Tom Vanderbilt

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

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte SEP 30, 2008)

Why We Drive the Way we Do (And What it Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt

One of the first reactions that many readers will doubtless have when they read the superb, incredibly well-researched book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way we Do (And What it Says About Us) is: Why didn’t anybody think of this book before? The author, Tom Vanderbilt, who writes about science and technology for publications like The New York Times and Wired, has done a fantastic job of researching many aspects of traffic and driving and presenting his findings in engaging, crackling prose.

Sure there are many, many situations described in the book that we can all relate to: being cut off by a “late merger,” or being stalked by a “predator” car when you are walking up to your parking spot in the mall. But what makes Traffic a great read is the glimpse at the psychology behind our many decisions--decisions that we take for granted and don’t think about very often. “Your daily drive may not seem to have much to do with the strategies of the Cold War, but every time two cars approach an unmarked intersection simultaneously, or four cars sidle up to a four-way stop at about the same time, a form of game theory is being applied,” Vanderbilt writes, going on to explain how.

On the road, Vanderbilt points out, “the driver is reduced to a brand of vehicle (a rough stereotype at best) and an anonymous license-plate number.” This anonymity leads to strange behavior, quite a fair bit that would run against established social mores. What’s equally interesting is the driver too assumes he (or she) can’t be seen. Remember when Seinfeld picks his nose at a traffic stop?

“It is the other person’s behavior that needs to be controlled, not mine; this reasoning helps contribute to the longstanding gap, concerning evolving technology, between social mores and traffic laws,” Vanderbilt writes. This explains why most drivers feel that other people’s cell phone usage on the road needs to be regulated (but not their own).

Traffic is filled with valuable research into practically every aspect of driving--even parking habits are explored and laid bare. Did you know for example, that we “forage” for parking spots just like animals would, for prey? “In our daily lives as parkers, we face these foraging questions,” Vanderbilt writes. “Do we pass up less valuable spaces (i.e. prey) for higher-value spaces that might be lurking around the corner?”

There are explanations in here for why congestion pricing could help decrease traffic and why Disney’s theme parks have some of the best traffic engineers moving visitors smoothly in their various amusement parks.

Vanderbilt even traveled around the world to see how culture affects and shapes driving. This segment too makes for fascinating reading. In New Delhi, for example, a local points out that he relies on three elements while driving: “Good brakes, good horn, good luck.” This summer, my family and I traveled to a mountain resort in the Himalayas in the north of India. I am convinced the brash, young driver who brought us all the way up along the narrow, winding roads to the resort and back from New Delhi, must have relied on those same three elements. And even if I was white-knuckled and terrified that we were all going to meet our end careening off a high cliff road without any protective guardrails, Vanderbilt argues that the road one needs to worry more about, is the clear, straight one. “Most crashes,” Vanderbilt writes, “happen on dry roads, on clear, sunny days, to sober drivers.” Perhaps that might explain why our driver seemed to repeatedly neglect the warning signs posted liberally on the narrow mountain roads: “Speed thrills but kills!”

“The road, more than simply a system of regulations and designs, is a place where many millions of us, with only loose parameters for how to behave, are thrown together daily in a kind of massive Petri dish in which all kinds of uncharted, little-understood dynamics are at work. There is no other place where so many people from different walks of life--different ages, races, classes, religions, genders, political preferences, lifestyle choices, level of psychological stability--mingle so freely,” Vanderbilt points out.

Indeed, Traffic is an absolute joy ride for anybody who has gotten behind the wheel, looked around and wondered: “Who are all these people?”

  • Amazon readers rating: from 38 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Traffic at Borzoi Reader



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About the Author:

Tom VanderbiltTom Vanderbilt writes on design, technology, science, and culture, among other subjects, for many publications, including Wired, Slate, The London Review of Books, Gourmet, The Wall Street Journal, Men’s Vogue, Artforum, The Wilson Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Cabinet, Metropolis, and Popular Science. He is contributing editor to the design magazines I.D. and Print, and contributing writer of the popular blog Design Observer.

He has also contributed essays to a number of books and has given lectures at colleges and business conferences, and has appeared on a wide variety of radio and television programs around the world, including NBC’s Today Show, ABC News' Nightline, NPR’s Morning Edition, Fresh Air with Teri Gross, the BBC’s World Service and The One Show, Fox Business, and CNN’s Business Today, among many others.

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