on March 9, 2009
I live in Los Angeles, and my daily commute subjects me to this city's infamous traffic. So why in the world would I want to read a book about traffic? After all, I live it every day. Well, whether you live in a crowded city or a small town off the interstate, Traffic turns out to be an interesting, worthwhile look at humans and their machines, what happens on the road, and why.
Traffic hooked me right off the bat with its provocative starting point: you're on the freeway in the right hand lane. A sign indicates that the lane is ending and you should merge left. Do you merge at the first safe opportunity and get mad at the drivers who keep zooming past on the right until the last possible merge point? Or are you one of the drivers who waits until that endpoint, where you have to stop and wait for your turn to merge? Tom Vanderbilt used to be an early merger, but then he changed his ways. Once you read the facts behind his decision, maybe you'll change your ways too.
Vanderbilt explores this and other conventional wisdom of the road. He also looks at traffic from an engineering point of view. For instance, how much good do all those speed limit, caution and warning signs actually do? What would happen in a busy, urban environment if we just took those signs away and let people figure things out for themselves? (It's been tried and the results surprised me.) Have we collectively done the right thing by widening our roads, adding bike lanes, crosswalks and protected turn arrows?
By the time I reached the end of this book, I had plenty of food for thought. It's quite possible that all the traffic planning and road engineering in our major cities has been misguided in some major ways, resulting in the disruption of neighborhoods and increased danger to driver and pedestrian alike. How do we make traffic flow more quickly on our crowded roads - or is "faster" the wrong goal in the first place?
Although Traffic may leave the reader with more questions than answers, fascinating studies and tidbits are scattered throughout the book, and Vanderbilt writes in an easygoing, humorous style. If he occasionally dwells too long on a particular point (I found some of his writing about safety a little plodding), he can be forgiven this minor sin in a book otherwise packed with information that speaks to our everyday lives.
One final note: although it was not the author's intent, reading Traffic actually had an impact on the way I drive. I had become an angry driver, and after reading this book, I find myself much more philosophical behind the wheel, and I've cut way back on the pointless aggression. I will try and make that a lasting change.
on September 8, 2008
While the topic of the book is nominally "traffic", the real topic is about human psychology and how it deals with the situations involving traffic. The material is chock full of "things that make you go, 'hmm.'"
In spite of being intriguing, the information the author conveys is rarely useful information. The reader will likely be left unmoved by the author's reasoned advocacy of late merging, for instance. Similarly, the style of writing feels like that of a news or talk show, where the announcer/host will "tease" an interesting bit of info, run a commercial, discuss things about which you don't care, run another commercial, and then, in the last 2 minutes of air time, give you the anticlimactic answer to the story headline you found interesting enough to make you sit and watch.
Unfortunately, most of the book is like this, and the cool things that the author has to say are just that. Cool, but not quite meriting a book. Of the book's 400 pages, nearly 100 are end notes. I am happy that the author's work is well-sourced (books of this genre often lack sources, preferring to rely on anecdotes), but it conveys how the author had to work fairly hard to turn a very large set of disjointed facts into any sort of readable narrative.
In this regard, the author's narrative is interesting and readable. It definitely made me keep reading the whole way through. At the end, however, I felt kind of empty and unenlightened, so I had to sit back and figure out why.
The reason appears to be because it's like a long magazine article: interesting, longer than a newspaper story, full of interesting insights, but in the end, it's light fare. In spite of the author's thorough research, we really don't know much about traffic in a scientific context, and even the scientists are forced to speculate anecdotally about why certain statistical artifacts are true.
Of the author's many nuggets of info, I found a couple to be very interesting. Making roads safer appears to increase the accident rate, for example. There's really nothing backing up this observation other than statistics, so anything we might derive is of questionable value, but ... it appears that when a road feels safer, drivers are encouraged to drive more hazardously - because, well, it's safer to do so. I'll leave it to the reader to speculate what this implies in other areas of life (or to read the book and read the author's speculations). Another nugget is along the same lines: adding more road signs and traffic controls to alert drivers (e.g., to alert drivers of pedestrians and bicycles, giving bicycles their own lane, putting up rails to allow pedestrians to only cross at intersections) isn't nearly as effective as simply letting cars drive on roads in which there are obviously several hazards. A dead deer carcass on the side of the road appears to encourage far more safety than a deer crossing sign. Again, I'll let the reader ponder that rather than waste time with my own unsubstantiated insights.
