Thursday, July 31, 2008

Better Traffic

Where in the world did all those jokes about women drivers come from? I suspect that they’re holdovers from the days when automobiles were few and were considered a strictly male domain. At any rate, the criticism of women drivers is a misnomer today.

In his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), author Tom Vanderbilt reveals that “testosterone causes twice as many deaths (per 100 million miles driven) as female driving does.” He also shows that males tend to drive better when a female is riding beside them than when another male is riding beside them.

I am told that this is even reflected in insurance rates, although, I don’t know that for certain. I have only sons driving at present and it will be some time before my daughter needs car insurance.

In his review of Vanderbilt’s book, James Q. Wilson cites Vanderbilt’s support for congestion pricing. Experience shows that congestion is relieved when charges are imposed “for driving into crowded areas.” I discussed this in this post.

The criticism of congestion pricing is that it is patently unfair because those that cannot afford to pay the fees get short shrift on the deal. Not so fast, says Vanderbilt. While those that pony up the bucks get preferential treatment, overall congestion is reduced for everyone, including those that don’t pay for or receive the premium deal.

Not only has this worked in cities around the world, Vanderbilt notes that it works every day in Disney’s theme parks. Nine years ago Disney figured out that it could mitigate long lines by using a system they call FastPass. You get a FastPass from the machine near the attraction in which you are interested. The pass shows a time window during which you may return and walk right onto the ride, bypassing the waiting line. The timing of your pass is dependent on line traffic patterns. Instead of waiting in a long line, you go off and enjoy other attractions until the time printed on your pass. The result has been shorter lines for everyone, including those that don’t bother to get a FastPass. We have benefited from this system on two visits to Disney theme parks.

Vanderbilt also advocates what could be called humanly engaged driving. Instead of regulating by signs, lights, and speed bumps, some cities have created experimental zones where cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists share the entire expanse of road/sidewalk area. Rather than chaos, the result has been slower speeds, more courtesy, fewer accidents, and smoother traffic flow. Wilson doubts this would work in places like Cairo, Beijing, or New York, because culture is also an important factor.

On his blog, Vanderbilt drops bits of knowledge about traffic that have come to his attention since writing his book.

Wilson faults Vanderbilt for failing to adequately explore the “remarkable story” of the reduction in US highway fatalities from 5.98 per 100 million miles driven in 1957 to 1.41 in 2006. Wilson thinks Vanderbilt’s explanations are inadequate. He goes so far as to say that improvements in vehicle safety may not have had much effect. He cites research showing “that greater car safety (e.g., using seat belts) makes people drive more aggressively and cause more accidents.” Wilson writes:
“Maybe the answer is Smeed's Law. R.J. Smeed, a traffic expert, found that highway fatalities, at first, increased as the number of cars on the road increased, but then the rate started to fall as more and more people got cars. Smeed suggested that people finally learned how to manage heavy traffic and that congestion itself reduced accidents. China has seen an explosion in car ownership, and driving there is a terrifying experience, but with more cars has come a reduction in the highway fatality rate.”
One of the thrusts of Vanderbilt’s book is the concept of traffic psychology. It seems to me that this is strongly intertwined with culture. I’m not sure that the two can be satisfactorily separated, since the culture of the area in which you are driving impacts psychological factors involved and vice versa. The question then would be how to encourage a culture that values safer driving.

While cultural shift is outside of the purview of traffic managers, there are some interesting things in Vanderbilt’s book that could be applied to our road systems to improve safety, reduce congestion, and maybe even save fuel.

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