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Le Vice Anglais

We’ve gotten used to stories of British youth behaving badly while abroad on stag-dos and the like — and I sometimes think Europe will meet its end not due to the conflagration of wars but through the endemic cultural and physical damage wrought by the exchange of marauding bands of drunken tourist-ambassadors on EasyJet-fueled “city escapes” — but from the Times (hat tip to Steve Hymon) comes this story of Brits behaving badly on French motorways:

“In a four-hour period last weekend, on the A26 motorway near Saint-Omer, a Franco-British patrol stopped 30 cars for breaking the 130km/h (80mph) limit. All but two were from Britain. British drivers have committed half of the most serious speeding offences – over 125mph – in the region this year.”

The story goes on to note:

“The British, who used to be seen in France as cautious and courteous drivers, have overtaken the Germans as speed fiends since 2002, when President Chirac installed thousands of speed cameras. French drivers have begun obeying the limits, but many foreigners have not, because Europe has not applied an accord reached last spring on the cross-border enforcement of fines.”

This is a bit curious, as some studies have shown Brits have the most positive attitude in all of Europe toward speed cameras. Maybe they just think driving fast is the thing to do on the Continent — even if the idea of the French driving like maniacs has now become as recherche as berets on the Left Bank. Maybe it’s the lack of punishment. Maybe they need to be Locked Up Abroad (the only TV I see on a regular basis).

Reading the story reminded me a bit I had recently come across in Julio Cortazar’s curious travelogue of the French motorway system, Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, in which he and his partner visit all the rest areas from Paris to Marseilles, a book that was really more about metaphysical inquiries than a rigorous investigation of the traffic details as I would have liked (and that’s him, above, in “Fafner,” his VW camper-van). In any case, at one point (this is 1982), Cortazar notes:

“By the third day, it has become increasingly evident: Out of every ten tourists driving toward the Midi, seven are British. It becomes almost boring to look at the plate, GB dominates by a long shot. (Of course, there are lots of French, but we tend to think of tourists as foreigners, and we pretend that here the French are the only traveling salesmen or salesmen traveling, it doesn’t matter.

Carol admits that on our previous trips down the autoroute, the Belgians ruled in the rest areas almost offensively, while now their solitary B peeks out from time to time. We think about rhythms of vacations, staggered migrations, which undoubtedly account for this British invasion, otherwise simultaneous to the one in the Malvinas Islands, the vagaries of which we follow every three or four hours by short-wave radio. I am not going to concern myself here with the Malvinas, as the Bible says somewhere, everything has its time and its place; I’ll limit myself to wondering whether so many English cars on the autoroute might not be a perfectly British way for many of them to give Maggie Thatcher the finger and trade the penguins of Port Stanley for the roulette wheel of Monte Carlo.”

No word on how fast they were driving.

Posted on Thursday, September 11th, 2008 at 2:29 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Left-lane Nudge?

I’m always interested in unconventional solutions to traffic issues, and reader Paul up in Ontario sent along the following: “I observed recently that on a road under re-construction, the process involved grinding a rough surface on a lane prior to re-surfacing. On a multi-lane road, the lanes were not all surfaced at the same time. As a result, whenever a motorist encountered this “noisy” surface, they shifted to a lane with a smoother surface. As a result, the noisy lane became open!”

His idea would be to pave the left, or “passing” lane in such a way that a driver would presumably only stay in it for a bit before the ensuring vibration became annoying. This would solve the problem of “left-lane” bandits, people who camp out in the lane that is designated, by law or by norm, for passing slower traffic. People would make their passing maneuver, then move back into a lane to the right.

One issue, of course, is that for some people, the fastest drivers, the left-lane becomes their de facto lane, and they may force out dozens of drivers (necessitating all kinds of disruptive lane changes) for their own benefit. This raises another possibility. The road could be grooved in such a way, as in Japan’s Melody Road (that’s an engineer inspecting the road pictured above) to produce a certain sound at a certain speed. Grooving could presumably be laid so that drivers going over a certain speed produced a really grating, revulsive sound (music might be tricky as one person’s annoyance would be another’s delight). In a sort of Nudge-like way, drivers could choose to stay in the unpleasant lane if they wished, but they would be subtly steered toward the more harmonic travel lanes.

