Archive for February, 2009

Abbey Road Observational Traffic Study

A time-lapse video of the world’s most famous zebra crossing (done for a band’s video), with some unusual, if predictable, pedestrian behavior. Driver compliance seems good (they must be used to it by now, and luckily the street is only two lanes), and I’m not sure if the guy at 1:34 is trying to generate Engwichtian “interest and intrigue” and calm traffic or what.

(Via Kottke)

Posted on Thursday, February 19th, 2009 at 9:13 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Wherever There’s a Hang Up, You’ll Find the Spiderman’

Including, apparently, rush hour in Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel.

Israeli drivers in Rosh Ha’ayin were met with an unusual sight Sunday evening, when a man dressed as Spiderman decided to use his superpowers to engage commuters sitting in evening traffic.

Several drivers on the scene called the traffic police hotline to report the superhero’s unique participation in the traffic jam. The man leapt from vehicle to vehicle, occasionally attempting to lasso cars with an apparent ‘web’ made of ropes.

Policewoman Ayala Cohen and police volunteer Uriel Dozriv arrived at the Rosh Ha’ayin junction, only to have their police car assaulted by a ‘spider web’. The two were able to subdue the man easily, upon getting out of the vehicle.

When asked why he had dressed up as the comic super hero and endangered drivers, the man replied that he had been hit by a car and had found himself in the hospital wearing the costume.

And you thought it was a radioactive spider.

Posted on Thursday, February 19th, 2009 at 9:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Induced Demand

Via Hard Drive, I was intrigued by the clever incentive Portland has undertaken to get more people commuting via bicycle: Free donuts and coffee to cyclists on the incoming bridges.

Perhaps cocktails and peanuts for the ride home?

Posted on Thursday, February 19th, 2009 at 8:46 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Bad Cycling? Bad Science

Here is what insurance company LV has to say about cycling safety in the U.K.:

“Mounting financial pressures have led to a surge in inexperienced cyclists taking to the roads,” say LV in their press release: “resulting in a 29% increase in road accidents involving cyclists in the past six months.”

This from a press release titled: “ROAD USERS WARNED OVER INEXPERIENCED CYCLISTS.” Road users aren’t the same as cyclists, inexperienced or not?

And here’s what Bad Science author Ben Goldacre says: “It’s topical, it involves death and fear, it’s dressed in the cloak of statistical authority: this is totally going on the telly.”

Read his full dissection here. The problems seem legion; for beginners, we don’t know that the cyclists hit are indeed the novel cyclists. These sorts of insurance-company led “studies” come up all the time in the media, and I’m not sure whether they’re done as PR stunts (I love that phrase “PR-reviewed scientific evidence”) for a willing media, or to scare us all into buying more insurance (or maybe getting us off the bike and into a car). There are real issues here, but head-line chasing does no one a service.

Posted on Wednesday, February 18th, 2009 at 3:18 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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And You Thought Driving Tests Were Stressful for the Students

The BBC reports that a driving instructor is suing for damages over a driving test.

Mr Carmichael said he recorded 14 faults with the driving of the woman taking the exam, claiming five were serious and one dangerous.

He’s suing the insurer of the exam car, not the would-be student (who, uh, failed).

Ms Tait asked Mr Carmichael, a former driving instructor, if he was seriously telling the court that this incident, if it occurred as he said, was the worst he had experienced in over 12 years of having learner drivers at the wheel.

He said: “Yes it was.”

Posted on Wednesday, February 18th, 2009 at 9:32 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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What Difference Does 5 MPH Make?

For my money, the U.K. Department for Transport’s Think campaign is the most thought-provoking road safety campaign in the world today (not that there’s much competition in the U.S., which long ago lost its lead as the world’s safest driving nation). This video shows how a small difference in speed, barely perceived by the driver of a large well-insulated modern car, can make all the difference to someone outside the car — not just reaction time but impact speed.

Of course, PSAs and “raising awareness,” by themselves, for all the good intentions, have been shown in the field of road safety, and various other public health campaigns, to be vastly ineffective. You need enforcement (not continued slaps on the wrist for people like this), negative financial incentives, the changing of social norms, etc. etc.

