We’re All Corsicans Now

There is now a signaling market in French license plates, via The Atlantic:

The French can be a bit touchy behind the wheel: flip someone off and he is liable to swerve in front of you, slam on the brakes, hop out, and offer to defend his pride with his fists. Corsican plates, which bear an image of a Moor’s head—the emblem on the island’s coat of arms, as well as the symbol of its small but murderous independence movement—are thought to help avoid this sort of situation, signaling that their owners are not to be honked at, cut off, or otherwise crossed. “It’s becoming a code to show that you’re a rebel and that you’re hot-blooded,” the manager of one plate-maker told Le Figaro last year. Other people suggest that cars with Corsican plates may be less vulnerable to abuse by vandals and bored teenagers. In an interview with Le Parisien, Gabriel Xavier Culioli, a Corsican writer, called the popular image of the island’s residents “grotesque,” and lamented the plates’ appeal to men “who want to pass as tough guys.”

A great way to test this in practice would be via the traditional ‘honking studies’ of the 1970s; place a Corsican plated car at a red light and don’t move it when it turns green. Are following drivers less likely to honk? What if they themselves have Corsican plates?

Posted on Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 at 11:47 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Nazca Lines of the Twentieth Century


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

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

Posted on Friday, August 7th, 2015 at 4:10 pm by: admin
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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

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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A Short History of Traffic Engineering

Posted on Tuesday, January 29th, 2013 at 6:34 pm 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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The Single Most Important Item in the Global Economy

Pallets, my boy.  Pallets.

Posted on Wednesday, August 15th, 2012 at 2:41 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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Whatever Happened to Walking?

Starting today in Slate, I take a four-part look at walking, the “forgotten transportation mode,” in America and elsewhere.

Simply by going out for a walk, I had become a strange being, studied by engineers, inhabiting environments whose physical features are determined by a rulebook-enshrined average 3 foot-per-second walking speed, my rights codified by signs. (Why not just write: “Stop for People”?) On those same signs in Savannah were often attached additional signs, advising drivers not to give to panhandlers (and to call 911 if physically intimidated), subtly equating walking with being exposed to an urban menace—or perhaps being the menace. Having taken all this information in, we would gingerly step into the marked crosswalk, that declaration of rights in paint, and try to gauge whether approaching vehicles would yield. They typically did not. Even in one of America’s most “pedestrian-friendly” cities—a seemingly innocent phrase that itself suddenly seemed strange to me—one was always in danger of being relegated to a footnote.

Which is what walking in America has become: An act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text. Indeed, the semantics of the term pedestrian would be a mere curiosity, but for one fact: America is a country that has forgotten how to walk. Witness, for example, the existence of “Everybody Walk!,” the “Campaign to Get America Walking” (one of a number of such initiatives). While its aims are entirely legitimate, its motives no doubt earnest, the idea that that we, this species that first hoisted itself into the world of bipedalism nearly 4 million years ago—for reasons that are still debated—should now need “walking tips,” have to make “walking plans” or use a “mobile app” to “discover” walking trails near us or build our “walking histories,” strikes me as a world-historical tragedy.

Posted on Tuesday, April 10th, 2012 at 7:19 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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The Ride on Washington

On March 16 and 17th, during what I can only imagine to be a spell of unseasonably balmy weather in the Northeast, I will be riding with cyclocross champion Tim Johnson and others in the Ride on Washington. As I’m not yet up to randonneur strength, I’ll be doing roughly half, from Boston to NYC (still well over 200 miles in two days).

Cyclocross superstar Tim Johnson first imagined the Ride on Washington after attending the National Bike Summit in 2010. Johnson could not believe that there were no pro racers among the nearly 1,000 bicyclists present. Intent on raising funds and awareness for Bikes Belong, this world-championship medalist recruited a handful of stalwart riders to pedal from Boston to Washington over five days to attend the 2011 National Bike Summit.

Organized in just six weeks, this bold inaugural event garnered coverage in The Wall Street Journal,, The Boston Globe, New England Cable News, and countless cycling magazines, websites, blogs and social networking sites. A six-time national champion, Johnson’s star power delivered something to the National Bike Summit that advocacy alone has struggled to muster: major media attention for the societal benefits of bicycling.

If you’d like to participate, visit the website above; if you’d like to donate to my effort (and the greater good), please visit this site.

In the meantime, if you any of you avid winter cyclists know how to stay warm when the temperature is in the teens, please do advise. I have particularly trouble keeping the extremities toasty, so gloves recommendations are welcome.

Posted on Thursday, January 26th, 2012 at 3:31 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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System/Empathy in Transit

My latest Slate column considers Jarrett Walker’s new book Human Transit and the question of how we can make transit more successful: Make it nicer or more efficient (and do we have to choose)?

As befits someone who has spent decades in small, formerly smoke-filled rooms with civic officials trying to implement working transit systems, Walker is a realist, and Human Transit is a spirited guide—prescriptive but with a righteous dash of polemic—to what we get wrong about transit. “In many urban regions,” he writes, “support for public transit is wide but shallow.” People generally like the idea of transit (as characterized by the Onion headline, “98 Percent of Americans Support Public Transit for Others”), but much of our society’s experience and understanding of transit, not to mention our willingness to pay for it, is limited. The very fact that most of us drive, argues Walker, casts a subtle, but powerful, influence onto transit thinking. “In most debates about proposed rapid transit lines,” he writes, “the speed of the proposed service gets more political attention than how frequently it runs, even though frequency, which determines waiting time, often matters more than speed in determining how long your trip will take.” Drivers don’t wonder when their cars are going to show up.

