Archive for the ‘Cyclists’ Category

Pedaling Revolution

Jeff Mapes’ new book Pedaling Revolution is out, and he’ll be in New York on Friday for a Q&A/signing.

I provided this comment to the book’s publisher:

“Writing from Portland, the hub of the American cycling renaissance, Jeff Mapes, brimming with passion, humor and salutary insight, makes an admirably clear-headed, convincing and, ultimately, humane argument for making more room for the two-wheeler, in our lives and on our roads.”

Posted on Wednesday, March 11th, 2009 at 7:27 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Helmeted Cyclist as an “Indicator Species”

There are some striking passages in the new “Cycling in the Netherlands” report (via David Hembrow).

Wearing a bicycle helmet for daily trips is unusual in the Netherlands. Only competitive cyclists or mountain bikers tend to wear a helmet for their sport. Some parents give young children bicycle helmets. Usually the helmet is simply packed away for good before the offspring are 10 years old. There is certainly no support for mandatory helmeting. The fear exists that making it mandatory would cause a drop in bicycle use.

Sound dangerous? No, the reverse.

To talk about the relationship of bike helmets to safety is, it seems, to approach the situation in the wrong way. A useful analogy, I think, is to consider the presence or absence of certain species of birds in our environment. The near-disappearance of the peregrine falcon several decades ago was, it turned out, an indicator of the presence of toxic contaminants in our midst (it wasn’t just a bird problem, it was a human problem); we addressed the problem (somewhat), and the falcons returned. Conversely, the appearance of a flock of bike helmets could be read as a sign of safe and responsible individual behavior, or it could represent a species under attack in an unsustainable environment. To take another example, various species of woodpeckers have been on the decline, not just because of habitat loss, but because of the decline of natural processes, like fire, that give them the habitat they need. There too is a metaphor for cycling culture — without habitat, without the right habitat, a species won’t thrive. Given the Netherlands’ experience, helmets matter rather little — much more important are facilities, riders, enforcement, incentives, and the broader culture comprised of these things.

There’s all sorts of other interesting stuff in the report; e.g., this passage:

Most children are taught to ride a bicycle by their parents or a brother or sister at a very early age. This is less apparent amongst the growing of migrant population. Traditionally the bicycle is not part of Turkish or Moroccan culture. Often the parents cannot ride a bicycle, so no suitable bicycles are available in the household. In large cities with many migrants, extra attention is thus devoted to cycling skills in primary school. To ensure that all children gain cycling experience, the Amsterdam municipality makes bicycles available to schools, for instance. In a number of cities cycling courses for migrant women are also held. They can then master cycling in a protected environment. Many participants enjoy this as an opportunity to develop more skills.

The city giving bikes to schools — amazing! Here (in NYC) we read about community resistance to bike lanes so as not to interrupt the smooth vehicular conveyance of children to schools, typically in oversized vehicles that themselves are a threat to the urban environment.

Posted on Friday, March 6th, 2009 at 1:10 pm 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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Green Wave Blues

One of my personal urban pet peeves is that the traffic signals on a street like New York’s Fifth Avenue, on which a majority of users are pedestrians, seemed timed in such a way to interfere as much as possible with smooth ambulatory progress. Seriously, I feel like I have to stop at every single light on Fifth.

From the invaluable Streetfilms comes a look at what would happen if a street like Valencia in San Francisco had its signals timed such that cyclists had a green wave. What about cars, you ask? Isn’t that anti-car-ism? Well, actually, as San Francisco Streetsblog points out: “Recently, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) found that during peak commute times vehicles run more efficiently when signals are timed at the speeds they actually travel during congestion — 12 to 15 mph — rather than the current 25 mph.” Not to mention that cyclist signal compliance rates will inevitably rise. On streets to which you’re trying to attract cycles, why not offer the carrot instead of merely the stick? Synchronization, in a grid city, has its natural limits but it’s certainly worth favoring certain modes on particular streets.

I often find some of the most hazardous urban driving behavior to be people accelerating between lights, or emerging from a pack of congestion. The question is how to get drivers to stick to speeds that are lower overall, but actually promote smoother, more fuel-efficient driving. ISA (intelligent speed adaptation) is probably the most far-reaching tool, but in some ways a political non-starter in the U.S. (for now, at least). I suspect that merely telling drivers through signage that the only way to get a row of greens is to drive 15 or 20 mph will somehow not work (the average driver is an incredibly opportunistic, short-range planner, only concerned with getting to the next red light as fast as possible).

Posted on Monday, February 2nd, 2009 at 4:24 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Get Yourself Seen

It’s a U.K. spot, circa 1976, but the singers sound very American, as funky but perhaps less psychedelic than the Kroft Supershow…

Posted on Wednesday, January 14th, 2009 at 5:45 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On the Other Hand, Cycle Lanes Are Vital to National Security

From the Croydon Guardian:

Andrew Pelling, MP for Central Croydon, was searched by police officers who thought he might be a terrorist, despite him showing his House of Commons pass when they asked for identification.

