Viola's Reviews > Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt
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Sep 20, 2010

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Read in September, 2009

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 collection of interesting facts and thoughts about traffic, but with no central theme to tie everything together. I think that the sub-chapters of the book would work well individually as short articles for a magazine, an online news site, or a blog. The sub-chapters do contain interesting tidbits of information and insight. Individually, they are not bad. Collectively, they do not work. After I finished the book, I walked away from it wondering what I really learned. Unfortunately, not much.

Despite the fact that the book may have been well-researched (one-fourth of the book is endnotes), the research is not necessarily presented in a way that makes for a compelling argument or convincing message. Many thoughts were superficial and underdeveloped. The book is full of curiosity-inducing hooks with lackluster answers. For example, "Why women cause more congestion than men" is a very intriguing chapter title. Yet the answer falls flat. It is because more women have entered the workforce in the past 40 years, so they have added to the volume of cars on the streets.

Additionally, the author's arguments are often incomplete and the logic is not well-thought out. For instance, in Chapter 7, he argues in favor of getting rid of traffic signs. To make his point, the author cites the traffic engineer Hans Monderman who eliminated street signs in a Dutch village called Oudehaske. The idea is that drivers would drive slower and more safely without any street signs because cyclists and pedestrians also shared the road. Drivers would be more cautious as they are brought into a "social world" and taken out of the "traffic world." The drivers would be more aware of themselves interacting with other people rather than feeling socially disconnected within their cars. However, in the very next chapter, the author criticized the lack of street signs in New Delhi, India. He cites an illegible, handwritten "No U-Turn" sign in place of a standard street sign as an example of one of the traffic problems in New Delhi. Wouldn't New Delhi be the perfect example of a place of a "social world"? All the numerous modes of transportation are mixed into one space. Why doesn't the theory of no street signs work in New Delhi? The logic and arguments from Chapter 7 does not follow into Chapter 8, and the author does not elaborate to reconcile the differences.

Overall, I can't recommend this book. Bits and pieces of it aren't bad, but as a whole, it simply doesn't hold together.
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