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

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt
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Oct 19, 12

bookshelves: read-in-2012, science
Read in October, 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 on driving and its effects on society that manages to both confirm a lot of my own driving prejudices and offer a lot of good insights into traffic congestion and a host of other related subjects. Vanderbilt talks about the history of traffic jams going back to the Romans and how modern technology is trying to stay one step ahead of the monster jams that modern technology helps create in the first place. Very readable and full of fun info. Quick takeaways, some of which should be obvious yet somehow aren't for a lot of people:
- Don't tailgate, it's really unsafe and often causes people to actually slow down
- Driving and texting/eating/anything in the car makes you way more likely to get into a wreck
- In a traffic jam, drive a slow but consistent speed instead of stopping and going; you won't get out of the jam any more quickly but you will both save on gas and help out the people behind you
- Late merging is the way to go, as it maximizes the use of space; don't get pissed off at people who zoom ahead of you, you didn't "own" a place in line
- Support toll roads/congestion pricing/higher street parking fees; recognizing that the precious resources of road and parking space aren't free will help everyone in the long run even if it hurts your wallet up front
- Stop thinking of roads as car transport devices only, there are lots of other types of transportation like bikes and pedestrians that have just as much of a right to be there as cars
- Suburban sprawl is ruining cities and in very real ways making us poorer as a nation, encourage any and every policy to spur density and alternatives to driving you see

If you're like me, you hate driving and try to do as little of it as possible, yet you still find the subject very interesting. Vanderbilt goes through a great tour of the many ways in which the rise of mega-commuting has warped our culture (e.g. we spend so much time in our cars that radio stations time their broadcasts to give you "driveway moments" that get you to stay in your car even after your trip has ended to hear the end of the segment) and the superhuman efforts of traffic engineers to shave even seconds off our journeys. Highly recommended.
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