Monthly Archives: January 2011

Book Notes: Traffic

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What That Says About Us)

By Tom Vanderbilt, 2008.

Traffic is an age-old problem: ever since humans have figured out ways to move beyond the facility of our two feet, we have encountered problems of congestion, traffic, movement, and organization. Advances in technology and new forms of mobility (horses and carts and bicycles and autos and cars, to buses and trains and airplanes) all create problems: problems of traffic.

Traffic is the result of movement. The desire to get someone - or something - from one place to another. The flows and lines that carry us to and from places are clogged when too many people or too many things try to use the same space at the same time.

At the heart of every traffic - and car - problem today lies a person. The central common denominator behind engineering, traffic, and parking issues lies the need to move people from Point A to Point B in a relatively efficient manner, without slowing down or impeding the thousands of other pathways also being carved out by other people following different trajectories.

My mobility questions - and my attempt to give up my car and use other forms of transportation, from my own two feet to city buses - led me to read a few more books (me, read books?) - including TrafficThe High Cost of Free Parking, and Sprawl: A Compact History (Full disclaimer: I am a complete nerd, although for those of you that read this blog, I no longer need to fess up to that disclaimer.)

Vanderbilt looks at the human and psychological implications of traffic and asks a series of thoughtful questions about people and our (notoriously bad) driving habits.  Beyond just understanding what traffic is and what to do about it (engineering), he asks questions about human behavior in relation to driving. Why do we drive the way that we do? Why are we bad at merging? When do rules make it harder to drive, not easier? What are some of out psychological failings that make us more dangerous on the road? And - most importantly - will humans ever stop driving?

(Image from Michele Henry)

I ask these questions, too, because I'm curious to know how difficult it will be to separate myself from my car, now that I've crossed the threshold into car ownership.  Vanderbilt suggests that figuring out new forms of fuel efficiency (and worrying about the implications of current fossil-fuel consumption) is the least of our problems:

"The reason I have avoided talking about the negative envrionmental consequences of the car is that I believe, as was once said, that it will be easier to remove the internal-combustion engine from the car than it will be to remove the driver."

People are wedded to their cars. Emotionally, psychologically, financially. We are literally tied to our cars and we fiercly do NOT want to give them up. (I am just one of many anecdotal case studies of this truth.)

Throughout the book, he highlights the psychological failings of humans that makes driving so dangerous:

"We all think we're better than the average driver. We think cars are the risk when on foot; we think pedestrians act dangerously when we're behind the wheel. We want safer cars so we can drive more dangerously. Driving, with its exhilarating speed and the boundless personal mobility it grants us, is strangely life-affirming but also, for most of us, the most deadly presence in our lives. We all want to be invidiuals on the road, but smooth-flowing traffic requires conformity. We want all the lights to be green, unless we are on the intersecting road, in which case we want those lights to be green. We want little traffic on our own street but a convenience ten-lane highway blaxing just nearby. We all wish the other person would not drive, so that our trip would be faster. What's best for us on the road is often not best for everyone, and vice versa."

And, he speaks to the difficulty of driving - and why it's so scary that we drive at all, given our psychological makeup and predisposition to tune out things that become habitual to us - making us even more dangerous on familiar roads and paths:

"[Driving] ...  is an incredibly complex and demanding task.We are navigating through a legal system, we are becoming social actors in a spontaneous setting, we are processing a bewildering amount of information, we are constantly making predictions and calculations and on-the-fly judgments of risk and reward, and we're engaging in a huge amount of sensory and cognitive activity - the full scope of which scientists are just beginning to understand."

And lastly, on how much time we spend driving:

"Considering that many of us spend more time in traffic than we do eating meals iwth our family, going on vacation, or having sex, it seems worth probing a bit deeper into the experience."

Why do we do it, then? Why do we drive, when the cost of car ownership spirals us into greater debt, when the risks of driving are our lives and our families (because automobile deaths are one of the top causes of death each year), and when being in traffic is one of the most psychologically taxing experiences, resulting in more unhappiness each year?

Why do we drive? Where is that we are going that's so important?

Driving can be seen as both a "symbol of freedom or as a symptom of sprawl."  Much like Mindless Eating is not a book about dieting (it's about the amazing psychological implications of our behaviors and attention), Traffic is not a book strictly about driving. It's a book that delves into the inner workings of the mind and human nature, asking us questions about why we do things the way that we do them, and what behaviors contribute towards traffic, safety, and sanity.

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To read more about my car-free experiments and adventures, check out the category "Car Free?" and join me as I journey around the world in my car, on my feet, riding my bike, and on the bus.  I still haven't decided whether or not to sell my car - but will update you as I discover and learn more!

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