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Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

3.69  ·  Rating Details ·  5,799 Ratings  ·  992 Reviews
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)
Hardcover, 402 pages
Published July 29th 2008 by Knopf
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I really wanted to like this book. I have long held a fascination with traffic -- probably because of all hours I've spent stuck in it wondering why it behaves the way it does. I remember having weird traffic discussions with co-workers about traffic like: pretend you left the office to go home at 5:00 and it took you 1 hour to arrive in your driveway. Leaving at 5:30 on the other hand, because of the lighter traffic, you would roll into your driveway in only half an hour. If you and your housem ...more
May 02, 2008 Michael rated it it was amazing
Vanderbilt gets 5 stars for scaring the hell out of me every time I sit in the driver's seat. TRAFFIC is a compelling, curious read that makes you feel like you shouldn't be sitting in a car, much less driving one. You'll learn that there's such a thing as a "traffic archeologist," find out what was killing all the pedestrians in New York before cars, learn about the illusions that plague you as a driver, and hopefully a few things that will change your driving style. Most importantly, you'll le ...more
Mar 09, 2009 Ken rated it really liked it

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.

Nicholas Karpuk
Oct 29, 2008 Nicholas Karpuk rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Sociology Buffs, Aggressive Drivers
Recommended to Nicholas by: Boing Boing
You suck at driving.

That's the message I walked away from with this book. And it was a message that made me sit up and pay attention. Non-fiction is something I read sparingly. Something about long spans of data makes my mind drift off, so I'll realize I've read an entire page without actually absorbing anything. The fact that this book hooked me was rather surprising. A big part of it is the fact that Vanderbilt keeps the topics so pertinent to the nature of how we actually drive. It's an entir
Aug 31, 2009 Jason rated it really liked it
Tom Vanderbilt has written an original, enlightening, and--considering the current political and financial maelstrom around automakers--a timely study of human driving characteristics and the universal factors influencing vehicle operation. The book is 286 pages with a remarkable addition of 100 pages of notes. There isn't a page in the book without a reference, a majority coming from national government studies and automobile industry safety reports. Overall, the content is highly-researched, i ...more
Aug 14, 2014 Nathaniel rated it it was ok
I had high hopes for this book after it sat unpurchased on my Amazon wishlist for three years...and once I finally got around to buying it, boy was I disappointed. To start with, Vanderbilt is the worst kind of modern nonfiction writer: the know-nothing cherrypicker who did some research on the internet and thinks he's an expert now, despite a total lack of objectivity which comes through on every page of his text. Vanderbilt smugly grabs research - any research - to justify his own pre-existing ...more
Sep 12, 2008 MRM rated it really liked it
Recommended to MRM by: BPL "What to Read"
Well-written and entertaining look at the psychology of drivers (i.e. most of us). I would have preferred more about urban streets and cyclists (as I am a bike commuter), especially since Vanderbilt lives in my own borough of Brooklyn. But of course Traffic is wide-ranging, as it should be -- always good to learn about what's happening in other countries, particularly China and India.

The most depressing chapters for me were in the first part of the book, when Vanderbilt describes the various una
Jan 26, 2010 Matt rated it liked it
I read mostly nonfiction and tend to have a taste for the abstruse, so I was surprised to find myself getting annoyed at the length of this book. Upon further reflection, I realize that this feeling results from my perception that the author provides a lot of details and cites a lot of studies but does not shape them into an interpretive paradigm or offer cogent conclusions. Thus it's just a mass of details--though often very interesting details!

A couple of salient points, for me, are the ideas
Derek Wolfgram
Nov 29, 2010 Derek Wolfgram rated it it was ok
I expected to enjoy Traffic quite a bit - as a person with a psychology degree who loves to drive, I really looked forward to some interesting insights into human behavior behind the wheel. However, I only read about 60 pages into the book before I put it down.

One element I disliked was the narrative voice. Much of the book is written in the first person plural, and many of the sentence structures are awkward. To wit: "So whether we're cocky, compensating for feeling fearful, or just plain clue
Feb 25, 2015 Jeff rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anybody who drives or is driven
Recommended to Jeff by: Powells bookstore newsletter!
This is the perfect example of 4.5 stars for me. I don't want to say it was AMAZING but it was significantly better than "really liked it." The writing's not especially wonderful, but the information is great. It's my kind of topic. It's delivered in a non-preachy tone though the author's "bias" is apparent at times. It's not trying to be too clever (as i usually feel when reading Oliver Sacks or David Sedaris) nor is it afraid of being interesting (as seems to be the case with most Important Bi ...more
Elizabeth K.
Aug 20, 2013 Elizabeth K. rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Elizabeth by: Article by the author about trucking in Nautilus
Shelves: 2013-new-reads
Holy cow, this book was awesome. Pop science in which the author puts together a lot of studies about how driving actually works (like the physics and technology of how cars move) and ways this gets translated by people driving cars. It was the kind of book where every single paragraph contained at least one amazing fact. Like so amazing that everyone I know is really lucky that I wasn't calling you at 2 AM on a Wednesday to tell you that up to 20% of the earth's surface can be covered in insect ...more
Bill Keefe
Aug 05, 2010 Bill Keefe rated it did not like it
Confession: I couldn't take more than three chapters.

