inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #51 of 71: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 22 Oct 09 12:01
What other books have you written?
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #52 of 71: Tom Vanderbilt (tomvanderbilt) Fri 23 Oct 09 11:54
My last book was called Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of
Atomic America, a sort of architectural-cultural travelogue into the
nation's secret, and not so secret, Cold War past.  It began, again
rather accidentally, by coming across some nuclear storage bunkers in
the Utah desert while visiting a friend who doing an arts residency.  I
was struck by their form, and the way they had sort of vanished into
the landscape, as well as cultural memory.  What else was out there? 
There was a vast infrastructure built for this 'war that never
happened,' (the Internet, of course!), and a lot of it is out there,
gathering dust, falling into premature ruin, or invisible before our

I did the research before 9/11, when it still wasn't so difficult to
gain access to places like White Sands Missile Range, or Cheyenne
Mountain.  Interestingly, some of these places were a bit dormant prior
to 9/11, and then sort of flickered back to life.  Mt. Weather, for
example, in western Virginia, a place designed as part of the 'federal
relocation arc,' meant to house the president in the event of a nuclear
attack, had more or less become a FEMA training center.  But after
9/11, there was a burst of new activity there, and when I went poking
around the area, it didn't take long to attract the attention of black
SUVs with tinted windows that just seemed to pull up out of nowhere.  I
wrote a story about my visit for the Guardian newspaper.

As it happens, the book is being published in paperback next year by
the University of Chicago Press. 
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #53 of 71: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Fri 23 Oct 09 16:16
sounds interesting. Did you ever see The Atomic Cafe?
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #54 of 71: Gail Williams (gail) Mon 26 Oct 09 14:10
Sharon, I remember seeing that film when it came out years ago.  This
documentary -

The use of popular songs and government propaganda segments intercut
with gut-wrenching archival footage of atomic testing worked very well.
 That approach is less novel now, but it is not hard to imagine using
the pop-culture edge for a multimedia piece on cars and traffic.  

Yesterday at a WELL party I heard a great tale of parking angst.  It
reminded me that there have been moves by several cities to cash in on
street parking, not just by raising the hourly rates and the fines, but
in some cases by extending the hours of meter operation dramatically.

Chicago evidently sold parking meter rights to a private company that
made meters 24 hours, including in residential neighborhoods where some
residents have always had to park on the street.  I was there this
summer, and walked out to a park along the lake, and there was a public
art area with painted benches, a few of which were political protests.
 Of course there was an anti-parking meter protest painting in the
bunch of them.

Oakland California just had a big battle with this, and backed down. 
Are there other examples, anybody know?

It appears to be very hard on restaurants, theaters, and evening
culture in general to not have street parking free up at 6, or at least
by 8, and it sure angers drivers.   Cities are in big trouble with
revenue -- but they can't kill off their businesses.  This is a very
weird trend to see.
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #55 of 71: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Mon 26 Oct 09 15:08
It's not just revenue, it's also economic development in the sense
that people won't shop if they can't find parking, and they can't find
parking if people show up in the morning and take up a space all day.
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #56 of 71: Gail Williams (gail) Mon 26 Oct 09 16:10
The way I understood it was that the idea used to be that you'd use
meters to limit the stay during the daytime, allowing more people to
shop, but allow longer parking stints at night.  Each is good for
economic development of a rather different kind of business, seems to

That lets people go to a movie, a club, a play, or just dinner after
the shops close. No big hurry or cost for that is good for the arts and
the food venues. Making the meters shorten parking stints last all
night, or just til 10:00 or 11:00pm, is contrary to the interests of a
lot of evening businesses.  

There's probably an invention (maybe already in production?) that
would fix that -- variable rate metered parking, where you could
program a meter in a certain neighborhood to charge, for example, a
quarter per 10 minutes with a maximum of 30 minutes during working
hours M-f, but have it shift to, say, a quarter per hour with a maximum
of four hours in the evening.  That would help make it flexible and
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #57 of 71: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Mon 26 Oct 09 16:27
I thought that was part of the point behind the meters now in use in
Berkeley/Oakland -- though they have the unintended consequence of
getting rid of individual meters, which bicyclists used to chain their
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #58 of 71: Linda Castellani (castle) Mon 26 Oct 09 19:49

There are still some meters in place, albeit defunct.

Such was not the case, however, in the story of parking angst I related to 
Gail yesterday.  And I realize now that I left out a significant detail, 
so allow me to retail the story.

In Oakland, California, mentioned above, they went from individual meters 
to a parking slab or monolith of kiosk or whatever you want to call it in 
which you put money or a credit card and receive a receipt in return that 
you place face-up on your car's dashboard. 

