All About the Docks

Amidst all the bike share discussion in NYC at the moment, I thought I’d post the ‘director’s cut’ of a (very) short article on the subject of bike sharing I have in the current Outside, written of course before yesterday’s (expected) announcement of the program, to be run by Alta.

Faster than you can say “feasibility study,” bike share programs have been popping up in American cities large and small. And we’re not just talking the usual coastal metropoles: Sure, places like D.C. (100,000 trips in its first seven months) and Montreal (3.3 million trips in 10 months) have popular bike share programs, but so too do San Antonio, Des Moines, and, very soon, Chattanooga, Tennessee. By this time next year, New York and San Francisco should be on board. Proponents, with an intensity approaching Springfield’s mania for the Monorail, see bike shares as not only a valid mode of sustainable transportation but a veritable economic development tool, while the less enamored see them as a trendy, taxpayer-supported vanity project taking up valuable parking space.

But what makes for a successful bike share program? The first, and rather obvious, rule of thumb is that the more bike friendly a place is — the more lanes, the more fellow cyclists — the better bike sharing will be received. But bike sharing in turn makes the city more bike friendly; in the French city of Lyon, for example, more than 90% of people had never biked in the city center prior to bike sharing.
And lest you think bike share seems redundant in an already bike friendly city like Minneapolis, close to 80% of riders on its “Nice Ride” system already own a bike.

But you don’t have to be Portland to have a bike share, argues Alison Cohen, who heads Alta Bike Share, the company that runs the programs in D.C., Boston, and elsewhere. No one ever thinks they’re ready. “We went to Melbourne, Australia, and we were floored by the number of lanes,” she says. “And they were like, ‘how will address the fact that there are no lanes?’ We said, ‘you should see Dallas.’ ” What matters, she says, is political will (and funds). When Boston started looking into bike sharing a few years ago, it had 180 feet of bike lanes — by the time it introduced it, it was up to 38 miles. New York, she notes, delayed its request-for-proposals for a year as it firmed up its bike infrastructure.

This points to another no-brainer: Bikes need to be where people want to go, whether it’s transit hubs or tourist hotspots (a common theme in failed “first generation” bike share programs, often halfheartedly promoted by advertising companies, is that they started too small to be seen as useful).

Then there’s the nitty-gritty details, like capacity. “It’s all about the docks,” says Cohen, who says a two-to-one bike-to-dock ratio is ideal. But in crowded cities, finding space downtown to accommodate the morning flow is a challenge (in D.C, users complained when a Groupon promotion brought thousands of new users online). A related issue is distribution — how do you spread bikes throughout the system if users aren’t doing it themselves? Bike-carrying trucks is the brute force solution. But herein lies another problem. “The time when you need the trucks to be most mobile, when the trucks are getting filled up, is rush hour,” Cohen says.

Lastly, as with any consumer transaction, user experience is key, from payment to pricing to pedals. Anything that stands between the rider and a potential ride will dampen the program. Where D.C.’s bikes average five rides a day, notes Cohen, in Melbourne, they get just one. The primary reason? A mandatory helmet law. For various reasons (including hygiene), no bike share system in the world provides a helmet. Nor should they, some would argue. But Cohen feels the market may provide a solution — and indeed, a London-based designer, Anirudha Rao, has already crafted the prototype Kranium, an inexpensive, custom-made cardboard helmet which he envisions could be sold in vending machines (replete with 3-d scanners and printers) at bike share stations.

Posted on Thursday, September 15th, 2011 at 7:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Jersey Jughandles, Michigan Lefts, Diverging Diamonds

My latest Slate column.

“Every highway intersection is obsolete,” thundered Norman Bel Geddes—the designer and showman perhaps most noted for the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair—in his 1940 tract Magic Motorways. “The intersection is the chief stumbling block for highway designers and the chief headache for the traffic police,” he noted. “Why should the crossroads most heavily traveled today be the ones that are least adapted to the safe flow of the vehicles that use them?”

