inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #0 of 71: Gail (gail) Tue 13 Oct 09 15:36
    
Please join me in welcoming Tom Vanderbilt  for a conversation about
his latest book, TRAFFIC, Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What it Says
About Us) 

Tom has written for numerous publications, including The New York
Times Magazine, Wired, The Wilson Quarteerly, The London Review of
Books, Nest, The Baffler, and The Nation, and is contributing editor at
Artforum, I.D., and Print. He is the author of SURVIVAL CITY:
Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America, and has contributed
essays to many other books. We're looking forward to learning about his
bestselling, critically acclaimed book, TRAFFIC: Why We Drive the Way
We Do (And What it Says About Us), described in the NYTimes Book Review
as "surprising, enlightening look at the psychology of human beings
behind the steering wheels... Required reading for anyone applying for
a driver's license..."  and in the Sunday Telegraph as
"Fascinating...an incident-packed journey for which it is a pleasure to
accept the role of passenger".

Guiding our community discussion of TRAFFIC is Sharon Fisher, a long
time participant and a host of a remarkable variety of conferences and
conversations over the past two decades here at The WELL.  Sharon has
written about technology for many years.  She also writes about
politics, city planning, kids and sustainable agriculture, and probably
much more that I'm not aware of just yet.  Most recently here in the
Inkwell project, Sharon led the discussion on the urban chicken raising
book.  I'll refrain from any musing on fowl street crossing behaviors
and just say welcome, Sharon.

Glad you're hear, Sharon and Tom.  I'm looking forward to learning
about TRAFFIC and how it works, or doesn't. 
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #1 of 71: Gail (gail) Wed 14 Oct 09 10:30
    
Oh, by the way, there has been some great conversation about the
overall subject of traffic in recent weeks on The WELL.  

Some is car-centric, but it turns out that quite a few people put in
their time as bike messengers, and can appreciate the riding strategies
in clips like this (made in 2004).  I found it moderately disturbing!
http://www.digave.com/videos_drag_race.html 
Are bike riders especially interested in your work?  Most of my
thinking about roads that need to be revised comes from my time on a
bike.
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #2 of 71: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 14 Oct 09 13:11
    
Thanks, Gail, for getting things started. I read Traffic earlier this
summer and a number of us had been raving about it on the Well, which
is why it was picked as an Inkwell topic, plus the new paperback
version just came out.

There was a lot of really provocative stuff in the book, such as the
author's contention -- including cited research -- that more signs and
warnings and bike lanes and so on might actually make things more
dangerous and that having less warning material made drivers drive more
carefully. 
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #3 of 71: Tom Vanderbilt (tomvanderbilt) Wed 14 Oct 09 13:47
    
It's an interesting question, Gail.  I hadn't quite anticipated this
in writing the book, and I wish in retrospect I had devoted more space
— though I was already running against my limits, and much had to go on
the cutting-room floor as it was — to cyclists, a catch-all term that
includes me (sometimes).  I thought about doing a "cycle" chapter, but
decided that was rather patronizing and inconclusive, and instead tried
to weave in some bits throughout, where they made sense; the same for
"pedestrians," a word that strikes me as odd (there's a post on this at
www.howwedrive.com).  I joked about doing a "bicycle sequel," but in
some ways this was already done by Jeff Mapes in "Pedaling Revolution,"
among others (though I'd happily oblige if my publisher desired).

But in any case, what I think the cycling community may find of
interest in the book is the behavioral aspects of drivers, which
all-to-often are unfortunately a case of know-thy-enemy, in this
country at least.  One joked with me that he while liked my book, he
didn't need it to to appreciate the perceptual shortcomings, distracted
tendencies, or aggressive underpinnings of driver behavior out there
on the road.  He was already living it.  And perhaps something about
the nature of inter-modal relations, something I'll be writing a bit
more about for a magazine soon.

