Archive for July 31st, 2008

Slower is Faster in D.C.

One of the themes readers will discover in Traffic is the idea that slower can be faster. Ramp meters on highway entrances, for example, keep the mainline flow going more smoothly by temporarily holding up drivers on the ramps. The individual driver suffers a moment of time loss, but the whole system moves better.

I’m in D.C. for the day, and I’ve been interested to note that an idea that’s had success in places like England’s M25 motorway is being introduced here. It’s called “variable speed limits” (wait, aren’t they all variable, you’re asking?), and the basic idea is that when a section of highway has become congested, rather than having upstream vehicles simply drive at full speed into the gelling pack, those drivers are given instructions to drive at specific speeds, lower than the typical speed limit. Instead of driving into a stop-and-go mess (in which a lot of time and fuel is wasted stopping and restarting), following cars approach at a slower, smoother pace. When the new speeds are obeyed (in the U.K. they’ve mounted cameras to enforce this), engineers have found they can achieve greater “throughput” through bottlenecks.

It’s counterintuitive, but slower is faster. As individual drivers, we pursue our immediate interest, which is to get ahead as quickly as possible. But in traffic, this works against the system as a whole. As Phil Goodwin once described it in another context, “It is one of those cases where Adam Smith’s individuals pursuing their own best interests do not add up to Jeremy Bentham’s greatest good for the greatest number.” These sorts of initiatives, which are lumped under the heading of “ITS,” are just one of the ways we can “think,” and not build, our way out of congestion.

Posted on Thursday, July 31st, 2008 at 6:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Are American Drivers Driving More Safely?

The last time the U.S. saw a substantial drop in traffic fatalities was 1974, when the double whammy of the recession and the 55 mph speed limit (a reaction to the fuel shortage) saw the number of fatalities drop by some 9000 (it’s still debated to what extent this had to do with the economy and to what extent it had to do with the speed limit).

But this year, which promises to see the first annual drop in vehicle miles traveled in 28 years, is also shaping up, if trends continue, to see fatalities drop below 40,000 for the first time since 1961.

This comes from a new preliminary report from Michael Sivak, head of the Human Factors division at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. What’s even more interesting, notes Sivak, is that the drop in fatalities we’re seeing seems to exceed what we might expect based on the drops in fuel consumption and miles driven. It suggests a fascinating trend: U.S. drivers might not only be driving less, but driving differently.

Sivak, whose work (especially this one) has been an influence in Traffic, points out several factors that may underlie this. For one, the mileage reduction has been greater on rural highways, which are statistically riskier. Also, he suggests, the mileage of lower-income drivers, who are also statistically over-involved in crashes, may be have disproportionately dropped. And more people may be driving more slowly to save fuel, further reducing the risk of a fatal crash. I might even suggest another possible factor: Larger, higher consumption vehicles like SUVs and pickups — which pose a greater risk to other drivers — seem to be being driven less, which could also improve things for everyone.

There’s more parsing of the data to come from Sivak, so stay tuned…

Posted on Thursday, July 31st, 2008 at 6:23 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Dutch Cycle Law

Astute listener Susan heard me talking (briefly) about Dutch bicycling on the Leonard Lopate Show and pointed out something interesting I neglected to mention: The existence of a law that puts a higher burden of responsibility on the car driver in crashes involving cars and cycles.

As John Pucher at Rutgers notes in a report, “motorists are generally assumed to
be legally responsible for most collisions with cyclists unless it can be proven that the cyclist
deliberately caused the crash. Having the right of way by law does not excuse motorists from
hitting cyclists, especially children and elderly cyclists.
” (my italics).

One would intuitively think this would lead to a greater caution amongst the part of drivers (who are, after all, the only ones operating heavy machinery), and thus more safety for cyclists, and I wonder if there’s any state law in the U.S. that has anything remotely similar (I would suspect not). But I’m also curious about any good studies about the safety rate of Dutch cyclists before and after the law, which I believe was passed in the late 1990s. Anyone seen anything?

Posted on Thursday, July 31st, 2008 at 5:36 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:

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency:

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau:

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

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



July 2008

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