(via Streetsblog)

Posted on Tuesday, February 17th, 2009 at 2:56 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Giving ‘Spare Tire’ a Whole New Meaning

If greater car dependency is linked to higher obesity rates, as some studies have suggested, a Los Angeles doctor seemed to offer a self-sustaining remedy to the problem.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Dr. Bittner defended his use of discarded body fat from his patients to fuel his car and said he received signed consents from patients who were told of the intended use. Still, “the medical board went ballistic” about this practice, he said.

Using medical waste obtained from liposuction as a biofuel “is not currently an approved alternative treatment technology,” according to the California Department of Public Health. To seek approval, an individual would have to submit an application to the department for this alternative use. There is no record of Dr. Bittner filing such an application, a department spokesman said.

The practice spurred “death threats against me and my staff,” Dr. Bittner said. “I thought it was a great thing to demonstrate to the world how many ways there are to solve the energy crisis.”

Shades of Soylent Green

Posted on Tuesday, February 17th, 2009 at 8:48 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Jack Martin on Hypermiling

Interesting road-trip with 2008 hyper-miling champion Jack Martin, particularly for his comments about trucks and bikes.

(Thanks Ed!)

Posted on Monday, February 16th, 2009 at 3:36 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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9/11 and the Subsequent Rise in Traffic Fatalities: More Exposure, or More Stress?

There have been a number of papers that have argued that have identified a post 9/11 uptick in traffic fatalities, theoretically based on a rise in driving, itself motivated by a fear/dread of flying (most notably, Gerd Gigerenzer, 2004, “Dread risk, September 11, and fatal traffic accidents,” in Psychological Science).

A new paper, “Driving Under the Influence (of Stress): Evidence of a Regional Increase in Impaired Driving and Traffic Fatalities After the September 11 Terrorist Attacks,” by Alexander J. Rothman, et al., also in Psychological Science, comes to a rather different conclusion.

“Although we confirmed that U.S. domestic air travel decreased significantly following September 11,” the authors write, “our analyses did not support the claim that there were notable increases in driving miles and in traffic fatalities across the United States after that date. In fact, total U.S. driving miles in the post-September months in 2001 did not differ significantly from total U.S. driving miles in the same months in 1999 and 2000, and the observed increase in total U.S. driving miles in October through December 2001 appears normative when examined within broader historical trends. The number of fatal traffic accidents in the United States did increase, albeit only marginally, in the 3 months following September 11, but there was no evidence of an overall increase in traffic fatalities.”

They did find one change amidst the data, however: “We did obtain evidence that the terrorist attacks had a systematic, but localized, effect on traffic fatalities.” The “localized” effect was on the Northeast, the region arguably the most directly impacted by the September 11th attacks. “Our analysis revealed a significant increase in traffic fatalities in the Northeast in the final 3 months of 2001.”

They continue: “To examine regional differences in traffic fatalities further, we used alcohol- or drug-related citations and reckless-driving citations as two behavioral indicators of psychological distress… [W]e found a significant increase in the number of alcohol- or drug-related citations issued in connection with such accidents during the last 3 months of 2001, but only in the Northeast. The concurrent regional increases in traffic fatalities and in alcohol- or drug-related citations lend support to our second hypothesis—namely, that behaviors impairing the quality of driving increased in those regions most affected by the terrorist attacks, and may have contributed to the observed elevation in percentage of traffic fatalities. This effect is consistent with other findings indicating that exposure to traumatic events is associated with an increased use of psychoactive substances, especially alcohol (e.g., Chilcoat & Menard, 2003; Pfefferbaum & Doughty, 2001)…”

Interestingly, they found the rate was the effect was highest in New York State, though they caution that “that meaningful operationalization of geographic proximity can be complicated and remains a task that is beyond the scope of this article.”

So, if correct, the study implies that it wasn’t a mere affect of people driving more miles to avoid airplane travel, but that their behavior on the road had in some way changed (one Israeli study found a similar increase in fatal crashes in the days following suicide bombings). My initial instinct was to think that a rise in drunk driving crashes might make sense from the perspective that more traffic enforcement officials were pulled off the roads and put into other duties in the wake of 9/11, although that wouldn’t necessarily explain the rise in citations. Another issue is to break down more specifically what kinds of roads people were driving on after 9/11, as Michael Sivak and Michael Flannagan have done, although, interestingly, this seems to potentially add weight to this study: Sivak and Flannagan found “the largest increase [in driving] occurred on local roads, not interstate highways that would be the main alternative to flying. Local roads, both urban and rural, accounted for 45 percent of the increase in traffic deaths.” Presumably, people swapping out flights for long-haul driving would be on those interstate highways, not local roads. As Rothman and his colleagues caution, “the rates of fatal traffic accidents, and hence fatalities, may have increased in the Northeast after the attacks as a result of more people driving in unfamiliar areas because of road closures and detours.”

