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BOOK REVIEW

'Round and 'round we go, where we stop . . .

Traffic Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) Tom Vanderbilt Alfred A. Knopf: 402 pp., $24.95

August 10, 2008|Matthew DeBord

Most people absolutely detest traffic but treat it as a fact of life. In Southern California, traffic actually seems to provoke a sort of Zen-like resignation: So it is, this creeping mass of cars on the 405 at 5:15 p.m., and so shall it ever be. To live in Los Angeles particularly is to be bonded with traffic and to develop a perverse pride in the ability to endure it.

Tom Vanderbilt, however, is reluctant to become one with the jam. For him, it must mean something more than a dazed engagement with never-ending stop-and-go. Quoting a line from New York City's 1960s-era traffic commissioner Henry Barnes, he maintains that this lengthy and copiously researched book is about the " 'surrealistic' side of traffic." By which he means that, out on the highways and byways of the increasingly mobile world, nothing is as it appears.

He then proceeds to take us on a grand tour of traffic engineering, urban planning, robotics, behavioral psychology, optical theory, gender politics, zoology, city government and economics. He ponders congestion fees in London and the general chaos of the roadways in India. He learns that Disneyland is a traffic-management Elysium. His devotion to what one could consider the most boring topic imaginable is impressive.

In the end, however, Vanderbilt is staring into the same old abyss: "Even if drivers are taken away from the wheel, can we ever take the mere fact of being human out of traffic?"

Vanderbilt, a highly regarded design writer who has produced books on sneakers and the architecture of the Cold War, is clearly aiming for his Malcolm Gladwell moment here. Gladwell, with his bestsellers "The Tipping Point" and "Blink," was able to spin the sociology of marketing into a journalistic mega-brand. He repackaged complex research disciplines for an audience desperate for the next new thing.

Vanderbilt wants to do something similar for those idealistic professionals who want to figure out the best way for us to build our cities of the future and improve our current living arrangements. Compared with Gladwell, he is wonkier and more sincere. The book, unfortunately, is lethargically paced, weirdly organized and not exactly enthralling. Its conclusions are rudimentary: Speed kills, teenagers behind the wheel can be deadly, cellphones and cars don't mix, and building more roads (which we can't afford anyway) is no solution. He takes forever to serve up the lively personalities. All one of them.

We don't meet "perhaps the world's best-known traffic engineer" until Page 188. The late Hans Monderman (a "pioneer," according to Vanderbilt) was in fact something of an anti-traffic engineer -- or at least an enemy of received traffic-engineering wisdom, which tries to force what he called the "traffic world" of the American freeway and the German autobahn on to the "social world" of, in his case, the small Dutch village. The two each have their place but shouldn't impose on each other. So Monderman developed a radical alternative traffic-management discipline that would come to be known as "psychological traffic calming."

According to Vanderbilt, "Monderman was, in essence, thinking like an architect in a realm that had been handed over entirely to engineers." For Monderman's next trick, he created "the intersection heard around the world," in the Dutch city of Drachten: an alternative to the traditional roundabout. There are no road signs or signals -- Monderman, who died earlier this year, was opposed to them -- but drivers figured out the "squareabout" nonetheless, and the number of crashes plummeted.

Wonderful stuff, animated by Monderman's iconoclastic voice. Wish we'd met him on Page 1. Or perhaps Page 15. At any rate, well before being rendered cross-eyed by Vanderbilt's obsession with two-word conceptual coinages -- "modal bias," "dilemma zone," "motion parallax," "induced travel," "traffic thrombosis" -- and the didactic sub-routines necessary to unbundle them.

This affection for the aloof lingo of research hints at the gloomy undercurrent that flows beneath Vanderbilt's reportage: Traffic isn't just annoying -- it's inhuman and rather dangerous. Vehicular mishaps cause more than 40,000 deaths annually in this country. In this context, Vanderbilt offers an almost nihilistic explanation for the familiar phenomenon of road rage: "What is going on seems to have less to do with a change in personality than with a change in our entire being. In traffic, we struggle to stay human."

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