The grooves of the Melody Road, it has been suggested, can be rather powerful (and certainly more so than signage): “You need to keep the car windows closed to hear well,” wrote one Japanese blogger. “Driving too fast will sound like playing fast forward, while driving around 12mph has a slow-motion effect, making you almost car sick.” There you have it: Nausea, the new traffic calming device!

The concept has been demonstrated in Denmark as well, much earlier in fact, in the so-called “Asphaltotone,” the creation of artists Steen Krarup Jensen and Jakob Freud-Magnus, shown below (in Danish):

Grooves have already made their mark on road safety, of course. The so-called “Sonic Nap Alert Pattern,” or SNAP, was first tested on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1987 (after numerous instances of “drift off road” crashes due to fatigue and other causes). SNAP had the advantages of not being raised (the Turnpike had to be bare for snow-plowing), and being narrow, so repair and maintenance vehicles could traverse the roadside without obstruction. In time, the Turnpike saw a 70% reduction in DOR crashes after the shoulder rumble strips were installed. They too have a sound quality, of course: They get louder as you’re going faster, and engineers had to strive to adjust the pattern to make sure it was loud enough to be heard over the ambient sound of the car/truck interior.

Pretty groovy.

Posted on Thursday, September 11th, 2008 at 1:47 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Braess in Boston?

There’s a part in the book called “The Selfish Commuter,” a bit of a play on Tim Roughgarden’s book Selfish Routing and the Price of Anarchy, that discusses the famous ‘Braess Paradox’ and other ways in which the actions of individual drivers, who may be seeking to maximize their own utility in a transportation network, do not necessarily add up to a more efficiently performing network overall (forming instead a so-called ‘Nash Equilibria,’ which basically means no one driver could change to improve their situation, but nor has a “wisdom of crowds”-esque socially optimal solution been reached). Dietrich Braess, the mathematician after who this famous paradox is labeled, speculated that adding links to a network could, counterintuitively, make things worse (or that closing roads could make things better).

Via Freakonomics and Ars Technica, I was tipped off to a new paper, “The Price of Anarchy in Transportation Networks: Efficiency and Optimality Control,” by Hyejin Youn and Hawoong Jeong at the Korea Advanced Institute of Technology and Michael Gastner of the University of New Mexico’s Sante Fe Institute, appearing in an upcoming issue of Physical Review Letters.

What’s interesting about the paper (available here) at least from what I can discern of it (and I’ll be the first to admit my mathematical innumeracy), is that the researchers have applied the theories of Braess, et al., to actual road networks, including Boston, pictured above. They examined a particular section of road network where the “price of anarchy” (essentially letting drivers make their own route choices) was highest. They then compared the original network to a new condition in which one of the 246 streets was closed to traffic. “In most cases,” they write, “the cost increases when one street is blocked, as intuitively expected.”

However, they found six places where, they write, the removal of one will actually “decrease the delay in the Nash equilibrium, shown as dotted lines in Fig. 2. [above]. If all drivers ideally cooperated to reach the social optimum, these roads could be helpful; otherwise it is better to close these streets.” It’s hard to imagine residents of those streets petitioning local politicians that closing their streets to traffic would help offset “disadvantageous Nash flow.”

In any case, the finding — which implies that Braess paradox is “more than an academic curiosity” — should really blow Click and Clack’s minds up in Harvard Square. I’d be curious to hear of potential criticisms of the work (via email that is sent in the most socially optimal manner!)

Posted on Wednesday, September 10th, 2008 at 2:37 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Learning to Live with Large Trucks

A reader named Joyce heard me somewhere or other on the radio mentioning how I thought the drivers of cars were not given adequate instruction in how to maneuver around large trucks. This was based in part in conversations I had had with Daniel Blower at the University of Michigan and a number of studies that have analyzed crashes between large trucks and passenger vehicles, and found that cars seemed to bear a larger share of the “contributory factors” in crashes (this is complex, though, so I urge you to view the full report). Just to take one simple barometer, in fatal truck-car crashes, according to Blower, the drivers of passenger vehicles were much more likely (eleven times) to have been drinking prior to the crash. There are certainly hazardous truckers, to be sure (and perhaps there will be more in a less regulated future), but in general they are trained drivers who are attuned to driving because it’s their job (many driving their own rigs). But another problem, perhaps less commented upon amongst the general public, is that car drivers treat trucks as other vehicles. As one study put it: “One reason why some car drivers perform unsafe maneuvers near large trucks may be that they simply do not know the risks associated with driving near trucks.”

