Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do

Why does the other lane always seem faster? Why ants don’t get into traffic jams, and humans do? Why more roads actually lead to more traffic? And why, contrary to common sense, “safe” roads are more dangerous?

These are just some of the interesting questions that Tom Vanderbilt (who blogs here) explores in his illuminating book published in August 2008: Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). Below is an excerpt:

You may suspect that getting people to merge in a timely fashion, and without killing one another, is less of a traffic problem and more of a human problem. The road, more than simply a system of regulations and designs, is a place where many millions of us, with only loose parameters for how to behave, are thrown together daily in a kind of massive petri dish in which all kinds of uncharted, little-understood dynamics are at work. There is no other place where so many people from different walks of life–different ages, races, classes, religions, genders, political preferences, lifestyle choices, levels of psychological stability–mingle so freely.

What do we really know about how it all works? Why do we act the way we do on the road, and what might that say about us? Are certain people predisposed to drive certain ways? Do women behave differently than men? And if, as conventional wisdom has it, drivers have become progressively less civil over the past several decades, why is that so? Is the road a microcosm of society, or its own place with its own set of rules?

The dynamics of traffic and the human phycology of commuting are discussed in great detail, supported by statistics, surveys, and common observations by traffic engineers, urban planners etc. Every once in a while I stumbled across some factoids that were unnecessarily elaborative. But for the most part, the details are eye-opening, quite informative and entertaining. Thanks to Tom for this meticulously researched book about a subject/phenomenon that has tremendous impacts on our daily lives but the phycology behind it was not explored much before this comprehensive study of traffic. I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about the curious oddities about traffic… to anyone who wants to be a better driver!

You’re not stuck in a traffic jam. You are the traffic jam. [advertisement in Germany]

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5 responses to “Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do

  1. this is definitely an interesting subject. there are certainly lots of ways to analyze driving: as a social nexus, as personal expression, as a competition (which too many people seem to want to win). i like this.

  2. Pranav

    Now that we experience this everday after moving into our new home, my wife and I get some more quality time talking about things. The other day we were discussing about the same topic “TRAFFIC”. She said, I dont understand while there arent any accidents on the road and why there is so much traffic. I simply said, when it comes to driving, even you and I (sitting next to each other) dont agree on “how one should drive” then how can we expect thousands of people around us to drive in the same way ;).

    Jai Ho

  3. Vishal

    @ Pranav, seems like getting stuck in a traffic jam is not always so bad, huh! Back in the days, when I had a one-hour commute to my office, I used to listen to NPR, and I liked the quality of news so much that I kinda looked forward to that otherwise tiring commute!

  4. Ritesh

    But I am always worried that what if this ( less traffic, back home in 5 minutes – in town like Richmond) – will grow more dense..!! We are so used to less traffic or if we move to metro and will literally succumb to long traffic lines.

    Obviously constructing roads, as evident from your post, is not the solution to reducing traffic. What does Tom suggest for long goals towards improving the condition.

    Jai Ho ( i liked this huh!)

  5. Vishal

    @ Ritesh, the author’s argument is NOT against construction of new roads. The often-unrealized fact is that when new roads are built, or for example, when extra lanes are added to existing roads (with a hope that this will mitigate the traffic problem) people who didn’t use these roads before will find a new incentive (faster roads) to start using them. Hence, in a short run, we might see smoothly flowing traffic, but as more people are diverted to these roads, the incremental benefit is either lost completely or remains marginal. The author doesn’t get into details about how to solve these problems – rather his goal seem to be educating the reader about the idiosyncrasies and too-often-experienced-but-hardly-noticed (and studied) details about the traffic world.

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