Thursday, October 02, 2008

Reading Traffic

I've recently started reading Tom Vanderbilt’s book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). (Nb: A lot of bike bloggers seem to be reading this at the moment). Vanderbilt takes his reader on an amazing journey through the world of Traffic and looks to examine many of the driving cultures from around the world as well as the social psychology behind them. Its hard to imagine traffic being such a sustaining topic of interest within one book, but then again, just think how many episodes of Seinfeld where based on this theme. To give you an idea of whats in the book, here is an outline of the chapter titles:

Prologue: Why I Became a Late Merger (and Why You Should Too)
1. Why Does the Other Lane Always Seem Faster? How Traffic Messes with Our Heads
* Shut Up, I Can't Hear You: Anonymity, Aggression, and the Problems of Communicating While Driving
* Are You Lookin' at Me? Eye Contact, Stereotypes, and Social Interaction on the Road
* Waiting in Line, Waiting in Traffic: Why the Other Lane Always Moves Faster
* Postscript: And Now, the Secrets of Late Merging Revealed
2. Why You're Not as Good a Driver as You Think You Are
* If Driving Is So Easy, Why Is It So Hard for a Robot? What Teaching Machines to Drive Teaches Us About Driving
* How's My Driving? How the Hell Should I Know? Why Lack of Feedback Fails Us on the Road
3. How Our Eyes and Minds Betray Us on the Road
* Keep Your Mind on the Road: Why It's So Hard to Pay Attention in Traffic
* Objects in Traffic Are More Complicated Than They Appear: How Our Driving Eyes Deceive Us
4. Why Ants Don't Get into Traffic Jams (and Humans Do): On Cooperation as a Cure for Congestion
* Meet the World's Best Commuter: What We Can Learn from Ants, Locusts, and Crickets
* Playing God In Los Angeles
* When Slower Is Faster, or How the Few Defeat the Many: Traffic Flow and Human Nature
5. Why Women Cause More Congestion Than Men (and Other Secrets of Traffic)
* Who Are All These People? The Psychology of Commuting
* The Parking Problem: Why We Are Inefficient Parkers and How This Causes Congestion
6. Why More Roads Lead to More Traffic (and What to Do About It)
* The Selfish Commuter
* A Few Mickey Mouse Solutions to the Traffic Problem
7. When Dangerous Roads are Safer
* The Highway Conundrum: How Drivers Adapt to the Road They See
* The Trouble with Traffic Signs -- and How Getting Rid of Them Can Make Things Better for Everyone
* Forgiving Roads or Permissive Roads? The Fatal Flaws of Traffic Engineering
8. How Traffic Explains the World: On Driving with a Local Accent
* "Good Brakes, Good Horn, Good Luck": Plunging into the Maelstrom of Delhi Traffic
* Why New Yorkers Jaywalk (and Why They Don't in Copenhagen): Traffic as Culture
* Danger: Corruption Ahead -- the Secret Indicator of Crazy Traffic
9. Why You Shouldn't Drive with a Beer-Drinking Divorced Doctor Named Fred on Super Bowl Sunday in a Pickup Truck in Rural Montana: What's Risky on the Road and Why
* Semiconscious Fear: How We Misunderstand the Risks of the Road
* Should I Stay or Should I Go? Why Risk on the Road Is So Complicated
* The Risks of Safety
Epilogue: Driving Lessons

I guess, what I really like about this book is the way it undoes many of the blind assumptions about traffic management. Rather than being a creative field of thinking about how we facilitate mobility, traffic experts appear to be remarkably resilient to change and in testing or challenging their own assumptions. One can only wonder what would happen if we let some philosophy grads into the RTA? Perhaps I should send a copy of the book to the Minister for Roads as a Christmas present.

Vanderbilt has a great blog called “How we drive” which touches on many of his findings in the book.

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