One other thing to note:  In sporadically doing the blog subsequent to
the book, I've found that cyclists or advocates (like Mikael at
Copenhagenize or the folks at Bike Portland, among many others) have
been some of the most supportive, or vocal in their opinions (I could
have written an entire chapter about the divided opinion over cycle
lanes, and perhaps another one over what TYPE of cycle lane; really
much more so than drivers per se.  It's such an engaged community in
general — the blogs! — which perhaps shouldn't surprise; and probably
the reason it's more engaged is that it's not the sort of default
setting of transportation the way a car is in this country.  Despite
the numerous rewards that may come (for the rider and society), it
takes an initial leap of faith in many places to get on the bike for
anything but a weekend jaunt, and so it's almost more of a
self-selecting group, all more or less fighting for more space on the
road, greater rights and respect, etc. No one really thinks much of
themselves as a politically engaged, activist "driver," except for some
fringe autobahn enthusiasts who think the roads should be limited to
highly trained drivers moving at very high speeds (something of the
flavor of early fin-de-siecle motoring).  And are there that many
people out there who really want to get a lot more driving into their
lives?
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #4 of 71: Tom Vanderbilt (tomvanderbilt) Wed 14 Oct 09 13:48
    
And hello Sharon, I think your post came in synchronous to mine!
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #5 of 71: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 14 Oct 09 14:19
    
"Slippage," we call it on the Well.

What sort of reaction did you get to the hardback edition of the book?
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #6 of 71: die die must try (debbie) Wed 14 Oct 09 16:50
    

I haven't read the book, but I want to!

I spent a year in Bangalore where the traffic laws are very very different,
and it certainly seemed like there were many fewer signs and a lot more
traffic, and very diverse traffic and very few accidents. It also seemed to
scary to drive, if you are used to the US style of driving. I also saw
almost no anger while people were driving - the only hand gesture was a sort
of why are you doing what you are doing.

In general I am a public transit person rather than a drive myself sort of
person. fascinating topic.
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #7 of 71: Gail (gail) Wed 14 Oct 09 17:27
    
(Quick aside -- if you want to see the amazon listing for the book,
here's a handy tiny link:  <http://tinyurl.com/traffic-amazon> ; and if
you want to tell friends about this conversation, or blog, tweet or
post about it off-site,  here's a link to the external view of this
very topic: <http://tinyurl.com/inkwell-traffic>

Also, if you are reading along without being logged in you are welcome
to register, but you can also email a question for posting - send it
to inkwell@well.com and put "traffic" in the subject line.)
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #8 of 71: die die must try (debbie) Wed 14 Oct 09 17:41
    

The QA at amazon is interesting. One thing I saw in India is that when
people needed to merge in, then they were allowed in without any attitude or
sense of indignation, just a sense of we are all in this together and nobody
wants an accident. Also the attitude towards pedestrians is so different.
Anyway, it changed my whole view of US traffic.

Have you tried driving in places like Vietnam/China/India?

In some ways I found the motorcycle taxis of Bangkok scary, but so
convenient, also the three wheelers in India.
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #9 of 71: descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Wed 14 Oct 09 18:14
    

I wonder if it's just me, but I believe that when I try to move over lanes
before making a turn, the person in the lane I'm trying to enter speeds up
to block me. So I've started speeding up pretending I was going to cut in
and when the person sped up, slowed down and moved over.

Is that just me or is it a more general phenomenon?
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #10 of 71: Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 14 Oct 09 21:46
    

It's not just you.
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #11 of 71: Lisa Harris (lrph) Thu 15 Oct 09 06:51
    
It's not just you.  I noticed the same kind of "we're in it together" in
COsta Rica.
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #12 of 71: David Julian Gray (djg) Thu 15 Oct 09 06:57
    
Most certainly not you - our fellow drivers appear to be mostly a grossly,
almost perversely inconsiderate group focused on asserting their power.

I haven't read Tom's book, yet - but this topic sent to the blog and I do
want to read the book...

Until recently, I made being a gracious and accomodating sharer of the roads
a conscious, spiritual practice ...
I say, "until recently" because for the past 5 months I've been exclusively
a bicycle commuter ... which is an exercise in self-preservation...
they (automobile drivers) are all out to kill me...
I got hooked on it in the summer - when everyone was on vacation and I
arrived at work pleasantly spent, nearly giddy, entirely stress free ...
but that was then ...

Switching focus... I will post a story I love to tell, and have told
elsewhere on the well, but which fits well here ...