I had a taste of this myself a few years ago when I rode along in an 18-wheeled tractor-trailer. I was astonished at how often cars would quickly change lanes, just in front of the truck, and how those cars would essentially vanish from sight beneath the high, long hood of the truck; and also how much work and time it took to get the truck to respond to things like being cut off. It actually changed the way I subsequently drove around trucks, treating them not as slower-moving obstacles to dart around but in general just trying to keep as far from them as I could.

In any case, blog reader Joyce recommended I look at John McPhee’s book Uncommon Carriers, and so I did. I was struck, in light of the above, by the opinions of the driver McPhee profiles in the opening essay:

“Ainsworth said he could teach a course called On-Ramp 101. ‘We get many near-misses from folks who can’t time their entry. They give you the finger. Women even give you the finger. Can you believe it?’

I could believe it.

‘Four-wheelers will pass us and then pull in real fast and put on their brakes for no apparent reason,’ he said. ‘Four-wheelers are not aware of the danger of big trucks. They’re not aware of the weight, of how long it takes to bring one to a halt, how quickly their life can be snuffed. If you pull any stunts around the big trucks, you’re likely to die. I’m not going to die, you are.”

Ideally, I suppose, large trucks and cars wouldn’t actually share the road. But all this leads me to wonder if this is an area of driver education that needs to be amped up — I certainly don’t remember any special attention given to this when I got my license.

Incidentally, Ainsworth went on to say, in the book:

“Gratuitously, he added, ‘Atlanta has a lot of wrecks due to aggressive drivers who lack skill. In Los Angeles, there’s a comparable percentage of aggressive drivers, but they have skill. The worst drivers anywhere are in New Jersey. Their life cannot mean a great deal to them. They take a lot of chances I wouldn’t take— just to get to work on time.”

We’ve all got our biases, I suppose, but I always have suspected the Garden State (where my in-laws live and I spend a lot of time) of being the tailgating capital of North America.

As an aside, I’m going to be on the “Freewheelin'” show tomorrow morning (Wednesday) on Sirius’ “Road Dog” channel. As an XM owner, I’ve often listened to that network’s equivalent channel, “Open Road,” which features quirky hosts like Dale “The Trucking Bozo” Sommers and is an otherwise fascinating glimpse into a subculture that’s bigger than you might imagine (I’ve been surprised at how many truckers call into NPR talk radio when I’ve been on — calling from the truck stop I hope).

Posted on Tuesday, September 9th, 2008 at 10:44 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Vertical Traffic

Occupational hazard I suppose, but lately I seem to be having traffic thoughts wherever I go, times when I feel like I really need an operations engineer on hand to answer burning questions of perhaps little consequence.

To wit, I’ve been boarding a lot of planes lately and have been curious about the boarding process. Certain seat parameters are announced, a bunch of people rush up to the agent, they are scanned through, and then there’s that stretch of gloriously empty boarding tunnel you go bounding down — until the moment, usually when you round the curve, that you hit the back of a queue. So you set your bag down, until the person ahead moves, then you creep up, then you wait, etc. It often gets me to wondering: Would it be any more efficient to allow people through the initial bottleneck any more slowly, so they could magically walk uninterruptedly to their seat? How much time is wasted in these shuffling stop and go steps? Would it be better to stagger arrivals so that there’s less chance for a queue to form? Or would the queue just form somewhere else? I know many people have thought long and hard about the best way to “plane” passengers, but not sure if this particular quirk has come up.

These thoughts came up again when reading an interesting post I missed the first time around over at Khoi Vihn’s Subtraction. It concerned the author’s interest in the new “destination-based dispatching” elevator system at his place of work. DDB, as I’ll call it, is the new new thing in the elevator biz; basically, instead of putting people onto an elevator and having them choose their appropriate destination, it has people choose their destination and then puts them on an appropriate elevator.

In any case, Khoi Vinh rounded up an elevator expert to talk these things over. One thing that came up was an idea that I touch lightly upon in the book: The comparisons of elevator traffic to vehicular traffic. (in the case of Traffic it’s an engineer with LA DOT comparing the problem of synchronizing traffic signals to elevator flow). But in this case, Vinh makes another analogy: “For instance, there are four basic modes of traffic: balanced mode, in which up and down calls are evenly distributed throughout the building; up-peak mode, in which most traffic wants to go up (mornings, usually); down-peak mode, in which most traffic heads downwards (close of business, usually); and lobby-peak mode, in which the majority of the traffic goes from the lobby upwards.”

