since — but when papers were delivered. 2000 marked the first time there were more morning than evening papers. This helped accelerate a shift begun a decade previously, when from 1980 to 1990, the number of adult carriers had risen by 112 percent, while youth carriers had dropped by 60. Most children either could not or were not willing to get up and deliver papers by 6 a.m.

Cost-conscious newspapers shifted to large “distribution centers,” meaning carriers needed to distribute bigger bundles of papers across a wider area — via car. To entice adults, newspapers changed the name: The “paperboy” became an “independent delivery contractor.” They changed the job: Few carriers today do collections. And they changed the delivery experience: In what’s referred to as the “controversial tube-vs.-porch delivery dilemma,” instead of a kid putting it on your porch (or in the bushes), an adult in a car would put it in your roadside mailbox.

The larger culture around the paperboy also changed. Kids stopped delivering papers for the same reason they stopped walking to school — since the early 1970s the percentage has from over 50% to just 11%. Stranger danger, for one. In a high-profile case in 1982, a 12-year-old Iowa boy named Johnny Gosch disappeared while on his paper route in West Des Moines. But as Free Range Kids author Lenore Skenazy notes, stranger abductions haven’t been rising, and violent crime involving children has been dropping (lest you think it’s because we stopped letting children be paperboys, she notes all violent crime rates have dropped). “If we only focus on the rare and horrible,” she says, “we will be too scared to let our kids do anything.”

People also began moving to exurban regions that were simply too spread out for kids on foot or on Scwhinn Stingrays, where streets were deemed unsafe for anything but the inside of a car (even if that’s where most accidental injury occurs to children, as Skenazy notes). From 1981 to 1997 youth participation in organized sports doubled; where nearly half of 16 year-olds had a summer job in 1978, just above 20% did by 2008.

But so what? Why should we lament the passing of an entry-level, low-skilled job? Do jobs for kids actually do any good? Interestingly, Bureau of Labor Statistics research shows that men who worked in high school earned more than a dollar more on average at age 27 than those who did not. Was it the job, or were those kids simply more motivated? History teases suggestively: Benjamin Franklin delivered The Boston Gazette, Thomas Edison sold papers at the age of 12, and Warren Buffet, long before he was trying to buy the Washington Post, was delivering it.

Ask a former paperboy about the job and you’re likely to summon a misty-eyed recollection of predawn bundling and knee-high snow. “Today it’s basically something that doesn’t exist,” said Today host Matt Lauer. “It’s a bit of innocence lost — and it meant a lot to me as a kid.” Clarence Eckerson, a filmmaker (and former paperboy), describes it as “an amazing responsibility to have as a teenager, to essentially be a private business, collecting money and paying a weekly bill.”

After these ruminations, I was admittedly pleased to find that there are still paperboys — and girls — in America (even if, in 2008, they made up only 13.2% of all carriers, down from nearly 70% in 1990). As Fred Masenheimer, publisher of The Times News, a newspaper with roughly 14,000 subscribers (“in central eastern Pennsylvania, just north of Allentown”) told me, the daily paper not only employs an all-youth carrier force — it’s resisted shifting to morning distribution precisely so it could keep those carriers.

“I think it’s a vital part of a kid’s growing up and learning to be their own business person,” say Masenheimer. About half of the paper’s 100-plus carriers deliver papers alone, while the rest have parental supervision — particularly younger children. This is partially for safety, partly to ensure delivery. “When you put your reputation o the back of a 10 or 12 year old kid, you want to make sure that they’re doing the job properly,” he says. In 41 years of publishing the paper, he’s seen countless carriers go on to college, or routes change hands several times within the same family.

Those carriers still risk the occasional dog bite, and they still sling canvas bags across the handlebars of their bikes. Masenheimer himself was a paperboy, delivering The Hanover Evening News. “They used to tell us it was the last two-cent newspaper in America,” he says. “So you can imagine how much money we made in a week.” Nobody’s getting rich as a carrier, he concedes, “but nobody’s getting rich as a journalist these days either.”

Posted on Friday, February 4th, 2011 at 9:14 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Response to Hainline, Steisel, and Weinshall

I am glad that my posting on the Prospect Park West bike lanes occasioned a serious and thoughtful response (see the comments).

I wanted to reply to a few points.

