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Archive for the ‘Roads’ Category

The Geography of Road Danger

Mortality caused by Road Traffic Injury by Country

This color-coded traffic fatality chart is via ChartsBin. Iraq is one country that leaps out, and I’m not sure what part the road danger there is due to absence of government structure, bad infrastructure, or whether war/insurgency-related deaths (e.g., IEDs) are coded as traffic fatalities. Not to mention, from accounts I’ve seen, the idea that people often have to drive in a riskier fashion to simply avoid becoming the target of danger. Then there’s other, difficult to quantify ideas, such as that people living in a war environment might develop a more fatalistic view toward life.

Angola scores high too; I imagine it’s an offset of the country’s oil industry — more people with cars suddenly hitting the road.

This is of course per 100,000 population, which doesn’t account for the amount of exposure; given the average number of miles driven in the U.S. versus, say, Sierra Leone, really makes the statistics stand out. But there’s another overwhelming difference between the typical African country and the U.S., as CUNY’s Greg Chen points out:

One striking feature of road traffic crashes and injuries in Africa is its high involvement of, and impact on, the most vulnerable road users, the pedestrian and the passengers in public transportations, such as buses and minibuses. The literature review shows that pedestrian crashes account for more than 40 percent of crashes in most of Africa countries. For example, pedestrians accounted for 55% of road traffic deaths in Mozambique between 1993 and 2000 (Romao et al, 2003). Pedestrians account for 46% of road traffic deaths in Ghana between 1994 and 1998 (Afukaar et al, 2003). Pedestrian and passenger crashes represented 80% of all road traffic deaths in Kenya in 1990 (Odero et al, 2003).

And there’s another way to think about the statistics on a per 100,000 level; one might read the low per population rate in a country like Denmark not simply as the result of it being a small country, and hence fewer miles to traverse, but that people there simply don’t have to drive as much. Exposure, after all, is one ‘five Es” of traffic safety, along with education, enforcement, engineering, emergency response.

(thanks Peter)

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Posted on Friday, November 6th, 2009 at 3:01 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
17 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

A Continuous Layer of Mush

The Missouri DOT gives a nice time-lapse (and count-down, or count-up that is, money clock) depiction of a highway’s life span. (Via Infrastructurist)

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Posted on Tuesday, October 6th, 2009 at 9:51 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Taking of Pelham’s Trees

Apparently this issue has been around awhile. From a letter to the New York Times, 1999:

To the Editor:

Re ”Drivers Fear Leafy Menace by the Side of the Road” (Sept. 19): Pelham Parkway is not a limited-access highway; it is a parkway, a road that connects Pelham Bay Park with Bronx Park. Coincidentally, it now connects the Bronx River Parkway with the Hutchinson River Parkway and the New England Thruway (I-95). It was designed for light pleasure traffic at speeds of 25 to 30 miles per hour, not 50 to 60 m.p.h.

When people fall asleep at the wheel, are cut off by another vehicle or seek to avoid an animal in the road and hit one of the trees transplanted from the subway construction on the Grand Concourse, it is not the fault of the tree, nor the design of the road. I would hate to see the trees removed simply because motorists are not observing the speed limit.

If the police would enforce the speed limit on Pelham Parkway, the city would make money on the road instead of spending it. If the road could have been redesigned, you could be sure the master builder (and destroyer) Robert Moses would have rebuilt it after his failure to complete the Sheridan Expressway, which would have been the main east-west roadway to compliment the Cross Bronx Expressway.

THOMAS VASTI JR.

Morris Park, Bronx

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Posted on Wednesday, August 26th, 2009 at 8:36 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Dangerous Trees or Dangerous Drivers?

The Daily News notes that a number of trees are going to be cut down on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx and replaced by a guard-rail, presumably to cut down on the number of fatalities by drivers swerving into trees. “The roadway is very dangerous the way it is,” a local pol said.

But dangerous for whom? As the story notes:

According to Police Department figures, there were 185 accidents — with 29 injuries — from January to July 31 of this year along the parkway. Since 2003, there have been two fatalities, both involving struck pedestrians.

The only certainty in removing trees is that speeds will increase. I’m not sure how those pedestrians were struck, but I would guess the issue is not that the trees failed to protect them, and their risk will only increase with driver speed.

(thanks Streetsblog)

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Posted on Wednesday, August 26th, 2009 at 7:15 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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New York as Motopia

Michael Frumin was intrigued by a report on 2008 subway passenger counts.