In essence, “vertical transportation engineers,” as elevator types are known, have a very similar job to “horizontal transportation engineer,” at least in terms of managing peak-hour flows. Shortly after everyone in a place like Shanghai has fought through the traffic and gotten to their job at a tall office tower, they then face new traffic troubles (which have even included calls for “traffic cop” style monitors). Of course, elevator types have an edge, as I can’t imagine how “destination-based dispatching” could really be made to work in the vehicular traffic world (perhaps if DOTs manipulated routing and real-time traffic data?).

Another problem similar to traffic is the idea that some waits seem worse than others. As the engineer tells Vinh, “destination-based dispatching changes the name of the game — because the technical problem to solve is [no longer] minimizing people’s hall call wait time, but rather their total elevator involvement time.” DDB plays a bit of psychological havoc because while people’s total trip may be shorter, they may spend longer in the lobby, watching others board first, wreaking havoc with their sense of social justice. Ramp-meters in traffic have the same rough effect (even though their better for the long-term trip in most cases).

Still, it’s a fascinating world, extolled in places like Elevator World magazine. There, we learn such things as the fact that lunchtime elevator traffic, in one building study, accounted for 12% of building population (almost seems low, no?). As in car traffic, there’s all sorts of clever counting devices too, from photos of “lobby counts” to “traffic analyzers” that “record the time every landing and car call is made and cleared.” As in car traffic some have even suggested “flex time” arrangements would help alleviate morning up-peak flows.

For more on this, do see, if you haven’t already, Nick Paumgarten’s piece on elevators in the New Yorker, which I have to say is the piece that’s brought me the most pleasure in that magazine all year.

Posted on Monday, September 8th, 2008 at 4:33 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Inalienable Right to Speed

One of my pet peeves in the reporting of traffic crashes is the inevitable question asked by a correspondent at the scene: “Do we know if drugs or alcohol were involved?”

This question subtly implies that if they were not involved, that somehow qualitatively changes the nature of the crash. The person could have been driving in a criminally negligent manner, but as long as drugs or alcohol were not involved we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. It must have “just been an accident.” The legal penalties are adjusted accordingly.

To use just one example of how this obsession with alcohol in crashes can skew the actual causes of risk on the road, Leonard Evans notes that while MADD was formed after the death of a child by a drunk driver, about 90% of child pedestrians killed in traffic fatalities are killed by sober drivers.

Kent Sepkowitz, in an op-ed in today’s New York Times, makes several interesting points on this theme. One is that speeding is not treated as an agency “priority” at NHTSA, and that “unlike the statistical attention afforded alcohol (20 pages of a 150-page document), the section devoted to speeding comes in at a measly three pages.”

He also points to the statistical aberrations littered throughout NHTSA reporting: “Consider this: in Texas, in 2005, 3,504 people died in a traffic accident; 1,426 (about 41 percent) were considered speeding-related. In sharp contrast, for Florida, 3,543 died yet only 239 were considered speeding-related — about 7 percent.” Were Texans just driving vastly faster than Floridians? “Not likely,” says Sepkowitz. “Different states, for various reasons, analyze their automotive fatalities in different ways, but the result is that the safety agency’s official speeding-related fatality rate of 28 percent is almost certainly a low-ball estimate.”

He goes on to make an argument that, in many other contexts, would be seen as sensible, but in the context of the road has always been seen as somehow draconian and repressive: Limit the speed automobiles can travel. There would be fewer lives lost, less of a social cost in crashes (twice the cost of congestion, some estimates have found), and a reduction in fuel consumption and emissions. We also wouldn’t need to spend vast sums for police troopers to sit on the side of the road (or install automated speed cameras) and catch the random trickle of offenders. Instead of trolling around trying to clamp down on the unpleasant side effects, why not go straight to the source?

