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

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt
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M_50x66
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Aug 14, 14

Read in November, 2011

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 view of how things are, only bothering to evaluate the studies he's read that HE doesn't personally agree with. Most of the data in this book is just that: data, and while some of the data are interesting, the key to writing a book like this is not just data but what you do with them. Vanderbilt clearly has no background in interpreting data (as so few people who write these kinds of books actually do nowadays - I blame America), so to him, a study from New Zealand is as valid as a study from New Jersey, despite vastly different methodologies, confidence intervals, and populations, and the two can be freely combined if it justifies a conclusion that HE has already drawn. For anyone who has actually taken a class in research methods, it's as lazy as it is amateurish.

Worse, however, is Vanderbilt's habit of pushing his own assumptions upon the reader in a way that is simply irritating. The more than occasional "you have done this while driving" or "you were/weren't thinking that while driving" is almost comically presumptuous and moves him from merely being a hack to being an offensive one - the best one, for me, was "you have encountered a traffic light that was stuck on red". Well, um, no, actually. I've been driving for 10 years, have lived in six states in three time zones, including three major metropolitan areas and two minor ones. I've driven in 30 other states in addition to those and stopped at many, MANY traffic lights. None was EVER stuck on red. This is what makes Vanderbilt's book so disappointing - his failure to take the vastly, vastly different regional experiences of drivers into consideration as anything other than a justification for his own stereotyped New York worldview.

Someday someone will write a great book about traffic in the United States that takes regional identity into consideration. Unfortunately, this is not it.
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