Tom Vanderbilt should sue his editor. Mr. Vanderbilt obviously has voluminous knowledge on this subject but this is an endless ramble of facts, studies, insights and observations that not once; really, not one single time; is boiled up to a conclusion, an important trend or even a clear summary.

Believe me; I was eager to read this book. I drive ALL THE TIME and am very interested in why and how we perceive things on the road and what motivates
Roger Pharr
Oct 01, 2008 Roger Pharr rated it it was amazing
I've complained in the past about how some full length books could have been accomplished in a single chapter. Some have one big idea that's introduced in the first chapter and then nothing. This is a great example of a book that used every page well. There was so much content that I had to stop reading at every chapter or section of the chapter to process what I had read.

But I may be a little biased toward liking anything about driving. I've always been a fan of the complexity in the subject, m
Dec 30, 2008 Gwen rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I actually listened to the audiobook in the car, which made "reading" this quite ironic. Half of the time, I was in the process of doing exactly what the author was talking about. Overall, I found this book pretty fascinating -- the statistics and logic surrounding safety and danger in the car and on the road seemed so backward (like how freeways and open roadways that appear safe are actually more dangerous than busy city streets with lots of action) -- until they were explained. One of the mos ...more
Elaine Nelson
An exploration of the psychology of traffic, mostly in the US, but with some travels abroad (particularly to the UK, the Netherlands, India and China). Amazing stuff. Basically, unless you're a brain surgeon, driving is the most mentally complex thing you will ever do. And of course most of the issues that make traffic so insane are psychological. We're just not designed to go that fast. Also, lots of little nuggets of wisdom to save for future conversations. I hope our governor and state/local ...more
Sep 11, 2016 Dan rated it it was ok
Interesting subject matter, but this book provides nothing new. The author isn't very curious/knowledgable, and ignores a lot of the traffic adjacent topics. I can't imagine that there's any audience that I would recommend this book to.
Jun 12, 2010 rivka rated it really liked it
Recommended to rivka by: Bobscopatz
Shelves: non-fiction
Highly recommended by a friend who works in traffic statistics and research.

While at times somewhat dry, mostly presented very well, with amusing asides and oft-frightening realizations. A book every driver should read!
Sep 05, 2014 Kay rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The insights in this book have much broader societal implications than how we behave on the road -- or perhaps how we behave on the road merely reflects our species' failings?

"We have met the enemy and he is us," Walt Kelly once famously penned, but on the road, it seems we fancy ourselves much better drivers than all those people we wish would go away -- the tailgaters or those who leave too much space between cars; the lane-changers or those who stubbornly sit in one lane; those who merge too
Sep 12, 2016 Brooks rated it really liked it
Vanderbilt, Tom, Traffic, Why we drive the way we do, Knopf, New York, 2008
This book discusses some of the fallacies, research, and physiology of driving and road planning. Some of the ideas:
- Much of the problem with road design is not the concrete or the cars – it is the people
- Merging – Late merger is more effective for throughput. Use both lanes and then zipper merge. Helps the whole system and you individually. Even if it seems unfair.
- Differential speed limits – i.e. h trucks are given a
Jun 12, 2014 Jill rated it really liked it
Shelves: self, psych-misc
This book is really 4.5*. There is so much food for thought in this read. It is packed with really fascinating and simultaneously useful information. Vanderbilt really covers all the complex factors in traffic, and it blew my mind how many there were. Add to that correlations with hundreds of things you'd never stop to think had a relationship at all - a country's GDP, a country's corruption rating, etc. I learned more information in this single read than I have learned from a book in a long whi ...more
Pixie Dust
Aug 28, 2013 Pixie Dust rated it liked it
A quirky book, humorously written, with lots of anecdotes that drivers will identify with. The book was also filled with impressive research on the traffic situations in different countries, and how various rules implemented worked or did not.