There are a few places where the author says/advocates things with which I expressly disagree, though I understand his motivations and reasoning for saying them. The primary item of this sort is that he explicitly says, discussing the risk due to terrorism vs. the risk due to driving, "Ironically, the normal business of life that we are so dedicated to preserving is actually more dangerous to the average person than the threats against it."
This seems a simple, straightforward statement: 40,000 lives lost due to traffic each year, but only about 5000 killed by terrorism (total, not per year, since 1960). On the one hand, I agree with this as a sentiment, because we definitely overestimate risk in spectacular cases, while ignoring risk in mundane cases. I don't, however, agree with the statement outside of that specific context: while it's easy to point out the large number of traffic deaths, that ignores the massive public benefit of being able to drive anywhere, anytime. Terrorism, on the other hand, doesn't have any accompanying net benefit.
In summary, I like this book, and it is an interesting book, but it should not be regarded as science so much as an accumulation of well-sourced statistics, interesting anecdotes, and a thoughtful discussion of an activity in which nearly all of us participate every day.
on January 19, 2010
I have been accused of being an aggressive and unsafe driver, much to my chagrin. I know I am aggressive, but unsafe? That I take exception to. It is true however that your own perception of how you drive is much out of whack with your passenger's perspective. Traffic - Why We Drive The Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt seeks to explore this most mundane of everyday activities. Driving and Traffic are technically separate but closely related subjects and Mr. Vanderbilt provides a fascinating discussion of both.
Traffic begins with Mr. Vanderbilt's admission of being a 'late-merger', someone who waits till the last moment before exiting a closed lane and merging into a parallel one. There are some drivers who choose to merge early, as soon as they see a sign indicating their lane is closed ahead (or is exit only etc.), others wait right up to the last second and then indiginantly try to merge into the freer flowing traffic of the next lane. The first few chapters of the book focus on driving, taking into account factors like cognition, culture, human psychology (and psyche), self perception of who you are and who you want to be, reflex times and the meaning of gestures and signals. Chapter Five is provocatively titled 'Why Women Cause More Congestion Than Men (and Other Secrets of Traffic)' - but don't get offended yet, the author goes on to explain why that is so. Women continue to handle a lot of 'non-work' trips, taking kids to school and soccer practice for example. Women also tend to be engaged in what Vanderbilt calls "serve-passenger" trips, where they are taking passengers to places they don't have to be themselves and they tend to make several stops thus 'chaining' multiple trips. Women also tend to leave later for work than men and therefore drive right into already congested freeways. Hence, 'women cause more congestion than men'.
About half way through the book Vanderbilt shifts gears (I couldn't resist that pun) and focuses on traffic engineering and management. Chaper Six talks about the confounding observation that as more roads are built, traffic only seems to get worse. The author explores the idea and travels around the US talking to traffic engineers and looks into the externalities of America's obsession with driving. Chapter Seven was my favorite, presenting the most interesting ideas in the book. The author talks approvingly of the work of Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman who supposedly hated traffic signs. The author argues, by citing examples and urging the reader to analyze his own experiences, that roads deemed to be unsafe tend have a lesser proportion of fatal crashes precisely because drivers are a lot more careful when using them. A smooth flowing freeway tends to induce boredom and distraction, and distraction at 70mph can be fatal. Chapter Eight is a quick romp through two of the worlds' most congested cities Delhi and Beijing. Both culture and corruption seem to affect accident rates and fatalities on the roads of these dense and, for a western driver, terrifying cities.
Traffic could easily have been a work of pop psychology, filled with platitudinal wisdom. The appeal of the book is that it resists that temptation. This is a well researched book with a 110 pages of notes to satisfy the obsessive reader. The writing itself is engaging and enjoyable. Highly recommended.
on June 15, 2015
This is a fascinating book! Much more interesting than I had originally anticipated, I was riveted! I've since re-read it, still a lot to absorb. And now, if only we could make all the worst drivers read this book...
Driving, at least in America, is an activity that is oddly personal. Our cars, the way we drive, how we handle bad traffic, are so much a part of ourselves, that we bristle, or worse, when someone criticizes our choice of car, the way we drive, or our behavior in traffic.
When I read several (professional) reviews of Traffic, it was hard to believe that they were all about the same book. The reviews seemed to reflect the personalities, the insecurities, the preferences of the reviewers. I was learning more about the reviewers than about the book. Then when I'd read the book, I found that the parts that stuck with me had not been mentioned in any of the reviews I'd seen.