The Economist picks up the thread over at its Democracy in America blog.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the past few years arguing about whether trolleys are silly atmospheric baubles or a vital ingredient of livable cities. Reading this passage, I abruptly realised why it is that I prefer taking my city’s rail-based transit to taking its buses: the presence of a dedicated rail serves as a visual promise of service. A bus stop stands forlornly in the urban wasteland, offering no real guarantee of the existence of the bus. The figure of the passenger waiting for a bus that may or may not ever arrive is a visual cliche. Trolley tracks and electric lines running down the middle of the street, however, are a promise: a line runs here. It may be ten minutes between trolleys, it may be half an hour, but something is going to come down that line and take you where you’re going. The very expense of creating the line tells you: the government has invested too much in this infrastructure for there to be no service. The rails are, literally, an ironclad guarantee.

Posted on Tuesday, January 24th, 2012 at 2:19 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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On the Road Again

Some stalwart readers have been asking about my extended absences here. The primary reason is I’ve now got another book to do, and, as fate would have it, it has precisely nothing to do with transportation (not that I don’t hope you’ll follow me along for this particular ride). Nor is it a young-adult series about a group of kraken living semi-clandestinely in suburbia. Nor a dog memoir (though for the right price I might be lured out of retirement for a cat memoir; working title There’s Only You and Me and We Just Disagree).

Which is not to say I’ve been idle in the realm of transportation. In a few weeks Slate will run my multi-part series that looks at walking as a ‘lost mode’ of transportation. I’m also just finishing a big feature for the February Wired which looks at autonomous vehicles (as per photo above), including Google’s fleet, which I was lucky enough to ride in recently. And there’s many other things; e.g., I’ll be doing a transport seminar at Australia’s Institute for Sensible Transport.

What else? I’ve become a “micro-columnist” for the New York Times Magazine. I’ve also been biking more recently. And Twittering. And sometimes Twittering about biking.

Posted on Monday, December 5th, 2011 at 8:19 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Go Slow to Go Fast

My latest Slate column explores the concept of “rolling speed harmonization” on a Colorado highway.

As one report describes it, speed harmonization “holds that by encouraging speed compliance and reducing speed differential between vehicles, volume throughput can be maximized without a physical increase in roadway dimensions.”

The concept plays, in part, on one of traffic engineering’s core truths: Big speed differentials are dangerous. This is laid out in the “Green Book,” the bible of the American Association of Surface Highway Transportation Officials. “Crashes are not related as much to speed as to the range in speeds from the highest to lowest,” the book states. “Studies show that, regardless of the average speed on the highway, the more a vehicle deviates from the average speed, the greater its chances of becoming involved in a crash.”

Posted on Sunday, October 16th, 2011 at 6:49 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Secret Lane

Posted on Monday, October 3rd, 2011 at 8:25 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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New York City Century Ride: A Few Quick Thoughts

Yesterday I did my first NYC Century ride, 100+ miles of Gotham glory, everything from stunning ocean vistas to broken-bottle-strewn tunnels, from estaurine marshes to riverine gulleys. Given that the event is supposed to demonstrate the joys and possibilities of everyday city cycling, I did it on a bog-standard Trek commuting bike (thank you, Bontrager Hard Case Race Lights, for not flinching as you rode over the detritus of millions). As invigorating as the riding was, the event highlighted something else: The sheer panorama of the spectacle of the city, unfolding at a scale that is beyond the limits of pedestrianism, but more closely-observed than the car. Here, in no certain order, is a sample of the things we saw: Morning tai-chi in Sunset Park; Chinese fisherman in Sheepshead Bay, Russian guys in fatigues in Brighton Beach carrying assault rifles (let’s hope this was for paintball); an apartment building on fire; a woman being dragged unconscious out of a bar in Queens (at ten in the morning); an aerial view of soccer games, looking like Playstation, from the towering bike bath of the Tri-Boro Bridge; the huge bustle of sound, dancing, marching and speechifying that is African Day; the similarly boisterous San Gennaro Festival in Lower Manhattan (whose streets were so traffic-clogged suddenly it was Canal Street that seemed the least chaotic option); white-suited West Indian cricket in Queens; striped-shirted women’s rugby in the Bronx; a motorcycle training course (which we accidentally rode into) in the shadow of the Steinway piano factory; Evangelical storefront churches booming with praise; slack-jawed European shoppers in Soho; the tote-bag clutching patrons of the Brooklyn Literary Festival; the emerald constellation of city parks from Marine to Forest to Van Cortlandt; the Cyclone of Coney Island quiet but proud in the early morning light; pitbulls barking from high terraces; a handful of “ghost bikes” lending sober perspective; the shining Unisphere, which we circled twice looking for the ‘C’ to guide us (a hot dog vendor had pulled over it accidentally)…

I could go on, but you get the picture. And while there were some dodgy connections, some threatening three-way intersections, some fading sharrows, what the event spoke to was the possibility — and promise — of riding in the city. People kept asking, ‘is this a bike-a-thon’?, as if to ride means it must be for something; and of course, it is — for the right and pleasure and utility to ride itself. In the depths of the South Bronx, on some of the least cycling friendly streets, there was always a kid waving, giving a thumb’s up, or shrieking “bikes.” The city felt at once vast and intimate.

Curious to hear of others’ experiences, highlights, low-lights, in comments section.

Posted on Monday, September 19th, 2011 at 8:57 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

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

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

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

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Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau:

Order Traffic from:

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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

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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