Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) (2008)

Malcolm Gladwell once described his typical reader as "a 45-year-old guy with three kids who’s an engineer at some company outside of Atlanta." That same guy, I would wager, is the typical reader of Traffic, which was published between Gladwell's Blink and Outliers and adheres to the same mid-2000s publishing trends exemplified by those books. It has the minimalist design, the descriptive one-word title, and the explanatory subtitle — Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) — that holds out the promise of practical insight into real-life phenomena. And that's just the cover: the content offers a Gladwellian abundance of expert testimony on its subject, both judiciously quoted and snappily (but not over-simplistically) recapitulated in digestible chunks of conversational prose. It could only have have failed to win over our middle-aged suburban engineer for one reason: not actually having been written by Malcolm Gladwell.

Traffic did win him over, in the event, and other reading demographics besides. Its attainment of bestseller status put a bright feather in the cap of its author Tom Vanderbilt, who'd previously written books on the sneaker industry and "the ruins of atomic America" (missile silos, fallout shelters). In the dozen years since he's put out two more volumes, one on the internet-driven superabundance of choice and another, just this year, about learning new things past a certain age. (45, say.) As it stands now, Vanderbilt's bibliography evidences a broad curiosity that I can't help but admire. But it was Traffic that first brought his name to my attention, as it did for many others, and it's been floating around the lower middle of my reading list for some time. Only in the 2020s, writing about books on cities, did I realize I finally had a reason to prioritize it.

A journalistic exploration of driving makes for an unlikely "city book," granted, but approaching it as one does satisfy my contrarian impulses. In recent years, I've noticed that when I say I write about cities, people increasingly tend to assume that I must "hate" cars. Though some urbanists do indeed base their identities in large part on opposition to the automobile, I can't quite get it up to do the same. Admittedly, I've never bought a car, nor even driven regularly since high school. Years now go by between instances of my laying eyes on a vehicle capable of inspiring any semblance of desire. Yet part of me will always remain the teenager longing for a T-topped Trans Am, or maybe an MR2 — and if things went right, a Delorean DMC-12. Even now, living in Seoul in my mid-thirties, I fantasize about American road trips on a near-daily basis.

When Traffic came out in 2008, I still saw myself in the way many Americans without cars see themselves: as a temporarily pedestrianized driver. I moved to Los Angeles a few years later, figuring that city would surely all but force me to get a car. But it never happened: when I lived there, my day-to-day comings and goings required nothing more than my feet, my bike, buses, and trains. By the time I arrived in Los Angeles in 2011, the city's Metro Rail system had expanded to provide just wide enough coverage to be useful, at least to those who lived near a station. Hence, in part, my choice to live in Koreatown, with its three — count 'em, three — Red and Purple line stops, as well as its density sufficient to offer most of life's necessities within ten or twenty minutes' walking distance (especially to a Korean-speaker).

Los Angeles sold me on not just the pleasures of the urban, but the notion that I might never have to buy a car at all. That will strike some as ironic, given the place's frustratingly durable association with the automobile. Whenever I hear someone describe Los Angeles as the most car-oriented city in America, I wonder how many of the other 19,494 they've seen; Vanderbilt describes the United States of the 21st century as "the most auto-dependent, car-adapted, mileage-happy society in the history of the planet." Even so, any discussion of driving in America will sooner or later make reference to the southern Californian metropolis and it putative "car culture." Los Angeles appears early and often in Traffic, most prominently in a chapter that has Vanderbilt watching a Department of Transportation engineer manipulate the city's traffic flow on the night of the 78th Academy Awards. (Best Picture: Crash.)

Despite enjoying Traffic's sections on Los Angeles, I can't say I learned much new about the city from them. (One memorable exception: in the early 20th century, a traffic signal in the form of "a small clock whose hand revealed to the approaching driver how much 'green' or 'red' time remained" stood at the corner of Wilshire and Western — the location, more recently, of my home subway station.) But from it he extracts truths about the city in general. "Los Angeles, like all cities, is essentially a noncooperative network," he writes. "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." Here we have the kernel of the problem, if a problem it be. "Is traffic failing Los Angeles, or is it a symptom of a thriving Los Angeles?"

