Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us)
© 2008 Tom Vanderbilt
402 pages

 Take a brain adapted to move a bit over a hundred pounds of flesh at speeds under 20 miles per hour, and have it instead try to move several tons of metal through an environment which didn’t exist a hundred years ago, at speeds hitherto unimaginable. What happens? Well, we’ve only had a few decades to see, but so far the introduction of cars as the predominant form of transport has produced interesting results, like congestion and road rage. In Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do,  Tom Vanderbilt examines the psychology of driving, and learns some lessons about being human on the way.

Traffic is a dense book, more a survey than a piece with a specific point to make. There are nine chapters, each with a general theme -- "How Traffic Messes With Our Heads", "Why You're Not as Good a Driver As You Think You Are" -- and content spans the gamut from trivial to potent. Driving is such an expressly different experience than our brains evolved to take in that Vanderbilt believes  we find it difficult to be 'human' behind the wheel. Although driving seems like simply an act of moving around, we're detached from the experience and from each other; drivers can't communicate with one another beyond some simplistic forms of expression (the horn and the finger).  It's also a tremendously complicated procedure: road systems are complex physical objects even without factoring in interacting with hundreds of other drivers, and we are expected to be able to respond to more stimuli per minute than nature would have ever expected to throw our way. On the potent side, this work could help concerned citizens create more sensible transit policies:  there's an entire chapter on how the expansion of roads simply leads to the expansion of congestion. Traffic always swells to match the volume of roads available, so building more roads will only create more congestion. Creating a safer system can happen by making it appear more dangerous, by removing traffic lights, signs, and even road striping.  Humans seem to operate with a particular risk threshold, and when the environment becomes "safer" (thanks to lights, stripes, and so on), we drive more recklessly. This is why roundabouts are safer than four-way cross intersections regulated by traffic lights; when people are forced to take responsibility for themselves and use intelligence to navigate their environment, they pay more attention and accidents fall dramatically.  Counter-intuitive revelations abound in Traffic: bikers may be better off not wearing helmets, because cars take less care when passing a helmeted biker. Often we can arrive at a destination more quickly by slowing down and interrupting globs of congestion.

All told, an interesting book. While it may suffer from the generalized subject, there are some gems in here for  those interested in the subject.

Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay

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