Archive for the ‘Traffic Culture’ Category

We’re All Corsicans Now

There is now a signaling market in French license plates, via The Atlantic:

The French can be a bit touchy behind the wheel: flip someone off and he is liable to swerve in front of you, slam on the brakes, hop out, and offer to defend his pride with his fists. Corsican plates, which bear an image of a Moor’s head—the emblem on the island’s coat of arms, as well as the symbol of its small but murderous independence movement—are thought to help avoid this sort of situation, signaling that their owners are not to be honked at, cut off, or otherwise crossed. “It’s becoming a code to show that you’re a rebel and that you’re hot-blooded,” the manager of one plate-maker told Le Figaro last year. Other people suggest that cars with Corsican plates may be less vulnerable to abuse by vandals and bored teenagers. In an interview with Le Parisien, Gabriel Xavier Culioli, a Corsican writer, called the popular image of the island’s residents “grotesque,” and lamented the plates’ appeal to men “who want to pass as tough guys.”

A great way to test this in practice would be via the traditional ‘honking studies’ of the 1970s; place a Corsican plated car at a red light and don’t move it when it turns green. Are following drivers less likely to honk? What if they themselves have Corsican plates?

Posted on Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 at 11:47 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Nazca Lines of the Twentieth Century


Over at Politico, I offer an appreciation of the aerial photographs of highway interchanges by the Canadian photographer Peter Andrew.

“What is it that makes the patterns of highway interchanges so captivating? Perhaps we are drawn in by our pattern-hungry brains, mentally tracing the loops and parabolas, looking for connections and symmetries. Perhaps we gain a pleasurable synaptic charge from mastering the routes. Or, in the way the contours of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings have been shown to follow a strongly fractal logic, perhaps a well-designed highway interchange hits some kind of subconscious geometric sweet spot. (Long before highways, braided knots were figuring into various religious symbologies, and Pictish knot imagery from the Book of Kells seems curiously evocative of modern day interchanges.)”

Posted on Friday, August 7th, 2015 at 4:10 pm by: admin
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Whatever Happened to Walking?

Starting today in Slate, I take a four-part look at walking, the “forgotten transportation mode,” in America and elsewhere.

Simply by going out for a walk, I had become a strange being, studied by engineers, inhabiting environments whose physical features are determined by a rulebook-enshrined average 3 foot-per-second walking speed, my rights codified by signs. (Why not just write: “Stop for People”?) On those same signs in Savannah were often attached additional signs, advising drivers not to give to panhandlers (and to call 911 if physically intimidated), subtly equating walking with being exposed to an urban menace—or perhaps being the menace. Having taken all this information in, we would gingerly step into the marked crosswalk, that declaration of rights in paint, and try to gauge whether approaching vehicles would yield. They typically did not. Even in one of America’s most “pedestrian-friendly” cities—a seemingly innocent phrase that itself suddenly seemed strange to me—one was always in danger of being relegated to a footnote.

Which is what walking in America has become: An act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text. Indeed, the semantics of the term pedestrian would be a mere curiosity, but for one fact: America is a country that has forgotten how to walk. Witness, for example, the existence of “Everybody Walk!,” the “Campaign to Get America Walking” (one of a number of such initiatives). While its aims are entirely legitimate, its motives no doubt earnest, the idea that that we, this species that first hoisted itself into the world of bipedalism nearly 4 million years ago—for reasons that are still debated—should now need “walking tips,” have to make “walking plans” or use a “mobile app” to “discover” walking trails near us or build our “walking histories,” strikes me as a world-historical tragedy.

Posted on Tuesday, April 10th, 2012 at 7:19 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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NYT Room for Debate

On the off chance you missed, me and some other fuzzy headed Jane Jacobs types, a tenured suburbanite urbanist or two, as well as a few random tar-breathing asphalt heads, discuss, in the paper of record, the idea of bringing some European-style traffic demand management to U.S. shores. The pyrotechnics are to be found here.

Posted on Thursday, June 30th, 2011 at 1:10 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Women drivers!

