Reader recommendation: Q&A for Tom Vanderbilt, author of "Traffic"

Thanks to Dave Brook for the heads-up.

Questions for Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic:

Q: Was this book really born on a New Jersey highway?

A: Yes, though it could have been any highway in the world, where countless drivers, driving on a crowded road that is about to lose a lane, have had to make a simple decision: When to merge. For my entire driving life, I had always merged “early,” thinking it was the polite and efficient thing to do. I viewed those who kept driving to the merge point, to the front of line, as selfish jerks who were making life miserable for the rest of us. I began to wonder: Were they really making things worse? Was I making things worse? Could merging be made easier? Why were there late mergers and early mergers, and why did people get so worked up about the whole thing? In that everyday moment I seemed to sense a vast, largely under-explored wilderness before me: Traffic.

Q: Is it true that the most common cause of stress on the highway is merging? Why of the myriad things to cause stress on the road is this at the top?

A: Merging is the most stressful single activity we face in everyday driving, according to a survey by the Texas Transportation Institute. People who have done studies at highway construction work zones have also told me of extraordinarily bad behavior, triggered by this simple act of trying to get two lanes of traffic into one. Sometimes, it’s simply the difficult mechanics of driving — trying to enter a stream of traffic flowing at a higher speed than you are, for example. Drivers, to quote a physicist who was actually talking about grains, are objects “who do not easily interact.” But I also think there’s something about the forward flow of traffic that makes us register progress only by our own unimpeded movement; as in life, we seem to register losses more powerfully than gains, and registering these losses boosts stress.

Q: You say that, “For most of us who are not brain surgeons, driving is probably the most complex everyday thing we do in our lives.” How so?

A: Researchers have estimated there are anywhere from 1500 to 2500 discrete skills and activities we undertake while driving. Even the simplest thing — shifting gears — is a decision-making process consuming what is called “cognitive workload.” We’re operating heavy machinery at speeds beyond our long evolutionary history, absorbing (and discarding) huge amounts of information, and having to make snap decisions — often based on limited situational awareness, guesses about what others are going to do, or a hazy knowledge of the actual traffic law. It took years of research, for example, by some of the country’s top robotics researchers, to create expensive, sophisticated self-driving “autonomous vehicles” that are basically mediocre beginning drivers that you’d never want to let loose in everyday traffic. When we forget that driving isn’t necessarily as easy as it seems to be, we get into trouble.

Q: Drivers polled in America say the roads are getting less civil with each passing year. ‘Road Rage’ is an ever more common term. What is to blame? Hummers? Or are we just getting ruder?

A: Every year, more people are driving more miles, so one reason for the sense that the roads are getting less civil is simply that there are many more chances for you to have an encounter with an aggressive or rude driver. It’s tough to put numbers on it, but I happen to feel, like many people, that behavior has gotten qualitatively worse — surveys have suggested, for example, that using the turn signal is an increasingly optional activity. Leaving aside the issue that not signaling is illegal (because, let’s face it, we’re never going to be able ticket everyone who doesn’t do it, nor do we probably want to), it’s one of those small things, requiring little effort from the driver, that makes traffic flow more smoothly — I myself have honked countless times at “idiots” slowing for no apparent reason, only to seem them eventually make a turn. It’s antisocial behavior, the equivalent of having the door held open for you and saying nothing in return. So why don’t people signal? My immediate theory is that they’re using a cell phone and are distracted or physically incapable of signaling. But a deeper reason, I suspect, may be seen in the surveys of psychologists who measure narcissism in American culture. They find, as time goes on, more people are willing to say things like “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.” Traffic is filled with people who think that roads belong only to them — it’s “MySpace” — that being inside the car absolves them from any obligation to anyone else. People are glad to tell you that their child is a middle school honor student — as if anyone cared! — but they deem it less important to tell you what they’re going to do in traffic.

Q: So much of what you uncover about life on the road seems counterintuitive. Like the fact that drivers drive closer to oncoming cars when there is a center line divider then when there is not; that most accidents happen close to home in familiar, not foreign, surroundings; that dangerous roads can be safer; safer cars can be more dangerous; that suburbs are often riskier than the inner city; the roundabout safer than the intersection. When it comes to traffic why are things so different from how we instinctively perceive them?

A: I think part of the reason is it’s easy for us to confuse what feels dangerous or safe in the moment and what might be, in a larger sense, safe or dangerous. We have a windshield’s eye view of driving that sometimes blinds us to larger realities or skews our perception. Roundabouts feel dangerous because of all the work one has to do, like looking for an opening, jockeying for positioning. But it’s precisely because we have to do all that, and because of the way roundabouts are designed, that we have to slow down. By contrast, it feels quite “safe” to sail through a big intersection where the lights are telling you that you have the right to speed through. We can, in essence, put our brain on hold. But those same intersections contain so many more chances for what engineers call “conflict,” and at much higher speeds, than roundabouts. So when what seems quite safe suddenly turns quite dangerous — will we be as well prepared? Similarly, we might be reassured that that yellow or white dividing line on a road is telling us where we should be, but how does that knowledge then change our behavior, to the point where may actually be driving closer — and faster — to the stream of oncoming traffic? Accidents are more likely to occur closer to home. Mostly this is because we do most driving closer to home, but studies do show that we pay less attention to signs and signals on local roads, because we “know” them, yet this knowledge actually give us a false sense of security.

Q: What were some of the things that most surprised you in researching this book?

A: Things that surprised me the most were those that challenged my own long-held beliefs as a driver, like that “late mergers” simply must be somehow worse for the traffic flow at work-zones, that roundabouts were dangerous places, that warning signs were there because they must be working, that car drivers were more of a contributing factor in truck-car crashes than truck drivers. It was also quite a revelation to learn about the many ways our eyes and our minds deceive us while driving, the ways we “look but don’t see,” the way we sometimes believe, to slightly change up the warning our mirrors gives us, that objects are further away than they actually are. Then there were the things I had never really thought about, but were surprising nonetheless — that drivers seem to pass closer to cyclists when those cyclists are wearing helmets, how the ways in which drivers honk at each other contain subtle indications of status and demographics, how much traffic on the streets is simply people looking for parking. I was also unpleasantly surprised to learn how far the U.S. had slipped in terms of traffic safety in the world, where it was once the leader.

Q: You write, “The truth is the road itself tells us far more than signs do.” So do traffic signs work?

A: We’ve probably all had the somewhat absurd moment of driving in the country, past a big red barn, the pungent smell of cow manure on the breeze, and then seeing a yellow traffic sign with a cow on it. Does anyone need that sign to remind them that cows may be nearby? To quote Hans Monderman, the legendary Dutch traffic engineer who was opposed to excessive signing, “if you treat people like idiots, they’ll act like idiots.” Then again, perhaps someone did come blazing along and hit a crossing cow or a tractor, and in response engineers may have been forced to put up a sign. The question is: Would that person have done that regardless of the sign? The bulk of evidence is that people don’t change their behavior in the presence of such signs. Children playing, School zone? People speed through those warnings, faster than they even thought, if you query them later. To take another example, the majority of people killed at railroad crossings in the U.S. are killed at crossings where the gates are down. If this is insufficient warning that they should not cross the tracks then is a sign warning that a train might be coming really going to change behavior? At what point do people need to rely on their own judgment? We as humans seem to act on the message that traffic signs give us in complex ways — studies have shown, for example, that people drive faster around curved roads that are marked with signs telling them the road is curved. We tend to behave more cautiously in the face of uncertainty.

Q: What is “psychological traffic calming”?

A: Traditional “traffic calming” relies on putting big, visually obvious obstructions in the road, like speed bumps, or the wider, flatter speed humps. Unfortunately, since the bulk of drivers, like tantrum-throwing toddlers, really don’t like to be calmed, a lot of these don’t work as well as hoped, or produce negative, unintended consequences, like the fact that people will raise their speed between the bumps to make up for the time lost slowing to traverse the bump. So-called “psychological traffic calming” basically tries to calm traffic without drivers even realizing they’re being calmed. It does so through things like reducing the width of roads, using pavements of different colors or textures, even removing center-line dividers, which studies have shown is one way to get drivers to slow down. Even creating visual interest along the side of the road, a no-no in traditional traffic engineering because it’s a “distraction,” can be used to calm traffic — when something’s worth seeing, after all, people slow down. The most radical approach is removing any signage at all, and forcing drivers to rely on their own wits, as well as the dynamics of human interaction, as has been seen in some interesting experiments in the Netherlands.

