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Archive for February, 2010

A Driving Problem, Not a Texting Problem

I’ve always thought that most people really do not like to drive, or at least drive all that much. Why would they otherwise be so constantly engaged in non-driving activities?

Clive Thompson makes this point in an interesting new column at Wired.

Texting while driving is, in essence, a wake-up call to America. It illustrates our real, and bigger, predicament: The country is currently better suited to cars than to communication. This is completely bonkers.

Thompson has an idea for a technological solution to the problem:

So what can we do? We should change our focus to the other side of the equation and curtail not the texting but the driving. This may sound a bit facetious, but I’m serious. When we worry about driving and texting, we assume that the most important thing the person is doing is piloting the car. But what if the most important thing they’re doing is texting? How do we free them up so they can text without needing to worry about driving?

The answer, of course, is public transit. In many parts of the world where texting has become ingrained in daily life — like Japan and Europe — public transit is so plentiful that there hasn’t been a major texting-while-driving crisis. You don’t endanger anyone’s life while quietly tapping out messages during your train ride to work in Tokyo or Berlin.

I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to say, for the current crop of young drivers, that texting — staying in electronic touch — is far more important than the act of driving. They also protest that they are uniquely well adapted to “handle” such behavior, overlooking the inconvenient fact that all the major studies of texting/cell-phone distraction have been conducted on college students, not at retirement homes.

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Posted on Thursday, February 25th, 2010 at 8:55 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
13 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

The Next Hundred Million

I’ve reviewed Joel Kotkin’s new book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, over at the Wilson Quarterly. It begins thusly:

Joel Kotkin, along with his ­some-time ­nemesis Richard Florida, is perhaps the leading purveyor of a kind of ­psycho­economic demography, a predictive chronicler armed with Census tract data, Pew surveys, and some old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, all recounted in an urgent, assuaging, insider-y ­tone—­a kind of Kiplinger Report for the national soul. I can imagine Kotkin and Florida randomly encountering each ­other—­in, say, the Admiral’s Club at DFW, as each is en route to his assignation with civic leaders eager to sup the ­sooth—­and engaging in a ­dueling-­PowerPoint exer­cise, with Florida touting his “creative class” metro­poles and their ­cappuccino-­fueled dyna­mism, and Kotkin his “ephem­eral cities”—places such as Port­land that are elaborate stage sets for hip urban play, ultimately overregulated and hostile to the wants of average Ameri­cans, who would find fuller expression of their economic (and reproductive) potential in a place such as Boise. Only one man would be left standing amid the acrid tang of overheated hard drives, but I’m not sure ­which.

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Posted on Thursday, February 25th, 2010 at 8:49 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
2 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Hummer Death Watch

Final nail.

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Posted on Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 at 4:31 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Yet Another Word on Winter Dibs

Thinking about the whole ongoing ‘winter dibs’ exchange that’s been going on here, I was reminded of our recent experience with weekend soccer. This is not an easy thing to do in the northeast in the winter; our usual haunt, the fields that lay amidst the Olmstead-ian splendor of Prospect Park, are closed to us (for reseeding, etc, a policy that is rather sporadically enforced). So we shifted to an artificial turf field; not quite as nice, instead of ponds and trees there’s a view of a Staples and a Pep Boys and gusts of Fourth Avenue exhaust. And yet it’s green and it’s flat. But then come the great batterings of snow — a dozen or so inches over the past few weeks.

We don’t sit around and kvetch, however, we bring out the shovels! And, wouldn’t you know it, after shoveling one weekend, we return to find someone else playing in our spot. But it’s a public park (as the streets are public), after all, first come, first served. There’s no nasty words exchanged, no vandalism (maybe it’s cars that breed that special sense of entitlement). So we shovel out an even bigger section — and shoveling is a great way to warm up for 90 minutes of football.

There’s now snow in the forecast again, so it looks like the shovels will be out in force. I’m starting to wonder why soccer isn’t included in the Winter Games.