Just to get warmed up, chew on this — from 8:00AM to 8:59 AM on an average Fall day in 2007 the NYC Subway carried 388,802 passengers into the CBD on 370 trains over 22 tracks. In other words, a train carrying 1,050 people crossed into the CBD every 6 seconds. Breathtaking if you ask me.

So he began wondering what New York City would have to look like without that subway capacity — or, say, if every New Yorker decided to drive where they were going.

At best, it would take 167 inbound lanes, or 84 copies of the Queens Midtown Tunnel, to carry what the NYC Subway carries over 22 inbound tracks through 12 tunnels and 2 (partial) bridges. At worst, 200 new copies of 5th Avenue. Somewhere in the middle would be 67 West Side Highways or 76 Brooklyn Bridges. And this neglects the Long Island Railroad, Metro North, NJ Transit, and PATH systems entirely.

And that’s not all of it.

Of course, at 325 square feet per parking space, all these cars would need over 3.8 square miles of space to park, about 3 times the size of Central Park. At that point, who would want to go to Manhattan anyway?

Reading Frumin’s post, I was reminded of the early, Utopian visions, as sketched by people like Bauhaus stalwart Ludwig Hilberseimer, of cities “built for the motor age,” which would seamlessly blend great agglomerations of people with smooth, huge highway networks that always seemed to be largely empty, as in the image above. What these plans never acknowledged is the point raised by Frumin: The actual infrastructure required to move all those people by car to their massive towers, not to mention such questions as what they would all do once they got out of their cars (if they even desired such a thing), where they would park, etc. etc.

On the last point, Norman Bel Geddes, writing in the seminal text Magic Motorways, thought parking provided an easy answer to the congestion question:

There is one method, however, which does point the way to a future solution. It is the construction of parking space directly underneath or actually inside of heavily frequented buildings. The newest building unit in New York’s Rockefeller Center, for example, is provided with six floors in which over 800 cars can find parking space by means of ramps. The same idea has been incorporated, even more dramatically, into Chicago’s Pure Oil Building, in which the interior spaces of thirteen floors are reserved for tenants’ cars 300 of them.

How providing more supply would lead to long-term solutions to the congestion problem, particularly as all those drivers poured out of their massive garages at 5 p.m., was a question the modernist visions were never able to answer.

Of course, Hilberseimer’s early visions were admittedly a bit dystopian, as even an automobile city proponent like Le Corbusier was moved to note:

A wretched kind of “modernism” this! The pedestrians in the air, the vehicles hogging the ground! It looks very clever: we shall all have a super time up on those catwalks. But those “R.U.R.” pedestrians will soon be living in “Metropolis,” becoming more depressed, more depraved, until one day they will blow up the catwalks, and the buildings, and the machines, and everything. This is a picture of anti-reason itself, of error, of thoughtlessness. Madness.

And while the city pictured at the start of the post never materialized, that modernist dream of the (non-congested) automotive city never died, and its DNA carried on through GM’s “Futurama,” on through fantastic visions like Geoffrey Jellicoe’s “Motopia,” (pictured above, with its rooftop roads) through more serious (and taken seriously) tracts like Colin Buchanan’s “Traffic in Towns,” and into built places like Cumbernauld.

“Kill the street,” Le Corbusier once intoned, the old “donkey paths.” The new cities would do away, as the historian Stephen Marshall puts it in his excellent book Streets and Patterns, with things like the pub on the corner. “There would be no pub on the corner, since no building would interfere with the requisite junction visibility requirements. There would be no crossroads, since these would be banned on traffic flow and safety principles. Indeed, there would be no ‘streets’: Just a series of pedestrian decks and flyovers.”

And as the following video (sent to me by Eric Boerer at Bike Pittsburgh) from Pittsburgh, circa 1955 shows, the modernist dreams had some serious propagandistic muscle behind it; the irony of this video (and, I must say, the supposed congestion horror depicted here looks pretty tame) is that just about everything that’s proposed here is the sort of thing that, half a century later, would be seen as a nightmare from which cities were trying to awake. I don’t know the city, and I’m not sure if those waterfront highways were built, for example, but it’s hard not to see Le Corb and Broadacre City all over that image of the tall tower, surrounded by acres of parking — my initial thought was, where would you go for lunch? It’s the sort of mundane question the motopians never paused much to consider as they drafted their gleaming tomorrows.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 25th, 2009 at 2:49 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
2 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Back to the Future

Mark Wagenbuur has put together a fascinating video (thanks to David Hembrow) on the evolution of a Dutch street (in Utrecht) over time; of particular interest is the creeping automobilization of the street in the 1970s-80s, only to see a subsequent reversion to historical precedents (or what we now call “complete streets”).