Bus companies say that women drivers are ‘better’ than men drivers, and seek exemption from equal opportunity and anti-discrimination legislation in order to advertise exclusively for women trainees. Women are reported to be ‘gentler’ on the buses, and rather than simply driving on when mechanical failure presents, call in the problem to the depot. This prevents the escalation of damage with consequently higher cost of repair. As for public relations, according to bus companies, women also ‘relate better’ to passengers.

One of an interesting number of points in an op-ed inspired by the campaign by women in Saudi Arabia for the right to drive.

(thanks Alan)

Posted on Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 at 8:34 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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3-Way Street

3-Way Street from ronconcocacola on Vimeo.


Posted on Monday, June 6th, 2011 at 8:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Lisbon’s blood vessels from Pedro M Cruz on Vimeo.

Via Pedro Cruz:

In this work the traffic of Lisbon is portrayed exploring metaphors of living organisms with circulatory problems. Rather than being an aesthetic essay or a set of decorative artifacts, my approach focuses on synthesizing and conveying meaning through data portrayal. This portrayal is embodied in the visualization: The Blood Vessels in the traffic of Lisbon. I use an adaptive physics system to build and manipulate the road network – the thickness, the color and the length of the vessels are excited by the number of vehicles and average velocity in each road. With this system I try to bypass the strictness of contemporary visualizations that depict data accurately through direct mappings.

Posted on Tuesday, February 8th, 2011 at 5:09 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Response to Hainline, Steisel, and Weinshall

I am glad that my posting on the Prospect Park West bike lanes occasioned a serious and thoughtful response (see the comments).

I wanted to reply to a few points.

They write:

(1) PPW is not simply an arterial roadway between intersecting streets (as is the adjacent roadway inside Prospect Park, which, we have argued, would be a more appropriate location for a two-way bike lane). Rather, PPW borders high-density residential blocks—with a school and elder-care facility (on one side of the street) and entrances to Prospect Park (on the other). This means that on a less-than-one-mile stretch of roadway, thousands of residents and park-goers are continuously entering or exiting school buses, wheel-chair vans, taxis, or driveways, while dozens of Fresh Direct, UPS, Fedex, USPS trucks, moving vans, and other delivery vehicles are also blocking one of the two remaining traffic lanes. This requires that drivers in the blocked lane continuously shift into a single more-heavily-used traffic lane to avoid the blockage. And since this single lane is now narrower on a significant stretch of PPW, if not the entire street (as our measurements, pace Vanderbilt’s assertion to the contrary, clearly show), there is less margin to avoid car doors opening, drivers or passengers squeezing into their vehicles, parents lifting babies from their car-seats, cars edging into or out of parking spots, or side view mirrors extending from vehicles. These circumstances, rather than producing a “calming feeling,” are more likely to produce irritated impatience, at best.

I admit that the studies I referred to are for road types different from PPW; in part this is a necessity because of the rather unique nature of PPW itself. But I am interested here in their description of all the exiting school buses, UPS trucks, parents getting babies out of cars, Fresh Direct vans, etc. Given this huge amount of stopped traffic, and pedestrian activity, to my mind the most important safety benefit we could bring to those users is a reduction of the speeds on that street — which were typically well above the speed limit prior to the installation of the bike lane. Speed, and the violating of right of way — not lane changing and merging — is the root cause of the vast majority of serious traffic injury in New York City. As I’ve said repeatedly, drivers, in their ‘irritated impatience,’ have tended to use PPW as a high speed arterial to neighborhoods beyond Park Slope rather than the neighborhood street it should be. I will take an infinite number of bent mirrors over the lives or health of any one person.

In their second point, they note:

“In addition to the option of moving the lane onto the adjacent roadway inside the park, making the PPW bike-lane one-way is the other proposal we have made as members of “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes.”

I would take a one-way bike lane over no bike lane; but as a condition of that one-way status, I would call for a protected one-way bike lane, in the other direction, on Eighth Avenue, which suffers from some of the same speed problems as PPW.