It remains a good and open question why cars are sold with the ability to perform at over twice the statutory limit. We tend to bang on about “personal responsibility,” freedom, etc. I frankly don’t really care whether someone, like the Lamborghini driver recently in Los Angeles whose car disintegrated into flame upon high-speed impact with a parking structure, chooses to take his own risks. But, given that the roads are public, shouldn’t the rest of us have the freedom not to be routinely threatened by the actions of people like this?

Posted on Monday, September 8th, 2008 at 8:38 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Canadians have a mild crush’

In Toronto recently, I was intrigued by the vehicle stream during the morning commute on the Gardiner expressway. As compared to the U.S., I felt as if I was seeing many more compact cars and minivans, and fewer SUVs and massive pickup trucks. What might explain this, I wondered — higher taxes, fuel prices… or something else?

An interesting answer is proposed in Tim Falconer’s Drive, an enjoyable and far-flung journey into our conflicted relationship with the car (we made a few shared stops along the way, like the office of Donald Shoup at UCLA).

A research company called Environics did a survey in 2004 comparing U.S. and Canadian attitudes on a number of things. One question asked people to agree with the statement: “A car says a lot about a person — it must reflect my personal style and image” or instead thought “A car is just an appliance, something to get me from point A to B.” Some 62% of Canadians went with the appliance bit, while only 40% of Americans did. “If Americans have a passionate love affair with the automobile,” the researcher wrote, “Canadians have a mild crush.”

I wasn’t wrong to sense a minivan abundance. Writes Falconer: “In fact, minivans are twice as popular north of the border because they are cheaper and better on gas than SUVs and are more understated, just like the people who own them.”

Falconer goes on to note other reasons that might explain a weaker Canadian ardor for the car (and I’m not sure the American situation is as much love as a kind of terminal co-dependence), such as the fact that despite the sheer size of the country, 39% of its population lives in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, where the need for constant car usage is less pronounced. Higher taxes and fuel costs, Falconer adds, do play their part as well (and recent gas spikes have probably left Canadians better situated to deal with higher pump prices).

Posted on Friday, September 5th, 2008 at 1:42 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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How I Failed the British Driving Test

Are the driving tests of some countries more difficult than others? Do the people who do the best on the driving test go on to be the best drivers? Which gender has the higher pass rate? Can Grand Theft Auto make you a better driver? Do tough tests make for a better traffic safety record? Did Jeremy Clarkson and Quentin Wilson both take a tumble on the new-and-improved British driving test? And, what should you do if see a horse and rider in a roundabout?

Watch as I suffer through the “blunt instrument” known as the British driving test. All the gory wrong-side-of-the-road details are in today’s Guardian (here or below the jump).

(more…)

Posted on Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008 at 5:24 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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This Just In From the “Depends How You Look at It Department”

One of the hallmarks of sensationalist papers like the New York Post is that the purported thesis of a story, loudly trumpeted in a headline, often seems undermined by the story itself. The case in point here is “Anger at Mike the Road Hog; Pedestrian Islands Drive Motorists Nuts,” (below the jump) about the new pedestrian space on Broadway in Manhattan.

The paper cites precisely two people who claim the project is a disaster; an “office worker” and a 24-year-old “Jersey commuter.” Of course, the Post could have simply wandered up to cars stopped at lights and asked the opinions of other motorists. They predictably would have bemoaned traffic, questioned the idea of taking away road space, etc. — and basically said the opposite of what people sitting in the new plaza would have said (not that they polled any of those). But the newspaper seemed content with a couple of random miffed types.

And, of course, nowhere does the Post bring up the uncomfortable fact that drivers on Broadway are the minority of street users, despite taking up a majority of the space, or even raise the question of to what extent Manhattan should be designed to make the lives of Jersey car commuters easier.

The piece then goes on to cite two people who think the pedestrian plaza is just fine: A shopkeeper and the head of the local Business Improvement District, two people who presumably have a greater stake in the actual lifeblood of the neighborhood. Throw in the DOT commish who gave the go-ahead to the project and it seems like a majority of the people in the story actually support the project.

Not that you’d know that from the headline, which makes Mayor Mike out to be a traffic tyrant rather than civic hero, and paints the whole thing as a misguided folly. There’s also a few gratuitous mentions of “road-rage inducing” projects like the Ninth Avenue cycle lane, etc. This road rage would presumably not extend to the many numbers of new cyclists in the city who are taking advantage of these facilities.