Q: You cite 20 miles per hour as the speed at which eye contact becomes impossible. How central to understanding traffic, and human communication generally, is this statistic?

A: Eye contact is a fundamental human signal — all kinds of studies have shown, for example, how people are more likely to cooperate with one another when they can make eye contact. When we don’t have it, when we become anonymous, we not only lose some of that impulse towards cooperation, we seem to become susceptible to all kinds of behavior we might not otherwise engage in. In most driving situations, of course, we lose eye contact, and have to make do with our rather limited vocabulary of traffic signals. At much slower speeds, however, like those seen in the experimental roundabouts in the Netherlands were most signage has been stripped away, it is fascinating to see how intricately all the traffic can interweave — exactly because some of those human signals have been restored.

Q: We’ve all had the experience of the annoying passenger who can’t stop critiquing our driving when we know are driving just perfectly. Then again, we’ve all been the back seat driver to people who think they are driving perfectly when we know for sure they are about to kill us. What accounts for the way drivers vs. passengers experience the same ride?

A: First of all, I should stress that passengers, even annoying back-seat drivers, are good for us: Statistics show that people are less likely to crash when they are accompanied in the car (except, interestingly, teen drivers). But there’s several interesting things going on between drivers and passengers. For one, driving as an activity often lacks regular feedback — we’re often not aware in the moment of how close to a crash we almost came, or our own culpability in that. Secondly, drivers tend to self-enhance. They all tend to think they are better than average, or at least average drivers — it’s been called the “Lake Woebegone Effect.” Passengers are not caught up in this dynamic — there’s no such thing as a “better than average” passenger — nor do they feel themselves joined to the mechanics of the car, the way a driver does. Brain scans of people doing simulated driving have even revealed different results from people acting as simulated passengers. In the end, a back-seat driver, like it or not, is providing feedback, the same way someone can view footage of their golf swing to learn what they couldn’t see in the moment.

Q: You talk about numerous experiments going on around the world to study traffic, what are some of the ones that you found most interesting?

A: One of the most fascinating things that is happening, thanks to technology like TiVo style cameras and feedback sensors, is that researchers are becoming increasingly able to study how drivers really behave on the road, learning curious details about, for example, how much time drivers spend looking in certain places — forward at the road, in the rear-view mirrors, away from traffic, at the radio, etc. With companies like DriveCam, this information is actually being used to coach drivers — beginners but also experienced drivers — based on the crashes they narrowly avoided. The work of Hans Monderman, who unfortunately died in January, in the Netherlands was also utterly fascinating. Faced with a visually unappealing, traffic clogged intersection in the heart of the Dutch city of Drachten, Monderman turned it into a roundabout, with fountains and plantings but no traffic lights and virtually no signage — the result, more than a year later, is the traffic moves more efficiently through the town, and there have been fewer crashes. It was also quite memorable to be in Los Angeles’ “traffic bunker” on Oscar Night. They set up special traffic patterns so that the stars’ limos can all get to the red carpet at roughly the same time. It was striking to see how one person, sitting alone at a computer screen, can orchestrate the whole city’s flows, its competing patterns of desire.

Q: You have been all over the world studying traffic. So, where was it the worst and how does the city in which we live dictate our highway behavior?

A: It depends on how you define worst! I’ve been in nasty jams from Seoul to San Francisco. The places that felt the most chaotic were cities like Hanoi, which currently has the highest level of motorbikes per capita in the world, and where, in many parts of the city, the only way one can cross the street is by simply wading into the flow. New Delhi was also quite unnerving, not just for the hustle and bustle of so many modes of transportation on the road at once, but the chronic disobedience of traffic rules. In Beijing, where “driver” not that long ago was only the title of a job, driving was hectic but I found it quite difficult as well to be a pedestrian — drivers were always plunging into the crosswalks when I had the “walk” man, I was always having to climb bridges or submerge into tunnels to cross streets, and the city’s “super-blocks” are sort of oppressive — I walk quickly but it took me nearly an hour to walk around the block on which my hotel was located.

I think traffic behavior is dictated by a complicated mix of cultural factors and the traffic engineering measures in place. In Copenhagen, home of the world’s largest anarchist community, people on foot are astonishingly law-abiding in terms of not crossing against the light. In New York, an arguably more individualistic, ego-driven sort of place, you’re viewed as a tourist if you don’t jaywalk. But in London, for example, studies have shown that the number of pedestrians who violate red lights literally changes with each block; it’s not that those people’s culture changed from one block to the next, it was simply that some lights were too punishingly long to wait for.

Q: You seem to feel pretty strongly about what constitutes an “accident” on the road. While drugs and alcohol are called out as criminal, cell phone use, texting and general disregard for traffic laws are not. Do you think we are heading toward stricter laws on this front? Should we?

A: Since the car was invented, drivers have been reluctant to give up what they see as their “rights,” even as these supposed rights keep changing. This is why, for example, cars are sold without “speed governors,” a device that would greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the illegal — let’s call it what it is — act of speeding, and certainly reduce fatalities and injuries. It took years for people to accept that drinking and then getting behind the wheel was not a good idea, and obviously many still do think it’s acceptable. As the science emerges that cell phone conversations, not simply dialing, can seriously impair a driver’s attention and reaction times, the very reasons we criminalize drunken driving, I’m not sure what the distinction is that should be made if a driver kills a pedestrian while drunk versus while on their cell phone, or for that matter who kills a pedestrian because they were driving 25 miles over the speed limit. Does one get years in jail and the other a slap on the wrist? Don’t they both show an equal disregard for the law? People are leery of imposing stricter laws on negligent driving because it’s always been viewed as a “folk crime,” like fudging your taxes, sort of widespread and not as serious as others. People are reluctant to criminalize what they see as “normal” behavior. But how did it become normal behavior? When I got my driver’s license, the cell phone hadn’t been invented, and somehow as a society we managed to get along. The economy didn’t collapse, and, if you believe surveys, people were no less happy then they are now. No one wants to get into an accident, they’re certainly not premeditated, but were people doing everything they reasonably could to avoid an “accidental” crash when it later turns out they were talking on a cell phone while driving? It’s something we’re going to have wrestle with as a society as the science really begins to come in.

Q: What is “a forgiving road”?

A: This is a school of thought that says, drivers are only human, they’re going to make mistakes, so let’s build things so that if they do make a mistake, they won’t be seriously injured or killed. Sounds good in theory, and in some places, it’s good practice. If you’re cruising along the highway at 75 mph and your tire blows out, wouldn’t you want a guardrail to prevent you from crashing into a tree? The problem is: Where do you draw the line? The early traffic engineers thought the forgiving road was such a good idea they argued it should be extended to every road in the country. Even residential streets, they argued, shouldn’t be lined with trees, and instead should have massive “clear zones” for people to skid off into without killing themselves. The problem, apart from the fact that forgiving roads don’t really make for nice residential or city environments, is that the forgiving road principles, can, in effect, give permission to drivers to drive more recklessly, which is not good for other drivers, pedestrians, or cyclists — and often not good for them. Just as the only safe car is the one that never leaves the garage, the only truly safe road is the one that’s never driven. Trying to make roads “too safe” for drivers leads to all sorts of unintended consequences.

Q: You write that “as the inner life of the driver begins to come into focus, it is becoming clear not only that distraction is the single biggest problem on the road, but that we have little concept of just how distracted we are.” Can you explain?