Posted on Monday, August 1st, 2011 at 8:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Marked Crosswalks and the Raquel Nelson Case

In the by turns tragic and outrageous case of Raquel Nelson, I keep seeing a call for “marked crosswalks” to be installed on Austell Road, near the bus stop where pedestrians naturally want to cross (rather than walk the estimated 2/3 of a mile to the stop).

But I’m unclear what they’re calling for — is it a traffic signal with a marked crosswalk?

Or just a marked crosswalk? Which we intuitively think would be better than nothing — or would it?

From what I’ve read on marked crosswalks, they precisely begin to lose effectiveness on roads with at least four lanes, and volumes of upwards of 30,000 vehicles per day. Not to mention a “posted” speed of 45 mph.

To quote the FHWA:

Thus, installing a marked crosswalk at an already undesirable crossing location (e.g., wide, high-volume street) may increase the chance of a pedestrian crash occurring at such a site if a few at-risk pedestrians are encouraged to cross where other adequate crossing facilities are not provided. This explanation might be evidenced by the many calls to traffic engineers from citizens who state, “Please install a marked crosswalk so that we can cross the dangerous street near our house.” Unfortunately, simply installing a marked crosswalk without other more substantial crossing facilities often does not result in the majority of motorists stopping and yielding to pedestrians, contrary to the expectations of many pedestrians.


P.S. One of the more dismal comments I saw in this case was from anonymous web poster, along the lines of: “Please install a pedestrian bridge and fix this dangerous street!” Sigh.

Posted on Thursday, July 28th, 2011 at 9:48 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Big Roads

My review of Earl Swift’s The Big Roads, via the New York Times.

Here’s a taste:

When “On the Road” was published, in 1957, it may have seemed a rousing dawn chorus for an awakening generation of postwar seekers, but it was also an encomium of sorts — for the year before, construction had begun on the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. “You can’t do what I did anymore,” Kerouac would later say. And as noted in “Why Kerouac Matters,” by the New York Times reporter John Leland, even as Kerouac was writing, the author glimpsed that his kind of rambling “may soon be obsolete as America enters its High Civilization period and no one will get sentimental or poetic anymore about trains and dew on fences at dawn in Missouri.”

In place of poetry we had standardized efficiency, not just the new Esperanto of green highway signs speaking to us at 65-mile-per-hour Highway Gothic — the same tongue from Maine to Montana — but the whole experience of travel itself. “With the modern car on the modern freeway,” Earl Swift writes in “The Big Roads,” “the modern traveler was left with practically nothing to celebrate but the ever-briefer time he had to devote to getting from one place to another.” Or, in John Steinbeck’s famous remark, one could now drive from “New York to California without seeing a single thing.”

Posted on Wednesday, July 20th, 2011 at 7:32 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Posted on Saturday, July 16th, 2011 at 8:46 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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As you no doubt have heard, JetBlue has offered $4 flights from Burbank to Long Beach to help Angelenos avoid the “carmaggedon” closure of the 405.

But what if there was a faster way than air travel?

Posted on Friday, July 15th, 2011 at 6:22 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Problem Drivers Are Problem People

From an interesting op-ed, in which I am quoted, in The Canberra Times:

Not long after Henry Ford drove the car into mainstream American life, a new area of psychology began to flourish. Its aim, in layman’s terms, was to understand why apparently normal people become complete arseholes behind a steering wheel. Leon Brody’s 1955 book, The psychology of problem drivers, concluded that ”problem drivers are problem people; or rather, people with problems, including problems of which they often are not aware”. Until then, researchers had believed most crashes were caused by physical shortcomings such as slow reflexes, poor eyesight and glare-recovery time. But, as Herbert Stack wrote in the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1956, ”[In] all of our studies, these characteristics have been found to have little significance. The real causes of accidents are far more deep-seated. They have to do with our attitudes, our emotions, and our judgments.”