Some places in Oakland are difficult to finding parking, as is the case of 
Piedmont Avenue where I had an appointment for a mani-pedi.

Usually, as a last resort, I will go to a little parking lot, but on this 
day, it was full up.

Finally, I resort to looking for parking on the nearby residential 
streets, and immediately, right around the corner from the nail salon, I 
find a space, the first space on the block.  Hallelujah, Lord.  The only 
problem is that there is a bucket in the street, evidently reserving the 
space.  I look around carefully for a sign or a posted permit similar to 
the No Parking signs on sawhorses that had occupied the adjacent block of 
Piedmont, but nothing.  I conclude that the person had no legal permission 
to attempt to save the space for themselves, so I move the bucket and park 
the car.

I notice a parking meter at a space across the street, but since all of 
the ones I've seen since the slabs went in have been gutted and are 
defunct, I didn't even think twice about it.  I went to the slab and paid 
for my parking, returned to my car and put the slip on the dash.

Just then a small pickup truck comes roaring around the corner, and a
woman jumps out and furiously confronts me for moving her bucket.  She's 
doing landscaping and I am just unforgiveably rude for taking that space, 
especially since she had a bucket in it.

I go to my appointment and return to my car, to discover that this woman 
is making up for my rudeness by having left her car, door open, exactly 
where she had planted it when she confronted me, so everyone driving down 
the street in either direction has to skirt the car to get by.  She's 
gonna show me!

Later that night a friend who is much taller than I looked down at my car 
and said, You have a parking ticket and reached into the windshield wiper 
well and pulls it out.  I look at it, and to my astonishment, I have 
gotten a ticket for failing to pay the meter, during the exact time for 
which I have a receipt on my dashboard.  And that's when I noticed the 
tiny print at the bottom of my receipt:  "not valid at individual meters."

But...what meter?  I saw the one across the street, but not one at the 
parking space, and I remembered seeing landscaping items stacked up at the 
curb that must have been blocking the meter from sight.

But the biggest shock of all was that those four spaces on that street 
evidently had functional meters, while the entire street adjacent, and no 
more than ten feet away used the slab.  It never occurred to me that two 
different parking systems would exist within feet of each other.

Instead of mailing a check to pay for the ticket, I sent a letter
contesting the ticket, explaining what happened, and pointing out that I
had clearly demonstrated my INTENT to pay, I had simply put the money in
the wrong slot.  I followed up months later, but the parking department
was backed up and hadn't gotten to it, and I haven't gotten any response.

I suppose I won't get one, either, until the day that I get arrested for 
failure to pay a parking ticket and the fine will have increased 
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #59 of 71: Gail (gail) Tue 27 Oct 09 12:20
Yeah, that's disturbing, Linda.  No question that could make a driver
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #60 of 71: Gail (gail) Tue 27 Oct 09 13:01
Just noticed a very cool post at

It's about which cars bears select for breaking into in Yosemite. 
Check it out -- minivans are number one, and ease of access is one
possible reason.  

I lived in Yosemite for a year in 1974, and at the time there was one
model of car that was highly preferred.  It was not a station wagon or
minivan-like vehicle, but a sedan which I seem to remember was a
Datsun.  It was a particular year -- and the rangers at that time
thought they knew why.  That car still had the triangular "quarter
glass" or fly vent windows, but unlike the other similar cars on the
road at the time, had no metal in the space between the main window and
the triangle, just a rubber seal as a hinge.  

A friend told me she had watched a bear cruise around a parking lot,
ignoring all other vehicles, just popping the windows out of that
particular model of those little cars, just to stick his head in and
sniff see if there was anything good inside.  

I may have misremembered some of the details, but at the time I
thought that was quite the display of efficiency!
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #61 of 71: Jerry Marks (jmarks) Tue 27 Oct 09 16:11
I can remember a period in the 80's when bears in the Tuolumne Meadows
campground were breaking into Mercedes Benzes. Apparently they had
taken a liking to leather upholstery.
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #62 of 71: Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 27 Oct 09 19:27

Wind wings we used to call those little windows.  You could stick your 
cigarette out the window and tap the ash without opening the whole window 
and disturbing your passengers with the resulting rush of air.
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #63 of 71: noahj (noahj) Tue 27 Oct 09 19:51
And there was a period a few years ago when a few Yosemite bears
figured out what to do with Dodge Caravans. All the bear had to do was
jump up and down on top of the vans, and eventually the doors would pop
open. I remember seeing a video of this (unfortunately, pre youtube).

But fortunately, bears do not jump on moving minivans, of any make, in
traffic. So back to traffic...

