Archive for June 8th, 2010

The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)

There’s an underlying tone of the passive voice (not to mention repeated use of the word “accident”) running through this Daily Beast dispatch Note the opening: “With summer driving season here, so is the deadliest part of the year on the road. The Daily Beast crunches the numbers to determine the 100 interstates most likely to generate a fatal wreck.”

You see, it’s the interstates that generate the crashes, not the actions of drivers. It’s also questionable whether it makes sense to focus on interstate highways, which per mile driven rank among the safest of roads traveled. A further problem is the lack of any exposure data — “fatal accidents” per mile is a rather meaningless statistic when we don’t know how many people drove those miles.

A bit further down: “Summertime, when America traditionally takes to the road, carries with it a more somber tradition—’the 100 deadliest days’ of the year for drivers.” It’s makes it sound as if there were something about the days themselves that were somehow dangerous, rather than the actions — e.g., the increased alcohol intake over the Fourth of July — that actually lie behind these fatalities.

Posted on Tuesday, June 8th, 2010 at 1:31 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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One Way to Eliminate the ‘Free Rider’ Problem

Just stop charging. Geoff Manaugh notes:

“AT&T is launching a free wi-fi network for its customers in New York City’s Times Square,” Business Insider explained last week. “This will take a load off AT&T’s battered 3G network, by pushing peoples’ email, web, and app traffic onto wi-fi and off of 3G. And it should speed up downloads for AT&T customers in the area.” I’m reminded of Charles Komanoff’s proposed transportation policy changes for New York City, in which bus rides would always be offered free of charge, “because the time saved when passengers aren’t fumbling for change more than makes up for the lost fare revenue.” In other words, both cases suggest that offering certain urban services for free, at moments of high-intensity usage, often makes much better financial sense than charging for everything, all the time.

The flipside, of course, is that elsewhere, for the heaviest users (the so-called ‘data hogs’), AT&T is upping the pricing; and this too is the converse of Komanoff’s proposal — charging “road hogs” more for using the most network bandwidth at the most congested times.

Posted on Tuesday, June 8th, 2010 at 9:30 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Felix Salmon’s Congestion Charging Smackdown

I’m slow to this, but the video debate, featuring Charles Komanoff and others, is here.

For those of you who are, say, too gripped by World Cup analysis (Nani is out? Lee Dong-guk might return for South Korea?) to devote too much time to this sort of thing at the moment, Felix handily provides a crib sheet to the full video.

For my money, Reihan Salam is the most interesting voice in this debate: A conservative writer for National Review — which one might think would place him close to Corey Bearak in this debate — who is actually staunch defender of public transit — the result of being of a longtime outer-borough resident and subway commuter (of course, many right-wingers favor congestion charging — one might say, to rephrase the old saw about liberals and conservatives, ‘a congestion charging advocate is a free-marketeer who has been mugged by New York City congestion.’)

“The idea that you should pay $2 or $9 to drive in to New York when other folks have to pay some amount to take a subway into New York and have a much smaller impact, in terms of traffic congestion, seems pretty fair.”

Posted on Tuesday, June 8th, 2010 at 8:48 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Rational Safety or Driver Child-Proofing?

Reader Kent from New Zealand writes in with news of a new safety technology called “Raptor,” meant to sheathe road-side poles.

Many road deaths followed collisions with a tree or pole, James said, and tests had shown that a passenger compartment crush reduced from 500mm, when hitting an unwrapped pole, to 10mm when hitting a pole sheathed with a Raptor.

My first thought is: How soon until advertising is sold on those? Second thought is I have no problem with deploying those on high-speed roads, in which case there probably shouldn’t be poles or trees close to the road in the first place, but putting them up on lower speed roads, apart from being aesthetically unpleasant (I mean, really, do you want your town’s streets looking like the pit entrance at Talladega?), is just further child-proofing that will only encourage more bad behavior from drivers who should know better.

Trees tend to be uniformly defined as a hazard by road engineers, but another way of thinking about them is as a safety device: They protect pedestrians from wayward vehicles, and encourage slower speeds (lower speeds also reduce passenger compartment crush) by drivers. As always in these cases I refer to the work of Eric Dumbaugh:

Eric Dumbaugh, assistant professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A & M University, made a strong case that traffic engineers sometimes fail to understand the implications of their own accident data.

He presented some forceful statistics showing that while American rates of highway fatalities have fallen significantly over the past 30 years or so, they haven’t fallen as fast as the rates in other advanced countries. “We’ve fallen behind our first-world design peers.”

The problem is that American road builders’ model for a safe road is an Interstate highway – with limited access, wide lanes, and few turning options. The result is that engineers try to turn every road into an Interstate, with serious effects on aesthetics, and on safety too.

Dumbaugh argued that there is another model for a safe road, and that is the local street that is “dangerous by design.” Its hazards – curbside trees, for instance – are obvious. They force drivers to slow down, and that makes for greater safety.

He showed a slide of a stretch of road in Florida he had studied as part of a larger investigation of car crash sites. This particular stretch is lined by trees – the obstacle traffic engineers love to hate – on not just one but both sides. But it was clear from the picture that this is part of a real neighborhood – the kind of area where a driver instinctively slows down.

The road runs through the campus of Stetson University, an area with college students, dorms, and bars. And yet during the five year period his study covered, Dumbaugh said, there was not a single fatal crash there.

Posted on Tuesday, June 8th, 2010 at 8:29 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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We’ve all been amused by (or at least subjected to) the impromptu road theater of children turning around in the back seat of the car ahead to wave at us (or worse). Although, come to think of it, we probably see that less these days given the heightened awareness toward back-seat passenger restraints — not only do you not want your precious cargo hurtling forward, you don’t want them hurtling forward into you (same goes for dogs, etc.). Trust me, you don’t want to learn about the biomechanics of in-cabin projectiles.

But Phil Patton alerts me to a new form of high-concept road theater about to take place in that nexus of art and traffic, Los Angeles: Superclogger.

Conceived with Providence-based artist and bike mechanic Peter Fuller and developed out of Kyack’s interest in chaos, performance, and the relationship between individual will and collective control, Superclogger will present various puppet shows to drivers caught in afternoon traffic jams from a mobile theater housed in the back of a nondescript white pickup truck. Broadcasting soundtracks discretely to the viewer’s car stereo, Superclogger aims to briefly halt the progression of chaos by temporarily drawing the audience out of the commute experience and placing them within an intimate space of engagement and performance that highlights their own individual presence within the broader structure of the traffic jam.

I think that phrase, “the relationship between individual will and collective control,” well sums up the driving experience these days. This could be the most exciting thing to happen in a white truck on L.A. freeways since, well, you know…

Posted on Tuesday, June 8th, 2010 at 7:43 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Accidental Pedestrian SatNav Market

A curious bit from the Times:

Nokia recently discovered the market for pedestrian navigation by chance when it found out that of the 1.4m people who downloaded its car-oriented Ovi Maps app to their smartphones, half of them said they were actually using the maps for walking. The Finnish company has since started to invest heavily in boosting the resolution of its maps to cater for people on foot.

Posted on Tuesday, June 8th, 2010 at 7:29 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.

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June 2010

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