For instance, I was fascinated to read about "Sabbath Timing" of traffic lights at some 75 Los Angeles intersections. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday every week, and on certain holidays, they are programmed to flash the walk signal every signal rotation, whether anyone presses the button or not. This is so the orthodox Jews in those neighborhoods cross the streets without pressing the button, which would be against the rule not to use any machines. The city planners considered an alternate solution that would use sensors to detect if a pedestrian was waiting to cross the street, but consultations with local rabbis determined that that would not be in keeping with the restriction.
Another tidbit: all drivers believe they are better than average. Not surprising actually, but still interesting.
A factoid that applies to more than just traffic: most people prefer one long line rather than many short lines, such as that at Wendy's vs. the lines at McDonald's, even if the wait is longer with the long line. We like the "social justice" of the single line, in which no one can pick the "right" line and be served ahead of those who waited longer in the slower lines.
Traffic is a thoroughly-researched book with lots of data and over a hundred pages of end notes and index. Vanderbilt knows his traffic. But so do we. So here are my own observations about traffic.
I spent many years commuting to work in the Bay Area, a 140-mile round trip, on several different shifts, and including right after the Loma Prieta Earthquake, when the Bay Bridge, a critical portion of my commute, was being repaired after a large section fell into the Bay. In all the years spent commuting, the traffic did not strike me as being especially idiosyncratic. It was awful and I hated it, but it seemed no worse or better than most places.
Las Vegas, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. The drivers here have a real "double or nothing" mentality. I quickly learned to hurry through all yellow lights and to check the rear view mirror before stopping at red lights. The alternative was to be rear-ended.
Avoid the temptation (difficult in Las Vegas) to make quick starts when the light turns green. Wait for at least two more cars to go through the intersection and check to see if anyone else is going to run the red. Then go. Jaywalking is very common, and so are accidents resulting from jaywalking.
In spite of all this, I continue to be surprised that school zone speed limits are religiously observed. Even at the school zone on a main street that covers several blocks, the traffic slows to 15 mph and no one cheats. I never see any police cars skulking in the vicinity, so I can't explain this apparent anomaly. The substandard school system seems to rule out the possibility that Las Vegans care more about the welfare of their children than do other communities. It's just one of those local quirks, I guess.
The first time we went to Rome, I fell in love. With the traffic. It was wild, uncontrolled, anarchic, insane! After a few minutes, it seemed less so. In fact, it was beautiful. Everyone was moving in a synchronized way, ignoring signs, signals, crosswalks, but completely aware of the other cars and the pedestrians. Unlike in North America, the Romans did not come to a stop unless absolutely necessary, and then for as short a time as possible. We learned, as every visitor to Rome does, that pedestrians wait for a small break in the traffic, stride confidently into the street, making eye contact or appearing stylishly aloof, your choice, but moving at a constant pace across the street. Traffic will slow slightly, move around you, and you will be incorporated into the flow. You must do what is expected, no sudden moves, no stopping in the middle of the street.
Yes, most of the drivers are driving one-handed, telefonino in the other hand. But they are all aware of the traffic around them. Here, we stare straight ahead in our individual cocoons, passive-aggressively making the other guy go around us when we refuse to acknowledge his presence.
Traffic is the perfect book to listen to while in traffic.
on May 29, 2015
A very interesting book on a complex subject. Heard about it on "A way with Words" podcast and bought it. It has information I can use for a lifetime, plus I can drive my friends crazy with traffic trivia.
on November 9, 2015
As a scientist who has a 40-mile round-trip commute through the middle of the deep circle of traffic hell known as Los Angeles, I've often wondered about many things. For example, what's the most effective way for traffic to merge? How are the stoplights timed - if they're timed at all? What tactics are there to slow down drivers other than speed bumps? How many lanes *do* we have to add to the 405 before it becomes tolerable during rush hour?
This book answered all of those questions, and more. For anyone who's a scientist, engineer, or mathematician, or anyone who spends a lot of time driving, this book will make you see the roads and freeways completely differently. The only unanswered question I have left is about the correlation between the amount of money that a vehicle costs and the number of parking spaces that vehicle takes up when in a public parking lot...
on February 21, 2013
Tom Vanderbilt’s “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us)” is a layman’s book on a subject we all experience daily, but rarely think deeply about: traffic and driving. Vanderbilt explores the science behind traffic from a journalist’s viewpoint. Although this is a good effort, ultimately it fails to live up to its billing.
