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Archive for December, 2010

In Constant Peril

Reading Bill Bryson’s At Home, a big, genial shaggy dog of a book brimming with turn-to-the-wife-did-you-know-that moments (in other words, absolutely recommended), I came across this interesting traffic note, about the blackouts introduced to Britain at the outbreak of the war:

Drivers had to drive around in almost perfect invisibility—even dashboard lights were not allowed— so they had to guess not only where the road was but at what speed they were moving.

Not since the Middle Ages had Britain been so dark, and the consequences were noisy and profound. To avoid striking the curb or anything parked along it, cars took to straddling the middle white lines, which was fine until they encountered another vehicle doing likewise from the opposite direction. Pedestrians found themselves in constant peril as every sidewalk became an obstacle course of unseen lampposts, trees, and street furniture. Trams, known with respect as the ‘silent peril,’ were especially unnerving. ‘During the first four months of the war,’ Juliet Gardiner relates in Wartime, ‘a total of 4,133 people were killed on Britain’s roads’—a 100 percent increase over the year before. Nearly three-quarters of the victims were pedestrians. Without dropping a single bomb, the Lutwaffe was already killing six hundred people a month, as the British Medical Journal drily observed.

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Posted on Wednesday, December 29th, 2010 at 1:57 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
3 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Traffic, Calmed

Enjoying this little dusting outside my house, the sort of winter version of the DOT’s Summer Streets program.

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Posted on Monday, December 27th, 2010 at 9:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
9 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Ramps to Nowhere

Flickr/Jason McHuff

My latest Slate column looks at a number of urban highway projects that were once planned but never built (or were built and then torn down). Here’s the gist:

A new exhibit at New York’s Cooper Union, Paul Rudolph: The Lower Manhattan Expressway—complete with an exhaustively recreated large-scale model of the proposed road—provides an opportunity to consider the invisible (and sometimes visible) presence of this and other phantom highways in the world’s cities. Existing merely as segments of many-tentacled schemes on faded planner’s maps, they are more than historical oddities or visions of an alternate future. They’re part of an ongoing dialogue about the meaning and possibilities of mobility in the world’s cities: Would their host cities be better off if these highways been built? How should we balance the desire for mobility with the desire to create livable, meaningful urban spaces? Is there any room for the megaprojects of Rudolph in a city that now favors pocket parks and restriped bike lanes?

There were plenty of examples I had to leave on the cutting-room floor, everything from Portland’s Mt. Hood freeway (the stub is pictured above) to the wider network proposed by Pompidou in Paris to Milwaukee’s Park East Spur, and if anyone has any images, recollections, would be curious to hear.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some Yule matters to attend to…

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Posted on Friday, December 24th, 2010 at 5:10 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
12 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

On Queueing

(HT: Transportationist)

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Posted on Friday, December 24th, 2010 at 4:45 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
1 Comment. Click here to leave a comment.

On Bike Lanes, Road Widths, and Traffic Safety

There was an assertion made in one of the letters (signed by Louise Hainline, Norman Steisel, and Iris Weinshall in response to a recent New York Times editorial on cycling that caught my eye:

When new bike lanes force the same volume of cars and trucks into fewer and narrower traffic lanes, the potential for accidents between cars, trucks and pedestrians goes up rather than down. At Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, for instance, where a two-way bike lane was put in last summer, our eyewitness reports show collisions of one sort or another to be on pace to be triple the former annual rates.

The first point is that while the PPW conversion did take away one travel lane, the width of the existing lanes was not altered. So there may be fewer lanes, but they are not, as the letter argues, “narrower.” It may be that entire street feels narrower, which, as an emerging school of what I’ll call ‘behavioral traffic calming’ argues, is actually a good thing. Drivers, as I’ve quoted Ezra Hauer as saying, “adapt to the road they see.” They either do not see traffic signs or fail to read their meaning correctly. If they see a wide open, long boulevard, they will drive like this.

Even if the lanes were narrowed, as John LaPlante recently argued in the journal of the Institute for Transportation Engineers, “there is no significant crash difference between 10-, 11-, and 12-foot lanes on urban arterials where the speed limit is 45 mph (or less).” (a finding, he notes, that was unfortunately left out of AASHTO’s recent Highway Safety Manual).

And there’s something deeply suspicious about that “eyewitness reports” note; were they actually out there, day after day, meticulously logging conflicts and crashes (tellingly, they make no note of severity)? And why, if everything was so great with the street before, were they even doing these “before” counts? As the case of roundabouts shows, what people perceive as individual danger often does not translate at all to an increase in overall risk; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

But let’s take that notion — that fewer and narrower lanes lead to more crashes. This is a staple of traffic engineering, and in fact it does have some validity — when applied to highway environments (which PPW at times unintentionally resembles). Even here, though, the effects are often not ‘statistically significant’ and ‘more complex than expected.’

But in non-highway environments, there’s all kind of evidence that reducing the number of lanes (a.k.a. the ‘road diet’) can have positive safety benefits. As the Federal Highway Administration has noted:

Road­ diets­ can­ offer­ benefits ­to­ both ­drivers ­and­ pedestrians… road diets may reduce vehicles speeds and vehicle interactions, which could potentially reduce the number and severity of vehicle-to-vehicle crashes. Road diets can also help pedestrians by creating fewer lanes of traffic to cross and by reducing vehicle speeds. A 2001 study found a reduction in pedestrian crashing risk when crossing two-and three-lane roads compared to roads with four or more lanes.