A: To give you an idea, I took a test on a driving simulator. I was doing a kind of logic exercise via a hands-free phone while I drove on the highway. I smacked into the back of a truck. When I looked at the software that tracked my eye movements, they were locked onto the back of that truck. Did I realize how distracted I was? Not at all. Think of when you zone out as someone’s talking to you. You’re only made aware of it when they ask if you’re listening to them. Or take the famous “gorilla video” experiment. You’re trying to pay attention to people passing the basketball to each other. In the meantime, a guy in a gorilla suit strolls by. Most people don’t see it. You’re distracted from the gorilla by the act of counting passes, but you’ve no idea. This kind of thing, scarily, happens in driving all the time. There are times we know we’re distracted in some way, like physically dialing a phone, but other times when we’re not aware of the extent of our distraction because we think we’re paying attention.

Q: You write about the cars and technologies of the future and as you put it, “It is probably no accident that whenever one hears of a “smart” technology, it refers to something that has been taken out of human control.” Are we headed towards the driverless automobile?

A: We’re definitely already in the era of “driver-assist” automobiles, with blind-spot warnings and adaptive cruise control and the like. As people who study automation have noted, these “semiautomated” processes come with very particular challenges — drivers may relax their vigilance, thinking everything is fine thanks to the car’s technology, but something might happen that actually confounds the car’s systems, and suddenly the driver is “out of the loop.” This kind of thing has been seen in airline crashes. That said, were it to be fully achievable, full automated driving would have all kinds of benefits, from smoother traffic flow to a reduction in crashes. But that’s a ways away — the legal issues, for one, are massive — but maybe by 2050, like in the film Minority Report, we’ll all have little autonomous pods connected to a grid…

Q: If you had to choose from the vast array of prescriptions, what would be some of the top things you would recommend to make our roads safer and our traffic less maddening?

A: 1. Pay attention to the task at hand. You are operating heavy machinery, not driving a big phone booth or a make-up mirror. Every glance away from the road, every phone call, every fumbling for your last McNugget, not only disrupts traffic flow, it boosts the risk for a crash, which is itself one of the leading causes of congestion. Even though we often read about how much money we’re losing because of traffic congestion, which people often site as reason to build more roads, it’s been estimated that crashes cost us more in economic terms than congestion itself.
2. Remember the ants. Army ants are among the world’s best commuters, for a single reason: They’re all cooperating. They move in unison, they help each other out, the individual doesn’t consider his own interests above that of the traffic stream. We all want to assert our individuality, or our sense of superiority on the road, but as everyone does that, it makes it worse for everyone else, and the whole system gets worse.
3. Keep in mind you’re not as good a driver as you think you are. On the road, we’re moving faster than our evolutionary history has prepared us. We cope pretty well regardless, but we’re still susceptible to all kinds of flaws and distortions in our sensory and decision-making equipment. Just because your eyes are on the road and your hands upon the wheel doesn’t mean you’re actually prepared to deal with an emergency.
4. We can’t build our way out of traffic, but we can think our way out. Building more roads when they’re already under-funded doesn’t seem workable, and given that most roads are only congested part of the time, it’s not really the most efficient solution anyway, for loads of reasons. As a former Disney engineer told me when I asked why they didn’t just build more rides instead of worrying about new ways to manage the long queues, “you don’t build a church for Easter Sunday.” But being able to clear a stalled car quickly because sensors detect the traffic flow has changed, knowing which routes are crowded in that moment, and possibly charging accordingly; or, perhaps, making traffic lights adapt to changing demand — or getting rid of traffic lights altogether — there’s countless innovative solutions out there that are more sophisticated, and more sustainable, than simply laying more asphalt, and that don’t necessarily involve not driving — though that of course is the ultimate traffic solution.

Q: Okay so the big question. We know you have learned a lot about traffic but what have you learned about we humans behind the wheels?
A: In a word, that we’re …human! We make mistakes, we misjudge our abilities, we’re not as aware of what’s happening in traffic as we think we are, we act differently in different situations, we get angry over things that matter little in the long run, we’re susceptible to distortions in our sense of time, we have trouble living beyond the moment, of seeing the big picture — oh, and also, that everyone has a different opinion on who the worst drivers are and where they live…”Los Angeles! L.A. drivers are the worst… No, Atlanta has terrible drivers… No way, Boston drivers are nuts…” Try this with your friends sometime.

Op-Ed: Robin Chase on Tax for Driving?

Tax for Driving? An Economic Engine

[See comments/discussion that follows just below.]

Let’s spin some straw into gold. There is a hunger in the Whitehouse and state houses, on Wall Street and Main Streets for something, anything, to turn our financial distress and disappearing budgets into a future that restores hope, prosperity and confidence in government. I see the shimmering gold that keeps getting mistaken for impractical straw. You just have to get the right angle to the light.

The glimmer lasted only a few hours when late last week the AP reported that Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood said: ”We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled” as a substitute for the gas tax.

But within hours of its first report, transportation department spokeswoman Lori Irving declared: “The policy of taxing motorists based on how many miles they have traveled is not and will not be Obama administration policy.” And later this sentiment was reiterated later by President Obama’s own Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: “It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration.”

And that shimmering straw was thrown back into its dark policy-wonk corner again. But hold on. Let’s re-examine the implications of paying for roads by the mile rather than by the gallon.

Point zero (not a point for this story but we need to put it behind us so that you can focus): your locational privacy as you drive can be protected. Really. We can deliver on that so put it out of your mind.

Point number one: if we follow through with the Economic Stimulus Bill just signed, state and federal governments are going to be replacing a whole bunch of old fuel-inefficient cars with fuel efficient ones, quickly if they follow the promised timetable. And then the rest of us are supposed to be replacing ours similarly, if the car companies and the EPA follow through with their recent promises. And so begins the inexorable melting of the tried and trusty gas-tax that finances our transportation infrastructure. Inadequate gas taxes, inadequate infrastructure.

Secondly, a VMT tax requires technology. And because cars and roads go everywhere, so too will this technology need to be everywhere. And therein lies the gold!

Unless you are a communications industry nerd, you’ll have missed a very short and far-sighted clause in the Economic Recovery Bill: smart-grid demonstrations projects – 50% of which will be financed by us, the taxpayers — must “utilize open protocols and standards (including Internet-based protocols and standards) if available and appropriate.”

Imagine if the VMT technology applied this same language. Instead of having a single purposed transponder in every car, you’d have a device that could communicate and interact with the also ubiquitous and also everywhere smart grid. Are you beginning to see the shine?

Imagine further, that at your own option, and thanks to the genius of the private sector, this device would be much like any smart phone or laptop. You could download any number of applications. In fact, you might consider this VMT infrastructure — end user financed because we want to pick our own devices to suit our own needs — to be the nub of a mobile internet.

And like the Internet, it is a network, routing data over cars, through smart grids, and throughout our environment, in a dynamic decentralized way. A network owned by no one, but powered by all of us. Just like the Internet.

And just like the Internet — remember the glow emanating from the late 90s? — this will be an economic engine like no other. Is this a fantasy? The military is using just this technology to connect people, tanks, and planes in a decentralized robust and secure network in Iraq right this minute.

What did our last President say? Bring it on! Bring on that VMT tax! But make it shimmer, turn it into real gold by requiring open standards, Internet protocols and opening up excess network capacity that is funded with our tax dollars. No, it won’t happen overnight. That only happens in fairytales.

Robin Chase, CEO of GoLoco, Founding CEO of Zipcar,

Source: Originally posted on Huffington Post , 26 Feb. 2009


Getting beyond the page in front of you

In our case what you see here as one more webpage is intended only as one intermediate step in a much broader process. It is important that we and others who develop webpages and sites in support of social causes and community work are able to handle this step well. But again, we must recall that it is only one part of this process, so let us take a moment to consider the bottom Iine.

The goal behind all this is to do what we can to create or support political and structural changes which lead to sustainable transportation, sustainable cities, and sustainable lives. Everything else is part of the process.

For this to happen, we need to create a strong consensus for change, and as part of that ensure that it is well advised and broadly shared. This is where collaborative knowledge building of the sort that we are trying to engage in this and other supporting sites under the New Mobility Agenda come in. For both knowledge and consensus building our main toolset is the Internet.