And for what it’s worth, for the guy who thinks the plaza will be a waste of space during the winter (space which could be better given over to tourists in cars coming to look at the Christmas Tree), he should get himself to Copenhagen, where, thanks to outdoor heaters and the like, the city has an almost year-round outdoor cafe culture.

(more…)

Posted on Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008 at 7:55 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Of Tea Kettles and Traffic Lights

Reading Stefan Klein’s hugely entertaining and informative Time: A User’s Guide yesterday, I came across this traffic-related tidbit:

“Where do you have a longer wait: At a red light, when you’ve just missed the green — or in your kitchen, waiting for an electric kettle to boil water for a cup of tea? If you think that boiling water takes more time, you’re mistaken: both require an average of ninety seconds.”

This comparison intrigued me for several reasons. The first is that one rarely sees “traffic time” compared to other moments of time from everyday life. What other mundane acts of life could theoretically be performed in the time stuck at the lights?

The second is that very fact that we wouldn’t think of the time we spend at a light as being equal to waiting for tea; this in itself reminded me of studies I had seen in which people underestimated the amount of time it would take to drive somewhere, and overestimated the amount of time it would take by another mode. Traffic is a very time-skewing activity in general. When we’re moving along at a good clip, we tend not to notice any time signals (except for “on the hour” announcements on radio and the like); when we’re stuck in heavy traffic, aware of every vehicle passing us, we’re more aware to minor moments of progress and change and thus, as Klein argues, these trivial things add up to “a perceived time that seems much longer than what our watches tell us.” Which is why watched kettles, of course, take longer to boil.

Posted on Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008 at 7:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Names on the Land’ Reading at BookCourt

Satnavs may be killing the ability to read maps (and visualize anything but roads or Taco Bells in the topographical landscape), but I for one am a resolute devotee of maps and all the knowledge and mystery they portray. This includes, of course, place names, and the often-curious tales behind them. Nowhere is this historical narrative better studied than George R. Stewart’s landmark Names on the Land (recently reissued by New York Review Books), with a fine new introduction by my pal Matt Weiland.

On every page lurks a curiosity. To wit, p. 295: “Innumerable towns and villages bear descriptive names such as Red Bank and Flat Rock; hundreds commemorate the native trees, alphabetically from Ash Grove to Willow Springs. But strangely few cities were named descriptively, and only one for a native tree. As might be expected, it is in a region where trees were few, and men had learned to prize them… [A]cross the Bay from San Francisco was a stretch of flat land scattered with magnificent California live-oaks. In Mexican times it had been known as Encinal de Temesal, “oak-grove of the sweat-house. The Americans who planned a town there may not have known Spanish, but they could see the trees. In simple description they called it Oakland.”

Passages like these will be read by me, Colson Whitehead, and Mike Wallace on Tuesday, September 2nd at 7:00 p.m. at Brooklyn’s BookCourt.  There are rumors of a place-names pub quiz — but just rumors.

Posted on Sunday, August 31st, 2008 at 9:05 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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This Information Superhighway Thing Is Getting a Bit Ridiculous

While I was abroad Randall Stross wrote a good piece in the New York Times (here or below the jump), in which I was quoted briefly, about Chrysler’s plan to equip its cars with WiFi internet access.

Given that the car manufacturers worked carefully to come up with standards for things like restricting the number of commands that could be used on nav systems while driving, it seems to me extremely negligent that they would then essentially toss that caution out the window to enable full-on internet surfing in their cars.

Unlike simple information gauges in the car, the laptop screen offers a much more immersive environment, in any number of ways: the small size of the display information, the richness and complexity of the information, the necessity to scroll through various screens, the location of the computer away from the windshield, the potential to input responses, even the slow download speeds, which might cause the driver to keep looking to see if it’s finished, etc. Lord knows how they would type and do that quaint thing that we used to call simple, non-distracted, driving.

As an example of what internet surfing would mean on the road, just imagine, in the amount of time it took you to read this sentence, you’d have traveled, if moving only at 30 mph, nearly 100 feet — imagine if you were going 70?