They then note:

(1) Vanderbilt’s basic argument relies on the perception of increased safety that roadway users (drivers, bikers, and pedestrians) may have when more drivers and riders are using fewer and narrower lanes, because their awareness of other roadway users is heightened. But this perception of increased safety is not what users of PPW have experienced. In a self-selected survey of over 3,000 Brooklynites conducted by Councilmembers Lander and Levin, most people—bikers were the only exception—reported feeling less safe after the bike lane was installed (Ref. 2).

This misrepresents what I have said, and indeed highlights a problem: Perception of safety and actual safety in traffic are not always the same. When subjects have been asked to identify what they think are crash hot spots in certain locations, for example, they often choose places with low numbers of crashes, not the actual hot spots. When roundabouts are installed, it’s quite common for the local populace to protest that their safety has been compromised — when in fact, roundabouts, as have been documented in any number of studies, tend to make things safer for all road users. ‘Shared space’ experiments in Europe and the U.K. have shown a similar disconnect between perceived and actual safety.

But let’s stick to what we know: The actual numbers from PPW, which are now available, via the Brooklyn Paper:

“Crashes are down from an average of 30 in six months to 25, or 16 percent.

• Crashes that cause injuries are down from 5.3 in six months to two, a whopping 63-percent drop.

• Before the project, a crash was twice as likely to include an injury.

• Injuries to all street users dropped 21 percent.

The data also found that since the lane was installed last June, there have been no reported pedestrian injuries and no pedestrian or cyclist injuries from pedestrian-bike crashes.”

Granted, crashes involving pedestrians and bicycles tend to be underreported, but vehicle crashes, particularly involving injury, are not — and by this measure, the addition of the lanes has actually made for a safer environment for all road users. An increase in active transportation; a decrease in injury — I fail to see this as a problem.

Posted on Thursday, January 20th, 2011 at 10:33 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Painted Roundabout

From somewhere in Germany, I believe (would be curious to know the exact location), a roundabout with nothing in the center save paint. I’d be curious about the stats for this intersection; on the whole it seems more or less orderly (there’s confusion but low-speed confusion), but some people just seem to blow straight through as if they had a green light in a signalized intersection.

Posted on Saturday, January 15th, 2011 at 1:49 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Desire Named Streetcar

My latest Slate column looks at two transportation forms, the monorail and the streetcar, each with their supporters and each with their detractors, and how time’s arrow seems to have inverted somewhere along the way:

What’s interesting about Disney World and Disneyland is not merely the range of transportation options, but the mixture of new and old modes they represent. These varied ways to get around reflect biographer Neal Gabler’s observation that Walt Disney was “at once a nostalgist and a futurist, a conservative and visionary.” One imagines he would have been equally happy riding the retro trolley on Main Street as whisking through Tomorrowland in an ultramodern monorail.

But there is something else to note here. The monorail—which must have looked to Disney and the world like the transportation of the future in the 1950s—is now, to many, considered a historical footnote, a relic of World Expos or, at best, an automated ride between airport terminals. America’s highest-profile monorail project, the expansion of Seattle’s line, was plagued by cost overruns and funding gaps, and was finally dissolved in 2005 (costing taxpayers $125 million). The Las Vegas monorail has filed for bankruptcy. At the same time, those retro streetcars, which Disney himself rode in Kansas City in the early 20th century and which must have seemed to him part of a vanishing past, are returning (or may soon return) to any number of American cities, including Washington, D.C.; Cincinnati’ Tucson; Atlanta; Dallas; St. Louis; and Salt Lake City.

So the future we thought we were going to get somehow seems antiquated, while the past looks increasingly, well, futuristic. Why is the trolley ascendant as the monorail declines?

[P.S. I do realize a fair number of people prefer buses to either of these options, but for space it was cut. An original line read: “Light-rail supporters — and transportation people, whether for reasons of funding, fandom, or something else, and even if they’re working toward similar goals, tend to cleave into camps (a third group, the bus people, find their vessel of choice superior to both the light-rail and monorails) — counter with a battery of well-practiced rejoinders…”]

Posted on Wednesday, January 12th, 2011 at 5:40 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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No Signal

Joburg thieves steal SIM cards from traffic signals.