Years ago the Canadian author and media pundit Marshall McLuhan explained to us that communications is best seen as a spectrum of processes which can be characterized as hotter (i.e. offering a higher degree of direct involvement) or colder. As a reminder, at one end of the spectrum you have an impersonal e-mail broadshot and at the other end: eye to eye contact over, say, a glass of white line. This modest website sits somewhere in the middle. It offers us a means to expose our ideas to each other and to comment and “discuss” them, though still quite limited ways; but warts and all it does help us to get a process of exchange and interaction going.

Which brings us to the question of the day, namely how can we use the existing IT toolset in order to take some next steps toward, once again, knowledge and consensus building? Well we can use the phone or Skype for voice contact. That’s a good start. Or Skype or some other free or low-cost technology for individual or small group videoconferencing. All of that is well and good, and indeed we like to see it not only more vigorously used our colleagues worldwide but also in more structured and powerful ways.

So, and this is a question at this point, how are we going to use these available technologies to get together in order to pursue some of what we think are among the best ideas that we are looking at, in order to move them closer to implementation? In a short phrase, we are talking about creating first rate distance conference environments, as a substitute or possibly as an intermediate step toward physical meetings which of course do have their place in the process that we are looking at here.

This section of World Streets will be given over to providing a place to post ideas and post discussions of how we can better get together to advance our shared objectives. It is our intention to have this be not only a discussion of principles, but also to move towards specific conferencing projects which can then be reported back to the group as a whole as part of a collaborative learning process. We look forward to this with real interest.

Reading World Streets in other languages

* * * To go to today’s front page, click here * * *

To make the contents of World Streets more broadly accessible to friends and colleagues who work primarily in other language groups, we have linked the site to the increasingly well-performing Google machine translation engines that you will now find here. In each case all you have to do is click the language in which you wish to see the rough translation, and it will quickly appear on your monitor.

If you read the translation in parallel with the English-language original in front of you, you will in almost all cases be able to arrive at a pretty fair understanding of the thrust and main content of that particular article or announcement. It is of course not a substitute for a professional translation, but it can be extremely helpful for those who are ready to make an effort to use it with judgment.

If for some reason you prefer entering directly in the machine translation version, you can call them up as follows:

Arabic –
Danish –
Dutch –
French –
Hebrew –
Indonesian –
Italian –
Japanese –
Russian –
Swedish –

We have also put in for testing and control purposes translation links into a number of ex-European languages of which I as editor have no knowledge at all. If you are fluent in any of those languages, we invite you to give them a try and to let us know if this is something we can work with, or not. We understand that the language leap may be a problem, but we would at the very least like to be able to provide potentially useful clues. Thank you for taking the time to share your views with us.

If any of these are found to be even approximately useable, we will set them up for one click access as well. But first let’s wait to see what kinds of response we get from the experts.

If anyone here has better ideas of how to handle this, we invite them with real interest to get in touch.

Eric Britton, Editor

PS. I suggest you also have a look at the Comments posted just below here. There offer some interesting perspectives from speakers of the language in question.

Op-Ed: Eric Staller on "Cōnferrem" to bring together, roundly

Latin: “Cōnferrem” to bring together

Greetings from Amsterdam. Eric Britton has asked me to tell you about an “innovative transportation project” that we dreamed up here in Amsterdam a few years back and which you can now travel on in a fair numbers of cities in different parts of the world. It’s definitely transportation that travels well.

In the beginning was the bicycle. I set out to try to marry art with function and create something that would at once be beautiful and at the same time evoke the rich cycling tradition of my adopted city of Amsterdam, be unusual and engaging, give value to people and the human scale, to the idea of sharing as opposed to doing things in isolation, to the joy of being able to move through the city or the countryside under your own power. . . “you” being definitely plural in this case.

The “Conference Bike” ([Latin cōnferrem to bring together) is a perhaps strange looking red contraption (“any color you want as long as it is red”) which provides an agreeable travelling space for up to seven people to cycle and be together. It is at once an active transportation and a social act. You come together, you cuddle together, you look straight in each other’s eyes, at the same time six of the seven are entirely free for gawking whatever there is to gawk.

What do you do with a bicycle built for seven? It may not be immediately evident so let me give you two very different scenarios to which they have been put since we developed our first one and put it on the street back in 1991.

Of course they can be used for friends or school classes or even strangers to get together to share a new mobility experience. But they also provide wonderful ways to give totally unanticipated opportunities for cycling to people who otherwise would never have had that chance. For example, they have been it available to provide unexpected opportunities and a sense of independence to groups of blind children, or children with motor or learning disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome and others. What we have seen is that they give joy, surprise and a sense of community to people who otherwise might be living very lonely lives. And the impact for those who care for them, and even for onlookers cheering from the sidewalks, can be an enormous gift all.

At a more mundane level, the world of work, some people have found that when you have a difficult contact situation or an argument going on, either in a company or say in a public interest group, a Conference Bike can provide an experience of sharing and eyeball to eyeball confrontation and ability to think, talk, and pant at the same time, that can be an interesting, if not exactly a step at least a push toward an evolving consensus.

We think that the US government should have a Conference Bike of its own and use it a lot to cōnferrem. So, to this end we would like to send one to President Obama for rides though all corners of the city with his family and dogs, and his cabinet. And which we hope he will also lend from time to time to the US Department of Transportation, to help them build their thoughts about creating a consensus for sustainable transportation, sustainable cities, and sustainable lives. That’s our Message to America.

Check it out –

Eric Staller,
Staller Studio Nederland
Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Enrique Peñalosa brings inspiration to Boston

* Click here to view video.

Streetfilms’ Robin Urban Smith hopped a bus to Boston last week to hear world renowned urban strategist and champion of the livable streets movement, Enrique Peñalosa speak at the Boston Public Library. According to our friends at the LivableStreets Alliance, who organized his four day visit, more than 1,000 Bostonians attended the various events planned in his name.

Aptly nicknamed the “The Hub,” or “The Walking City,” Boston boasts the oldest subway system in North America and has the highest light rail ridership of any U.S. city. Listen what happens when a group of concerned citizens in a city like Boston dialogues with the former mayor of a pioneering city like Bogota.

* * * * * *

Check out these other great Streetfilms for more on Enrique Peñalosa:

Interview with Peñalosa, Bus Rapid Transit: Bogota, Physically Separated Bike Lanes, Enrique Penalosa talks with COMMUTErs, Ciclovia.

Source: Streetfilms on Friday, February 20, 2009

Good practice: A Brazilian solution to mass transport

A Brazilian solution to mass transport

Bus Rapid Transit – and Density Around BRT Stations and Corridors

In 1974, Curitiba began to implement its Bus Rapid Transit system, a word first, proving to the world that high-quality, high-capacity public transport is well within reach of most municipal budgets.

With level and pre-paid boarding, exclusive bus lanes, 100 % accessible stations, feeder and trunk lines, the bus system in Curitiba created a new paradigm for public transport. Transportation experts from outside Brazil dubbed this system “Bus Rapid Transport.”

This system has been copied throughout the world, in cities such as Jakarta, Delhi, Beijing, Istanbul, México City, and Los Angeles. New York is also beginning to implement aspects of BRT to its bus service. The Transmilenio system in Bogota is currently considered to be the most advanced BRT system.

With excellent pré-existing Road infrastructure, BRT is a sure winner in the US. BRT implementation in US cities should be accompanied by zoning that encourages dense, pedestrian and bike-friendly residential and commercial areas around stations and along the corridors. This type of zoning was created along with the BRT in Curitiba and proved to be a success.

Besides the low cost for building, operating and maintaining BRTs, another advantage is that they can be quickly planned and implemented. The 42 kms of Phase I of Bogota’s Transmilenio system were planned, implemented and operational in less than three years – from 1998 to 2000.


For a comprehensive (800+ page) look at BRT systems, please access The BRT Planning Guide:

For an overview, the Executive Summary (33 pages) of the BRT Guide is a good start:

Jonas Hagen,

ITDP – Instituto de Política de Transporte e Desenvolvimento,

Sao Paulo, Brazil

Contribution by the author to the world wide collaborative project “Messages for America: World-wide experience, ideas, counsel, proposals and good wishes for the incoming Obama transportation team”. See for latest version of this report of the New Mobility Agenda.

