Archive for August 5th, 2008

My Top 10 Favorite Traffic Films

While writing the book, there were a number of films that stood out for being particularly emblematic of the traffic experience. I’m not talking road films here (no Two-Lane Blocktop or Vanishing Point), but traffic films, movies that reveal interesting glimpses of the strange social dynamics of traffic (and they don’t have to be particularly good, just interesting traffic-wise). I’m curious to hear other favorites from readers.

1. Motor Mania. Directed by Jack Kinney, 1950.

Originally part of a driving safety instructional film, this Walt Disney short really does a lovely job of describing motorist sociopathy. Everyman (or, er, Everydog) Goofy begins the film as “Mr. Walker,” a nice person who “wouldn’t step on an ant.” In his car, he becomes “Mr. Wheeler,” suddenly terrorizing his former walking comrades, questioning the skills and rights of way of other drivers, and generally acting like a monster. Per minute this really packs the most traffic wisdom. A bit hard to get nowadays, but through Disney Educational Productions you can buy a DVD that also includes a few other films (including Freewayphobia, about driving on the then new superhighways).

2. Trafic. Directed by Jacques Tati, 1971.

With a title like Trafic, how could you not like this one? This overlooked work from French master Tati is hardly his best (it’s no Hulot or Playtime), but there’s enough of the Tati touch to make this one worthwhile. “I’m simply trying to show that individuals change when they’re behind the wheel of a car,” Tati said, and in one of the film’s funniest segments, he presents a succession of shots of oblivious French drivers languidly picking their noses in the perceived anonymity of their cars (people who actually research drivers with in-car cameras have found this happening after the first week or so of the camera being inside the car). This film has been unavailable for a long time (I’ve got a weird Swedish edition), but it’s recently been reissued by Criterion.

3. Falling Down. Directed by Joel Schumacher, 1993.

I can never really make it through the whole thing these days, but I do love the bit that sets off Michael Douglas’ whole repressed-guy-in-a-tie silent majority crusade of rage: A traffic jam. It’s hot, he’s stuck, the merge signs are blinking, a fly in his car is bothering him, the “How’s My Driving? Dial 1-800 EAT-SHIT” bumper stickers accost him — even a Garfield stuffed animal seems to stare back maniacally. He does what many of us have probably wanted to do at some point — just leave the car and walk away.

4. Weekend. By Jean Luc-Godard, 1967.

As the story goes this is actually partly inspired by Julio Cortazar’s great story “The Southern Thruway,” about an epic traffic jam that gradually turns into a sort of society. This story itself begins with an epigraph from L’Espresso magazine: “Sweltering motorists doe not seem to a have a history… As a reality a traffic jam is impressive, but doesn’t say much.” I beg to differ! Anyway, Godard’s black comedy features, famously, the epic, slow drive down a French highway full of carnage, people playing games, arguing, etc. The soundtrack is horns but no one seems to actually be blowing their own. A bit dated these days but worth it for the cool Citroens and Puegots alone…

5. Office Space. Directed by Mike Judge, 1999.

Funny in all sorts of ways, but particularly for my purposes for the opening scene. Peter (Ron Livingston), frustrated by the constant stop and go of his commute — so slow that he observes an old man pushing a walker pass him by on the sidewalk — sees the other lane moving faster. He manages to change lanes, slamming on the brakes as his lane suddenly freezes up. His former lane, of course, begins to move ahead. This is the one of the classic issues in congestion, and is discussed in the book (you can watch a clip here).

6. LA Story. Directed by Mick Jackson, 1991.

Full of whimsical looks at LA traffic life, sort of like Crash without the heavy-handedness. My favorite scene is when Steve Martin gets in his car to go to his next door neighbor’s house, but there’s other good moments, like his crazy shortcuts to get to work, or the ongoing metaphysical conversation with the “changeable message signs” that give traffic info to LA drivers — as if CALTRANS had been replaced by a higher authority (not that there is one for the average LA driver).

