Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Just finished reading Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. I originally heard about this book via NPR and was curious enough to add it to my Amazon wish list. I’ve blogged on traffic/driving before. See autodogmatic:

Two of the above blog posts referred to studies that are mentioned in Traffic. “Anarchy” is frequently alluded to by Vanderbilt, as well, even as it is disclaimed — likely because Vanderbilt is using “anarchy” to mean chaotic rather than anarchy-as-spontaneous-order. The latter understanding (that anarchy-as-spontaneous-order reigns on the roads) is hard to ignore.

Rather than rewrite my own review, I’ll echo one of the top-reviews on amazon:

While the topic of the book is nominally “traffic”, the real topic is about human psychology and how it deals with the situations involving traffic. The material is chock full of “things that make you go, ‘hmm.'”

In spite of being intriguing, the information the author conveys is rarely useful information. The reader will likely be left unmoved by the author’s reasoned advocacy of late merging, for instance. Similarly, the style of writing feels like that of a news or talk show, where the announcer/host will “tease” an interesting bit of info, run a commercial, discuss things about which you don’t care, run another commercial, and then, in the last 2 minutes of air time, give you the anticlimactic answer to the story headline you found interesting enough to make you sit and watch.

Unfortunately, most of the book is like this, and the cool things that the author has to say are just that. Cool, but not quite meriting a book. Of the book’s 400 pages, nearly 100 are end notes. I am happy that the author’s work is well-sourced (books of this genre often lack sources, preferring to rely on anecdotes), but it conveys how the author had to work fairly hard to turn a very large set of disjointed facts into any sort of readable narrative.

The book wasn’t as gripping or insightful as I was hoping it would be. It wasn’t bad — just not a fun read. I think it could have been condensed to only 200 pages max (it was 286 readable — probably another 100 of biblio). One tidbit I learned that I’ll share is that people have historically gravitated to an average commute time of about 30 minutes. This time has made for different city sizes from days when people walked everywhere and cities typically had no larger than a five mile diameter to modern days when people drive many miles into and out of a city on their daily commute via fast-paced highways.

Interesting trivia, for sure — good reading? Ehhhh …

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