French government proposes purchase of 100,000 EVs

The following heads-up in this morning from Nicolas le Douarec of Mobizen fame. (Incidentally, the quality of the English machine translation from Google is, while of course not perfect, to my mind nothing less than remarkable. Seems we are making progress on all this too.)

This just might, just might turn into an important program, bearing in mind that at this point it is just a plan for a plan. But let’s stay on top of this one. You never know. Discussions and additional information on this project invited in the New Mobility Café. Post address:

Eric Britton

Google machine translation:

Purchase Agreement On A Group Of 100 000 Electric Vehicles

February 18

On 17 February the Secretary of State for Industry and Luc Chatel, Secretary of State for Ecology Chantal Jouanno announced a letter of intent had been signed by the State and several public and private ( La Poste, EDF, Vinci, Veolia, France Telecom, GDF Suez) for a purchase of 100 000 electric vehicles over five years. Precise specifications defining the needs of business must be prepared to launch the first calls for tender in the fall. “We will be able to put our findings in June, with a common specification sent to those who want to embark on industrialization,” said La Poste chairman Jean-Claude Bailly, whose company has already announced she was ready to acquire 10 000 electric vehicles by 2012.

The second part of the government’s plan focuses on how consumers can recharge their cars and do maintenance. Mr. and Ms. Chatel Jouanno announced the establishment of a working group to develop a national strategy of developing the infrastructure needed to recharge the development of electric vehicles and hybrid rechargeable. This group brings together a wide range of stakeholders, consisting of manufacturers of automobiles, utilities, local authorities, building professionals and managers of public spaces. Its mission is to find ways to democratize these vehicles with a new kind. The main lines are already known through the “decarbonation vehicles”, which is primarily to help local communities provide the infrastructure needed to recharge the vehicle, and to stimulate demand in order to provide opportunities commercial manufacturers. They must quickly get aid quickly to launch sufficient production.

The third component of the plan focuses on research and development. “The goal is to use the industrial development of clean vehicles,” said Chatel. “We hope in particular that there is a French production of batteries for electric vehicles,” he added. A budget of 90 million euros will be devoted to funding the work of these “platforms”. In parallel, 50% of the 400 million euro Predit (research program in land transport) will be dedicated to research on solutions “low carbon,” said Jouanno. Finally, to support future developments, the fund demonstrator Ademe, with 80 million, will contribute to the financing of experiments and prototypes of vehicles decarbonation (8 projects have already been selected).

To encourage the purchase of electric vehicles for individuals, the government is counting on the bonus of 5 000 euros granted to purchasers of a light vehicle emitting less than 60 grams of CO2 per km. This could be “reviewed” when the threshold of 100 000 electric vehicles has been achieved.

Society for electric vehicles (EVS), the signal given by the state is important. The Company shall enter into effect in the pre-industrialization of the energy system (based on lithium-ion batteries and computers). Fruit of a partnership between Dassault and Heuliez, several generations of Cleanova – 40 vehicles developed on the basis of Renault – have been tested in fleets of EDF, La Poste and Veolia. The EVS is now ready to provide any manufacturer who would respond to the call for orders. The company is also in discussions with partners to launch the industrialization of its energy systems for electric vehicles.

Manufacturers are also at market. The Bolloré Group will present March 4 at the Geneva Motor Show a car developed and manufactured in partnership with Pininfarina. The BlueCar is to be marketed late 2009 or early 2010. It has been two years since Bolloré model to test the four-seater, with a battery lithium metal polymer. In this regard, the Bolivian President Evo Morales led a Vaucresson BlueCar yesterday as part of his visit to France. Bolloré is negotiating for several months a cooperation agreement with Bolivia to operate, with the mining group Eramet, the reserves of lithium which abounds the salar of Uyuni (see press releases of 26 / 8 and 8 / 10 / 08). The French group wants to secure term supplies lithium, but Bolivia has one-third of the world’s proven lithium (8 million tons). An offer was made last December, but President Morales is an exemplary partnership, making the beautiful respect for the environment, local job creation, as well as cooperation with companies that exploit resources and natural communities. Bolloré will refine the draft to submit a new offer in March. (ECHOS, TRIBUNE, FIGARO, parisien, AUTOACTU.COM 18/2/09)

Op-Ed: David Alpert on TDM recommendations

Leading edge TDM strategies showing the way

When any new building appears in the city, its residents, office workers and/or shoppers have to travel to and from the building. The traditional planning approach is to require enough parking so that all of the users could drive there. But that’s not the ideal outcome, since our roads can’t handle more traffic. Instead, many cities now push for other elements that make it easier for people to travel by other modes. These elements are called Transportation Demand Management strategies.

At the Board of Zoning Adjustment hearing for the Whitman-Walker project at 14th and S, DDOT planner Chris Ziemann proposed several TDM strategies, including bicycle parking, car sharing spaces, free initial Zipcar or SmartBike memberships, and free SmarTrip cards for new residents. These come from a September DDOT memo on TDM which I was able to obtain.

These are the TDM strategies DDOT considers when looking at a new project:

* Bicycle parking: One space for each 20 car spaces, locked bicycle storage, and shower facilities for workers. That can include facilities for workers at residential buildings as well as office workers.

* Carpools: Reserved spaces in good locations for carpools and vanpools, and discounts against parking rates in pay garages.

* Parking costs: Ensure that the garage charges market rates for parking. If employees or residents get free parking, allow them to take a payment (“cash-out”) for the market value of their space instead.

* Car sharing: Free parking spaces(s) for carsharing vehicles, accessible 24-7 to the public. Also, cover the initiation fee and first year membership fees for initial residents.

* Bike sharing: Allocate space for a SmartBike station, or possibly fund the station entirely.

* SmarTrip: Give new residents and building employees complimentary SmarTrip cards. DDOT suggests $20 for residential tenants and $60 for employees of residential buildings.

* Information: Put links on buildings’ Web site to and Include signs or brochures in lobby kiosks, information in welcome packets, or bulletin boards with information on transportation options.

* Technology: Have a business center in residential buildings with a copier, fax, and Internet access. This makes it easier for people to telecommute.

Keep in mind that this is just a menu of possibilities, not rules. DDOT can decide which are most appropriate for each project. The developers can voluntarily agree to implement some, and if not, BZA or Zoning Commission ultimately decides whether to impose any as conditions of approvals. Some, like bicycle parking, are also part of draft future zoning rules, but these may go beyond the absolute requirements of zoning.

– David Alpert,
Washington DC

Op-Ed: Henry Cutler How do you get the population riding bikes

How do you get the population riding bikes for daily transportation?

There is more to it than just wheels and concrete. It is a systemic challenge, and here for example is one small part.

In the Netherlands there’s a tax rule that allows one to purchase a bicycle each three years with pre-tax salary. You can buy any bicycle with a maximum tax-free price of €749 plus €249 of extras, but the great majority of bikes here are utility models. Given that both Dutch taxes and use of bikes as transportation are very high this rule is widely used. This tax benefit enables more new and better bikes to be sold but it’s unclear how much it actually increases cycling usage. The Dutch cycle because it’s the most practical, safe, cheap and enjoyable option …and do so whether they’re on new bikes or ancient, single-speed granny bikes. Nationwide the Dutch cycle an average of 2.48 km per day.

That cycling is so often the most practical, safe, cheap and enjoyable means of transportation in the Netherlands isn’t just cultural; it’s a function of cycling being a key element in the nationwide transportation infrastructure. It is widely recognized that bicycles are the most flexible, economical and space-efficient way for people to get around the densely populated cities. Private cars are the least.

Practically every point in the entire country is outfitted with bicycle roads, signals and storage facilities… and drivers who also cycle. Scary intersections and high-speed roads without separated bicycle paths are extraordinarily rare. To the contrary bicycle roads are often much more direct and convenient than those for automobiles. These traffic routes are planned out and implemented city wide.

