List of Key Notes from Tom Vanderbilt's Book Traffic

Just finished Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic:  Why We Drive The Way We Do and What It Says About Us.

I remember wanting to read it when it first came out in 2008.

By happenstance at the Del Amo Mall in Torrance and a bookstore there, I saw it priced for a $1.00.

It has felt like "highway robber"y ever-since.

The book is a page-turner. It's got everything that I've ever thought was needed for solid writing: simple metaphors to describe complex phenomena, references to psychological studies, statistical anomalies, but all packaged in a personal kind of way.

I don't mark up books too much anymore, but I just had to for this, and thought I would entice people to give the ideas a look.  I quoted everything in the notes verbatim with the associated page number.  Bolded emphases are all mine for the sake of easy reading.

Overall, my take on the book:  made me think a lot about the illusion of safety though I wish there was more attention paid to solutions for bicyclists

Metaphors for and Ways to Think About Traffic
  • We think of traffic as an abstraction, a grouping of things rather than a collection of individuals (7)
  • Once humans decided to do anything but walk, once they became traffic, they had to learn a whole new way of getting around and getting along (10)
  • Being in traffic is like being in an online chat room under a pseudonym (27)
  • Our vehicle becomes our self.  You project your body way out in front of a vehicle...We say "Get out of my way," not "get out of my and my car's way." (24)
  • Identity issues seem to trouble the driver alone.  Have you ever noticed how passengers rarely seem to get as worked up about these events as you do?...They do not feel that their identity is bound up with the car. (24)
  • "A modern, urban freeway is a lot like eBay, without reputation scores" - LIor J. Strahilevitz (58)
  • Traffic is a sort of secret window onto the inner heart of a place, a form of cultural expression as vital as language, dress, or music (216).
  • The only place where the little man achieves equality with the big is in heavy traffic.  Only there can he actually overtake (220).
  • The driver's thinking it's wide open.  It's a football mentality ---I've got all my blockers and I can go (71).
  • You hit the brakes for a second, just tap them on the freeway, you can literally track the ripple effect of that action across a two-hundred mile stretch of road, because traffic has a memory.  It's amazing.  It's like a living organism.  - Mission Impossible III (119)
  • Rice has more to do with traffic than you might think.  Many people use water analogies when talking about raffic, because it's a great way to describe concepts like volume and capacity.  One example, used by Benjamin Coifman, an engineering professor at Ohio State University who specializes in traffic, is to think of a bucket of water with an inch-wide hole in the bottom. (122)
  • At places like bottlenecks, however, traffic acts less like water (it does not speed up as highway "channels" narrow, for one) and more like rice:  Cars, like grains, are discrete objects that act in peculiar ways.  Rice is what's called a "granular media," a solid that can act like a liquid.  Sidney Nagel, a physicist at the University of Chicago and an expert in granular materials, uses the analogy of adding a bit of sugar to a spoon.  Pour too much, and the pile collapses.  The sugar flows like a liquid as it collapses, but it's really a group of interacting objects that do not easily interact (123).
Driving-Related Studies, Stats, Realities, Correlations 
  • In a 1982 survey, a majority of drivers found that the majority of other people were "courteous" on the road.  When the same survey was repeated in 1998, the rude drivers outnumbered the courteous (61). 
  • Texas Transportation Institute found that the single most common cause of stress on the highway was "merging difficulties" (64) 
  • A study by a group of Israeli researchers found that drivers committed more traffic violations on familiar routes than on unfamiliar routes (15)
  • One study of pedestrian fatalities by French researchers showed that a significant number were associated with a "change of mode" --- for example, moving from car to foot --- as if the authors speculated, drivers leaving their vehicles still felt a certain invulnerability (20)
  • Studies, as I mentioned earlier in the book, have shown that cars waiting to make left turns against oncoming traffic will accept smaller gaps in which to cross (i.e. more risk) the longer they have been waiting (i.e., as the desire for completing the turn increases).  Thirty seconds seems to be the limit of human patience for left turns 