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Posted on Thursday, August 20th, 2009 at 4:21 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Roads That Kill, Drivers Who Kill

A few kind readers have sent along an op-ed in the Boston Globe, which the website sums up thusly:

“Traffic injuries kill more than a million people a year worldwide, including 40,000 a year in the United States. Yet when a fatality occurs few people blame the roadway for the death.”

The piece makes some good, worthy points (and it’s important to remember that the concept of safer road design can also entail — gasp — forcing drivers to slow). It’s a bit like the concept of “fire-safe cigarettes.” We can try to educate people not to smoke in bed, we can fine them if they do; or we can build a device that extinguishes itself, lowering the potential for a human mistake.

But it also reminded me of a story in today’s New York Times about the deadly crash on the Taconic Parkway (in which the driver was subsequently reported to have a BAC twice the legal limit; before this, there was a grasping search to blame improper road design or poor signage). The story tries to insinuate that the parkway, designed in the 1920s, is no longer safe — the reason, of course, having less to do with the road itself than that drivers no longer feel compelled to drive the 55 mph speed limit (partially because it became a conduit for a sprawl-based commuter-shed). Curiously, though, the piece notes that the Taconic turns out to be safer than comparison roads, thereby somewhat deflating the sense of urgency that this is a road in need of serious examination.

And yet, after the crash, officials put up additional “wrong way” signs at the particular intersection where the driver joined the highway. A natural response, perhaps, but one done more out of reflex (the “accident black spot” approach) than thought: What about all the other entrances? Given that the driver drove for several minutes, clearly against the flow of traffic, what would another ‘wrong way’ sign have done? The point here is that road engineering can only get us so far in reducing deaths; driver behavior matters.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 2:05 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Mysteries of Road Repair

Reader Steve wants to know:

Do you know why there is always a delay, sometimes of weeks, between the scarification of a road surface and the repaving? In my experience, this occurs regardless of whether the project involves a low volume city street or an interstate highway.

Any infrastructure types out there care to weigh in? Is it part of some carefully planned process, or just lack of coordination between the scarification guys and the paving guys?

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Posted on Monday, August 17th, 2009 at 7:24 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
6 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

The Leftist Insurgency in Samoa

I’ve got a new piece up at Salon.com that considers that ever vexing question: Which side of the road should we drive on? And should we all do it the same way?

Here’s the opener:

A revolution is afoot in the small Pacific island nation of Samoa. Mass demonstrations, the biggest the country has ever seen, have rocked the capital. A new political party has formed in an attempt to depose the prime minister. The airwaves crackle with dissent.

As is often the case in political strife, a left-right divide underpins the Samoan turmoil. In this case, left vs. right refers to which side of the road Samoans are meant to drive on. At 6 a.m. on Sept. 7, Samoans, who for over a century have navigated on the right — like their neighbors in American Samoa — will change over to the left.

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Posted on Friday, August 14th, 2009 at 9:55 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
4 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

No Phones In School Zones

I’m currently in Texas, and just heard an item on the radio about a curious new law: That it’s illegal to use a (hand-held) cell phone in a “school zone.”

And, as an article by Ben Wear (who was on my panel back at the Texas Book Festival last year) in the Statesman notes, cities like Austin now have to (or don’t, it’s still a bit up in the air) post signs alerting drivers to the presence of this law, otherwise police cannot enforce.

Robert Spillar, the City of Austin’s transportation director, said the city has not set aside money for the signs. Nonetheless, it will begin installing them this fall, starting with elementary schools. It could take two years to get them all up, he said.

“I don’t see how we can not put them up,” Spillar said. He said he isn’t sure the mere presence of signs will change driver behavior, and said some sort of education program might be necessary to get the message across. “It’s an unfunded mandate that has our backs against the wall. We can’t enforce it if the signs aren’t up.”