A good example is the northern city of Groningen, which apparently has world’s highest cycling modal share at 57% of trips. Until the 1970’s there were no restrictions on driving cars through the city and bike paths were being removed. In 1972 the government designated the city center “living space” and integrated transport policy with town planning . Over the following four decades auto access was restricted, cycling infrastructure improved and new neighborhoods developed to encourage cycling. Some notable statistics: There are 0.4 cars and 1.7 bikes per person and the average speed of cycling within the city is 50% faster than driving.

How do you get the population riding bikes for daily transportation? Build your cities to make it safe, practical and fast so that cycling becomes something everyone will do instead of just a few hardy, bike commuter “warriors”. Children must be able to cycle to school and elderly people to the grocery store. Tax benefits for bike purchases might help but not if the basic infrastructure isn’t in place.


Henry Cutler,
WorkCycles B.V.,
Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Contribution by the author to the world wide collaborative project “Messages for America: World-wide experience, ideas, counsel, proposals and good wishes for the incoming Obama transportation team”. See for latest version of this report of the New Mobility Agenda.

National Journal Panel: The (Foreign) Language of Transportation Innovation

The (Foreign) Language of Transportation Innovation

Some years ago, a European friend told me this joke: If someone who speaks three languages is trilingual and someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, what do you call someone who speaks one language? An American! I laughed when I first heard this joke. But it wasn’t a full-throated belly laugh. It was the ironic, mournful laugh of one who faces a sad reality.

We Americans are very good at many things: farming, food production, sports, motion pictures, theater, medical research, construction, and much more. But compared to the rest of the world, we’re not very good at learning to speak other languages. Why should we learn other languages when the rest of the world speaks English? And why should we wonder what those people who speak other languages are doing with their time? What could they possibly be doing that we haven’t already figured out? Well, the answer is quite a bit.

Last December, New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman wrote an interesting column about the technological advances he’s encountered abroad. He observed how wonderful it was to make a static-free phone call from Hong Kong to his wife in Maryland using a friend’s Chinese cell phone. A few hours later, Friedman took off from Hong Kong’s ultramodern airport after riding out there from downtown on a sleek high-speed train — with wireless connectivity that was so good he was able to surf the Web the whole way on his laptop.

Returning to the U.S., Friedman confronted a host of frustrating realities. He noted the ugly low-ceilinged arrival hall at Kennedy Airport where they charge $3 to use a luggage cart. Why don’t we Americans let visitors to our country use a luggage cart for free after traveling thousands of miles to get here, as other countries do at their international airports? He noted the Penn Station escalators that are so narrow it’s almost impossible to carry a suitcase and the grimy trackside platforms that haven’t been cleaned in years. He also bemoaned his ride on the Acela train on which he tried to conduct an interview by cell phone, only to have his call dropped three times in 15 minutes. He concluded his mini-critique of America by asking, “If we’re so smart, why are other people living so much better than us?” The rest of Friedman’s column, Time to Reboot America, provides further commentary along these lines.

It’s clear to me that we have much to learn from our non-American cousins about improving the efficiency and sustainability of our transportation networks. For example, in the last decade the people of Santiago, Chile – a country with one-twentieth the population of the U.S. and less than one-fiftieth of our GDP – have constructed a modern, integrated network of five major motorways crisscrossing the city, all supported by a system of fully electronic open road tolling. There are no tollbooths in Santiago. However, there is a modern urban highway network entirely supported by tolls that are paid electronically by vehicles as they move swiftly through the city.

Across the Atlantic, the equivalent of our interstate highway system in “Old” Europe is an integrated network of toll roads operated by a collection of diverse private sector concessionaires. The 20 countries that are part of ASECAP, the European toll road association, collect $30 billion a year in tolls on a network of less than 18,000 miles of superhighways. Germany alone collects over $4 billion a year in tolls on heavy trucks. That’s nearly half the total value of tolls we collect in the United States in one year.

On the other side of the globe, the National Highways Authority of India is in the process of “four-laning” more than 12,000 kilometers of interurban highways in the Golden Quadrilateral and converting these roads to tolling. Road tolling makes a lot of sense to South Americans, Europeans, Asians, Australians, and South Africans. Our cousins abroad are successfully using tolls – and especially non-stop electronic tolling – to rebuild their highway systems, improve mobility, and stimulate economic growth. Meanwhile, back in America, we continue to rely on a federal gasoline tax that hasn’t been increased since the first year of the Clinton administration – a tax that continues to lose purchasing power and significance in our push to improve our nation’s infrastructure.

Why do we continue to ignore the technological and transportation funding wisdom of billions of people in Asia, Europe, South America and scores of other countries around the globe? When will we learn the language of transportation innovation?

Patrick D. Jones, Executive Director & CEO,
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association

Op-Ed: Vinita Vishwas Deshmukh on Let pedestrians walk

Let pedestrians walk

Last Saturday, several citizen groups held a Protest Walk demanding pedestrian space on roads. Sujit Patwardhan, who steered this protest stated in the press release that, “since Ganeshkhind Road and also other roads in Pune have been widened, it has become increasingly difficult for pedestrians to cross the roads safely. Traffic speeds have also increased and made the situation worse. We have been asking the PMC engineers to have designs that take into account the needs of pedestrians and even cyclists and not just treat them as an afterthought. At many of the crossings of Ganeshkhind Road, we have given specific suggestions and drawings. In spite of assurances not much has happened. Roads continue to be unsafe for walking and cycling, while auto vehicles are moving faster on widened cement concrete roads. We have therefore decided that it is high time to protest on the street itself.”

Urban cities in the USA and Europe have witnessed the social menace of having encouraged private vehicles by building more roads and flyovers and yet having bumper-to-bumper traffic – which implies that no matter how many roads you widen or increase, the problem of road congestion is incessant. London, since 2003, charges congestion fees for bringing out private vehicles on roads. The congestion charge is a fee for motorists travelling within those parts of London designated as the Congestion Charge Zone (CCZ). The objective of levying these charges – eight pounds each day for driving through demarcated congested zones between 7 am and 6 pm – is to raise funds for investment in London’s transport system. Penalty for not paying the charges varies between 60 to 180 pounds. However, at least London has enviable footpaths. And a good public transport system.

Many cities in developed countries are resorting to alternate people-friendly transport with facilities like cycle paths, wide footpaths for pedestrians and an efficient public transport system. The rich world has realised that space for people on public spaces has to directly do with their `happiness’ thus nullifying symptoms of suicidal tendencies and depression.

Many in Pune would say – how is it possible here? They are not off the mark – a pathetic public transport system and roads which have no space for pedestrians and cyclists have resulted in double trouble. However, a revolutionary change can be brought about on streets, as demonstrated by Enrique Penalosa, the dynamic mayor of Bogota, Columbia, who converted a vehicle-infested city into a people-friendly city through wide footpaths, cycle tracks and the famous trans-Milano public transport system. In three years flat!

Penalosa who is also a visiting scholar in New York University has become an icon for building culture on the streets and has an amazing philosophy behind making a people-friendly, rather than a vehicle-friendly city. When serving as mayor of Bogotá, he realigned the focus of city planning and policies to a new priority – equal access of all people to public spaces, services, and facilities. Peñalosa believes that “high-quality public pedestrian space is evidence of a true democracy at work.

For an entire day, Bogota – a city of 6.5 million people bans cars from its streets, opening up public spaces for all people to walk, bicycle, and enjoy the city. The first city-wide Car-Free Day was introduced in 2001. By this, Peñalosa hoped to demonstrate the possibilities and benefits of alternative forms of transportation, encouraged people to bike and walk, and combated the stigma associated with bicycles as “vehicles of the poor”. Writes Penalosa, “We took a vote, and 83 percent of the public told us they wanted to have car-free days more often. Getting people out of their cars is a means of social integration. You have the upper-income person sitting next to the cleaning lady on the bus.” This resulted in a public referendum instituting the Car-Free Day as an annual event and banning all cars from the city during peak hours by the year 2015.