Vanderbilt is brought to that rhetorical question by Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. Taylor "argues that people often focus single-mindedly on congestion itself as an evil, which, leaving aside for a moment the vast, negative environmental impacts, misses the point: What great city has not been crowded?" This is a sound point too seldom considered, as are all those made by Taylor's economist colleague Donald Shoup, author of "a seven-hundred-page, cult-sensation tome titled The High Cost of Free Parking" (which also happens to be one of the great stealth city books). Shoup's research makes one of the arguments underlying my own anti-anti-car position: it's not the automobile itself that has so degraded the on-the ground experience in cities for non-drivers and drivers alike, but a choking excess of automotive infrastructure inefficiently priced, and as a consequence inefficiently built and used.

Alas, Shoup's teachings have yet to be wholly accepted even in his own backyard, as evidenced by a recent petition to "save" Santa Monica Parking Structure 3. In Copenhagen, of course, they do things differently. "Get rid of parking, but without anyone noticing" was the strategy employed by the Danish capital, at this point a tiresomely frequent subject of comparisons meant to illuminate the inhumanity of American cities. "From 1994 to 2005, Copenhagen cut parking spaces in the city center from 14,000 to 11,500, replacing the spaces with things like parks and bicycle lanes. Over that same time, not accidentally, bicycle traffic rose by some 40 percent." Now, as current diagnoses state it, "cycle traffic is now so extensive that congestion on certain cycle tracks has become a problem, as has cycle parking space." The builders of any city must first hope simply to cause lesser problems than they solve.

Copenhagen's successes with its bicycle infrastructure — symbolized by much-circulated photos, National Geographic in their foreignness, of its bike-riders wearing normal, decent clothing — are widely known. Less publicized is Copenhageners' "biological aversion to crossing against the light. Early on a freezing Sunday morning in January, not a car in sight, and they’ll refuse to jaywalk — this in a city with the largest anarchist commune in the world!" At crosswalks Vanderbilt witnesses them "stop, draw in a breath, perhaps tilt their head a bit skyward to catch a snowflake. They’ll gaze at shop windows, or look lost in thought. Then the signal will change, and they’ll move on, almost reluctantly." Much like waiting for the spring, this seems to him "a test of the stoic and wintry Scandinavian soul." Such first-hand observations of city life count, to my mind, among Traffic's most compelling, indirectly though they may relate to driving.

More often, Vanderbilt visits such punishingly unromantic locales as "a company called DriveCam, located in an office park in suburban San Diego" or "an Orange County suburb that is home to Airwatch, a Clear Channel subsidiary and one of America’s largest traffic-reporting services." His own reporter's instinct gets him audiences with such intellects as a psychology professor who "studied the behavior of parkers at a Wal-Mart in Mississippi," the "director of the Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the world’s leading authorities on queues," and a researcher of insect commuting patterns who happens to be "an affable Scotsman wearing a faded 'Death to the Pixies' T-shirt." (This isn't the book's only Gen-X cultural reference: Vanderbilt also asks us to consider how often we've found ourselves sitting in our driveways, asking, "as the Talking Heads once did, 'How did I get here?'")

None of their findings are uninteresting, but at some point — to recall the words of a former British Lord Chancellor — one has had enough of experts. Vanderbilt can't be blamed for playing broker between researcher and reader, a role this sort of book inevitably demands of an author. And Traffic shrinks from few tropes of its genre: not references to Daniel Kahneman's theories of decision-making, not invocations of the driver's brain "lighting up" in an fMRI machine, not even that one psychological experiment with guy in the gorilla suit walking unsees across the basketball court. In any case, I would guess that neither Vanderbilt nor his readers actually require much proof, scientific or otherwise, of what they must already have suspected about the system of ever-multiplying private cars on ever-widening, ever-lengthening public roads, as currently constituted in the U.S. and increasingly across the world: that it sucks.