Reading the book, I arrived at the depressing conclusion that traffic jams will never – seriously, never – go away, no matter how many lane-widening projects the government undertakes, or new expressways are built. Every new lane/road will just encourage mo
Jeff Kelleher
Feb 01, 2013 Jeff Kelleher rated it really liked it
Your are rolling along in the left lane when "Lane Closed Ahead" appears. Do you merge early or late? The socially-optimal strategy is to merge late, at or near the actual end of the lane. By doing so, you exploit now-scarce lane space that otherwise might be under-used. Everyone benefits (notwithstanding the self-righteous irritation of the drivers you pass). The same doesn't apply to the line at an offramp, though. Late cutters-in are not conserving lane space, but merely cheating.

Scores of si
Sep 20, 2010 Viola rated it liked it
Let me start by saying that I find traffic quite interesting. I think of traffic as a social engineering problem that combines some elements of economics (you have self-interested individuals acting non-cooperatively) and some elements of mathematical physics (I know nothing about that). Given my casual interest on the topic, I was excited to read this book, but in the end, I was sorely disappointed.

The book as a whole has no coherent theme, no overall message, no driving purpose. It is a collec
Aaron Arnold
Oct 19, 2012 Aaron Arnold rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, read-in-2012
Traffic as a phenomenon is full of irritating paradoxes. Driving faster can mean everyone drives slower. Building roads to relieve congestion creates even more congestion. Redesigning roads to make them safer can cause more accidents. Putting up more warning signs means fewer of them get read. Trying to keep pedestrians protected from cars makes them less safe. Tailgating the car in front of you in a traffic jam does nothing to let you escape it. Traffic the book is an excellent in-depth study o ...more
Edwin Arnaudin
Dec 16, 2008 Edwin Arnaudin rated it it was ok
An excellent concept, but unfortunately one that Vanderbilt is never sure how to handle. I was instantly drawn to the book because I find the psychology of driving fascinating and want to know if the way I behave behind the wheel (which likely exhibits multiple behavioral disorders) has deeper ripples in my life and society in general than I'd imagined.

Looks like I'll have to do my own research. While Vanderbilt somewhat succeeds at relaying the history of traffic and how certain esoteric drivin
Warren Benton
Jun 30, 2016 Warren Benton rated it really liked it

Are you an early merger or late merger? Do you text and drive? Do you think you are a better driver than most (I know I certainly do)? This book takes you through many intersections of traffic , safety, and human reasoning. The majority of accidents happen at intersections. also more accidents happen when people try to stop for a light, but more fatalities happen when lights are fun.We get an insight into LA traffic controls on Oscar night. Also, how one traffic controller takes to th
May 18, 2011 Mero rated it liked it
Shelves: science
The interesting:
* The white dotted divider lines on freeway lanes are 10-15 feet in length. They look shorter because of an optical illusion caused by the speed of the car.
* We judge speed by the rate at which objects appear to increase in size and the distance at which we can make judgements about speed becomes shorter and shorter as speeds increase.
* The more dangerous a road *feels* the more safe it is in almost every instance.
* "risk homeostasis" - after making any aspect of driving safer, d
Sep 12, 2008 Joyce rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Jim, Julie
Shelves: pyschology
A fantastic read -- well written and full of fascinating and thought-provoking relevations about the pyschology of driving, traffic engineering, traffic safety, etc.

His first mission is to convince you to become a 'late merger', even if your spouse cringes as you fly along in the left lane passing all the other chumps obediently taking their turn at a lane drop. 'Late merging' increases the traffic throughtput by as much as 15% because it uses the full volume of the roadway. So indulge your Type
Aug 25, 2009 Joanna rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
People are fascinating. This tightly written treatise on Traffic is all about boiling us down to a statistical conformity, but the author delights in the myriad individual choices that make up the traffic stream and the idiosyncratic ways that we are all different, and yet all the same. It is crammed full of statistics and studies and there is a hefty "Notes" section that I emphatically did not read, but it flows merrily along despite all that. I was "done" perhaps 15 pages before I hit the note ...more
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Tom Vanderbilt writes on design, technology, science, and culture, among other subjects, for many publications, including Wired, Outside, The London Review of Books, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Wilson Quarterly, Artforum, The Wilson Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Cabinet, Metropolis, and Popular Science. He is contributing editor to ...more
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“The way humans hunt for parking and the way animals hunt for food are not as different as you might think.” 12 likes
“Human attention, in the best of circumstances, is a fluid but fragile entity. Beyond a certain threshold, the more that is asked of it, the less well it performs. When this happens in a psychological experiment, it is interesting. When it happens in traffic, it can be fatal.” 7 likes
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