Posted on Monday, July 11th, 2011 at 9:10 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Wondering what ever became of New Jersey’s ‘fogbrooms,’ as per this Time article, 1967:

Ordinary hazards of driving are compounded in New Jersey, where meteorology, topography and industrial air pollution often produce dense fogs that suddenly blot out the road ahead. Fog is so familiar a problem in some sections of the state that permanent electric signs have been erected along the New Jersey Turnpike to flash warnings of fog and to cut speed limits. But New Jersey motorists may soon have a clearer view. By borrowing a discovery used to produce water in Chile, state transportation officials hope to be able to sweep long stretches of highway clear of fog.

Posted on Monday, July 11th, 2011 at 9:07 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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I joined the stable again over at the New York Times’ Room for Debate, this time on the idea of full highway shutdowns.

Just for historical curiosity, here’s my original, somewhat more fanciful (but contextual) submission:

It’s perhaps appropriate that the town that produced Michael Bay should summon such a bombastic bout of overblown apocalyptic fury as the forthcoming “carmaggedon.” Given the life-support functions of the 405 in the L.A. region’s transportation monoculture, perhaps the hype is warranted, but the truth is, highways are closed all the time, and there’s been much study and practice into how to do it most effectively.

The perturbed driver may be asking, ‘why do they have to close the whole thing down? Why can’t they just do it a lane at a time?’ And indeed, any number of strategies have been tried to mitigate traffic impacts during construction, from nocturnal work crews (which has been found to add 6% to the base price of a project) to various incentive plans for road contractors.

But as research by the Federal Highway Administration has shown, closing down a highway entirely means the job gets done, on average, 63 to 95 percent faster than projects that tried to maintain a semblance of traditional traffic. Why? No traffic means no interference from drivers, no work-zone crashes (in 2007, for example, 835 people were killed in work zone crashes) or other bad behavior, not to mention that the trucks hauling materials and workers don’t have to sit in the same congestion as everyone else as they go back and forth.

The secret to making this happen, as is happening in Los Angeles, is to enact a comprehensive “Traffic Management Plan,” with careful study of alternate routes and “network effects.” Implicit in this is to issue a prediction of Nostradamusian direness; to do for weekend driving what Jaws did for ocean swimming (“just when you thought it was safe to go to Santa Monica”).

This reason this generally works is that in any road system, there is a certain amount of elasticity; not every driver on that road has to be there at that time. There may be another route, another mode of travel. Or they just stay home. When highway segments are taken out because of disaster (as in the Minneapolis I-35 W bridge collapse, or the collapse of Manhattan’s West Side Highway) the surrounding roads do not automatically filled up with all the diverted drivers; rather, some traffic “disappears.” To quote two of the main findings of a report analyzing any number of road closures, planned or otherwise, by transport researcher Phil Goodwin and colleagues: “When roadspace for cars is reallocated, traffic problems are usually far less serious than predicted” and “Traffic reduction is partly explained by recognizing that people react to a change in road conditions in much more complex ways than has traditionally been assumed in traffic models.”

When Los Angeles partially closed the 710 expressway for eight weekends, it was able to reduce traffic by 37%. Interestingly, though, traffic was lowest through the work zones the first weekend, and then grew gradually on each successive weekend, as L.A. drivers, in a kind of city-wide learning curve, began testing the drive. In the case of the 405 closure, of course, drivers won’t have that option. There’s no knowing how bad or how good it’s going to be, until you’re in it.

Posted on Friday, July 8th, 2011 at 6:46 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Looking for a Foot Note

Any transpo types out there know how to get reasonably approximate data estimations (understanding all the limitations) on walking rates (miles, trips, whatever) per year in the U.S. — the longer the time span, the better? Feel free to email or leave comments, and thanks in advance.