The book is typical for its type: the author traveled the country and the world to talk to experts, and wrote each chapter about one subject, using focusing on his interview with the experts. He traveled Los Angeles to discuss traffic management, India to see how chaotic traffic patterns still work, and the Netherlands to see how alternative traffic management works (especially in a society with heavy bicycle and pedestrian traffic).
The book is engaging and enlightening, as Vanderbilt explains (or at least discusses) the psychology of driving, lane merging, traffic flow, the efficiency of roundabouts, etc. He explores the new minimalist approach to traffic control, which fights back at over-engineered highways with too many signs and external controls. But while Vanderbilt’s discussions are often interesting and in-depth, at times he never really answers the question posed. For example, after spending a chapter discussing “late mergers” approaching construction zones, he states with finality that late merging is more efficient – based solely on the results of one study, without squaring those results with everything else he had discussed in that chapter. I found that somewhat unfulfilling.
Overall, this is a good book for anyone who has looked out at the traffic and wondered why a bottleneck forms with no apparent reason, or why perfectly normal people have a different personality behind the wheel. Unfortunately, it could have been much better – and I would give it 3 1/2 stars if I could.
on June 8, 2013
When I bought this book I was expecting more analysis of the psychology underlying, and possibly some suggested solutions to, the rampant and ubiquitous rudeness one encounters while driving in the United States. Plodding through chapter after chapter of dry scientific data on how safe or other driving behavior can often run counter to the expectations of signage and roadway design - mostly citing foreign examples - was not my idea of a useful book on traffic issues. Don't bother unless you are a statistics and data type.
I spend a lot of time driving, which doesn't make me a better driver but it does give me time to witness a lot of dumb things that people do while driving their cars; talking on cell phones, texting, reading the newspaper, applying makeup, shaving, and, one time, I actually saw a person using his laptop while driving. I am not without blame, I have been guilty of talking on the cell phone while driving. However, I credit Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do, by Tom Vanderbilt, of breaking me of that habit. You may think that you are a good driver, but this book will illustrate just how poorly each of us drive, as it examines not just traffic, but the sociology and psychology of driving. Who knows, you may become a better driver because of it.
Contents: Prologue; Why Does The Other Lane Always Seem Faster? How Traffic Messes with Our Heads; Why You're Not as Good a Driver as You Think You Are; How Our Eyes and Minds Betray Us on the Road; Why Ants Don't Get Into Traffic Jams (and Humans Do): On Cooperation as a Cure for Congestion; Why Women Cause More Congestion Than Men (and Other Secrets of Traffic); Why More Roads Lead to More Traffic (and What to Do About It); When Dangerous Roads are Safer; How Traffic Explains the World: On Driving With a Local Accent; Why You Shouldn't Drive With a Beer-Drinking Divorced Doctor Named Fred on Super Bowl Sunday in a Pickup Truck in Rural Montana: What's Risky on the Road and Why; Epilogue: Driving Lessons; Acknowledgements; Notes; Index
Exhaustively researched (over 100 pages of Notes) but written in a conversational, easy style, Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do is a fascinating look at something we probably take for granted but curse every day. Loaded with revelations, for example, you are not as good a driver as you think you are, it may not change the way that you drive but it will alter your perceptions of traffic. Vanderbilt doesn't focus solely on traffic, but also on how and where we park, illusions we encounter on the streets, and other interesting aspects of our life with cars. While focusing on American traffic, he also compares and contrasts it with European and Indian traffic norms. Unbeknownst to me prior to reading this book, Germans do not place bumper stickers or those oval "look where I've been" announcements (the most famous of those is OBX). He makes a point that if another driver honks their horn or displays some aggressive behavior toward you, it may actually be directed at your automobile's stickers.
The most important thing I took away from the book is that in a car, there is no feedback loop. You may think that you are a good driver, it's been a while since you had a speeding ticket or you haven't been in an accident, but without a third party, you really aren't aware that you are tailgating, you took a curve too fast, or you need to work on your braking distances. What you do know is that there are a lot of morons on the road. Until you have passengers who are not quiet when things appear wrong. Then, you lash out at them, when in reality they are giving you important feedback on your driving skills. Finally, while I abhor the legislators who want to ban cell phone use in cars, I have a much better understanding of the hazards of using a cell phone (with or without "hands free") while driving. I also appreciate Vanderbilt's comments on all technological options now found in most cars, like GPS. They all take your attention away from the road and your driving.
Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do may not make you a better driver, but it should raise your awareness and make you a more cooperative one.