  • ...a study by Quality Planning Corporation, a San Francisco-based insurance research firm, found doctors to have the second-highest crash risk in an eight-month sample of a million drivers, just after students (whose risk is largely influenced by their young age (258).
  • Studies by geographers have shown that people tend to overestimate distances on routes that are "segmented," versus those where the destination is in sight (147)
  • In the 1960s, as Jane Jacobs described in her classic book The Death and Life of Great American cities, a small group of New Yorkers, including Jacobs herself, began a campaign to close the street cutting through Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village.  Parks were not great places for cars, they suggested...The traffic people predicted mayhem.  What happened was the reverse:  Cars, having lost the best route through the park, decided to stop treating the neighborhood as a shortcut.  Total car traffic dropped ---and both the park and the neighborhood are doing just fine (156).
  • A study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University found that the second-leading cause of distraction-related crashes (behind fatigue) was "looking at crashes, other roadside incidents, traffic, or other vehicles") (163)
  • Most crashes, after all, happen on dry roads, on clear, sunny days, to sober drivers (185)  
  • The nations that rank as the least corrupt---such countries as Finland, Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, and Singapore --- are also the safest places in the world to drive (236).
Traffic Statistics
  • ...commute times have also been expanding.  One of the fastest-growing categories in the last "commuting census" in the United States was that of "extreme commuters," people who spend upward of two hours a day in traffic (moving or otherwise).  Many of these are people pushed farther out by higher home prices, past the billboards that beckon "If you lived here, you'd be home by now," in a phenomenon real estate agents call "drive till you qualify"...In 1969, nearly half of American children walked or biked to school;  now just 16 percent do.  From 1977 to 1995, the number of trips people made on foot dropped by nearly half.  This has given rise to a joke:  In America, a pedestrian is someone who has just parked their car (16).  
  • In the 1950s, studies revealed that about 40% of daily trips per capita were "work trips."  Now the nationwide figure is roughly 16%.  It's not that people are making fewer trips to work but they're making so many other kinds of trips.  What kinds of trips?  Taking the kids to school or day care or soccer practice, eating out, picking up dry cleaning.  In 1960 the average American drove 20.64 miles a day.  By 2001, that figure was over 32 miles. (132)
  • In an average year, more people were killed in the United States on Saturday and Sunday from midnight to three a.m. than all those who were killed from midnight to three a.m. the rest of the week (250)
  • More people die in pickups per 100 million vehicles registered than in any other kind of vehicle
  • Intersections are crash magnets---in the United States, 50 percent of all road crashes occur at intersections.  At a four-way intersection, there are a staggering fifty-six potential points of what engineers call "conflict" or the chance for you to run into someone---thirty--two of these places where vehicles can hit vehicles, and twenty-four are spots where vehicles can hit pedestrians.  Roundabouts sharply drop the total number of potential conflicts to sixteen, and, thanks to their central islands (which create what engineers call "deflection"), they eliminate entirely the two most dangerous moves in an intersection:  cross directly through the intersection, often at high speed, and making a left turn. (178).
  • When the urban planner Donald Appleyard surveyed San Francisco in the 1970s, he found that on streets with more road traffic, people had fewer friends and spent less time outside.  In the same way that traffic has been blamed for habitat fragmentation of the wild, cutting off species from foraging areas or reducing the tendency of birds to breed, high traffic helps starve social interaction on human streets (maybe this is how congestion hurts romance).  Somewhat paradoxically, Appleyard found that people who lived on the streets with less traffic (who made more money and were more likely to own their own homes actually created more traffic themselves, while the people who lived on the high-traffic streets were less able to afford cars. The rich in effect, were taxing the poor (160)
  • If you drive an average of 15,500 miles per year, as many Americans do, there is a roughly 1 in 100 chance you'll die in a fatal car crash over a lifetime of 50 years of driving (249)

