Book Review: Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Everybody hates traffic. Well, not exactly everybody. 

Tom Vanderbilt, for one, is completely fascinated by traffic. When his book came out in 2008, I remember sitting in an aisle at the book store reading it cover to cover. At the time, I was fresh out of high school starting my career as an economist (or so I thought!). Little did I know, looking back 10 years later, that this would be the book would that started my obsession with traffic, cities, and the world of movement.

The witty style and sheer quirkiness of this book really inspired this blog by really engaging my interest in the world of transportation. I have yet to come across another book that so seamlessly engages all the lenses through which one can understand something as mundane and universally hated as traffic. Vanderbilt breathes life into gridlock, and reveals the intricacies of human behavior by considering traffic as patterns of social interaction. Through this blog, I hope to share my fascination and obsession too! 

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"Traffic has become a way of life... In America, a pedestrian is someone who has just parked their car"

- Tom Vanderbilt

Image credit: freehandz / 123RF Stock Photo CC

I learned from Vanderbilt that to think critically about society involves examining the small things that nudge our behaviour everyday. For example, do extra cupholders silently encourage more drive-thru trips? We see the direct influence of gasoline price on driver behaviour, yet what about less tangible things like the design of parking lots or the timing of intersection lights? Can small but incremental changes in the "hidden" aspects of urban design accumulate to influence our transportation choices in significant ways?

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Traffic curiosity: Do extra cupholders encourage more drive-thru trips?

My obsession is cycling, but the inquisitive perspective is similar. What makes cycling wonderful in the Netherlands? Sure, the obvious comes to mind. Thousands of kilometers of bike paths. The flat landscape. Dense cities. What takes a bit longer to notice are the little things; the intricate details that make it all work. What about the immaculate quality of the red asphalt? The bike dance of near-misses that confounds hordes tourists in front of Amsterdam Central Station? Wait, why are there no traffic lights?!?

Since I first read up this book, I've been in and out of several obscure academic disciplines: behavioural economics, urban planning, sustainable transport, and even traffic psychology. For the moment, my obsession is about cycling and great urban design, but who knows where this will take me? The world is an endlessly fascinating place. 

Ten years later, his book is as relevant as ever. What are you still doing reading my blog?!? His book is endlessly more interesting. Go check it out! “Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)” by Tom Vanderbilt