7. National Lampoon European Vacation. Directed by Amy Heckerling, 1985.

Not as good as the original and really doesn’t hold up at all anymore (if it ever did), but memorable for one scene: Chevy and family entering a roundabout in London and finding themselves unable to leave. Round and round they go, until night falls and Chevy is babbling uncontrollably. Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing people still think of when they hear the word ’roundabout,’ but modern roundabouts — and please repeat after me — are safer and handle traffic flows better than conventional four-way signalized or stop-sign marked intersections.

8. Singles and Mission Impossible: III (tie).

I lump these together because they both feature characters who are transportation engineers (one an aspiring, and the other, well it’s only his cover, he’s really a spy, but still…). Traffic engineers are hardly the next architects when it comes to giving movie characters ostensibly sexy and easy-to-depict careers (he’s carrying a tube of blueprints — whoa, he’s an architect!), so I’m always interested when they appear. In Cameron Crowe’s Singles, Campbell Scott plays Cliff, an idealistic engineering student who’s obsessed with a “super-train.”

Here’s his pickup line to a fellow single: “Let me ask you a question. You think about traffic? Because I do, constantly. Traffic is caused by the single car driver. Single people get in their cars every morning. They drive and wonder why there’s gridlock.” (Note the double meaning of the word “single”!)

In MI III, we get the pleasure of hearing Tom Cruise drop this line at a cocktail party: “You hit the brakes for a second, just tap them on the freeway, you can literally track the ripple effect of that action across a two-hundred-mile stretch of road, because traffic has a memory. It’s amazing. It’s like a living organism.” And then leaves to mix a drink or something, leaving his guests to digest his feverish musings.

9. Rain Man and Midnight Cowboy. There are two great Dustin Hoffman in the crosswalk moments, and I find each striking for they say about traffic. The first, in Midnight Cowboy, is the famous Ratso Rizzo “I’m walkin’ here” tirade, directed against a taxi cab that has violated his right of way. Indelibly funny stuff, the stuff of ring-tones, and it’s something every New Yorker has wanted to shout at some point (and more New Yorkers, I must point out, are killed crossing with the light than against). The second, in Rain Man (directed by Barry Levinson, 1988), finds Hoffman as the autistic savant Raymond. He’s walking in a crosswalk in a small town when suddenly the light flashes to “don’t walk.” Of course, in traffic law this only means do not enter the crosswalk, but to Raymond’s rigidly programmatic way of thinking, he takes this as a command to stop directly where he is, until he’s retrieved by Tom Cruise (not playing a traffic engineer in this one). This moment in its own way to some of the subtle problems of excessive traffic signs and signals in that an over-reliance on their instructions can see us rather losing the ability to think for ourselves, arguably placing us in new dangers.

10. Sunrise. Directed by F.W. Murnau, 1927.

I was going to go with the otherwise fairly forgettable Starman here for its scene in which the alien, learning the customs of Earth, finds out that the yellow signal at a traffic light means go “really fast,” but I wanted to end on a more lyrical note with this classic, hugely influential silent film. The rush of city traffic is a virtual character in the film, but in one famous moment, the husband and wife cross a large city square, and as the cars and trolleys and horses bear down upon them, they stop to kiss and magically fade into the traffic itself in an intensely memorable scene. Alas, if only traffic were so simple…

Posted on Tuesday, August 5th, 2008 at 10:52 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Apologies for the hectic postings… I’m now in Chicago, having had earlier today a great on-air chat with the excellent Kerri Miller at Minnesota Public Radio and a whirlwind tour of the Twin Cities’ traffic highlights with Roadguy.

But I wanted to put in a quick word — and this is the only time I’ll do some salesmanship here! — for my wife’s novel, Don’t You Forget About Me, just out from Villard (her name, by the way, is Jancee Dunn). I know, I know, this is hardly an unbiased recommendation, but it’s really a charming, funny, and moving read — but if you don’t believe me check out these unbiased words from the Los Angeles Times or the nice writeup in People magazine this week (sorry no linkage), or the other words of praise found at her blog. So, please, run, folks, do not walk, to your local bookstore and snap it up. And see if you can find the character in the book that’s loosely modeled on me!

Posted on Tuesday, August 5th, 2008 at 6:25 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 Transport column to me at:

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

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



August 2008

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