  • When bicyclists violate a traffic law, research has showed it is because, in the eyes of drivers, they are reckless anarchists;  drivers meanwhile are more likely to view the violation of a traffic law by another driver as somehow being required by the circumstances (23-24).
  • The best thing engineers can do, the thinking has gone, is make it easy.  "You can't violate driver expectation," says Granda. (183)
  • A cyclist, for example, may feel safer riding on the sidewalk instead of the street.  But several studies have found that cyclists are more likely to involved in a crash when riding on the sidewalk.  Why?  Sidewalks, though separated from the road, cross not only driveways but intersections---where most car-bicycle collisions happen.  The driver, having already begun her turn, is likely to expect--and thus to see---a bicyclist emerging from the sidewalk.  The cyclist, feeling safer, may also be less on the lookout for cars (268)
  • Studies have shown that people take longer to leave a parking spot when another driver is waiting (44)
  • The reason people cruise is simple:  They're hunting for a bargain (149)

Communication Problems when Driving
  • Being in a car renders us mostly mute.  Instead of complex vocabularies and subtle shifts in facial expression, the language of traffic is reduced --- necessarily, for reasons of safety and economy ---- to a range of basic signals, formal and informal, that convey only the simplest of meanings...Frustrated by our inability to talk, we gesture violently or honk---a noise the offending driver might misinterpret (21)
  • When a driver is cut off by another driver, the gesture is read as rude, perhaps hostile.  There is no way for the offending driver to indicate that it was anything but rude or hostile (22)
  • It is often impossible to even send a message to the offending driver in the first place.  Yet we still get visibly mad, to an audience of no one.  Katz argues that we are engaging in a kind of theatrical storytelling, inside of our cars, angrily "constructing moral dramas" in which we are the wronged victims --- and the "avenging hero" --- in some traffic epic of larger an effort to create a "new meaning" for the encounter, we will try to find out something after the fact about the driver who wronged us (perhaps speeding up to see them), meanwhile running down a mental list of potential villains (e.g., women, men, teenagers, senior citizens, truck drivers, Democrats, Republicans, "idiots on cell phones," or, if all else fails, simply "idiots") before finding a suitable resolution to the drama (23)
  • This seems like an on-road version of what psychologists call the "fundamental attribution error"....we ascribe the actions of others to who they are...meanwhile we attribute our own actions to how we were forced to act in specific situations (23).
  • The desire to "catch" a green makes drivers speed up at precisely the moment they should be looking for vehicles making oncoming turns or entering the main road from a right tun on red.  The high placement of traffic lights also puts drivers' eyes upward, away from the street and things like the brake lights of the slowing cars they are about to hit.  Then there are the color-blind drivers who cannot make out the red versus green, and the moments when sunlight washes out the light for everyone (179).
Theorizing Drivers
  • People are free to terrorize others on the road because their identity is largely protected.  The road is not a private place, and speeding is not a private act (59).
  • Each safe trip we take reinforces the image of a safe trip (249)
  • So why is Belgium a more dangerous place to drive [than the Netherlands]?  An answer of sorts may be found in another kind of index, one that more or less aligns with the GDP but often diverges in interesting ways:  corruption (235).
  • In traffic, laws are only as good as the norms regarding them (241).
  • When the engineers build something, "[Psychologist Tom] Granda says, 'the question everybody should ask is, What effect will it have on the drivers?  How will the driver react, not only today, but after the driver sees that sign or lane marking over a period of time?  Will they adapt to it? (182)
  • The above-average effect helps explain resistance (in the early stages, at least) to new traffic safety measures, from seat belts to cell phone restrictions...We think stricter laws are a good idea for the people who need them (60).
  • "unintnernalized externalities."  This means that you are not feeling the pain you are causing others.  Two legal scholars at the University [of] California at Berkeley have estimated, for example, that every time a new driver hits the road in California, the total insurance cost for everyone else goes up by more than $2,000.  We do not pay for the various emissions our cars create---to take just one case, the unpaid cost of Los Angeles' legendary haze is about 2.3 cents per mile.  Nor do we pay for he noise we create, estimated by researchers at the University of California, Davis, to be between $5 billion and $10 billion per year. (160)
  • Even if the occupants of cars themselves were safer, he maintained, the increase in car safety had been offset by an increase in the fatality rate of people who did not benefit from the safety features ---pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists.  As drivers felt safer, everyone else had reason to feel less safe (264).
Ideas to "Fix" Traffic Problems
  • Most people would prefer to face the danger of the street," he wrote, "rather than the fatigue of getting upstairs."  The woonerven reversed this idea, suggesting that it was people who lived in cities and that cars were merely guests (191).
  • One way of increasing capacity is rerouting demand (169).
  • ...a properly designed roundabout can reduce delays by up to 65 percent over an intersection with traffic signals or stop signs (124) 

Shouts to Los Angeles
  • Los Angeles, like all cities, is essentially a noncooperative network.  Its traffic system is filled with streams of people who desire to move how they want, and where they want, when they want, regardless of what everyone else is doing.  What traffic engineers do is try to simulate, through technology and signs and laws, a cooperative system. (111)
  • No city in the world has more traffic reports or traffic reporters than Los Angeles...(114)

Other Interesting Studies Cited
  • Eye contact greatly increases the chances of gaining cooperation in various experimental games (31) 
  • People who go to traffic court, [legal scholar Tom] Tyler found, are less concerned with the outcome---even when it is a costly ticket or fine---than with the fairness of the process (235)
  • A study by a group of U.S. economists found that women were less likely to engage in hypothetical corruption, that female managers in one country they studied were less likely to engage in actual corruption, and that the countries that rank as least corrupt on the global indices tend to have more women in government (243).
Other Interesting Quotes
  • Here we must remember the old dictum about what keeps a university running smoothly:  'Beer for the students, parking for the faculty, and football for the alumni.' (145)
  • In the first decade of the twentieth century, forty-seven men tried to climb Alaska's Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak.  They had relatively crude equipment and helicopter-assisted rescues were quite frequent, each decade saw the death of dozens of people on the mountain's slopes.  Some kind of adaptation seemed to be occurring:  The knowledge that one could be rescued was either driving climbers to make riskier climbs (something the British climber Joe Simpson has suggested);  or it was bringing less-skilled climbers to the mountain.  The National Park Service's policy of increased safety was not only costing more money, it perversely seemed to be costing more lives --- which had the ironic effect of producing calls for more 'safety' (266)
  • Grimly tally the number of people who have been killed by terrorism in the United States since the State Department began keeping records in the 1960s, and you'll get a total of less than 5,000---roughly the same number, it has been pointed out, as those who have been struck by lightning (271).

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