Chrysler says this is meant only for backseat use, presumably by children, etc., spending an ever greater portion of their childhood development strapped into the back of so-called “living rooms on wheels,” and apparently ever desiring of non-stop connectivity lest their dwindling attention spans suffer a flameout. An easy way for Chrysler to defray criticism would be to simply allow the service to only be enabled while the car isn’t in motion, as one sees with in-car DVD systems. That is a sane and useful service. I’m curious to see how the liability on this will shake out — I do know if I got t-boned by someone who was updating their MySpace page on Chrysler-provided bandwidth I’d go looking for the deep pockets in a lawsuit. Yes, drivers should be responsible for their actions, but given the myriad ways things can already go wrong on the road, why should the car-maker expand the options with its options?

There’s any number of reasons why this move only makes sense in the world of a struggling car-maker seeking anything it can to distinguish its product in a hostile environment (and have thus made the driving environment more hostile). The car manufacturers used to be rightly criticized for skimping when it came to producing safe cars. They’ve come a long way towards putting that history behind them — cars in and of themselves are less dangerous for their occupants — so it’s all the more puzzling to me that they would suddenly put the car in reverse, as it were.

I also told Mr. Stross this: “Apart from the safety issues, which are huge — this idea is, to paraphrase Ralph Nader, unsafe at any download speed — the presence of the internet connected computer in the car raises the specter of an even more unpleasant driving experience than the one we’re currently in, in which people on those same phones tend to forget they’re in a public space, with legal rules and expected norms of behavior, and fail to signal, take longer to pull away at lights, and generally annoy the drivers who are, gasp, actually driving… Drivers are already in their own private cocoons, that they would be checking their “Myspace” page hints at a further fragmentation from the public space of the road.”

[UPDATE: Randy Stross sends along this link to an early candidate for this year’s Darwin Awards.]

(more…)

Posted on Saturday, August 30th, 2008 at 2:49 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Self-Organized Traffic Flow

One of the oft-revisited themes in the book is that individual actors in traffic don’t often have an idea of what might be best for traffic as a whole. In a great piece in the New Scientist (sub required), “Why Complex Systems Do Better Without Us,” Mark Buchanan (whose book The Social Atom is high on my reading list), writing about the traffic physicist Dirk Helbing, makes the following point:

“Although the behaviour of individuals is often simple, the collective patterns to which it leads can be counter-intuitive, making common sense a faulty guide to what might happen. For example, it is generally true that traffic jams become more likely as traffic density increases. It’s not always the case, though, as Helbing’s group has shown.

Consider a two-lane road carrying both cars and trucks, where the cars are moving faster on average. At low traffic densities, the cars have plenty of space to overtake and can easily pass the trucks. As the traffic density increases, drivers find it more difficult to overtake because other vehicles are in the way. However, evidence from simulations and real traffic flows shows that at a critical density of traffic, the obstruction to lane-changing begins to have a beneficial effect. Because drivers tend to stay in one lane, they disturb the flow of traffic less, leading to a higher total throughput of vehicles.”

Another interesting strand in the piece is the notion that allowing traffic lights to control themselves would improve traffic flow. Instead of set timing patterns or even merely “synchronization,” the lights judge conditions for themselves and make constant adjustments (this is essentially the high-tech version of Hans Monderman’s “bottom-up” traffic scheme in the Netherlands). This is one of the next frontiers of traffic, and I’ve had described to me fascinating systems employing “genetic algorithms” for things ramp meter lights — the ramp meters would in essence keep learning over generations of traffic flow, evolving into smarter systems.

Of course, the new light schemes run the risk of not making sense to the individual driver, as Buchanan notes: “Nonetheless, the behaviour of the lights doesn’t generally fit with human notions of what ought to be efficient. “How long lights stay green is unpredictable,” says Lämmer. Yet the average journey times go down and become more predictable.”

The piece includes what may come to be a mantra: “Being in control, it seems, may increasingly demand being a little out of control.”

Posted on Friday, August 29th, 2008 at 4:45 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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“I feel as if I am in a circus all the time”

That’s what one tourist said about Cairo traffic. But as of late there’s some new laws on the book aimed to calming the country’s famously manic traffic. Readers of the book will know of my interest in corruption and how that trickles down to traffic, and it’s no exception here. The question is: When laws are made stronger (ostensibly with a reformist goal) in a place plagued by corruption, does it improve things or simply raise the rent-seeking abilities of corrupt officials?