Makubela said the agency was now cancelling the SIMs stolen from the GPRS units inside some of the traffic lights and working with Johannesburg police to stop the traffic light thefts. Ordinary lights have not been targeted by the gangs – although there were some thefts of traffic light poles last year for their scrap value.

(thanks Jeff)

Posted on Wednesday, January 12th, 2011 at 1:33 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Fewer Sidewalks, More Pedestrians

As I’m sure most of you know, Google’s NGram Book Viewer provides an invaluable window, via written texts of the last century or so, onto what the culture was collectively thinking. Not surprisingly, there’s much to be gleaned here from an urban or transportation point of view.

Exhibit A is the first word: Pedestrian.

You see that this word, never that popular, essentially held flat, prior to the automobile, when it began to rise. There was a drop-off after World War II, perhaps in response to postwar suburbanization — people were doing less walking. But then it continues to grow year after year, to the present — even as Americans were walking less every year. This is curious on the one hand, but predictable on the other. As people did more driving, and less walking, the notion of what was once a rather common, everyday activity — walking — became a more specialized “mode of transportation,” something to be considered as The Other, something even, dare I say, a bit strange.

For a sense of what was going on as pedestrian became a more common word, let’s turn to Exhibit B: Jaywalking.

Even as fewer people were walking, there was an increased prevalence of the term jaywalking. This reflects the idea, as noted in Peter Norton’s book Fighting Traffic, which I’ve discussed here often, that people on foot — now “pedestrians” — bore a greater responsibility for their own safety (where the burden had once been on drivers); not to mention that they were considered an obstruction to the smooth flow of vehicular traffic and thus worthy of demonization.

Maybe people were jaywalking more because as, Exhibit C hints at, there were fewer sidewalks in America (that little uplift at the end, however, is an encouraging sign).

And, just for fun, Exhibit D shows another form of built space that was on the rise: Driveways. These are found even in places that don’t have sidewalks.

I’ve been posting other results via Twitter, but would be curious to see your “UrbaNgrams.”

Posted on Tuesday, December 21st, 2010 at 11:22 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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You Might be a Transpo Geek If…

Speaking with a friend the other day, I used some word or another, then said, in response to his puzzled look, ‘oh, sorry, that’s a transpo geek word.’ He then asked what a constituted a transpo geek. And so, in the spirit of Jeff Foxworthy, here’s a list of things that just might flag you as a transpo geek (and your further suggestions are more than welcome):

1. You’ve corrected someone in the past year that ‘it’s not a yellow light, it’s an amber phase.’

2. You use the word mode in relation to anything but pie with ice cream.

3. You honeymooned in Curitiba.

4. You proposed on the Disney Monorail.

5. You have ready familiarity with all of the following acronyms: HSR, PRT, VMT, MAX, HOT, MUP, VRU.

6. You have trouble talking about roads or lanes or sidewalks without resorting to the word ‘facility’; e.g, when you hear the Beatles’ song, it’s all you can do to not sing ‘the long and winding facility …’

7. You’ve installed a tube counter in your own driveway.

8. You’ve installed Bott’s dots in the middle of your two-car driveway.

9. When someone mentions “ice tea,” you’re not thinking about a cold drink.

10. You’ve made it this far along in the list.

Any others?

Posted on Friday, December 17th, 2010 at 8:46 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Chris Burden’s Metropolis 2

Here’s some art for you highway geeks, though admittedly, this looks more like the high-tech sorters in an advanced logistics hub than a real road (there’s no way, for example, the cars could maintain that close headway on an uphill incline!)

Posted on Saturday, December 4th, 2010 at 3:29 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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When Is a Wheelchair a Pedestrian and When Is It a Vehicle?

Via the St. Petersburg Times, an emerging gray area in traffic law involving a fatal crash between a scooter and a motorized wheelchair, also known as “mobility scooters”:

If considered a pedestrian, a charge could be as simple as jaywalking. If he was operating a vehicle, it could be as serious as reckless driving.

The decision could boil down to the size of the wheelchair motor.

“There’s issues in there about wattage, horsepower, things like that,” St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz said. “Speed is also a factor. They want to get to a point where they have a comfort level.”

