Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 25 2008 10:36 AM

Car Nation

Are drivers the source of, or the solution to, traffic hell?

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt.

At first glance, Tom Vanderbilt's study of traffic, Traffic, seems like a perverse idea for a book. Imagine the tired commuter, pulling into his driveway, entering his house, and sitting down to read a chapter about the hell he just endured. Yet it's just that sort of vague assumption that Traffic consistently reverses. As Vanderbilt writes, many Americans enjoy commuting since it provides a slice of alone time each day. The car becomes a pleasant cocoon for private phone calls, podcast listening, and idle thoughts. When asked, we tell researchers that we don't want a zero commute—16 minutes is about right. And we never hesitate to tell each other, at length, about our ordeals on the road; traffic is right up there with weather as a subject we can't exhaust.

Vanderbilt's book surveys the advanced auto-life of America, where we have spent the past 100 years reshaping our lives and cities around cars. The Volvo, the Honda, the Prius have become our public selves, the face we show to the world, and the result has been a general decline of civility. Oh, how much easier it is to give someone the finger at 70 mph than at the farmer's market. "In traffic," writes Vanderbilt, "we struggle to stay human." He approaches traffic as a collective human act, with all the complexity that entails. Our driving is fraught with paradoxes, unintended consequences, and inexplicable behaviors.

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Consider coffee, or specifically Starbucks, which exerts a strong influence on traffic patterns. Why are there two Starbucks across the road from each other? The difficulty of left turns against traffic. A researcher has coined the term "the Starbucks effect" to describe the bevy of middle-aged men making a morning latte stop: "They were leaving their homes before it becomes chaotic with the backpacks and the school." And so the search for a bit of controlled calm jams the roads in a new, unforeseen way.

Next, look at the chimsil, the name for that third rear brake light that suddenly appeared on cars in the 1980s. Do they help? Hard to say. Initial hopes were high, but recent studies have concluded that the chimsil prevents only a small amount of rear-end accidents. The reason might be the Peltzman effect, which argues that drivers offset safety improvements such as seat belts and anti-lock brakes by driving more dangerously. Wait, does that mean it would be better not to wear seat belts, to keep ourselves more acutely aware of our mortality? And what about helmets? Cheaper than side airbags. Might not be a bad idea to wear them. Even if you look like a go-kart driver.

In a similar questing manner, Vanderbilt details the opposing sides of traffic debates great and small: Why do extra lanes not make a highway less congested? Is it safer to have a compact, maneuverable car or a big, honking SUV? Are women or men better drivers? Alas, the road yields no easy answers. (And Vanderbilt definitely looked for the answers; the footnotes to Traffic run to 90 pages.) But there is a big dilemma that orients and deepens Vanderbilt's sedulous analysis: whether we should aspire to make our driving experience more human or less human.

At one point, Vanderbilt visits with celebrated Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who created the "intersection heard around the world." Monderman redesigned a congested four-way crossing in the city of Drachten by basically removing all of the traffic signs. The lack of signals created uncertainty and forced drivers to slow down, cooperate with one another, and watch out for bicyclists and pedestrians. It also allowed traffic to flow more smoothly. His animating idea was to put some of the "social world" into the "traffic world." While talking with Vanderbilt, Monderman demonstrated the success of his concept by walking backward into the street—with his eyes closed.

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