This sentiment is amply supported by road-death statistics alone. But what keeps me from getting behind the wheel on a regular basis (apart from sheer lack of necessity in a city as developed as Seoul) has more to do with the effect of driving even on those who survive it. "In traffic," as Vanderbilt puts it, "we struggle to stay human," and if we've ever driven, we've felt that struggle within ourselves. Certainly we've all looked on from the passenger's seat as people we thought we knew become explosive cranks, compulsively self-justifying writers of "moral dramas," as another UCLA professor labels them, starring themselves as the "avenging hero." They run 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," if ever they do find one.

To the driver, all humanity becomes a great mass of "idiots." Vanderbilt seeks out psychological reasons for this quite early in the book, and in the main, the conclusions of the relevant studies (for this is a book heavily invested in what studies show, or at least suggest) align with my own long-held suspicion: that the road, and more so the freeway, reduces everyone on it to a depersonalized obstacle. This severe simplification isn't just a by-product of the environment, but a sacred principle of traffic engineering. In the eyes of that discipline, charged as it is with maximizing "flow," amenities like trees are highly undesirable: not only do they limit a street's potential width, they reduce the driver's visual field and even present a direct crash risk. Pull up the trees and the street becomes more readily legible from behind the wheel, and thus theoretically safer at higher speeds.

It becomes safer, that is, until drivers actually start going faster, freed from the need to parse a more complex environment. But this phenomenon is, as it were, a two-way street: "In both Drachten and London, choices were made to remove traffic-safety infrastructure like signs and barriers. These choices were influenced by aesthetics, but they had the perverse outcome of making things safer." In the parts of Drachten with "no signs, no traffic lights, no zebra-striped poles, no raised curbs, none of the ugly and cheap roadside junk we have come to think is part of our 'natural' world," citizens must perforce negotiate each traffic interaction individually, on a human-to-human basis. Typical scenes include one in which a "mother on a bike, carrying a kid, merges in front of a big truck with little more than the smallest flicker of eye contact and the slightest lift of a finger."

This counterintuitive finding (without a handful of which no volume of Gladwellian nonfiction would be viable) is best represented by the roundabout. That iconic circular piece of automotive infrastructure demands enough driver awareness to push its death rates far below — not above — those of standard intersections, where half of all crashes occur in the United States. Not coincidentally, the roundabout is the bane of the American driver in Europe's existence, deeply formed as his habits are by U.S. roads that have been denuded of unpredictable visual features and human activities, then loaded up again with glaring signage and blinking lights. A delusively large proportion of Americans consider themselves better-than-average drivers, but "in everyday traffic, 'good driving' has little to do with cornering ability or navigating between tight packs of high-speed vehicles. It’s more a matter of just following the rules, staying awake, and not hitting anyone."

Widespread adoption of the automobile — or its democratization, in that word's debased modern sense of "to make cheap" — has proven a lose-lose proposition for American cities, many of which hollowed themselves out to accommodate it and thereby became not worth going in the first place. Empty downtowns were a consequence, as were bland yet deadly highways like Orlando's East Colonial Drive: "Designed as arteries to ferry people from one city cluster to another," Vanderbilt writes, "they have instead become the 'Main Streets' for suburban sprawl, lined with busy shopping centers and strip malls." (Oklahoma City's Highway 62, along which Sam Anderson spends a miserable day walking in Boom Town, makes for an even bleaker example.) Though the word doesn't appear in Traffic, some urbanists refer to these miles of low-rent, high-flow nowhere as "stroads," an ugly name for an even uglier phenomenon.

The aesthetic nightmare of the stroad has a counterpart in the American automobile itself. Uninspiring lines, to which I previously alluded, are a subject for another day; almost as dispiriting is the fact that "the expanding car cup holder, which became fully realized standard equipment only in the 1980s, is now the vital enabler of dashboard dining, a 'food and beverage venue' hosting such products as Campbell’s Soup at Hand and Yoplait's Go-Gurt." Vanderbilt also notes the American predisposition to "putting cheap bumper stickers on their expensive cars — announcing the academic wizardry of their progeny, jocularly advising that their 'other car is a Porsche,' or giving subtle hints ('MV') of their exclusive vacation haunts." Such tackiness has long since pervaded U.S. motoring culture, or what was once U.S. motoring culture; the same type of degradation afflicts any specialist pursuit that swells into a mass obligation.