Lastly, one can’t be certain that aggressive driving or impaired driving is a sign of “psychological distress.” Still, the pattern, localized in time and place, seems very real and suggestive.

(Horn honk to Shirl)

Posted on Monday, February 16th, 2009 at 3:24 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic in Numbers

If you’ve ever wanted to know what Harper’s Index has to say about traffic, look no further (the number refers to the date of publication, and the source is listed below each item).

12/86 Rank of drugs among the most pressing city problems cited by Washington, D.C., blacks: 1
Washingtonian magazine

Rank of traffic among the problems cited by Washington, D.C., whites: 1
Washingtonian magazine

1/88 Percentage change in alcohol-related U.S. traffic deaths in 1986: +7
Dr. Ralph Hingson, School of Public Health, Boston University

10/88 Estimated percentage of U.S. gasoline consumption that occurs during traffic jams: 4
U.S. Department of Transportation

8/88 Chances that a New York City traffic officer was assaulted on the job in 1987: 1 in 5
Department of Transportation (N.Y.C.)

9/88 Average fine in Bavaria, West Germany, for calling a traffic officer a damischer Bulle (stupid bull): $1,710
Franz Spelman, Time (Munich, West Germany)

For calling a traffic officer a Stinkstiefel (smelly boot): $51
Franz Spelman, Time (Munich, West Germany)

10/90 Percentage increase, since last year, in the number of traffic accidents in East Germany: 49
German Information Center (New York City)

2/90 Percentage change, since 1974, in the amount of commercial air traffic in the United States: +100
U.S. Federal Aviation Administration

Percentage change, since 1974, in the number of commercial airports in the United States: 0
U.S. Federal Aviation Administration

9/90 Rickshaws the city of Jakarta, Indonesia, has dumped into the ocean since 1985 to reduce traffic congestion: 100,000
The Australian (Sydney)

5/91 Size of one traffic jam in Tokyo last year, in miles: 84
Washington Report (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

12/95 Estimated amount of gasoline wasted in U.S. traffic jams each day, in gallons: 12,600,000
Texas Transportation Institute (College Station, Tex.)

6/95 Average speed of a car crossing midtown Manhattan during the day, in miles per hour: 5.3
Ruben Ramirez, New York City Department of Transportation

Maximum average speed in miles per hour that Manhattan’s traffic commissioner believes is achievable: 9
Ruben Ramirez, New York City Department of Transportation

1/98 Percentage change since 1982 in the average amount of time an American is delayed by traffic congestion: +95
The Campaign for Efficient Transportation (Washington)

9/98 Number of air-traffic controllers ordered to take a two-hour “refresher” course last spring: 10,000
Federal Aviation Administration (Washington)

9/98 Number of times last June that air-traffic controllers lost track of the altitude or speed of Air Force I or II: 4
Federal Aviation Administration (Washington)

6/99 Percentage change since 1990 in the number of U.S. traffic disputes in which one driver kills or injures another: +59
AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (Washington)

11/00 Average annual number of traffic accidents in Iowa caused by low visibility due to corn stalks: 65
Iowa Department of Transportation (Ames)/Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)

2/00 Ratio of the number of Americans killed in traffic accidents in 1998 to the number killed by medical errors: 1:1
Institute of Medicine (Washington);

5/00 Rank of traffic accidents among the leading causes of death for on-duty U.S. police officers last year: 1
U.S. Department of Justice/Federal Bureau of Investigation

7/01 Estimated cost of fuel consumed in 1999 by U.S. drivers caught in traffic delays: $8,600,000,000
Texas Transportation Institute (College Station)

10/02 Number of traffic tickets issued in July by British Columbia police officers posing as squeegee men: 90
Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Burnaby, B.C.)