Mr Pelling had been taking pictures of the cycle lane at the junction of Addiscombe Road and Cherry Orchard Road and said his motive was to highlight the “long-neglected bicycle and pedestrian route”, which had been of concern to his constituents.

Posted on Thursday, January 8th, 2009 at 8:47 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Safer Cycling (and Driving ) in Portland

Over at BikePortland, there were some interesting numbers from the PDOT:

“In 2008, there were 140 “traffic injuries” to individuals on bicycles. That’s down from 196 in 2007 and it’s the lowest number since the survey was taken in 1999. The same goes for pedestrian injuries; there were 123 in 2008, down from 191 in 2007. There was also a major drop in the amount of individuals injured while operating an automobile; the survey reports 4,428 injured, compared to 5,429 in 2007.”

This reduction in bicycle fatalities has happened as Portland’s cycling share has increased. This raises all sorts of questions about the dynamics (e.g., safety in numbers, improved facilities bringing more people out), but I was also curious that the number of automobile injuries has also gone down. This could of course be related to the economy (fewer miles being driven), or even a slight reduction in drivers who have shifted to cycles, but I wonder if in some ways the increased presence of bicycles — and perhaps things like roads being narrowed to accommodate lanes — could itself being acting a sort of widespread traffic calming device?

Curious for any thoughts from Portland…

Posted on Thursday, December 11th, 2008 at 3:06 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Bikes Not Bombs

John Adams explodes the fear of “bicycle bombs.” And his point on life jackets is well taken too.

[I should clarify, vis a vis the comment below, that Adams is talking about actual bicycles converted into bombs, rather than explosives attached to bicycles — which seems to be the case in this article — which are in theory no different than explosives strapped to human suicide bombers.]

Posted on Tuesday, November 11th, 2008 at 4:01 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Hanoi crazy night traffic from v!Nc3sl4s on Vimeo

I came across this entrancing video of night traffic in Hanoi, a city said to currently have the highest per-capita motorbike usage in the world. It’s hard not to watch this and be dazzled by the wonderfully organic, almost aquatic flow — no man steps into the same Hanoi traffic stream twice. “It somehow works,” you hear people say. Matt Steinglass reminds us it’s not often as pretty as it looks.

I was in Hanoi last December, on the eve of the country’s new compulsory helmet law (which according to one account seems to have brought a 30% reduction in injuries, though presumably we’ll need more time and better science to see how it shakes out), and seeing this video had me in a nostalgic mood.

So allow me to drag out the photo album for a moment, of snaps taken mostly from the back of moto-taxis:

Watching Hanoi traffic is hypnotizing, like sitting on a beach and watching waves break.

There were many stylish riders, but helmets were not generally considered a vital accessory.


Posted on Friday, November 7th, 2008 at 11:06 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Cycles in London’s Bus Lanes

On the cycling theme for a moment, I’m wondering what the thinking is out there about London’s trial for motorcycles in the bus lanes (where pedal cyclists currently dwell). We’ll have to wait and see the results of the trial, but it brings up some interesting inter-modal issues. Will this really pose no risk to cyclists, as TFL claims, or would that risk be smaller than the risk posed to motorcyclists by cars? What about the increased emissions in the path of cyclists? Is there sort of thing standard elsewhere? How well do pedal and motor cycles intermingle — what about speed differences (motorcycles tend to attract much more risk-seeking users, at higher speeds, with predictable results)?

On the last point, did you know more U.S. Marines have been killed on motorcycles in the past 12 months than in Iraq?

Posted on Thursday, November 6th, 2008 at 12:41 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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From the Good Intentions Gone Bad Dept.


I know this came out last year — but hey, those lanes haven’t gotten any less crap, have they?

I do wonder if Crap Towns have a higher share of Crap Cycle Lanes.

Buy it here.

Posted on Tuesday, October 7th, 2008 at 6:41 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Improving Traffic, Copenhagen Style

From Denmark’s Politiken newspaper comes one of those dispatches that remind you of what a remarkable place Copenhagen is.

As the piece notes:

“Nørrebrogade, one of the capital city’s main thoroughfares, is to be closed to car traffic for the next three months in a trial closure which may be made permanent…. The trial is designed to improve bus and bicycle traffic on a road that normally carries 33,000 cyclists, 65,000 bus passengers and 17,000 private cars per day.” Those are my italics, and can you imagine that phrase being uttered anywhere in the U.S.?

Anyone got any updates on how it’s proceeding?