So tell us about late mergers vs. early mergers. I remember something
about this a while ago, and the notion that "late mergers were quite
rationally utilizing the highway’s maximum capacity, thus making life
better for everyone". An aerodynamic engineer would view traffic as a
flow, with the understanding that laminar flow is good, and that
turbulent flow is very, very bad. Drag increases radically when flow
becomes turbulent, with a corresponding decrease in speed. Late merging
seems to be nothing more than turbulent flow, a big rock in the
stream. Where did this notion of "maximizing the highway's capacity"
come from, anyway?
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #64 of 71: David Albert (aslan) Wed 28 Oct 09 02:45
If we're talking about two lanes converging into one so that all
traffic can get through a bottleneck, it seems to me that the only
number you need to measure is the number of cars per minute going
through the bottleneck, which should be a simple function of the speed
of the cars at the point that they go through the bottleneck, and the
distance between the cars at that time.

If drivers all did what we were taught at some point in driver's ed
and kept exactly two seconds behind the previous car no matter what
speed we were going (four seconds in wet weather), then the function
gets even smoother:  it doesn't matter WHAT speed the cars are going
when they go through -- exactly 30 cars per minute will go through the
bottleneck in good weather, 15 cars per minute in bad weather.

And it shouldn't really matter WHEN the merging occurs, unless it
slows things down EXACTLY at the bottleneck and not ONE car before. 
Which I can't quite picture happening.
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #65 of 71: Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 28 Oct 09 03:13

Tom, I have a question for you:

I grew up in Southern California and freeways grew up at about the same 

When I moved to Northern California, I was astonished at how different the 
freeways were, and not for the better.

In Southern California, transitions between freeways are designed to be 
smooth and merges are barely noticeable (with a few notable exceptions on 
older freeways around downtown).

In Northern California, transitions appear to be afterthoughts, tacked on 
as though someone had a thought halfway through the design that, oh, 
people might also want to go that way from here, and predictably, the 
worst traffic jams are at the bottlenecks created by the need for people 
from the right needed to merge to the left in a very short distance, and 
vice versa.

And there are some overpasses that I absolutely cannot drive because they 
are so high - two narrow lanes with no shoulders - and I think it's only a 
matter of time before I go over the side.

Sometimes I think that the freeways in Southern California were designed 
by engineers, and the freeways in Northern California were designed by the 

My question is, how can the freeway systems in one state be so vastly 
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #66 of 71: Gail Williams (gail) Wed 28 Oct 09 08:46
(I am going to guess it is the age of the freeways, and that the older
SoCal ones got state funds for rebuilding sooner in their lifespan
because of the political clout of the southland, but that's just a
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #67 of 71: Andrew Alden (alden) Wed 28 Oct 09 20:30
I think the oldest freeways were designed for Model T's.
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #68 of 71: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 29 Oct 09 05:30
Yup, I think so too.  A lot of the parkways around the NYC area were
designed in the mid 1920s (although it took a while to fund and fully
construct them).  They've all been upgraded to some degree, but require
close attention in a modern car at modern speeds.  Of course, not
everyone gives them full attention, which is one of the reasons they
require full attention.
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #69 of 71: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 31 Oct 09 07:18
Wish I'd seen these before this interview ended, but perhaps people
are still peeking in:

SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgarian prosecutors are investigating a new
gambling game in which drivers defy death by speeding through red
lights for bets of up to 5,000 euros ($7,400), the chief prosecutor's
office said Thursday.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – No need to curse that bad driver weaving in and
out of the lane in front of you -- he cannot help it, U.S. researchers
reported on Wednesday.
They found that people with a particular gene variant performed more
than 20 percent worse on a driving test than people with a different
DNA sequence.
The study may explain why there are so many bad drivers out there --
about 30 percent of Americans have the variant, the team at the
University of California Irvine found.
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #70 of 71: paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Sat 31 Oct 09 07:27
Heard the second story--and doubt very much that the researchers said
that they "can't help it" as they were telling the story.

But the first one is pretty terrifying.  Russian roulette with who
knows how many other people's lives at risk.  Eeep.
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #71 of 71: Gail Williams (gail) Tue 3 Nov 09 14:31
Tom kind of faded away on us, but I do want to post a thanks.  If you
get back here you're welcome to jump back in of course.

Thanks to Sharon, too.

And for anybody who is not sure what the next conversation is about --
there is a lot of overlap.  If we credit or blame road and car
designers for some of our social behavior getting from point A to B on
the ground, there is an analogy, though not a direct translation,  in
the design choices for social websites, and behavior online. Some of
the details and implications of those choices are pretty interesting...


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