This is the first I’d heard of such a particular distinction being made in a particular zone, and I’m having trouble seeing the reasoning, or the safety impact. The first thought that jumps to mind is that a driver on a cell-phone is hardly likely to pick out a “no cell-phone” sign, much less expeditiously hang up their call as they approach. The second is that signs warning of “school zones” themselves, while a bit better — particularly when backed up flashing lights — than the ubiquitous (and absolutely ineffectual) “Slow Children” signs that are not officially recognized by engineers, tend to be little regarded as well, at least based on various tests in which drivers were still found to be routinely exceeding the speed limit; typically it’s the parent bringing their kids to the very same school. The entire concept of “School Zones” is a bit wanting, really, prone to driver and legal confusion, not to mention that it raises that eternal question: One is supposed to drive slowly and attentively on this stretch past a school, but it’s then OK to accelerate to higher speed a block later (a block on which there may be just as many children)?

And then, on the cell phone issue, we’re again making odd distinctions: We’re admitting that cell phones are a hazard to use when driving around groups of children at schools, but somehow OK when driving among groups of pedestrians or cyclists or children on the blocks in front of their homes — or in fact every other car on the road? And that it’s OK for drivers to zip past schools while talking on their hands-free-not-brain-free unit?

And then there’s the aesthetic blight of all the extra signage — more signs for drivers to ignore — not to mention all the money going to put the signs up, just so a law can be enforced; it seems rather ridiculous that if a state law is passed declaring it illegal to use cell phones in a school zone, one would have to expensively repeat that statement at every already marked school zone. After all, we don’t feel the need to erect signs announcing that driving while impaired is illegal, in school zones or anywhere else.

As always, any experiences or technical clarifications welcome.

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Posted on Wednesday, August 12th, 2009 at 5:14 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Merge Wars, Revisited

From New Jersey, the state that give birth to Traffic, comes this appraisal of late and early merging (yes, I’m quoted), bound to be a issue this year as stimulus spending drops a torrent of orange cones across the Garden State.

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Posted on Friday, August 7th, 2009 at 9:54 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
7 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

One-Way or Two-Way?

Via Roadguy comes this interesting and nuanced discussion of a planned conversion in Minneapolis from one-way to two-way streets, on what seems like former residential boulevards (Park and Portland) that were turned into de facto highways in the incipient motor age.

I could have written an entire chapter in Traffic about the one-way/two-way debates (like LCD and plasma, they each have their particular attributes), but of more immediate concern to me here is the idea that every conversion I’ve heard of recently is from one-way to two-way. I wonder if the tide of planning orthodoxy has fully shifted, or are there any big two-way to one-way conversions going on as I write?

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Posted on Thursday, August 6th, 2009 at 10:21 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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How New York Might Have Looked

In recently doing some research on the historical traffic problems at Times Square, I came across the article above in the New York Times, circa 1911, which described the call of one Charles R. Lamb (formerly of the Municipal Art Society) to have another diagonal boulevard built in Manhattan, originating at 34th street — apparently in a massive, terrifying traffic circle — and running up to a plaza at 53rd Street.

Interestingly, the article makes the following claim, which runs precisely counter to what we now think of the way the diagonal of Broadway functions:

“The real difficulty with New York is this: that the only diagonal we have is Broadway. You can easily see the force of this point if you will remember that every man instinctively takes an angle street if he can because it makes the least distance. The automobile man does it: so does the truck-man; so does the pedestrian; everybody does.

And to just the extent that a person can turn from an angle, he will do it. You can see that at Times Square where Broadway cuts across Seventh Avenue. You can see it in Washington where the men that planned that city were wiser than the men that planned ours and where they cut frequent diagonal avenues with spacious circles at regular intervals. Just imagine what New York would be if the Times Square situation were repeated so frequently that a man could make his choice of taking an angle street or going around the block whenever he felt like it.”

Imagine indeed…

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Posted on Wednesday, August 5th, 2009 at 6:41 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Silly, Controversial, Progressive, Then Obvious

silly

I had come across the above slide, via a post at Kottke’s blog, and it is taken from a talk by a Harvard University researcher named Lant Pritchett. I was intrigued by the progression Pritchett had theorized in the way that once-seemingly controversial issues (his slide illustrates changing attitudes over interracial marriage) had, over time, simply become part of the normal state of affairs. Now, clearly this is not always a linear, teleological dynamic, but it’s interesting to try and think of other examples where it applies (a woman’s right to vote, recycling, smoking is bad for you, etc.).

