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

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt
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's review
Oct 25, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 2010, audiobook-d

If you're a nerd about traffic, commuting, city planning, highways, America's automobile obsession, cities improving life for pedestrians and bicycles or just the psychology of driving, this book is your jam. I really wish that I had read this several years ago when my friend Frank was teaching robots to make Pittsburgh lefts. I might have been a better conversationalist at the time. Regardless, this book has plenty of statistics, facts and figures and it is hard to absorb everything in audiobook form, but it is fascinating to me to learn about how we human animals move at speeds we are not evolutionarily designed to move at, in agreed patterns that do not always fulfill our psychological drives. I thought it was really interesting that most people prefer a commute that is less than (in minutes) the amount of time it takes us to travel 5 km by foot. This means that humans can comfortably roam over about 2.5 km (as far as you can walk there and back in a day). And this distance corresponds to the size of most pre-automotive city centers. I like this kind of stuff, but I'm probably not explaining it well. Allow me to cite. From The Evolution of Transportation:

A person traveling by foot covers about 5 km
in an hour. With a 1-hour travel budget to go and return
home, a pedestrian’s territory would have a radius of 2.5
km and, thus, an area of about 20 km2. We can define
this area as the territorial cell of the individual on foot.
Topographic maps until about 1800 (and for much of the
world today) showed territory that is tiled with cells of
about 20 km2, often with a village at the center.

When a village flourishes and becomes a city, the 20-
km2 territorial cell fills with people. However, its borders
are not breached. Numerous examples of belts or walls of
ancient cities show that they never exceeded 5 km in
diameter. Even imperial Rome was 20 km2. Vienna started
with a small medieval wall, its Ring. Around 1700, after its
victory against the Turks, Vienna built a second belt, the
Guertel, which had a diameter of 5 km. Pedestrian Venice
is elliptical, with a maximum diameter of about 5 km.
Ancient Beijing measured 5 × 10 km and thus seems to
break the rule. However, close observation shows that Bei-
jing was a double star—two adjacent cities, one Chinese
and the other Mongol, separated by a wall with gates.

I also liked the parts about how the more cars we have, the more we drive. More than 2 people in cars can drive more than 2 people who share 1 car, but that literally a family that owns 2 cars uses their cars proportionally more than a family with 1 car (probably bc cars become de rigueur in the lifestyle, more convenient/normalized). And the stuff about women moving into the workforce and the correlation between women drivers becoming both the biggest cause and sufferers of traffic.... AND if you add a lane to a highway it doesn't relieve congestion, and HOV lanes encourage people with families to drive more, not people who carpool to carpool more. Men are worse drivers, alcohol and testosterone are dangerous. Merge at the merge point, not at the sign that tells you to merge! And the traffic of Los Angeles is kind of a major character in this book, but other places are here too - Manhattan, Pennsylvania, I'm forgetting so many other places. The stuff about traffic engineers that coordinate green lights to get the celebrities to the Grammys on time - you guys, that is the stuff that city planning nerds have DREAMS about.

There is really just so much good stuff in this book, I could probably read it again get more out of it. If you are remotely interested in how city planning, traffic and transport work, this is a completely accessible, engrossing and interesting read. If you're not, however, this will bore you senseless.

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