(Photos by Jordin Isip)

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Posted on Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 at 8:15 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Freighted with Meaning

The new INRIX scorecard is out — time for all you sabremetricians of the traffic world to drool — and reveals that congestion is creeping back to pre-recession levels. One can, I suppose, take this is another form of economic indicator — like same-store sales or new housing starts — as more jobs and more activity equals more miles driven. Then again, some of the congestion is directly a result of the economic crisis:

“Stimulus spending on road projects nationwide is starting to have an impact on congestion, particularly in off-peak periods. Delays across the country during off-peak periods – mid-days, evenings, overnights and weekends – were up 25 percent. Of the nation’s biggest new work zone slowdowns in late 2009, more than half were directly tied to stimulus projects.

There was the usual mix of interesting data points (hello Philadelphia and welcome to the Top 10 most congested metros!; Friday between 5 and 6 p.m. remained the worst time to be on the road in America), but one particular bit in the section on long-haul freight traffic caught my eye in particular:

INRIX data highlights that the nation’s truck freight network is highly interconnected, with some of its most important links located in places that aren’t immediately obvious (except to fleets and people traveling those roads). Nationwide, less than 5% of road miles have 3 times or more the average density of freight data, and less than 1% of road miles have 4 times or more. Of the most intensely used 1000 miles, California has the most miles of any state (271), closely followed by Arkansas (228); and I-40 has the most miles of any road (314).

I was surprised to see Arkansas pop up as number two in this category — I would have expected the Chicago region or some such — and I couldn’t help wondering, as one always does when one thinks of Arkansas, if there was a ‘Wal-Mart’ effect here? But the simpler explanation is that Arkansas itself is a trucking hub, home to a number of the country’s largest haulers and, it turns out, the state with the highest percentage of private-sector work force employed in the trucking industry. I’m sure there’s a bevy of interesting geographical/logistical reasons of why that came to be (e.g., proximity to rail hubs, the distribution center of Memphis, etc.), but in any case, it’s just one of the interesting tales lurking in the INRIX data.

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Posted on Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 at 5:13 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Passive-Aggressive Parking

Townmouse points to this wonderful series of passive-aggressive “winter dibs” notes.

And, yes, we do think highly of ourselves here in NY — so much so that we wouldn’t think to claim ownership of a parking space, leaving it sitting vacant the entire day, just because we exhumed our car from it.

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Posted on Monday, February 22nd, 2010 at 1:30 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
7 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Parking Incentives (Wall-E Edition)

Whet Moser, writing in the Chicago Reader, comes across this blog post:

Here is where the larger state of the City’s economy comes in to question. While driving around Chicago yesterday I decided it would be nice to have a hot latte from Starbucks. I pulled up outside, and luckily, I found a spot right in front of the store. I then realized the parking meter pay kiosk was halfway down the block. I sat in my car for a second and thought, “if this were the old days, I could throw a quarter in a meter run in and I would have my wonderful hot latte in my hands.” The walk to the meter in the cold weather led me to pull away without my hot latte.

It gets better:

I was happy to run out and feed my meter every couple of hours. It only cost me $1.00 for one hour of parking. Now, because the pay kiosk is almost half way down the block, I will drive around to find free parking within the neighborhood. Again, the parking revenue is lost.

How can a planner/engineer even begin to take this sort of behavior into account? (and one can’t help wonder if this person pays for a gym membership — at a gym with free parking, of course!)

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Posted on Friday, February 19th, 2010 at 9:12 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Total Recall

My latest Slate column is up, an expansion of some thoughts earlier expressed here (the proving grounds).

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Posted on Wednesday, February 17th, 2010 at 7:11 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Lane Justice

Reader John sends along this dispatch, another entry in America’s most impassioned, and irrelevant, debate about traffic safety: People driving too slowly in the left lane. Apparently the Georgia legislature has some time on its hands (time saved from speeding along in the left lane),

ATLANTA — It’s a pet peeve for many drivers — getting behind a “slow poke” who won’t get out of the fast lane.

Note: Since it’s laws we’re talking here, in no state highway code is there inscribed such a thing as the “fast lane.”

“I think someone who’s driving 40 miles an hour on a highway that everyone else is doing 65 to 75 on is just as much of a hazard as someone who’s doing 110 in a 70,” said Atlanta driver Vajra Stratigos.

A one-person sample size! Why wade through the traffic safety research — which isn’t exactly filled with case studies of untold numbers of people dying horrific deaths by driving too slowly — when you can just quote a random driver?