I was also interested in what areas of traffic safety and the larger culture of traffic to which it might apply — seat belt usage, for example (or the idea of laws for same), driving while drunk, motorcycle helmets (or helmets in hockey and other sports), etc. And I found myself reaching for the concept in a recent column for Reclaim, the magazine of NYC’s Transportation Alternatives (of which I’m a member; if you think, by the way, that this makes me some anti-car radical, I’m also a member of AAA). The column was prompted by some recent commentary in the press, in light of the recent closing to traffic of a few blocks of Broadway in Times Square, that the NYC DOT was running a series of “elitist” reforms.

Whether this would in and of itself be a bad thing is another issue altogether — for all kinds of civic reforms we now take for granted and that make cities livable places began as the work of progressive “elites” — but I took exception with the idea that programs meant to benefit pedestrians and transit users, who represent by far the majority mode of Manhattan, were “elitist” policies causing harm to some disenfranchised majority of New York car users. But I am interested also in the reception of this and other projects via Pritchett’s evolution; in certain quarters of the media, they have been branded in the “silly” and “controversial” vein, though as this “Q Poll” indicates (the poll found early support for the Times Square project, support that might rise if the media didn’t always frame the story so negatively, or if the project’s benefits were explained to more people), we might already be moving closer to obvious.

In any case, the essay is here, or after the jump.

(more…)

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Posted on Friday, July 31st, 2009 at 10:53 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
3 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

A Few Thoughts About ‘On a Crash Course,’ by Miller & Zaloshnja

I’ve finally gotten around to reading ‘On a Crash Course,’ a report by Ted Miller and Eduard Zaloshnja that’s been getting a lot of play in the media. As the Post summarizes:

Bad highway design and conditions are a factor in more than half the fatal crashes in the United States, contributing to more deaths than speeding, drunken driving or failure to use seat belts, according to Ted R. Miller, who co-wrote the 18-month study released yesterday.

Road-related conditions were a factor in 22,000 fatalities and cost $217.5 billion each year, the study concludes. By comparison, Miller said, similar crashes where alcohol was a factor cost $130 billion, speeding cost $97 billion and failure to wear a seat belt caused losses of $60 billion.

Despite being sponsored by a consortium of road-building concerns, who naturally have a vested interest in highway improvements, there are some interesting and commendable points raised, or at least implied. The first is, given that road crashes bear a larger societal cost than congestion, we should be focusing whatever stimulus dollars (too many, in my opinion) are going to roads on indeed bringing up deficient roadways to modern safety standards, rather than building new roads. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case.

Another thing that caught my eye was the high figure of deaths attributed to roadway condition: “Roadway condition is a contributing factor in more than half—52.7 percent—of the nearly 42,000 American deaths resulting from motor vehicle crashes each year and 38 percent of the non-fatal injuries. In terms of crash outcome severity, it is the single most lethal contributing factor—greater than speeding, alcohol or non-use of seat belts.”

This surprised me, as any number of previous studies, including the famous (and much more comprehensive) Indiana Tri-Level Study, as pictured below, paint a different picture of causality.


(more…)

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Posted on Tuesday, July 7th, 2009 at 3:46 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
7 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Pulp Friction

50,000 Books Per Mile... Photo by A-Wop-Bop-a-Loo-Bop

I’ve been reading, with equal parts pleasure and profit, Joe Moran’s On Roads. It’s expansive, unexpected cultural history and in some ways an ideal companion volume to Traffic; while there are certain convergences, it also covers many things I would have liked to had I more space, including the 1950s conversations on designing aesthetically pleasing motorways, evolving cultural feelings towards highways themselves, among many other things. It’s U.K. oriented, so if the words Ballard, Banham, and Belisha Beacons do not present the frisson of excitement in you that they do I, be warned. It’s loaded with strange and delightful details — things like Bob Geldof working on the M25, or the so-dubbed “Mancunian Way” getting the Concrete Society award in 1968 for “outstanding merit in the use of concrete” (I’d like to thank my agent…) And, by the way, is that the very same Concrete Society that, for a brief time in the 1960s, employed the great Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul, a detail I got hung up on in Patrick French’s recent biography? Was Naipaul, as he banged out A House for Mr. Biswas, spending his days writing paeans to motorways?

I’ve got many pages folded over, but there is one page of particular interest for those who write about the road. As Moran notes:

Every year, more than 120,000 new books are published in Britain, creating millions of volumes that will never be opened, let alone read. Many of these unread books are shredded into tiny fibre pellets called bitumen modifier, which can be used to make roads, holding the blacktop in place and doubling as a sound absorber. A mile of motorway consumes about 50,000 books. The M6 Toll Road [as pictured above] used up two-and-a-half million old Mills and Boon novels, romantic dreams crushed daily juggernauts.

