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

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt
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Mar 09, 09

Read in March, 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.

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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Daniel (new)

Daniel The reviews I read when "Traffic" came out made it sound fantastic, but despite the fact that I live in Los Angeles -- or maybe because I live in Los Angeles -- I can't bring myself to read an entire book about traffic. After you're done reading it, can you just summarize the good parts for me?


message 2: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Excellent review, Ken. So should I, too, be waiting until the last moment to merge left when I'm in a freeway lane that's ending? What was Vanderbilt's justification?


message 3: by Manny (new)

Manny Sounds like a very interesting book on a subject that people haven't written enough about. And a nice review! Thanks.


message 4: by Ken (last edited Mar 10, 2009 12:03PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ken Daniel, according to a study that Vanderbilt cites, merging at the endpoint results in a smoother, steadier stream of traffic. Even though moving over early feels faster to the individual driver, it actually can, when it's done by many drivers, cause much more of a stop-and-go pattern to develop. (I'm saying this from memory as I no longer have the book in front of me.) It's part of a more general theme in the book, that what may seem fair, or what may seem beneficial to the individual driver, adds up to something worse for everyone. Shades of game theory with a new application!


message 5: by Daniel (last edited Mar 10, 2009 03:17PM) (new)

Daniel Thanks, Ken. Now I have justification for being, at least in other drivers' eyes, a complete jackass. Hey, now that I think about it, wouldn't traffic run even smoother if I were never to merge at all, and rather drive on the shoulder when the freeway lanes are too congested? I'm kidding, of course. Maybe.


message 6: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Hey, now that I think about it, wouldn't traffic run even smoother if I were never to merge at all, and rather drive on the shoulder when the freeway lanes are too congested?

Yes, it would.





: )


message 7: by Chris (new)

Chris You guys have realized by now I'm sure that you had gotten that completely backward, right? I'm thinking you were just joking with each other and I'm slow on the uptake.


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