State Rep. Mark Butler of Carrollton is sponsoring a bill that puts some teeth in Georgia’s current law. Butler’s bill calls for a minimum fine of $75 for anyone caught impeding traffic by driving below the speed limit in the passing lane of a multi-lane roadway.

Below the speed limit in the left lane? How many times does this actually happen in Georgia? Has this person actually driven in Atlanta? People drive 40 MPH in the school zones! Remember the huge controversy created when a platoon of vehicles tried to actually drive the speed limit in every lane? A vehicular riot almost ensued.

“The far left-hand lane, with the exception of the HOV lane, is supposed to be used for passing,” said Butler.

As a commenter to this blog noted recently, this is not as clear cut as it seems. A driver going 70 in the left lane, passing every driver he sees, is still going to be seen as a ‘left-lane slowpoke’ by the driver going 75.

Butler said he’s not trying to encourage speeding. “It’s about road courtesy and lane discipline, and that’s what we’re hoping to promote with this bill,” he said.

Atlanta driver Michael Johnson doesn’t think the bill is fair. “It’s just another something else to get more money,” he said.

Driver Joel Linderman said it would probably make slow drivers think twice about jumping in the fast lane. “I think after a couple of your friends get fined for that, I think the word will get out,” he said.

The same way people think twice about driving faster than the legally posted speed, for sure!

The bill passed easily in a House subcommittee meeting on Tuesday morning. It now heads to the full House Transportation Committee.

Where it will no doubt sail through on the merits! Who says lawmakers cannot reach consensus!

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Posted on Tuesday, February 16th, 2010 at 8:09 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Leafy Streets

Photo by hurryqi/Flickr
Photo by seamoor/Flickr

We’ve seen that slime mold can function as an incipient urban planner, but leaves offer lessons too, notes the Economist:

Traditionally, biologists have celebrated the trunk, branch and twig system of a tree as no accident. Many mathematical formulas have suggested it is the best, least wasteful way to design a distribution network. But the very end of such a network, the leaf, has a different architecture. Unlike the xylem and phloem, the veins in a leaf cross-link and loop. Francis Corson of Rockefeller University in New York used computer models to examine why these loops exist.

From an evolutionary point of view, loops seem inefficient because of the redundancy inherent in a looped network. Dr Corson’s models show, however, that this inefficiency is true only if demand for water and the nutrients it contains is constant. By studying fluctuations in demand he discovered one purpose of the loops: they allow for a more nuanced delivery system. Flows can be rerouted through the network in response to local pressures in the environment, such as different evaporation rates in different parts of a leaf.

It’s interesting to think of this configuration vis a vis urban/suburban street networks, when less permeable systems push traffic to larger arterial systems — a benefit for those living in the less permeable areas (say, the second photo above, which I believe comes from a stalled subdivision in Florida), until of course there’s some traffic issue on the main line and less opportunity for rerouting flows. The leaf has no cul-de-sacs, no dead-ends.

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Posted on Tuesday, February 16th, 2010 at 10:16 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
2 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Entitlement

Douglas Preston has been taking heat for his surprisingly acid comment in the New York Times vis a vis e-book pricing:

“The sense of entitlement of the American consumer is absolutely astonishing,” said Douglas Preston, whose novel “Impact” reached as high as No. 4 on The New York Times’s hardcover fiction best-seller list earlier this month. “It’s the Wal-Mart mentality, which in my view is very unhealthy for our country. It’s this notion of not wanting to pay the real price of something.”

I won’t get into Wal-Mart or e-book pricing, but reading it I couldn’t help think of another form of American consumer: The driver. Just try floating the idea of a federal gas tax hike, simply to keep up with inflation (and, more ambitiously, to cover the actual costs of driving).

Then there’s this, via Streetsblog.

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Posted on Monday, February 15th, 2010 at 9:43 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
6 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Winter Dibs, Continued

I’m enjoying all the tales of ‘winter dibs,’ even as I dare not move the Outback from its Brooklyn ice tomb, instead merely waiting for it to emerge like some paleolithic lichen. Josh sends along this link from Boston, of someone doing anticipatory ‘winter dibbing,’ and I’m now tempted to try and introduce the phrase ‘that’s not Southie’ into the national lexicon. It could be the new “that’s not cricket”!