8/03 Ratio of the estimated number of people killed worldwide by war last year to the number killed by traffic: 1:4
World Health Organization (Geneva)

6/05 Portion of the world’s motor vehicles that are in China: 1/17
World Business Council for Sustainable Development (Geneva)

Portion of the world’s annual traffic fatalities that are: 1/5
World Health Organization (Geneva)

7/05 Percentage of U.S. auto travel that occurs on two-lane roads: 28
The Road Information Program (Washington)

Percentage of traffic fatalities that do: 52
The Road Information Program (Washington)

11/06 Amount that U.S. embassy staff in London owe in unpaid traffic charges: $1,600,000
Transport for London

6/07 Portion of all Internet traffic today that is file sharing of music, films, and videos: 2/3
CacheLogic (Cambridge, England)

10/08 Percentage by which the average incidence of fires and traffic accidents on Fridays the 13th differs from that of other Fridays: –4
Centrum voor Verzekeringsstatistiek (The Hague, Netherlands)

7/08 Minimum number of U.S. cities that have shortened the yellow light on traffic signals to under the legal limit: 6
National Motorists Association (Waunakee, Wisc.)

9/08 Minutes that Minneapolis drivers can legally idle while not in traffic, per a new city ordinance: 3
Minneapolis Public Affairs

Posted on Monday, February 16th, 2009 at 10:50 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Are Traffic Problems Population Problems?

A while ago, someone asked me what we could do to solve traffic problems. I was feeling flippant, so I said: “Birth control.”

I was reminded of this in a recent flurry of articles about overpopulation (here, for example), something that was broached again with the sordidly surreal “octuplets” case.

But in the U.S., at least, not all the news is bad, as reported by the New York Times:

“And besides, they say, the birth rate in the United States is barely at the level needed to replace the population. Total fertility rate, which predicts the number of children an average woman will have in her lifetime, reached 2.1, considered replacement level, in 2006, but it was the first time it had been that high since 1971. A small percentage of large families, they say, is not enough to tip the balance.”

Given that we’ve added roughly 100 million people since 1968, one does have to wonder, however, about the link between a growing population (via births or immigration) and consistently rising travel times (NB: traffic is far down on my list of “things to be worried about by a growing population”). But looking at some research by Steven Polzin, at the University of South Florida, this relationship is not as simple as it might seem.

The first thing to note, as in the slide below, is that while population has been on the rise, it is far outpaced by “vehicle miles traveled.” It’s not just how many people we have, it’s how much they’re driving.

And while it is inherently true that larger families consume more resources, including miles traveled, there is something of an “economy of travel” as household size increases. Most interesting, though, for travel demographers is the increasing number of single-person households, as in the slide below.

Also of interest is the issue of rising income, and the decreasing cost of travel.

And there’s the people who didn’t have cars who increasingly seem to have one.

Polzin himself does not put population at the top of causal factors for the increase in VMT (and thus, relatedly, congestion); but instead, “trip frequency.”

It goes without saying that population plays some role in contributing to congestion. But what is arguably more critical is a number of demographic changes in the population itself, including the way it has chosen to live (non-walkable neighborhoods in far-flung suburbs, meaning more trips and longer trips — a trend that Richard Florida suggests may have reached its zenith in the current economic meltdown), declining walk-to-work and walk-to-school shares, increasing numbers of cars per household, higher shares of licensed teenage drivers, declining carpool participation rates, under-priced car travel, declining transit funding, etc. etc.

For an example of how things can be done differently, we can look no further than NYC, where a recent study found that between 2003 and 2007, even as the city continued to grow (economically and population-wise), vehicle traffic actually dropped. Granted, the subway cars have felt more crowded since the introduction of the Metrocard, but unlike vehicular traffic, an absolutely packed train travels at essentially the same speed as an empty one.

Posted on Monday, February 16th, 2009 at 10:36 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Human Factors

Just for dark humor — it’s Friday, after all (and appropriately, it’s Friday the 13th).

(Horn honk to Roadguy)

Posted on Friday, February 13th, 2009 at 9:35 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Culture and Corruption: A Few More Thoughts

Why does traffic behave differently in different places? Why does driving in Cairo set the nerves on edge, while in Munich people stoically wait for crossing signals, even at minor intersections?