They write:

(1) PPW is not simply an arterial roadway between intersecting streets (as is the adjacent roadway inside Prospect Park, which, we have argued, would be a more appropriate location for a two-way bike lane). Rather, PPW borders high-density residential blocks—with a school and elder-care facility (on one side of the street) and entrances to Prospect Park (on the other). This means that on a less-than-one-mile stretch of roadway, thousands of residents and park-goers are continuously entering or exiting school buses, wheel-chair vans, taxis, or driveways, while dozens of Fresh Direct, UPS, Fedex, USPS trucks, moving vans, and other delivery vehicles are also blocking one of the two remaining traffic lanes. This requires that drivers in the blocked lane continuously shift into a single more-heavily-used traffic lane to avoid the blockage. And since this single lane is now narrower on a significant stretch of PPW, if not the entire street (as our measurements, pace Vanderbilt’s assertion to the contrary, clearly show), there is less margin to avoid car doors opening, drivers or passengers squeezing into their vehicles, parents lifting babies from their car-seats, cars edging into or out of parking spots, or side view mirrors extending from vehicles. These circumstances, rather than producing a “calming feeling,” are more likely to produce irritated impatience, at best.

I admit that the studies I referred to are for road types different from PPW; in part this is a necessity because of the rather unique nature of PPW itself. But I am interested here in their description of all the exiting school buses, UPS trucks, parents getting babies out of cars, Fresh Direct vans, etc. Given this huge amount of stopped traffic, and pedestrian activity, to my mind the most important safety benefit we could bring to those users is a reduction of the speeds on that street — which were typically well above the speed limit prior to the installation of the bike lane. Speed, and the violating of right of way — not lane changing and merging — is the root cause of the vast majority of serious traffic injury in New York City. As I’ve said repeatedly, drivers, in their ‘irritated impatience,’ have tended to use PPW as a high speed arterial to neighborhoods beyond Park Slope rather than the neighborhood street it should be. I will take an infinite number of bent mirrors over the lives or health of any one person.

In their second point, they note:

“In addition to the option of moving the lane onto the adjacent roadway inside the park, making the PPW bike-lane one-way is the other proposal we have made as members of “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes.”

I would take a one-way bike lane over no bike lane; but as a condition of that one-way status, I would call for a protected one-way bike lane, in the other direction, on Eighth Avenue, which suffers from some of the same speed problems as PPW.

They then note:

(1) Vanderbilt’s basic argument relies on the perception of increased safety that roadway users (drivers, bikers, and pedestrians) may have when more drivers and riders are using fewer and narrower lanes, because their awareness of other roadway users is heightened. But this perception of increased safety is not what users of PPW have experienced. In a self-selected survey of over 3,000 Brooklynites conducted by Councilmembers Lander and Levin, most people—bikers were the only exception—reported feeling less safe after the bike lane was installed (Ref. 2).

This misrepresents what I have said, and indeed highlights a problem: Perception of safety and actual safety in traffic are not always the same. When subjects have been asked to identify what they think are crash hot spots in certain locations, for example, they often choose places with low numbers of crashes, not the actual hot spots. When roundabouts are installed, it’s quite common for the local populace to protest that their safety has been compromised — when in fact, roundabouts, as have been documented in any number of studies, tend to make things safer for all road users. ‘Shared space’ experiments in Europe and the U.K. have shown a similar disconnect between perceived and actual safety.

But let’s stick to what we know: The actual numbers from PPW, which are now available, via the Brooklyn Paper:

“Crashes are down from an average of 30 in six months to 25, or 16 percent.

• Crashes that cause injuries are down from 5.3 in six months to two, a whopping 63-percent drop.

• Before the project, a crash was twice as likely to include an injury.

• Injuries to all street users dropped 21 percent.

The data also found that since the lane was installed last June, there have been no reported pedestrian injuries and no pedestrian or cyclist injuries from pedestrian-bike crashes.”

Granted, crashes involving pedestrians and bicycles tend to be underreported, but vehicle crashes, particularly involving injury, are not — and by this measure, the addition of the lanes has actually made for a safer environment for all road users. An increase in active transportation; a decrease in injury — I fail to see this as a problem.

Posted on Thursday, January 20th, 2011 at 10:33 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic, Calmed

Enjoying this little dusting outside my house, the sort of winter version of the DOT’s Summer Streets program.