One problem is that some of the new regulations seem Byzantine and not particularly relevant to traffic safety, like requiring fire extinguishers and obligatory first-aid kits in cars. Political analyst Amr El Shobaki was quoted in the FT: “The new traffic law is an example of the rise of extortion in Egypt… [W]ith some effort and sensitivity, the authorities could have presented legislation that improves the situation on the roads, instead of one which seeks to extort money and spread corruption.” I’ve not seen, for example, studies showing how the presence of a fire extinguisher helps eliminate the most common causes of road danger (speed, alcohol, red light running, etc.).

And bribery is, of course, a regressive tax. “The fines are now so high it will no longer be enough to pay off a traffic policeman with E£5 or E£10 [$1.90, €1.30, £1],” said Salah Abdel Ghani, a taxi driver. “This is a law that will affect only the poor, like those who drive taxis and pick-up trucks.” On the other hand, it is noted, the children of wealthy families obtain their licenses before they’ve even learned to drive.

Of course, authorities may claim a short-term safety increase, if only because, as one wag told the Al-Ahram Weekly, “You may have noticed that there are fewer cars in the street, especially the microbuses that are often driven by people with no driver’s licence. In 6 October City about 60 per cent of microbuses have disappeared, mostly because they were operating in violation of the law.”

Posted on Friday, August 22nd, 2008 at 9:37 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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She Can Stop Traffic, Part 2

Via Boing Boing, I couldn’t resist this story of a California Mayor shutting down a neighborhood vegetable stand run by a couple of young girls.

The reason? Traffic was being stopped. This is a neighborhood street mind you, and the vegetable stand the girls were operating was well within the school of David Engwicht’s “Mental Speed Bumps,” one of those little interesting moments of human life that actually reminds drivers they’re moving around in a human environment and not simply a high-speed thru-way. Stopping traffic? That’s exactly the point — they’re stopping to buy fresh tomatoes. What next — yard sales?

This is the same sort of zoning lunacy that prevents people from growing vegetables on their own lawns to begin with, and I bet the mayor will be eating political crow on this one.

Posted on Thursday, August 21st, 2008 at 2:30 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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Waitin’ for My (Green) Man

Over at Copenhagen Cycle Chic, a website that plumbs the probing question — just how good can Danish people look on a bike? — there’s a nice little photo series under the heading “Things to Do at Traffic Lights in Copenhagen.” One answer, as in the photo to the right, is to simply “pause for thought.” (and look tres chic while doing so).

As readers of the book will know, the question of Danes waiting at the lights is of great interest to me. Sitting in warm cafes, looking out the window at crosswalks, I came to find an almost poetic stillness to their modal repose, these pauses of breath, as if the traffic lights were bits of punctuation in the midst of a long stream of urban thought. Like Cycle Chic, I found these activities and poses interesting in their own right, the way even the infrastructure was casually deployed, as in the photo below, in the momentary rest.

The other enduring topic of fascination is that scrupulous compliance at the lights, by all modes — but most noteworthy, in my mind, with the pedestrians. I watched this chap below sit at a empty intersection on a cold winter’s morning, one that I would have dashed across as no cars were coming (given the cold I may have dashed across with cars coming); but for him, it just seemed a good moment to stop and reflect on something (he could, of course, have just been thinking, “when will this damn light change,” but I somehow doubted it).

After a day or so in Copenhagen, I quickly found my own normal behavior adjusting. I too became one of those hardy, stalwart Danes, waiting patiently at the light. When I did notice jaywalking, it suddenly seemed somehow inappropriate, and when someone, as the person did below, trundled across in full view of the red man, I could sense a collective unease from the other pedestrians. Typically this seemed to reveal the offender as a tourist. Or maybe they would just regard the jaywalker with a touch of concern, the way it was anecdotally told to me by a queuing theorist: One day, a line of cars sat waiting for a ferry in Denmark. Someone came driving up alongside the queue, in the shoulder, essentially cutting in front of everyone else. The typical response from the waiting drivers: Oh, something terrible must have happened to that person to make them act that way.

Posted on Tuesday, August 19th, 2008 at 4:02 pm 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 Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage: krunde@randomhouse.com.

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency: zoe@zpagency.com.

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau: rhspeakers@randomhouse.com.

Order Traffic from:

Amazon | B&N | Borders
Random House | Powell’s

U.S. Paperback UK Paperback
Traffic UK
Drive-on-the-left types can order the book from Amazon.co.uk.

For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

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
Toronto

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
BoingBoing.com “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

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

 

 

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