One’s first impulse may be to reach for cultural explanations. In Chinese cities, where queuing can seem rampantly disorderly (something the government endeavored to correct ahead of the Olympics), perhaps it’s only natural that negotiating an intersection can seem so trying. Go to Denmark, with its famously self-effacing and polite residents, and the highways are largely marked by scrupulous lane discipline and a lack of horn honking.

Or maybe it’s urban density, and the vehicle mix. Delhi is more crowded than New York or London, packing some 48 different modes of transport onto its streets. In sprawling Los Angeles, there is essentially one mode — the car — and plenty of wide (if congested) streets to drive on. How could the former not seem more “chaotic,” at least to the uninitiated?

Perhaps economics has an answer. The American economist George McDowell, using as an opener John F.A. Taylor’s comment that the “market is… a traffic in claims, not in things” — i.e., it’s not only commodities per se but relationships between people and things — goes on to postulate a theory that a country’s traffic behavior has something to do with its market structure.

China, McDowell argues, has historically had a mixed economic structure — some state-owned enterprises, but also a “long entrepreneurial tradition.” In the latter system the advertised price on a product is often just a suggestion; the real price is whatever is agreed upon. If you pay too much, the “advantage” goes to the shopkeeper. And so it is with Chinese traffic: Turning, merging, yielding and the like are opportunities to be gained or lost. If one is cut off, one accepts that they have been bested in this one-time transaction.

Contrast that to the U.S., where being cut off might bring on a voluble burst of “road rage” by the offended party. Fairness and justice are prized (if also violated). As with traffic, McDowell notes, Americans view markets not as “free” but as “open,” governed by formal and informal rules, where “opportunistic behavior is expected and even encouraged but within a strict set of parameters.”

As a rough rule of thumb, then, one might say if you’re driving in a place where bargaining over transactions is expected, there will be a good deal of bargaining on the road. If you’re in a place where the set price is always paid, you might expect traffic behavior to also follow these implicit top-down rules.


Posted on Friday, February 13th, 2009 at 8:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Liberty City

A few months ago, I was pretty intensively playing Grand Theft Auto IV. As an urbanist, I was curious about its immersive, complex representation of the city — or maybe I just wanted to blow things up after a long day’s work.

Naturally I took an interest in the traffic life of “Liberty City,” which, like the New York that is its inspiration, is a multi-modal mix of pedestrians, cars, subways, motorcyclists, taxis — though, curiously, no cyclists (I thought it might be a programming issue, but there are motorcycles). Its protagonist, the amoral Niko Bellic, presumably not in the country legally, is also presumably an unlicensed driver (that’s the least of his legal violations, of course). At first, I drove quite cautiously, as I thought the omnipresent police might nab me for violating red lights, or even speeding. I soon learned, however, that traffic infractions were not part of the Liberty City PD’s bailiwick — even though, of course, a routine traffic stop might have netted them a gangster. In fact, you pretty much had to commit full-scale mass pedestrian vehicle homicide to even attract the attention of the police. For Niko the driver, Liberty City was pretty much a place where he was at liberty to disregard any rule of the road.

Hmmm… a city where one can routinely drive at high speeds, even in crowded urban environments, with little repercussion, where even striking a pedestrian will get you little more than a few pointed questions from the police (and in fact it may have even been the police that did it), where traffic signals are treated as optional… This is where the line between Liberty City and New York City really does get blurry.

To wit, via Streetsblog:

A new report from Transportation Alternatives confirms what New York pedestrians and cyclists have been forced to accept as a fact of life: A high number of drivers speed through city streets, regardless of the potentially deadly consequences for those around them.

“Terminal Velocity: NYC’s Speeding Epidemic” shows that 39 percent of observed motorists were driving in excess of the 30 mph speed limit. Using radar guns and speed enforcement cameras at 13 locations, TA volunteers clocked speeds in excess of 60 mph in school zones and other areas with heavy pedestrian traffic.

Most speeding drivers were traveling between 31 and 40 mph. While a pedestrian struck at 30 mph has a 60 percent chance of surviving a collision, the likelihood of survival drops to 30 percent when the vehicle is moving at 40 mph, TA notes.

The name Liberty City was well chosen by GTA’s creators as its NYC stand-in, at least in the case of many Gotham drivers: You are at liberty to ignore laws. Of course, as John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community” is “to prevent harm to others.” There’s plenty of harm, let’s get exercised.

Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 2:37 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Removing Lines as a Traffic Calming Measure: Data, anyone?

Reader Bob Widlansky, from Wilmette, Illinois, writes in regarding a problem on his street that is perhaps the most universal complaint in the world of traffic: Drivers going too fast on residential streets.

As he notes, “I live on a very wide street [pictured above] residential built in the early 1900’s to accommodate a street-car line that used to run down the middle. In an effort to slow down traffic on my residential street, the Village has painted edge-lines and a yellow centerline. The majority of residents believe this has actually increased traffic speeds.”

He has begun pushing the idea (rather unsuccessfully — the city engineer cites safety concerns) at local meetings to remove the center lines, a concept that I describe in Traffic, based on some research done by the TRL and demonstrated in some rural English towns — where it was found that removing the center-lines not only reduced speeds, it led drivers to put more distance between themselves and the opposing stream of traffic. The theory is that lines reduce vigilance, reduce thinking, and potentially increase speeds.

Bob is very passionate about the subject. He’s looking for any data/experience/case studies, preferably from the U.S., where striping and lines were beneficially removed. He’s actually already located some guidance, from the city of Pasadena’s rulebook. He notes that page 22, from the official policy on “Markings/Striping Changes — Removal of Centerline on Residential Streets,” states:

“Centerlines can provide drivers with clear delineation of travelways. On residential local streets that are relatively narrow (36′-42′) with low traffic volumes, centerlines may induce speeding because drivers’ travelways are clearly delineated. Experience has shown that the removal of centerlines on local streets results in more cautious driving behavior. Painted edgelines have a similar effect. Edgelines visually reduce the width of the roadway causing drivers to be more aware.”

I thought I’d open this to the audience: Can anyone help out Bob with studies (before/after observational would be best here, I’d imagine), or have you successfully had lines removed? Or is this even the right way to go about this? Do you have any other suggestions for calming Greenleaf Avenue? Judging by the photo, there are already parked cars, and interestingly, there’s already a sort of differential pavement treatment, a bit confusing to my eyes but apparently not to speeding drivers. What else can be done?

Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 1:36 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Signal Art

I recently mentioned artist Robbie Conal’s discovery a while back that traffic light signal boxes made the perfect venue for his art in Los Angeles. Via Mike on Traffic, I was intrigued by a public art program in the Texas town of North Richland Hills that turns these overlooked bits of traffic infrastructure into an officially sanctioned canvas (evidently it was also done to preempt graffiti).

The video below, produced by the city’s Art in Public Spaces program, shows some more iterations. I’m all for public art, though I do admit the concept of cars sitting at an intersection being “public space,” while technically true and a fact of life in most of the U.S. (and already realized by people like Conal), still strikes me as a bit odd (particularly since drivers in cars exist in a strange netherworld of coexisting private spaces) — although admittedly the picture above looks like a pretty walkable sort of environment. And how many yellow boxes can you have, anyway?

Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 11:21 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Dangerous Roads, or Dangerous Driving?

This piece from Fox News (after the jump as well) claims to identify the “top 10 most dangerous roads in America,” implying as well that stimulus spending might somehow be directed to these corridors of death.

But reading through the piece, the overwhelming impression left with me is not design or infrastructural shortcomings, but driver shortcomings: Speed, alcohol, fatigue.


Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 8:15 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I’ll Take “Los Angeles Traffic” for $200, Alex

Over at Freakonomics, Eric Morris is running a quiz that should delight, surprise, and cause no small amount of debate among transpo types. He’s already answered one of the questions, but I’ve linked to the original quiz post, which I’ll reproduce below as well:

We at U.C.L.A. hear from reporters a lot, and they are often looking for a few quotes to help write a familiar script. In it, Los Angeles is cast in the role of the nation’s transportation dystopia: a sprawling, smog-choked, auto-obsessed spaghetti bowl of freeways which meander from one bland suburban destination to the next. The heroes of the picture are cities like San Francisco, or especially New York, which are said to have created vastly more livable urban forms based on density and mass transit.

But this stereotype is as trite and clichéd as any that has spewed from the printer of the most dim-witted Hollywood hack. And it is just as fictitious. The secret is that Los Angeles doesn’t fit the role it’s been typecast in.

I have not yet been granted authorization to distribute the coveted Freakonomics schwag, but challenge yourself with the following quiz anyway.