Walking in the hills above Piedmont, CA with my dad years ago - we
looked down on 13 at rush hour and I pointed out to him how traffic
on limited access roads, when it reached a certain density, started
to move in pulse waves.
"Of course," he replied: "any merge lane becomes an impedence mismatch, and
impedence mismatches always cause standing waves."
I nodded, having learned this from audio engineering. He took a beat
and then added: "and what does this tells us about free will?"
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #13 of 71: Tom Vanderbilt (tomvanderbilt) Thu 15 Oct 09 07:54
    
I have to second jmcarlin's suspicion that people often actually speed
up when you signal to indicate you want to change lanes.  I don't have
a good theory for this, other than perhaps they suddenly sense that
vacate space ahead of them has become more "valuable," or of course
they're simply being selfish jerks.  A related pet-peeve is the
"eternal signaller," who I WANT to let in but takes so long to actually
do so that it ends up causing frustration.  In any case, it raises the
question of whether one should signal at all, because, as someone
joked in Boston, that's "revealing your intentions to the enemy."  

On the "in it together" idea, I have noticed versions of this in other
countries.  Horn honking, for example, which can often be taken quite
personally and with hostility in the U.S. (and of course is often done
with hostility), simply becomes a form of highly repeated communication
in countries like India.  It carries no personal connotation at all,
it is simply a ubiquitous sound, often used to signal to other drivers
it's not safe for them to change lanes — the whole effect reminded me
of the emergent behavior of flocks of birds, where the little movements
among individual neighbors in the flock are what determines the whole
flock's movement.

I once saw a paper that talked about traffic behavior in the context
of a country's economic system.  Was it a truly "free" market, where
prices were set by interactions among the buyer and seller?  Horn
honking in this case is just a form of negotiation, "traffic haggling"
if you will.  In more "fixed economy" places like the U.S., we
generally rely on set mechanisms, not just for our prices but for our
sense of rights and justice.  Our traffic interaction, like our price
mechanisms, are largely agreed upon ahead of time, enshrined by law,
etc., and so we become particularly upset when someone violates those
rights on the road, the way we would feel particularly violated if
someone overcharged us for something.  In a country like China (at
least this paper argued), being ripped off just means you lost the
advantage, and you'll do better next time. You don't take it as
personally.  This is crude cultural anthropology, I realize, but there
might be something there.  

I just saw a presentation at Honda R&D last week in which a person had
done some interviewing of driver's attitudes across the world, and he
had the suspicion that in countries that were less motorized than the
U.S., like India for example, there was a greater sense of the
pedestrian as a fellow human being, a greater sense of responsibility
for their well-being, perhaps an artifact of the idea that more people
are pedestrians more often to begin with, that being a car owner is a
relatively recent phenomena for much of the population.  In the U.S. I
find there's an inherent bias by car drivers against any other form of
transportation; almost an attitude that if you're not driving a car you
haven't fulfilled your life goals or some such.  

Of course, having respect for pedestrians does not always equate to
safety:  India currently leads the world in traffic fatalities, and
most of them are the so-called "vulnerable road users."  
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #14 of 71: Tom Vanderbilt (tomvanderbilt) Thu 15 Oct 09 08:52
    
I have to second jmcarlin's suspicion that people often actually speed
up when you signal to indicate you want to change lanes.  I don't have
a good theory for this, other than perhaps they suddenly sense that
vacate space ahead of them has become more "valuable," or of course
they're simply being selfish jerks.  A related pet-peeve is the
"eternal signaller," who I WANT to let in but takes so long to actually
do so that it ends up causing frustration.  In any case, it raises the
question of whether one should signal at all, because, as someone
joked in Boston, that's "revealing your intentions to the enemy."  

On the "in it together" idea, I have noticed versions of this in other
countries.  Horn honking, for example, which can often be taken quite
personally and with hostility in the U.S. (and of course is often done
with hostility), simply becomes a form of highly repeated communication
in countries like India.  It carries no personal connotation at all,
it is simply a ubiquitous sound, often used to signal to other drivers
it's not safe for them to change lanes — the whole effect reminded me
of the emergent behavior of flocks of birds, where the little movements
among individual neighbors in the flock are what determines the whole
flock's movement.