The case could have repercussions in a city where motorized wheelchairs, also known as mobility scooters, are common on streets and sidewalks.

People operating wheelchairs typically are considered pedestrians. But because Kurczaba’s wheelchair is motorized, police said they will examine the accident in greater detail before considering whether charges should be filed.

(HT to Shirl)

Posted on Friday, December 3rd, 2010 at 1:22 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On the Origins of the Jersey Jughandle

It took me a long time to, er, come around to the logic and efficacy (at least in safety terms) of the Jersey Jughandle, but following a prompt from Anthony Townsend, do any NJ DOT readers or likewise know how the Garden State came to be the leader in this somewhat rare infrastructural form? Taking a stab I’d say it had something to do with the state’s density and preponderance of highways, but can anyone elucidate us beyond that; e.g., the name of the inventor, etc.

Posted on Wednesday, October 27th, 2010 at 6:27 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Logistics of the School Drop-Off

Via a discussion at the NRDC Switchboard about a school in Orange County that does not allow students on foot, I was struck by the school’s amazing “Strike Team” document, pictured above, covering the ins-and-outs of the school drop-off.

Is it just me or does this strike you as a sign of a system that is severely out of balance? (and I’m not talking about a “design” problem)

Posted on Wednesday, October 27th, 2010 at 6:23 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The End of the Parking Meter?

The parking meter turns 75 years old this year, and I welcome the occasion in my latest Slate column. For such a seemingly mundane object, there’s a lot to say about it; and, alas, for space reasons, I could not go into things like the idea of using meters for charitable donations (see here for a recent example).

I was also unable to use an interesting quote from none other than Robert Moses, writing in the New York Times in 1951 (when, almost unbelievably, meters had yet to reach the shores of Manhattan), about the political fortitude required to end (don’t tell Lew Fidler) what had been seen as an inalienable right — e.g., “free” parking:

“Sobs and howls will rise from the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker with customers to serve, the doctor who can always plead emergency, the store owner who caters to teh carriage trade, the man who came to dinner, the private garage operator who will welcome meters but not competition of offstreet public parking facilities, and the public official whose time is absolutely invaluable (including of course the present writer), not to speak of the lame, the halt and the aged, and loudest of all will be the cries of crusty curmudgeons against infamous regimentation, unbridled bureaucracy and invasion of the king’s highway.

Those who must ride this storm until the benefits are apparent must have the zeal of a Savonarola, the incorruptibility of Caesar’s wife and the hide and temper of a black rhinoceros. Even those attributes will not avail unless they have luck. The seal of the City Parking Authority, if it survives, should feature a rabbit’s foot rampant.”

Echoes here of the congestion pricing debate?

Posted on Tuesday, October 19th, 2010 at 7:29 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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End of the Road for Dutch Per-Kilometer Pricing

No time to comment on this as, coincidentally, I’m about to leave for the Netherlands, but Bern Grush sifts through the ashes.

Posted on Wednesday, October 6th, 2010 at 12:27 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Zipper Merge and Civil Society

Jon Stewart talking to Drew Barrymore:

JS: To me, the hallmark of civilization, and I believe this on its core foundational level, is the every-other-car merge at tunnels…

DB: Well, they don’t let you anymore, they have cones that say, like, don’t you dare.

JS: No, no, when you get up to that, and it’s like four cars, and it goes down to one. And everybody suddenly, no matter what, Jew, Muslim, gay, straight, black, white, it doesn’t matter, everybody just goes, ‘I’m next,’ ‘No, you’re next,’ ‘Please,’ and it’s like the zipper merge, and it really says, to me, this is why we don’t drink the same water we shit in anymore, because we are a civilized society. That’s my theory.


JS: Who the hell knows.

DB: I love you.

Posted on Tuesday, August 31st, 2010 at 9:38 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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California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
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May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
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June 23, 2009
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June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
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Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
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California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
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Yale University
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Delaware Center for Transportation

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Royal Automobile Club
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Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
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Wednesday, October 20
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Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
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Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
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Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
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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
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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
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Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
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September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
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of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



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