Penalosa writes: When I was elected mayor of Bogotá and got to city hall, I was handed a transportation study that said the most important thing the city could do was to build an elevated highway at a cost of $600 million. Instead, we installed a bus system that carries 700,000 people a day at a cost of $300 million. We created hundreds of pedestrian-only streets, parks, plazas, and bike paths, planted trees, and got rid of cluttering commercial signs. We constructed the longest pedestrian-only street in the world. It may seem crazy, because this street goes through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Bogotá, and many of the surrounding streets aren’t even paved. But we chose not to improve the streets for the sake of cars, but instead to have wonderful spaces for pedestrians. I believe – you are important—not because you’re rich or because you have a Ph.D., but because you are human.” If people are treated as special, as sacred even, they behave that way. This creates a different kind of society.

Penalosa interestingly states:”In my country, we are just learning that sidewalks (footpaths) are relatives of parks – not passing lanes for cars.

Pune streets have become inaccessible to children and senior citizens. For vehicle owners too, driving has become a nightmare. And it’s only getting worse. Pune needs to do a mini-Bogota at least for which not only the municipal commissioner and corporators need to take a step forward (the first step has been taken in the form of parking charges for 40 roads) but citizens need to give unflinching support.

Vinita Vishwas Deshmukh , Editor
Editorial in Intelligent Pune issue of February 13 2009

Contribution by the author to the world wide collaborative project “Messages for America: World-wide experience, ideas, counsel, proposals and good wishes for the incoming Obama transportation team”. See for latest version of this report of the New Mobility Agenda.

ARCHIVES. A GREAT IDEA HAS WINGS: sustainable transport innovation from sunny Amsterdam. (Feb. 2009)

Netherlands Witkar - Luud driving

A benevolent virus approach to transportation reform

Continue reading

Reports of Vélib’s Demise Greatly Exaggerated

Reports of Vélib’s Demise Greatly Exaggerated

New York City, by Ben Fried on February 12, 2009. From

If you’ve read this BBC story currently making the rounds, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Vélib, Paris’s wildly popular bike-share system, has suddenly been afflicted by an epidemic of theft and vandalism that threatens its very existence. Vélib bikes have been “torched,” strung up from lamp-posts, and smuggled across borders, the Beeb reports in alarmist tones. A spokesman for JCDecaux, the outdoor advertising firm that operates Vélib, calls its contract with the city of Paris “unsustainable,” and the whole system is referred to in the past tense.

So is Vélib destined to burn brightly only to flare out after a short time? Hardly. Vélib is here to stay, according to officials and transportation experts familiar with the details of its operations. The BBC’s portrayal of a mortal threat, they say, is best understood as a negotiating ploy on the part of JCDecaux. (Note that the JCDecaux representative is the only source quoted in that story.)

“Decaux is using media sensationalism in order to obtain more money from the city of Paris,” said Denis Baupin, who as Deputy Mayor for Transportation oversaw the Vélib launch in the summer of 2007.

The basic structure of the Vélib contract works like this. JCDecaux runs the whole system in exchange for the rights to 1,600 outdoor displays, turning its profit from selling that ad space. The city of Paris keeps the revenue from Vélib user fees, so it can claim to provide the service at no taxpayer expense. Now, with the full Paris network of 20,600 bicycles and 1,451 stations completed, penalties for inadequate maintenance are in the process of taking effect. Hence the hue and cry from JCDecaux.

“It’s in large part a PR issue,” says Luc Nadal of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. Some aspects of the Vélib contract are still in flux, and the sky-is-falling press coverage gives JCDecaux a stronger hand in those negotiations. “Their bargaining position depends on the public’s perception.”

Not that bicycle abuse is a phantom problem. It exacts a real toll, but much of that cost has been anticipated and accounted for. Last July, the city of Paris agreed to pay JCDecaux 400 euros for every bike stolen in excess of four percent of the total fleet each year. Given the enormous popularity of Vélib — users have taken 42 million rides since its debut — the cost of those payments is minimal. Using the BBC’s figure of 7,800 missing bikes, the pricetag for the city comes to less than 2 million euros annually, out of 20 million euros in user fees.

“It averages out to about 15 stolen per day, out of 80,000 daily users,” says Eric Britton, founder of the Paris-based New Mobility Agenda. Hardly a fatal blow. “It’s like skinning a knee.”

Not only does the city already pick up a big part of the tab, but JCDecaux reportedly hauls in about 80 million euros per year from its outdoor displays, according to estimates cited by Britton. It’s difficult to know the exact figure — and how much is profit — because JCDecaux guards the data like a nuclear secret. Even the precise cost of replacing one Vélib bicycle remains unknown to the public. Inquiries we sent to JCDecaux’s headquarters in Paris have not been returned.

Public support for Vélib remains unflagging. “Vélib has been totally embraced by Mayor Bertrand Delanoe himself,” said Nadal. What politician wouldn’t jump at the chance to be identified with a program that enjoys 94 percent satisfaction among constituents?

This is largely a testament to JCDecaux’s success in operating the system. According to Baupin’s office, however, Vélib maintenance workers report that management has let upkeep slide in order to amplify the perception of vandalism.

JCDecaux’s media gamesmanship “is short-sighted,” said Baupin, in a statement translated from the French. “One should not lose sight of the remarkable success of this transportation mode due to a slightly underestimated rate of vandalism.”

Then there’s the matter of JCDecaux’s own self-interest, and whether the rumors and exaggerations will hurt the company’s attempts to secure bike-share contracts in other cities. Said Britton: “Why would they run away from a golden goose?”


The End of City Bikes: Vandalism, Theft and the End of the World

State of play: Vélib’, Paris Winter 2009

After several rounds of misinformed press panic attacks concerning vandalism and theft of public bicycles in Paris, set off by an article that appeared in the Parisian on 2 February ( propose we take a couple of minutes to check out the reality of the situation and reflect together on what it means both for the Paris project — and more generally for projects being planned or already in place in cities around the world. Because there is relevance there also.

Let us first have a look at the main reported figures which are to the best of my information pretty reliable ballpark numbers.

• 15,000 Vélib’s on the street in Winter 2009 (to go up to the contracted 20,000 in the Spring)
• 1200 stations currently in operation (not 1451 as originally announced ???)
• 42 million users (between 15 July 2007 at the end of 2008)
• Daily trips: anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 and on occasion more (depends on weather, strikes, holidays, etc.)
• Ave trip time: a bit more than 20 minutes
• Ave trip length: say 5-7 km.
• Daily repairs – ca. 1,500 (huge variations depending on weather, usage, etc.) – ca. 80% of which handled in stations by travelling maintenance teams Something like 2-300 have to be taken to repair shops
• 7,800 reported disappeared over 18 months
• Estimated cost of a replacement Vélib – ca $500
• 11,600 reported vandalized in the same.
• Work force – ca. 500
• Vélib receipts paid to the city of Paris (year 1) ca. € 20 million
• Who pays for lost and damaged bicycles: JCDecaux (Mainly, some participation by the city)
• Number large publicity panels enjoyed by JCDecaux – 1600

“End of Vélib” – Tragic death scenario as reported by press

Now that several of us have gotten busy to correct the somewhat, shall we say, misinformed spate of newspaper articles that reported apparently on automatic pilot concerning the “forthcoming demise” of Vélib in Paris (reference ), I think that the air has now been cleared and that we all have a more balanced appreciation of what this means

My best on this is that JCDecaux found themselves in a situation in which they were losing about twice as many bikes as they had originally planned for. Maybe a bit more. And while this certainly poses an accounting dilemma for their public bike unit, Cyclocity, the company overall is certainly doing well with their end of the deal through the revenues generated by the 1600 publicity panels, placed in strategic areas around the city.

In this particular case I do not think this is a life-threatening problem for Vélib, since it is in the clear interest both of JCDecaux and the City to make sure of this project moves along as smoothly as possible. I am confident that they are going to find ways to deal with this problem (and in fact there are all kinds of ways as far as I am concerned which I hope they will be thinking about and prudently implementing). We will just have to see how smart that they can be with this one. And if we consider the consistent flow of adjustments and improvements that they have introduced throughout the system over the first 18 months to rectify problems and improve performance, we have to be at least moderately optimistic about their chances here.