Posted on Friday, July 1st, 2011 at 1:39 pm 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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Park on Parking

By the (appropriately named) June Bum Park, a piece of art after the hearts of transportation engineers (seen earlier today at the ‘Otherworldly’ show).

Posted on Friday, June 24th, 2011 at 2:04 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Feet of Street

The above infographic comes via Mapping the Strait, who notes:

Of course, there are many ways to measure infrastructure. Perhaps the most ubiquitous type of infrastructure, streets and highways, is the best single indicator. By this measure, feet of street per resident – “FSR” – Detroit has a lower density than 9 of the 10 largest American cities.

Would love to see someone do an equivalent for sidewalks.

(horn honk to The Transportationist)

Posted on Tuesday, June 21st, 2011 at 12:06 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)

Posted on Monday, June 20th, 2011 at 10:38 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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Use Both Lanes

As discussed in Traffic, sometimes the best way to eliminate tension over ‘late merging’ is to simply eliminate the concept, as the Illinois DOT seems about to do.

“Once people get used to it, it seems to work well,” Wegmeyer said. “As long as traffic alternates at the merger, it should go more smoothly.”

Of course, that “as long as” still presents challenges, as those people in the “open lane” may still feel some sense of priority over those they view as late-arriving interlopers.

(thanks Darrin)

Posted on Tuesday, May 24th, 2011 at 12:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Children at Play (And at the Wheel)

My latest Slate column is up, examining the problems with “Children at Play” traffic signs (the headline, which is never the writer’s, may overstate things a bit…)

If the sign is so disliked by the profession charged with maintaining order and safety on our streets, why do we seem to see so many of them? In a word: Parents. Talk to a town engineer, and you’ll often get the sense it’s easier to put up a sign than to explain to local residents why the sign shouldn’t be put up. (This official notes that “Children at Play” signs are the second-most-common question he’s asked at town meetings.) Residents have also been known to put up their own signs, perhaps using the DIY instructions provided by eHow (which notes, in a baseless assertion typical of the whole discussion, that “Notifying these drivers there are children at play may reduce your child’s risk”). States and municipalities are also free to sanction their own signs (hence the rise of “autistic child” traffic signs).

Posted on Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 at 9:09 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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It’s Logistics

As someone with an interest in traffic, and a more casual interest in operations research, I was curious about the order history on a recent item from Apple I had purchased. As you will note from the illustration above, the item was shipped from FedEx’s Memphis hub to Newark, where it then made its way to Brooklyn, where I live. But the item wasn’t delivered. Why? The reason given explains everything, yet explains nothing: “Package not due for delivery.” OK. So it wasn’t due for delivery. But couldn’t FedEx have delivered it anyway, given that it was in my home borough?

No. The item then went back to Newark, only to finally be shipped, once again, to Brooklyn, where it finally arrived on my doorstep. Now, I’m no OR genius, and there may be some variant of the Traveling Salesman Problem, or some intricacy of routing and logistics that I’m missing here, but why, for an industry always trying to root out inefficiencies (e.g. UPS’ famous ‘left-turn’ software), would it send my product on an extra round trip, bloating its inventory for a few more days? Perhaps some reader can enlighten me.

Posted on Monday, May 9th, 2011 at 8:27 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Difficulty Homeostasis

“People in conditions of monotony in a car automatically are going to want to keep themselves stimulated, to make life a little more difficult for themselves.”

From an interesting interview with Michael Regan, adjunct professor for vehicle safety at Chalmers University of Technology in Goteborg, Sweden and a senior research fellow on secondment from the Monash University Accident and Research Centre here in Melbourne, Australia, over at Gerry Gaffney’s User Experience podcast (transcript here).

Posted on Tuesday, April 26th, 2011 at 8:34 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:

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For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau:

Order Traffic from:

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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
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June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
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July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
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September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
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September 11, 2009
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October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
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November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
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Austin, TX

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Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
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Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
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Salt Lake City
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International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
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Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
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Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
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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
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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
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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