The picture above is strangely fascinating to me; first, there’s the white ‘monobloc’ chair, that ubiquitous global icon, cluttering terraces and garages from Brixton to Buena Vista, which has spawned any number of Flickr groups and blogs, my favorite being this one. It is a curious type of product, existing at the barest margin of any sense of worth or value (or why would you put it on the street?) yet still able to perform its function (or several, it seems). Then there’s that curious detail — what Roland Barthes dubbed the ‘punctum’ — the bricks resting atop each chair, as if they commanded some extra authority — without the brick, sure move the chairs, but with brick, well it gives you pause.

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Posted on Friday, February 12th, 2010 at 8:17 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
12 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Times Square

The new Times Square is here to stay (at least while Bloomberg is in office). I haven’t had a chance to delve into the report, but Streetsblog has all the details. Weather report: Expect reactionary piffle in the morning’s New York Post.

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Posted on Thursday, February 11th, 2010 at 3:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Smart Key, but About the Driver…

I can’t resist this story from one of my favorite blogs, “Tales of a Traffic Cop,” which I would urge the legions of people out there who seem to think the highway patrol exists solely to extract revenue from beleaguered American drivers to peruse. And there’s definitely some design and usability lessons in here.

I knew from the start of the day it was going to be a crazy day. The first call I get is from a driver on the highway. Here’s the crazy story, but trust me, I am not imaginative enough to dream this one up. The owner was warming her car up in her driveway.

Sidenote, don’t leave your keys in an unlocked to “warm it up” in the morning. It’s the best way to give your car away. Especially if you live near a high school! I can’t tell you how many recovered stolen autos we’ve found in parking lots of our high schools. Anyway…

This lady was smart enough NOT to leave her keys in the car. But, she had a smart key, one of those keys that you just leave in your pocket and press a button to start it. So, as she’s warming it up, she decides to leave the key on her hood near her windshield wipers. Car gets all warmed up, so she drives away.

The problem is, she doesn’t grab the smart key. She noticed that she forgot as she’s driving 60 down the highway, during a snowfall. BUT, instead of pulling over calmly and retrieving her smart key, she decided to roll the window down, turn on the wipers and try to grab the key that way. Needless to say, it doesn’t work, and now her smart key is traveling AWAY from her car at 60 mph. For those of you that don’t have smart keys for their cars, this is not an ideal situation to keep the car powered.

She’s able to get stopped, and wants me to shut down a 3 lane highway in order for her to try and find her key. Mind you, it’s a 3″ square box on a three lane highway that snow plows are clearing. Obviously, that’s not gonna happen. I convince her that we can just go to her house and get the spare.

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Posted on Thursday, February 11th, 2010 at 11:13 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
2 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

MUTCD Addendum No. 214

(thanks Peter)

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Posted on Thursday, February 11th, 2010 at 10:59 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Bird, the Wave, and the Shaka

My latest Slate column is up, and the subject is the informal language of the road (and yes I know about the Australian ‘waggling pinkie,’ but for editing reasons, etc., it got cut). For space reasons I also didn’t get into the whole gamut of bicyclist/motorcyclist/pedestrian gestures — though I remember at one Brooklyn crosswalk I was turning right and a person about to enter the crosswalk did an elaborate bow/sweep of the hand to urge me through, to which my reply was to try to apologize for violating the right of way. Then there was a secondary round of strange gestures in response to the first. And then, of course, the driver behind me honked.

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Posted on Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 at 1:34 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Does Your Town Do (Winter) ‘Parking Dibs’?

Photo by Meryddian/Flickr

Just something on my mind given the battering the eastern seaboard is taking. I know Chicago (above) does, and so too does Boston, Pittsburgh too. But this is an alien concept in New York City, at least in my neck of the woods (though I’ve seen friends of drivers standing in spaces to reserve them temporarily). Put chairs out to reserve a spot and you’ll probably see them listed on Craigslist within the hour.

Why does the ‘parking dibs’ culture work in some places, but not in others? Does it actually work in the aforementioned towns, or has increased demand (or whatever) put strains on the custom? Any ‘dibs’ tales to tell?

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Posted on Monday, February 8th, 2010 at 5:41 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
23 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Unlivable Streets

Peter sends along this troubling video of a woman struck by a bus — I’m sure any number of you out there could dissect the many things wrong with that street (not sure where it is).