Exactly one of the following statements about transportation in Los Angeles is indisputably true. Two are (at best) half-truths, and the rest are flat-out myths. Can you figure out which of the following is accurate?

1. Los Angeles has developed in a low-density, sprawling pattern.

2. Los Angeles’s air is choked with smog.

3. Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation.

4. Thanks to the great distances between far-flung destinations, and perhaps to Angelenos’ famed “love affair” with the car, Angelenos drive considerably more miles than most Americans.

5. Los Angeles is dominated by an overbuilt freeway system that promotes autodependence.

6. Los Angeles’s mass transit system is underdeveloped and inadequate.

Answers to follow over the next few weeks.

Posted on Wednesday, February 11th, 2009 at 3:39 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Actions: What You Can Do With the City

A traffic engineer I recently heard speaking at a conference said, showing off a new scheme, “there’s a lot you can do with paint.” (Of course, you can also influence human behavior by taking paint away). In any case I thought of that sentiment while recently reading through the excellent catalog (edited by Mirko Zardini and Giovanna Borasi) for an exhibit at the Canadian Center for Architecture called “Actions: What You Can Do With the City,” a kind of surrealist planning guide meets handbook for guerilla civic engagement, filled with ideas, some new, some old — all interesting — about how cities can be made better places to live (and “paint,” it turns out, is one of the categories in the exhibit). Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of them had to do with traffic, in particular the question of assigning different bits of urban space to different modes, or at least getting us to think about these issues in new and creative ways, rather than simple formulas or prescriptions.

Pictured above, for example, is German artist Gerhard Lang’s zebrastreifen, or “zebra crossing,” which, as described by the CCA, is: “A DIY answer to the question: how can pedestrians legally cross a street wherever they want to, and not only at the whim of traffic planners? … Lang’s zebrastreifen… allowed a 600-person procession to cross the streets, alleys, backyards, and car parks of Kassel without jaywalking. The procession honoured Lang’s friend, collaborator, and former professor, Lucius Burckhardt, the inventor of the field of Spaziergangswissenschaft, or ” ‘Strollology.’ ”

I also particularly enjoyed two different kinds of commentaries on the space occupied by the car in the city. The first, pictured below, is Austrian civil engineer Hermann Knoflacher’s low-tech but effective Gehzeug, or walkmobile, designed in 1975 as a commentary on the “spatial abilities of streets without automobiles.

In a slightly different vein is artist Michael Rakowitz’ “(P)LOT Project,” which “restores parking spaces to pedestrians as street-side camping,” using standard car covers. The model below was for a Porsche, and it was stolen.

Back on the subject of paint, there’s also the work (pictured below) of Toronto’s Urban Repair Squad. As the story goes they got tired of waiting for adequate bike lanes in their city, and took matters into their own hands: “Since 2005, the group has painted over six kilometres of bicycle lanes on major and minor streets in Toronto while disguised as municipal workers – official City of Toronto workers attempt to remove the markings as fast as they are painted.”

I’ll close with the work of L.A.’s Fallen Fruit, which seeks out the Ballardian dead spaces of L.A.’s traffic infrastructure, like the forlorn traffic islands (can ramp gores be next?). Notes the CCA: “Ten urban archipelagos were planted with young tomatoes in May 2008, and their produce tracked to identify which traffic islands sites best supported agriculture.”

No word on if the tomatoes compromised the sight distance of passing drivers.

Posted on Wednesday, February 11th, 2009 at 3:23 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
Comments Off on Actions: What You Can Do With the City. Click here to leave a comment.

When Is a Stop Sign Not a Stop Sign

Reading this post about a law to allow cyclists to treat stop signs as a yield, something that invariably tends to raise ire among drivers (and some cyclists), reminded me of this post from a while ago — the video embedded there reminds us of the small fact that many drivers (at least in Kansas) already tend to treat “Stop” sign as a yield (at best).

And, in case you haven’t read it, after the jump I’ve posted the classic article (from Access magazine) by physicist Joel Fajans and Melanie Curry, “Why Cyclists Hate Stop Signs.”

(Horn honk to Richard)


Posted on Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 at 1:54 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
Comments Off on When Is a Stop Sign Not a Stop Sign. Click here to leave a comment.
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:

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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



February 2009

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