I once saw a paper that talked about traffic behavior in the context
of a country's economic system.  Was it a truly "free" market, where
prices were set by interactions among the buyer and seller?  Horn
honking in this case is just a form of negotiation, "traffic haggling"
if you will.  In more "fixed economy" places like the U.S., we
generally rely on set mechanisms, not just for our prices but for our
sense of rights and justice.  Our traffic interaction, like our price
mechanisms, are largely agreed upon ahead of time, enshrined by law,
etc., and so we become particularly upset when someone violates those
rights on the road, the way we would feel particularly violated if
someone overcharged us for something.  In a country like China (at
least this paper argued), being ripped off just means you lost the
advantage, and you'll do better next time. You don't take it as
personally.  This is crude cultural anthropology, I realize, but there
might be something there.  

I just saw a presentation at Honda R&D last week in which a person had
done some interviewing of driver's attitudes across the world, and he
had the suspicion that in countries that were less motorized than the
U.S., like India for example, there was a greater sense of the
pedestrian as a fellow human being, a greater sense of responsibility
for their well-being, perhaps an artifact of the idea that more people
are pedestrians more often to begin with, that being a car owner is a
relatively recent phenomena for much of the population.  In the U.S. I
find there's an inherent bias by car drivers against any other form of
transportation; almost an attitude that if you're not driving a car you
haven't fulfilled your life goals or some such.  

Of course, having respect for pedestrians does not always equate to
safety:  India currently leads the world in traffic fatalities, and
most of them are the so-called "vulnerable road users."  
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #15 of 71: Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually (rik) Thu 15 Oct 09 09:27
    
Primate behavior, pure and simple.   And much traffic behavior is
understandable from that standpoint.   After years of observation, I'm
convinced that humans spend far more time operating out of unconscious
drives than they know, and that they later rationalize these actions after
the fact, giving themselves the illusion that they think their way through
life.
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #16 of 71: Gail Williams (gail) Thu 15 Oct 09 12:04
    
David, that question from your dad in <13> above is amazing.  "What
does this tell us about free will" indeed!

The physics of traffic and the emotional or even logical approaches
drivers take can certainly be at odds. Most of us don't get the
"impedence mismatch" talk from our dads.  (I had to look it up, though
I know what a standing wave is from river rafting, where the boulders
most likely mess with the impedence.) We don't learn this stuff.  In
fact, we get pretty darned horrible teachings from movies and even car
commercials where all the other vehicles are standing still and our
hero (the newest car model) weaves and zips through.

Tom, what do you think of the promise and the reality of driver
education, in the US or in other driving cultures?
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #17 of 71: paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Thu 15 Oct 09 16:27
    
And how much does years of video games change new driver's attitudes
toward the teaching they do get?
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #18 of 71: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 15 Oct 09 21:34
    
How people behave about things like horn honking and speeding up vs.
giving you space is very location dependent. I had to change my driving
behavior a lot when I moved from the Bay Area to Idaho. On the other
hand, though they're close geographically and culturally, Boise and Sal
Lake City are very different in terms of driving personalities.
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #19 of 71: descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Thu 15 Oct 09 22:03
    

Good point. I'm not sure if it's still the same, but many years ago I was
in Boston for a business trip. I wound up in a traffic circle and felt
like I had to think "I have a rental car and I don't care" to fight my way
to exit on my street.

But my favorite story is of a commercial I saw during the late 60's when I
attended grad school in Postdam, NY which is close to the Canadian border.
We used to watch TV from Canada. One night there was a public service ad
asking people to be careful to not run into snow plows which I guess was a
problem.

I remember seeing all sorts of warning lights, signs etc on the plow. The
tag line was something like: What do we need to do? Have a tail gunner?
At which point a cheerful person slowly rose up on the back of a cartoon
plow with a machine gun. It's been 40 years, but I still remember that,
partly I suppose because I sometimes want to have a tail gun when people
tail gate.