Almost as disturbing as the video is the fact that its categorized on Digg as “comedy,” which in the world of Internet culture, I’m sure it is.

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Posted on Monday, February 8th, 2010 at 12:17 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
6 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Recall Problems

You may have heard the news: Cars that accelerate inappropriately down local streets, veer out of control on rural highways late at night, fail to brake in time to strike a pedestrian, follow lead vehicles too closely to stop in the event of an emergency, and so on. There was a technical problem in all these cases, but one that, I’m afraid, is difficult to fix with a factory recall, for I’m talking about the human decision-making apparatus. Towards this end Leonard Evans provides some much-needed perspective about the Toyota recalls:


Consider: According to various reports, 19 deaths have been associated with Toyota’s gas pedal problem over the past decade. But over the same decade, a total of 21,110 people have been killed in Toyota vehicles, with an additional 1,261 killed in Lexus cars (based on analyzing 1999-2008 fatality data from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). Almost none of these deaths had anything to do with technology, faulty or otherwise. Almost all of them were the result of driver behavior.

Even the claim that the 19 deaths were “linked” to the defect in no way implies that it was the main factor.

Seventy years of scientific research has shown that what drivers do behind the wheel is the dominant factor in traffic deaths. Speed, for example, is a critical factor in safety. An almost imperceptible reduction in speed from 52 mph to 50 mph cuts the risk of being killed by 15 percent. That’s more than the risk reduction from airbags.

So if the prospect of a sticky gas pedal alarms you, just slow down a little. The result will be that you are safer with the defect than you were without it.

Obviously, deaths linked to faulty cars are a serious problem, and it’s also clear that if attention is not paid, the safety problems could grow much worse. And still, however, I am struck by the sheer volume of the coverage about Toyota — almost verging on a panic — given the comparative risk posed in the numbers above. The study of risk perception is instructive here: Risks seem to loom larger in our imagination when they are novel, and when they are seemingly out of our control, among a host of other factors. Toyota is certainly novel, and the idea that an accelerator might suddenly activate on its own fills us with much more dread than the calculated decision to drive very fast down a street — itself a risk for the drivers and others but seemingly under one’s own control.

There’s a larger story here too, of course, which I was talking about last week with a writer for the Globe and Mail; i.e., the kind of shattering (or cracking) of a mantle of sheer confidence in not just the Toyota brand but the idea of the modern automobile as more or less infallible. When I think of my MacBook Pro or iPhone, I think of wonderful devices that are also prone to bugs (the later device had to be swapped out three times). But thinking about my Subaru, another incredibly complex device, I basically expect that as long as I take it in for its regular maintenance plateaus, I do not expect to encounter any difficulty on the road (needless to say, the experiences at the Genius Bar and Subaru dealership are distinct; one is tense anticipation as I wait to hear the diagnosis, the other is simply showing up to check off the list). Like many other drivers (or at least I suspect), I barely cracked the owner’s manual (this was studied Talmudically in my father’s era) when I bought the car, and certainly didn’t spend much time under the hood because, quite simply, I wouldn’t have understood much of what I was looking at (nor, for the record, do I take apart the MacBook). One still sees articles in the AAA magazines and the like with “driving checklists,” a tally of things you should do before setting out, but I would guess that very few of us do this, for a very simple reason: It has become an article of faith that the car will perform. This contrasts with the situation when I drove used American cars of 1970s vintage as a teenager, during which I experienced all kind of random breakdowns, faulty gas gauges, blinking ‘check engine’ lights that seemed to come on, as if by a law, late at night far from an open service station.

It’s hard to quantify, but I imagine this sense of the machine’s infallibility has changed the way we operate it. It is known that average speeds and following distances changed over time on certain highways, causing engineers to rework their models, and one of the reasons given is, inevitability: Superior handling and performance of the modern car. In this respect, all the coverage given to Toyota is a good thing — if it serves as a reminder of the risks of the road. If it merely shifts further focus away from driver behavior and onto a large, litigable car-maker, this won’t mean much in the overall picture of traffic safety.

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Posted on Monday, February 8th, 2010 at 12:07 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
12 Comments. 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 Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage: krunde@randomhouse.com.

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency: zoe@zpagency.com.

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For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

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Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013
BoingBoing.com “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Communications.
Grand Rapids MI

 

 

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