Review: Traffic - Why We Drive The Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt

Title: Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do
Author: Tom Vanderbilt
Pages: 402
Genre: Non-Fiction
Release Date: June 29, 2008
Publisher: Knopf
Source: Personal Copy

It's no wonder that people are fascinated by the psychology of driving and traffic, seeing as how most of us deal with both on a daily basis. The seemingly simple act of transporting oneself from point A to point B actually requires a complex, coordinated effort by many mental and physical processes. There has been an astounding amount of research on the subject, especially regarding how to cure the most dreaded problem of congestion. Tom Vanderbilt does a good job at digging into all the data (almost a quarter of the book is notes and references) and compiling many interesting facts and anecdotes.

Some of the most interesting chapters dealt with the dangerous behaviors many drivers exhibit. I know I get annoyed at someone driving poorly, then notice they are on a cell phone. Well, now I have scientific research that backs up my theory that yes, you are a worse driver while talking on your matter what you think. Just reading about how comfortable and distracted drivers are when traveling at such fast speeds is disconcerting. One interesting study focused on the overuse of road signs, and how drivers have come to ignore many of them. I had never heard of the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman before, but his idea to remove all traffic signs, lights, and painted lines and arrows in the highly congested town of Drachten in the Netherlands revolutionized the way traffic patterns and congestion are viewed. Vanderbilt wrote an article in The Wilson Quarterly called 'The Traffic Guru' about Monderman and his effect on the town.

One of the biggest problems with this book lies not in the writing itself, but in the subject matter. Such a vast and multifaceted topic could never be sufficiently delved into in a few hundred pages. When I closed this book, I was left wanting more, which is both a positive and a negative. Traffic did keep my attention from chapter to chapter. I was surprised to learn just how interested I was in the subject and will probably search out further information. That being said, I felt a sense that the writing lacked any real conclusions, or at least the full development of an opinionated argument in one direction or the other. Traffic was a very intriguing introduction to the field and provided me with a wealth of conversation topics, but, overall, it felt more like an expanded magazine article.

Rating: 3.5/5


  1. I have Traffic on my shelf but haven't gotten to it yet. I do think it sounds fascinating, and having your description of "an expanded magazine article" in mind when I do, eventually, read Traffic will no doubt help me keep my expectations appropriate. Kind of cool it made you want to learn even more about how we drive!

  2. I've heard lot of great things about this book! I really need to get my hands on a copy of this book! I also think that everyone in Toronto should get a copy of this book ;)

  3. Erin - Sounds like you would really like this one. Having the tone of a magazine article definitely made it more readable. I don't think it would have been enjoyable if he hadn't toned down the research somewhat.

    Reeder - In total agreement! I think anyone who drives should read this book. There are so many things he discusses that I could relate to, especially as a daily driver.

  4. I guess I should read this one just to drive everyone crazy since it gave you so much to talk about. I've had this one for a while and haven't felt compelled to pick it up, but you made it sound interesting.

  5. I've been tempted by this book in the bookstore several times, but have never committed. I was kind of waiting for a review, so thanks! Sounds worthwhile.

  6. This sounds like a good book! I live in an area where traffic is a constant part of life. It would definitely be interesting to read about. It's too bad that the book ended before you were finished; maybe you can find similar books with more detail?

  7. bermudaonion & Robyn - If you enjoy reading non-fiction that has more of a narrative feel instead of just straight facts, you'll enjoy Traffic. I also think you could skip/skim some chapters that don't sound as interesting without losing much.

    Meg - I need to look into some more titles. Seems like too many are way too research oriented/scholarly, which I don't know if I'd find as enjoyable. Hopefully Vanderbilt will write some more, as traffic never ceases!


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