Posted on Tuesday, October 7th, 2008 at 4:15 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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To Wear Or Not to Wear (and Is That Even the Right Question?): Ian Walker on Cycle Helmets

When I was in the U.K. doing radio interviews for Traffic, I would often get asked if wearing cycle helmets actually made things less safe for cyclists. This happened primarily because the book features rather striking research by Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist at the University of Bath, and this was mentioned in the press kit.

To briefly summarize, in his study (published as “Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender,” in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention), Walker outfitted a bike with a device that measured the distance of passing cars. He found, among other things, that drivers tended to pass more closely when he was wearing a helmet than when not (he was struck by vehicles twice, both while wearing a helmet).

This was a surprising, somewhat controversial finding that generated a lot of news coverage. To my mind, Walker’s findings were more interesting for what they said about interpersonal psychology on the road than safety itself; mostly because I felt, and Walker seems to agree, that the primary question of bicycle safety had less to do with the helmet than other factors. As the above photo suggests, cyclists in places like Copenhagen or Amsterdam very rarely wear helmets, and yet they enjoy a much safer ride than in places (like the U.S.) where helmet-wearing seems more ingrained. The argument is often made that those places have protected cycle lanes and the like — though the photo also shows that is not always the case.

But to return to the radio interviews, I often found myself getting frustrated because the radio journalists seemed to want a handy “takeaway” answer: Well, do helmets make cyclists safer or not? The problem was, I really didn’t know (disclaimer: I do wear one, rather out of habit and without much thought other than a fear of New York City streets).

This was a problem I had in trying to give many answers relating to traffic — there are often an endless series of “on the other hand” qualifiers. As with any kind of epidemiological inquiry, traffic presents such a complex system, with so many interacting variables (e.g., do helmets make drivers act less safe) and “confounding factors” and incomplete data sets, that coming up with easy answers is impossible: and anyone who seems to have easy answers probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. One favorite example of this for me is the nutmeg you hear drivers say, with deeply held conviction: ‘Well I’ve heard it’s not speed itself that’s the problem, it’s differences in speed.’ This is a statement that is true — except when it isn’t. It lacks context, it lacks explanatory power. We would do as well, if not better, to note that every traffic fatality/injury involves speed: If the car wasn’t moving, no one would have died/been injured.

But I was curious as to how Ian Walker, after putting his research into the world and subsequently being asked these sorts of questions, undergoing these sorts of debates, ultimately felt himself about what his findings (at least on several stretches on English roads) had revealed.

Over to you, Dr. Walker:

“The apparently simple query ‘Do bicycle helmets work?’ turns out to be the most complex question I have ever encountered. Since I published my own small contribution to the nightmarish tangle of helmet research a couple of years ago, I have read and answered hundreds of emails on the subject from interested – in both senses of the word – people. I am grateful to Tom for giving me this chance to summarize a few of my disjointed thoughts on the matter.


Posted on Wednesday, October 1st, 2008 at 4:01 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Waitin’ for My (Green) Man

Over at Copenhagen Cycle Chic, a website that plumbs the probing question — just how good can Danish people look on a bike? — there’s a nice little photo series under the heading “Things to Do at Traffic Lights in Copenhagen.” One answer, as in the photo to the right, is to simply “pause for thought.” (and look tres chic while doing so).

As readers of the book will know, the question of Danes waiting at the lights is of great interest to me. Sitting in warm cafes, looking out the window at crosswalks, I came to find an almost poetic stillness to their modal repose, these pauses of breath, as if the traffic lights were bits of punctuation in the midst of a long stream of urban thought. Like Cycle Chic, I found these activities and poses interesting in their own right, the way even the infrastructure was casually deployed, as in the photo below, in the momentary rest.

The other enduring topic of fascination is that scrupulous compliance at the lights, by all modes — but most noteworthy, in my mind, with the pedestrians. I watched this chap below sit at a empty intersection on a cold winter’s morning, one that I would have dashed across as no cars were coming (given the cold I may have dashed across with cars coming); but for him, it just seemed a good moment to stop and reflect on something (he could, of course, have just been thinking, “when will this damn light change,” but I somehow doubted it).

After a day or so in Copenhagen, I quickly found my own normal behavior adjusting. I too became one of those hardy, stalwart Danes, waiting patiently at the light. When I did notice jaywalking, it suddenly seemed somehow inappropriate, and when someone, as the person did below, trundled across in full view of the red man, I could sense a collective unease from the other pedestrians. Typically this seemed to reveal the offender as a tourist. Or maybe they would just regard the jaywalker with a touch of concern, the way it was anecdotally told to me by a queuing theorist: One day, a line of cars sat waiting for a ferry in Denmark. Someone came driving up alongside the queue, in the shoulder, essentially cutting in front of everyone else. The typical response from the waiting drivers: Oh, something terrible must have happened to that person to make them act that way.

Posted on Tuesday, August 19th, 2008 at 4:02 pm 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



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