Traffic tweeting: Will Twitter change the way we drive?

How we get from here to there.
April 4 2011 7:07 AM

Twaffic

Will Twitter—and tweets about traffic—change the way we drive?

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Of course, there are plenty of times when it's relatively safe to tweet while in your car; say, when you're in a stalled BMW on I-5. I prefer to read traffic tweets at my desk, where they read like a ticker tape of the transport stream, a secret window into the life of a city (one that I'm glad to take in from a safe remove). I'll punch in, say, "Lagos traffic" and read of epic congestion—"Whts wit today's traffic? Is anything special happening in Lagos cos evrywhere seems to be blocked. Na wa o!" (that last roughly translating to a kind of incredulous "OMG!")—noting with some curiosity that even though people in Lagos tweet about horrific traffic every single day, each day brings a fresh round of drivers seemingly surprised by Lagos' horrific traffic. Just as we do when we talk about traffic, Twitter traffic hounds seem to absolve themselves of any blame for whatever predicament they describe: As one tweet read, "Dear Sydney Traffic, you suck!"

Encountering a barrage of these tweets reminds me of a project called Traffic by the "conceptual writer" and poet Kenneth Goldsmith. In the book, Goldsmith transcribed the entire traffic report for a New York City holiday weekend. Here's a typical passage:

Everything else is not gonna be moving at all. And especially avoid the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridge going over to, uh, Brooklyn, they've been, uh, just an absolute horror show. You got tons of traffic on the FDR Drive coming down from the Triboro all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge. And also major delays along the West Side from the 120's on down to the Battery. No joke here. It could take you two to three hours to cut through that kind of traffic. Also big delays, uh, north from the, uh, it looks like from the 80's up toward the GW Bridge.

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As Goldsmith told Bookforum, "Writers don't need to write anything more," he says. "They just need to manage the language that already exists." And every day, the traffic reports generate new narratives, serial tales of jackknifed tractor-trailers, stalled vehicles, "sunrise slowdowns," and SigAlerts. Only now, the people in traffic are writing themselves into the story.

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Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.

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