Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic

You are not stuck in a traffic jam. You are the traffic jam. Or so says a German advertisement that could easily be the epigraph for Tom Vanderbilt’s celebrated new book, Traffic. By approaching his study with the idea that traffic is a collective human act, with all the complexity that entails, he is able to relate an entertaining narrative that ends up saying a lot more about humans than it does traffic.

Vanderbilt covers just about every aspect of traffic one can imagine. We’ve all seen the two lane road merge into one lane, with a huge line forming in the still open lane while the occasional person speeds up to the front of the closed line only to force himself in. I’ve been that guy, and I’ve cursed at that guy, probably on the same day. If everyone would just get in line this would go faster, right? Actually, Vanderbilt argues the opposite. By cars using 100% of the road’s utility up to the point of merging, traffic will move faster for everyone. It makes sense when you see it form a different perspective.

Another interesting study had two drivers leave on a two-lane highway at the same time. One was in the right lane and stayed there through all the slowdowns one must endure there. The second car began from the left lane and was encouraged to switch lanes as often as possible to get around traffic. At the end of eighty miles, the second car beat the first by only four minutes and lost much more in gas mileage.

Vanderbilt discusses everything from the lack of safety with a proliferation of warning signs, and the idea that drivers will effectively cancel out most safety features by driving more dangerously. If I know the road can stand me going 50mph around curves, why wouldn’t I do that instead of doing the 35mph limit? Only at 50mph, I have little room for error.

More questions are answered. Who are the better drivers, men or women? Why don’t extra lanes on the highway improve congestion? Are you really safer in an SUV than a small car? What is that little rear windshield brake light called?

And unsurprisingly, the biggest problem with traffic is the one we can’t deal with: the individual driver. He rubbernecks, is more concerned with his priorities than those of the greater system, and is just plain unpredictable. What’s to be done about a driver who slams on his brakes in the middle of an intersection causing huge backups?

Traffic is like running water through a big funnel. The small hole is your bottleneck, and while you can expand the hole to let more water through, you keep having more and more water coming along backing the whole process up further. The steadier the water comes the easier it will be, but traffic has a way of coming in waves.

Vanderbilt’s Traffic has changed the way I drive; it’s gotten into my head. Tonight I had to drive all the way through Austin in the late rush hour and it was amazing how much I remembered from the book. I stayed in my lane, getting there perhaps slightly slower, but with better gas mileage and a much calmer passenger. The book changed the way I think about driving, and in some ways it is changing the way I think about being a person. What more could you ask from such an entertaining

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