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

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt
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's review
Nov 20, 2008

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bookshelves: general-nonfiction, psychology-and-sociology
Read in October, 2008

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 housemate left at these times is it possible that you'd arrive at home at the same instant, despite having left work a half hour apart. Yes, a clinically strange thing to talk about on coffee break but, like I said, traffic fascinates me.

When I saw this book, and especially when I started to read it, I thought I was in Heaven. A book that spoke to this bizarre side of me that I never knew was shared by anyone else. As I made my way through the book a lot of that hope and promise vanished however.

Aside from the fact that about a third of the book is taken up with acknowledgments and references (seriously!) I never really felt that it used all that research all that effectively. The conclusions that were drawn never really clicked with me. For example, the author goes on at length about why it's a good idea to be a "late merger" on the highway when there's an upcoming lane drop. He prattles on about late mergers just being economical about the road -- using as much as there is instead of choking up another lane by merging early. I never really understood that and the argument fell short of being convincing. Another example was that the courtesy wave -- letting someone pass, turn ahead of you, or merge into the lane -- was some evolutionary carryover from caveman days that has roots in being nice to people for reasons of not wanting to be wonked over the head with a club. In other words, it's an instinct that bears no relevance in today's world but is merely an echo of a time and has no bearing on present situations like, you know, just being nice or something. These are merely two examples in pretty long line of unconvincing and poorly supported conclusions.

By the end my worst fears about the book were realized when I had to admit that it was really not much more than an extended magazine article. Like the immortal Ambrose Bierce said: "The covers of this book are too far apart".
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10/12 page 176
06/23 marked as: read

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message 1: by Barbara (new)

Barbara One thing I really appreciate about living where I do now (a more rural area) is that I don't have a long commute from county to county that takes 60-90 minutes one way. I think the worst commute I remember was when I got stuck on the Sepulveda Pass heading north from Westwood California on a hot day in a car with no A/C. I was stuck for 45 minutes -- the time it took to go about a mile. So the first ten miles of what was usually an hour commute took 45 minutes. I guess that's why van pools were invented, but even they are dependent upon enough people going to the same place at the same time. Nobody else in my city that I knew of needed to make the commute I made. Somebody ought to compile a cartoon book one could read during the traffic jams -- one based on the commuting experience.

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