Posted on Monday, December 27th, 2010 at 9:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On Bike Lanes, Road Widths, and Traffic Safety

There was an assertion made in one of the letters (signed by Louise Hainline, Norman Steisel, and Iris Weinshall in response to a recent New York Times editorial on cycling that caught my eye:

When new bike lanes force the same volume of cars and trucks into fewer and narrower traffic lanes, the potential for accidents between cars, trucks and pedestrians goes up rather than down. At Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, for instance, where a two-way bike lane was put in last summer, our eyewitness reports show collisions of one sort or another to be on pace to be triple the former annual rates.

The first point is that while the PPW conversion did take away one travel lane, the width of the existing lanes was not altered. So there may be fewer lanes, but they are not, as the letter argues, “narrower.” It may be that entire street feels narrower, which, as an emerging school of what I’ll call ‘behavioral traffic calming’ argues, is actually a good thing. Drivers, as I’ve quoted Ezra Hauer as saying, “adapt to the road they see.” They either do not see traffic signs or fail to read their meaning correctly. If they see a wide open, long boulevard, they will drive like this.

Even if the lanes were narrowed, as John LaPlante recently argued in the journal of the Institute for Transportation Engineers, “there is no significant crash difference between 10-, 11-, and 12-foot lanes on urban arterials where the speed limit is 45 mph (or less).” (a finding, he notes, that was unfortunately left out of AASHTO’s recent Highway Safety Manual).

And there’s something deeply suspicious about that “eyewitness reports” note; were they actually out there, day after day, meticulously logging conflicts and crashes (tellingly, they make no note of severity)? And why, if everything was so great with the street before, were they even doing these “before” counts? As the case of roundabouts shows, what people perceive as individual danger often does not translate at all to an increase in overall risk; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

But let’s take that notion — that fewer and narrower lanes lead to more crashes. This is a staple of traffic engineering, and in fact it does have some validity — when applied to highway environments (which PPW at times unintentionally resembles). Even here, though, the effects are often not ‘statistically significant’ and ‘more complex than expected.’

But in non-highway environments, there’s all kind of evidence that reducing the number of lanes (a.k.a. the ‘road diet’) can have positive safety benefits. As the Federal Highway Administration has noted:

Road­ diets­ can­ offer­ benefits ­to­ both ­drivers ­and­ pedestrians… road diets may reduce vehicles speeds and vehicle interactions, which could potentially reduce the number and severity of vehicle-to-vehicle crashes. Road diets can also help pedestrians by creating fewer lanes of traffic to cross and by reducing vehicle speeds. A 2001 study found a reduction in pedestrian crashing risk when crossing two-and three-lane roads compared to roads with four or more lanes.

But what if one of those lanes your crossing is a bike lane? Surely that must make things less safe, no? More interactions in less space. In a forthcoming paper to be published in the Journal of Environmental Practice Norman Garrick and Wesley Marshall examined 24 California cities (12 with relatively low traffic fatality rates, 12 with relatively high rates). They found that the cities that had a higher bicycle usage had a better safety rate, not just for cyclists but all road users. They write:

Our results consistently show that, in terms of street network design, high intersection density appears to be related to much lower crash severities. Our street design data also contains strong indications of these trends; for example, the high biking cities tend to have more bike lanes, fewer traffic lanes, and more on-street parking. At the same time, large numbers of bicycle users might also help shift the overall dynamics of the street environment – perhaps by lowering vehicle speeds but also by increasing driver awareness – toward a safer and more sustainable transportation system for all road users.

And as Eric Dumbaugh, of the University of Texas A&M, notes, “most recent research reports that wider lanes on urban streets have little or no safety benefit, at least to the extent that safety is measured in terms of empirical observations of crash incidence” (e.g., Potts, I.B., Harwood, D.F., & Richard, K.R. (2007). Relationship of Lane Width to Safety for Urban and Suburban Arterials. Transportation Research Board 2007 Annual Meeting; Milton, J., & Mannering, F. (1998). The relationship among highway geometries, traffic-related elements and motor-vehicle accident frequencies. Transportation 25, 395–413; and so on).

But the authors of this letter are not trafficking in empirical evidence, even as they allege that the NYC DOT’s data “more puzzlement than enlightenment.” It’s unfortunate that this letter is signed by a former DOT commissioner, and an academic — who should both know that it is evidence and analysis, not vague “eyewitness” reports and random testimony, upon which good science, planning, and safety interventions are made.

And as always, curious to hear of more work either supporting or countering what I’ve said here.

Posted on Thursday, December 23rd, 2010 at 12:47 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
Comments Off on On Bike Lanes, Road Widths, and Traffic Safety. Click here to leave a comment.
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