But what if one of those lanes your crossing is a bike lane? Surely that must make things less safe, no? More interactions in less space. In a forthcoming paper to be published in the Journal of Environmental Practice Norman Garrick and Wesley Marshall examined 24 California cities (12 with relatively low traffic fatality rates, 12 with relatively high rates). They found that the cities that had a higher bicycle usage had a better safety rate, not just for cyclists but all road users. They write:

Our results consistently show that, in terms of street network design, high intersection density appears to be related to much lower crash severities. Our street design data also contains strong indications of these trends; for example, the high biking cities tend to have more bike lanes, fewer traffic lanes, and more on-street parking. At the same time, large numbers of bicycle users might also help shift the overall dynamics of the street environment – perhaps by lowering vehicle speeds but also by increasing driver awareness – toward a safer and more sustainable transportation system for all road users.

And as Eric Dumbaugh, of the University of Texas A&M, notes, “most recent research reports that wider lanes on urban streets have little or no safety benefit, at least to the extent that safety is measured in terms of empirical observations of crash incidence” (e.g., Potts, I.B., Harwood, D.F., & Richard, K.R. (2007). Relationship of Lane Width to Safety for Urban and Suburban Arterials. Transportation Research Board 2007 Annual Meeting; Milton, J., & Mannering, F. (1998). The relationship among highway geometries, traffic-related elements and motor-vehicle accident frequencies. Transportation 25, 395–413; and so on).

But the authors of this letter are not trafficking in empirical evidence, even as they allege that the NYC DOT’s data “more puzzlement than enlightenment.” It’s unfortunate that this letter is signed by a former DOT commissioner, and an academic — who should both know that it is evidence and analysis, not vague “eyewitness” reports and random testimony, upon which good science, planning, and safety interventions are made.

And as always, curious to hear of more work either supporting or countering what I’ve said here.

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Posted on Thursday, December 23rd, 2010 at 12:47 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
10 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Gotham Cycle Chic, Circa 1896

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Posted on Tuesday, December 21st, 2010 at 1:27 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
3 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

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.”

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Posted on Tuesday, December 21st, 2010 at 11:22 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
1 Comment. Click here to leave a comment.

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?

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Posted on Friday, December 17th, 2010 at 8:46 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
23 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

The Car As Renter of the City, Not Landlord

I have a short piece in the current World Policy Journal in response to the question of the future of the city. In this telegraphic dispatch I addressed the place of the car in the city (N.B.: The piece could also be headlined: ‘An Open Letter to Marty Markowitz’):

We spent much of the twentieth century engaged in a campaign to retrofit our cities to the car. However much this may have seemed to make sense at the time, it now looks more like a misdirected effort to save the city by destroying it. As plentiful as the benefits of individual vehicular mobility may be, the large metropolis can never comfortably accommodate any more than a fraction of its citizens in this manner, and we have learned the consequences of trying to do so. Ever-lengthening commutes have meant degraded public spaces, negative health outcomes, social fragmentation, infrastructure whose maintenance goes underfunded.

In the city of the future, we need to pursue policies that allow for safe, efficient and affordable transport of the many, while recognizing that market-based approaches that so rationally apportion space in the private sector can and should be applied to the valuable urban space — in the form of roads and parking spaces—that cities essentially give away. We need to recognize that streets are public spaces too, and not merely, in the old view of 1930s utopian modernism, channels for moving as many vehicles as quickly as possible. The car will continue to exist, but should be treated as a “renter” of the city, not its landlord. The urban car of the future should be shared, smaller, and slower.

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Posted on Tuesday, December 14th, 2010 at 2:30 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
9 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

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!)

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Posted on Saturday, December 4th, 2010 at 3:29 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
2 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

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)

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Posted on Friday, December 3rd, 2010 at 1:22 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
7 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Traffic Advisory

A number of readers (one is always heartened to discover they exist!) have written in to ask about the ongoing state of this blog, which has admittedly declined in frequency as of late. I am still here, I assure you, but there are several things at work here: 1.) I’ve shifted most of the micro-announcement, interesting-links sort material to Twitter (follow here); my column at Slate.com, meanwhile, covers some of the longer-form material that may otherwise have been treated here. 2.) I’ve had a large number of magazine and other journalistic assignments, some having nothing at all to do with driving or transport, and in the economy of words, paying work must always trump non-paying (and trust me, if this blog was a paying gig there’d be no problem filling it seven days a week with material). And, 3.) I’ve been traveling a lot, for work and for pleasure.

I’ve just in fact returned from Lisbon to find a new paper from Michael Sivak in my inbox (“Toward Understanding the Recent Large Reductions in U.S. Road Fatalities,” in Traffic Injury Prevention), the third of a trilogy of works examining the recent drop in U.S. traffic fatalities; this paper uses the most updated data available, from 2008. As he notes:

From 1994 to 2005, U.S. road fatalities increased by 7 percent, from 40,716 to 43,510. However, from 2005 to 2009, they dropped by 22 percent, to 33,963 in 2009 (see Figure 1). A reduction of such magnitude over such a short time has not occurred since road safety statistics were first kept (starting in 1913), except for the reductions during World War II (National Safety Council 2009).

He essentially finds the decline is greater than might be expected were we simply to factor in the state of the economy over the past few years, and the chart below summarizes where injuries have gone up and where they have gone down in a number of significant categories. There’s other intriguing details — like the decline in repeat DWI crashes, or the downtick in station-wagon crashes — but I’ll leave those for you to sift through.

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Posted on Thursday, December 2nd, 2010 at 2:35 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
4 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.

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau: rhspeakers@randomhouse.com.

Order Traffic from:

Amazon | B&N | Borders
Random House | Powell’s

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U.S. Paperback UK Paperback
Traffic UK
Drive-on-the-left types can order the book from Amazon.co.uk.

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
Toronto

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
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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