Every author lives in vague, free-floating terror of unsold pallets of his books next in line for the pulping process (after dropping through all the other Dantean levels into remainder purgatorio) but after reading the above, I can note, with distinct enthusiasm, the perverse idea that unsold copies of Traffic may some day not be read, but indeed driven upon. It could give speed reading a whole new meaning.

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Posted on Saturday, June 27th, 2009 at 2:15 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
2 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Perpetual Rest

The interstate system was created in 1956 as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, and everything about it is perfectly uniform and federally mandated, right down to the width of the dotted white line. Rest areas, however, have been the holdout of states’ rights, most of them designed in a way that’s consistent throughout a state and different from those in the commonwealth next door. Codified in federal jargon as “safety rest areas,” they grew out of the fear that as millions of us took to the road cross-country for the first time, we’d need regular resting outposts to keep us from barreling into each other.

That’s from an excellent piece over at Good, the sort of story after my own heart — the social and design history of a curious piece of vernacular architecture (the highway rest stop) one that now seems in decline.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 16th, 2009 at 12:53 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Road Less Paved

Eric Morris over at Freakonomics is soliciting entries for the “worst road in America” — my own submission would be this one, one of the Bush nightmares from which we’re trying to awake — while my latest column over at Slate looks into road work and its traffic effects (ahead of the stimulus-driven “summer of gridlock” road-repair-athon).

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Posted on Wednesday, June 10th, 2009 at 2:10 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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There’s No Such Thing as a Freeway

Philip Greenspun raises an interesting idea based on some recent (crowded) drives in California: Why should a state with a $25 billion budget deficit give away one of its most valuable assets — highways — for free?

(Horn honk to Devorah)

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Posted on Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009 at 11:11 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
3 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.

Some Ring Roads Are Bigger Than Others…

Via Strange Maps (via Kottke), an interesting project from Rice University measuring the size of ring roads globally…

Strange Maps writes:

In London Orbital, writer, walker and Londoner Iain Sinclair approaches his favourite subject – his home town – by circumambulating it. The book details his trek along the M25, London’s ring road.

Sinclair completes the 117 mile (188 km) journey in 592 pages, which works out to 5 pages per mile (or 3 per kilometer). As ring roads go, London’s is one of the longer ones – which can with some difficulty be gleaned from this map.

The map layers the peripheral highways of 27 of the world’s larger cities onto a poster, designed by the Rice School of Architecture in Houston, TX. That location is no coincidence, because the poster highlights a record for Houston: it has the largest ring road in the world (or at least the largest of all the world cities surveyed).

However, it is unclear how long a book Mr Sinclair would have to write, were he to transplant his peripatetic procedure (and the same distance-to-volume ratio) from London to Houston.

The city at the centre of the US’s sixth-largest metropolitan area (with 5.7 million inhabitants) has three ring roads: Interstate 610 [circling downtown in a 38-mile (61-km) loop], Beltway 8 [about 83 miles, or 137 km] and the as yet unfinished Grand Parkway [State Highway 99].

Clearly, for Houston to have the world’s longest loop, the big black blob on this map could only be the latter. But a few problems arise. Four, to be exact.

One: the Grand Parkway is far from finished. Only two of 11 segments are completed. However tempting it may be, it is hardly fair to tout something as “the world’s largest” before it’s been completed. Especially since, as any large-scale project, the Grand Parkway has its share of detractors. So it might never get done.

Two: even if it is to be completed, plans may change and length might vary. The website for the Grand Parkway Association doesn’t specify beyond the “circumferential scenic highway” going to be “180+ miles” (app. 290 km) long.

Three: the Houston orbital outsizes all others on this map to such an extent that it’s difficult to imagine its circumference to be no larger than London’s by a factor of 180 to 117.

And finally, four: now that I’m mentioning London’s orbital road again — the website for the UK’s Highway Agency states that the M25 is… the longest ring road in the world.

While the identity of the actual highway(s) surrounding Houston and depicted here remains elusive, it is beyond doubt that the Texan city has a large surface, a fact attested by a map posted earlier on this blog (#327), the discussion of which also touches upon the phenomenon of sprawl (large conurbations with relatively low population density) as a result of increased mobility.

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Posted on Thursday, May 28th, 2009 at 8:54 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 Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

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Metropolis and Mobile Life
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