Reflections on vandalism and theft:

If your thinking about creating a public bike system in your city, you have to have a good feel for how public property is treated. Good indicators are public phone booth (if there any left), bus stops, vandalism on public transport, graffiti, etc.

For those who are surprised at the vandalism rate in Paris over this last year, we need to bear in mind that the stands and the bicycles are widely distributed over all social areas of the city, including some rather tough ones. The city and JCDecaux are to be congratulated for making sure that the bikes are available in all parts of the city. That is important.

Let us also bear in mind that over this last half-year plus, the circumstances of the economy and social unrest here have not been all that easy. There are problems with jobs and worries about the future. And these are probably strongest in the group of young unemployed males which in some parts of the city and climb up well above 30%. This is not a formula for social peace. (Nor is it one for public bicycle piece.:

Consider all those little bikes, once they are worked free from the stations, legally or by force, they then are out there on their own with no oversight or protection. Not surprising at the time of some social unrest, and giving the ubiquitous nature of the bikes, we are going to have problems with both theft and vandalism. That comes with the territory.

To put this into perspective let us take a look at how all this works out on the streets of Paris on an average winter day. 15,000 bikes out on the street, providing something like 100,000 trips spanning a total of more than half a million km, carbon free kilometers, LL with mostly minor maintenance problems on 10% of them (but not all at the same time since they are being repaired regularly throughout the day). This should not be very surprising t if you take into consideration that those bikes are being used by people of different skill levels, different weights, and different levels of caring. And once again most of those problems that do crop up just require a few minutes of maintenance and adjustment. If you are someone who bikes in the city and park your bike in public on a regular basis, this kind of constant tinkering will not be unfamiliar to you, even though you take good care of it because it your own bike.

On an average day something like 15 of those bikes will be stolen, one in 1000. And this is before any kind of remedial measures have been put into gear. Given the level of public service, health, and environmental advantages that they provide, I would say that 1/10 of 1% is not an impossible number to deal with. And that half a million carbon free kilometers for people who have to go from A to B when and as they want. is a pretty good deal for all concerned.

The bottom line for your project:

If you are planning or starting to put into service a new public bike system in your city you are going to have to give a lot of thought about the social environment in which they are going to appear. You can “play it safe” and try to cordon off your bikes into some “safer” part of the city. But if you do that you are going to miss the whole point, the fundamental point which is behind the system, which is that they are instruments for moving toward a fairer and more just society for all.

If your city has problems with youth unemployment and degradation of social infrastructure, you are going to have to figure out how to deal with that in your project. Likewise if you have gangs, you are going to have to face this directly and somehow figure out how to work them into the fabric of the system. You do not have to give up, and you will never be able to run away, so these are the kinds of issues which have to take into account from the beginning.

But hey! you can deal with it. You and the community behind you. It is teamwork, you see.

For the rest, keep your eye on Paris and see how they work this out.

Eric Britton,
Paris, 19 Feb. 2009


I may not be a great fan of on-street advertising in public places but I am a great fan of JCDecaux for what they have done in my city to create a new mobility environment that no one can miss. I hop on one of their free bikes anywhere from 2 to 6 times a day, and have fact relegated my own bicycle to much more occasional use in the past when it was my daily companion. Not to worry, we use the different bicycles for different reasons.

As a frequent user I have seen problems with the bikes come and go over the year and a half since the project got underway. There have been periods in which there have been real visible problems with chains, graffiti, the baskets, tires, or distribution of bikes, etc., But it is my impression that when I go to the nearest they stand today (there are four within 100 m of my house) I am a well serve client. Sure there can be times in which a given station one will not have a bike ready for me, but a short trot over to the next and there you go.

Better yet, before leaving home of office I click to my favorite informal Vélib website at There I can see in advance where the nearest free bike is, and at the same time check out to make sure there will be a parking spot for me available at my final destination. There are other ways to do it but this Is mine and it works.

Thanks JCDecaux. Thanks Paris.

Eric Britton
New Mobility Agenda, Paris

Leading Edge: People First

People First

Many challenges face today’s societies: from increasing carbon emissions to our reliance on depleting energy resources, from increasing social segregation to the obesity epidemic. All these challenges come at a great cost: from monetary to environmental, and every inhabitant pays a price. We believe many of these challenges can be addressed simply by thinking about ‘people first’ when planning cities.

The Value of People Oriented Planning

If the urban population is invited to use public space by walking or bicycling, the effects are highly positive in meeting these challenges. It may seem banal that more bicycle lanes equal more bicyclists, a well-connected pedestrian network results in more pedestrians, a well-working public transport system results in more people using public transport – whereas more roads means more cars. It seems simple. More and more studies demonstrate that a good pedestrian and bicycling environment is not in contradiction with good sales numbers. On the contrary, local businesses do better in neighborhoods that favor soft traffic, and cities that perform well on livability attract investors and business.

Planning for Everybody

Creating a good public realm enables different groups in society to meet on equal terms. If we want to take planning for all people seriously, we have to give everybody the chance of being mobile – a key element in today’s society. Good conditions for people, without a car, give more people the opportunity to be a real part of the society.

Lessons from Copenhagen

For the past 45 years Copenhagen, Denmark, has been on a continuous journey to make life better for its inhabitants and, in 2008, the city was named the best city in the world for quality of life. This achievement is the result of a contiguous strategy of turning the focus around from a car-orientated culture to a people friendly environment – one that favors a good public realm, through public transport and amenities. For example, 36% of all Copenhageners commute to work by bicycle – a completely healthy, democratic and sustainable mode of transportation. Our goal is to reach 50% by 2015.

US Cities Leading the Way

‘Planning for people’ can make cities safer, more environmentally friendly, livelier and healthier. Presently, Gehl Architects is working with cities across the United States, including New York City, Seattle and San Francisco, in the joint effort of making these cities even greater. We hope the Obama Administration will support and lead this development even further in the years to come.

Jan Gehl
GEHL ARCHITECTS – Urban Quality Consultants,
Copenhagen, Denmark

Contribution by the author to the world wide collaborative project “Messages for America: World-wide experience, ideas, counsel, proposals and good wishes for the incoming Obama transportation team”. See for latest version of this report of the New Mobility Agenda.

Op-Ed: Carlosfelipe Pardo on The experience of Bogotá

The experience of Bogotá

The experience of Bogotá may be useful for this exercise, from various points of view:

On the infrastructure side:

• The development of a Bus Rapid Transit system which, at the fraction of the cost and ten times faster in construction time than a rail-based system, has the same (and sometimes better) performance than 95% of the metros in the world (currently, TransMilenio is moving 40,000 people per hour per direction, which is something that few rail systems can achieve).

• The design and construction of a network of bikeways of 300+ km along the entire city, which has improved road safety for its users and has increased bike use from 0.58% to 4% of total trips in 4 years, and is still increasing.

• The replacement of automobile parking spaces for (re)development of wide sidewalks, while shifting the responsibility of parking provision to the private sector.
On the education and management side:

• The enforcement of the proper use of all the measures above;
• The development of an enhanced license-plate restriction scheme which effectively shifts 40% of the automobile traffic with an extremely low investment (consisting basically of management, diffusion and enforcement of the measure).
• The development of a full set of strategies to generate greater respect of drivers for stopping at crossings, giving priority to pedestrians.


It must be said that these measures were only developed thanks to the great political will of two great mayors (primarily Enrique Peñalosa and further support from Antanas Mockus), who developed these measures despite the great opposition from automobile lobbyists and other sectors.

Carlosfelipe Pardo,
Coordinador de Proyecto-
GTZ – Sustainable Urban Transport Project,
Bogotá, Colombia

Contribution by the author to the world wide collaborative project “Messages for America: World-wide experience, ideas, counsel, proposals and good wishes for the incoming Obama transportation team”. See for latest version of this report of the New Mobility Agenda.