I do wonder what kind of effective ads there are out there, outside
of the one I remember, of course.
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #20 of 71: die die must try (debbie) Fri 16 Oct 09 04:42
    

there is NO, I mean, NO respect for pedestrians in India. trust me on this,
seriously, it is your job to run to get out of the way. cars do not slow
down, you learn do not walk in front of a car, if you have no choice at
least walk in front of the auto-rickshaw or a scooter. the more expensive
the vehicle the more respect you get.
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #21 of 71: Lisa Harris (lrph) Fri 16 Oct 09 05:30
    
Tom, what brought you to the subject of traffic for this book?
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #22 of 71: Tom Vanderbilt (tomvanderbilt) Fri 16 Oct 09 06:37
    
So many good questions here, but to try to touch upon them all.  As
for why I wrote the book, the moment is described in the first chapter
and is a real story so I'll leave that.

As for the snow-plow warning signs, an interesting fact about snow
plows is that they're struck at a higher rate than other vehicles,
which is surprising given the fact that they're a.) huge b.) orange and
c.) topped with flashing lights.  Yes, reduced traction has something
to do with it, but another big issue people don't appreciate is that in
snowstorms, contrast is reduced, which helps create an illusion that
people are driving more slowly than they may think they are.  Ditto
with fog.  It's not visibility (though that they can be a factor too)
as much as perceptual shortcoming.

As for driver education, to paraphrase what Ghandi said about Western
civilization, I think it would be a good idea.  It's definitely
underemphasized in this country.  And while people do not with alarm
that high-school driver's ed classes have been cut, this itself has
nothing to do with safety. IN fact, several big studies have come to
the conclusion that drivers who took high school driver's ed did no
better (and often worse) than other future drivers.  The only thing
that has measurably helped reduce teen driver deaths is the GDL
program, which limits their exposure and helps mitigate the 'young
driver paradox' — they need experience to get better, but gaining that
experience is incredibly dangerous.  I also tried to find out whether
certain countries "did it better," but the evidence is lacking here as
well.  Germany's been said to have one of the toughest licensing
regimes in Europe, but Germany's not near the top in terms of traffic
safety.  All this is not to say drivers shouldn't have more training,
etc., but the whole curriculum and approach really needs an overhaul,
which is happening in certain places.

As for video games, there have been some interesting studies that
linked video game players with better peripheral vision, reflexes, etc.
etc.  And this links up in a way with some efforts to use computer
programs to increase the 'useful field of view' of older drivers.  But
as for younger drivers, whether they have faster reflexes due to video
games is really beside the point, for its not skills per se that get
them into trouble (or keep them out of it), its poor decision-making,
inability to accurately gauge risk, failure to treat the larger traffic
system in social terms that really gets them into trouble.  
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #23 of 71: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 16 Oct 09 06:44
    
I learned to drive as a teenager at a private driving school because
the high school I was going to had no driver ed program.  The guy who
taught me was a German.  He was great.  He taught me to think about
what I was doing, to look far ahead, and to keep everything smooth and
steady.  Decades later, I still drive the way he taught me.

My daughter, who will drive (shudder) in a couple of years, recently
asked me why I always drove so slowly.  I don't, actually, but I do
keep a distance between myself and other cars on the road, which she
perceived as going slowly.

To me, the most mysterious driving behavior is people who tailgate at
NASCAR distances routinely.  Lots of people seem to do this.  I know
how the guys in NASCAR do it -- they're freakishly talented athletes. 
There seems to be a widespread delusion that average drivers can handle
being only a few feet from the car in front of them.  
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #24 of 71: paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Fri 16 Oct 09 07:28
    
My question about video games mostly relates to the fact that in video
games you are encouraged to drive like a NASCAR guy and who cares if
your car crashes from time to time?  Wondering if it there is a way to
determine how much their perceptions about what is normal driving are
influenced by these games, and for that matter, by watching a lot of
NASCAR on TV....
  
inkwell.vue.367 : Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic"
permalink #25 of 71: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 16 Oct 09 08:36
    
I've tried driving at those distances just to see what it's like.  It
scares the crap out of me.  I can't do it for more than a few seconds. 
And while no daredevil, neither am I a scaredy cat.
  

More...



Members: Enter the conference to participate

Subscribe to an RSS 2.0 feed of new responses in this topic RSS feed of new responses

 
   Join Us
 
Home | Learn About | Conferences | Member Pages | Mail | Store | Services & Help | Password | Join Us

Twitter G+ Facebook