"You have a car in LA. not because you want one (as you might have a Fiat in Paris), but because you don’t know any better or because there simply isn’t any choice. You must buy all that metal, rubber, and gas for your very own, endlessly pilot your own ship and ride your own shotgun, and eternally keep that weathered throttle to the floor to keep the bastard behind you off your bumper." So writes Peter Plagens in "Ecology of Evil," his rebuttal to Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies and its celebration of the "autopia" supposedly constituted by that city's urban freeway network. Banham himself, that British outsider-enthusiast of 1960s and 70s Los Angeles, saw the freeway for Angelenos as "not a limbo of existential angst, but the place where they spend the two calmest and most rewarding hours of their daily lives."

"Like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original," Banham famously declared, "I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original." Vanderbilt, too, "reads" the cities he visits through the action on their roads, describing traffic as a "secret window onto the inner heart of a place, a form of cultural expression as vital as language, dress, or music. It’s the reason a horn in Rome does not mean the same thing as a horn in Stockholm, why flashing your headlights at another driver is understood one way on the German autobahn and quite another way on the 405 in Los Angeles, why people jaywalk constantly in New York and hardly at all in Copenhagen." Beneath these words lies an assumption that has become more subversive in the years since: culture exists, and it determines public behavior.

"At a Pizza Hut in Beijing, I watched with some wonder as patrons at the salad bar carefully arranged towering piles of salad on their plates, then carefully walked away with mounds of teetering greens," Vanderbilt writes. This comes during a consideration of road pricing, whose "basic model has been a state-subsidized, all-you-can-eat salad bar." Traffic also includes analyses of distinctively Chinese traffic behavior, which to a Westerner can look disorderly to the point of apparent lawlessness. A China Daily columnist frames it as a consequence of the Cultural Revolution: "People didn’t show any respect to any law, because Chairman Mao encouraged the people to revolt, to question authority." We also hear the more-than-welcome literary voice of Kenneth Tynan: "In an authoritarian state, the only place where the little man achieves equality with the big is in heavy traffic. Only there can he actually overtake."

As for the narcissistic legalism of the American driver, Vanderbilt stops short of confronting what it says about U.S. society, possibly because he can't bear to. But he does, toward the end, recite a litany of contradictions between thought and deed more pronounced in our countrymen than other nationalities: we "think roundabouts are more dangerous than intersections, although they’re more safe"; we "do not let children walk to school even though driving in a car presents a greater hazard"; we "buy SUVs because we think they’re safer and then drive them in more dangerous ways." The prevalent American attitudes toward the city, and the farrago of irreconcilable desires that inspire them, make no more sense. In Los Angeles, some streets have recently been permitted to support a greater variety of uses and modes of transportation than before, but that hasn't stopped the calls insisting on keeping it a "car city."

One lesson of Traffic is that you can either have the city, or you can have the car. That is to say, insofar as the city accommodates the car — with the free parking, the freeways, the standardization, the stroads — it loses the qualities that make it a city. At the heart of the matter is the distinction between the "traffic world" and the "social world," one drawn for Vanderbilt by Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who worked on the de-signing of Drachten. "Impersonal, standardized, meant only for cars," the traffic world "is all about speed and efficiency and homogeneity." In the social world, "the car is meant to be a guest, not the sole inhabitant. The street has other uses beyond being a means for people to drive quickly from one place to another. Behavior is governed by local customs and interpersonal contact more than abstract rules."

The current shortcomings of the American city owe in large part to 20th-century encroachment of the simple traffic world and the consequent retreat of the complex social world. In many suburbs the dominance of the former is near-absolute, the latter having attained scant purchase to begin with in such places. But then, they're less places per se than broad areas connecting virtually isolated buildings with exclusively automotive streets, themselves linear spaces in which no distinct or unexpected event can possibly occur — apart, of course, from a wreckage. "In Los Angeles you tend to go to a particular place to do a particular thing, to another to do another thing," Banham admitted in a BBC radio talk on his beloved American city. "You plan the day in advance, program your activities, and forgo those random encounters with friends and strangers that are traditionally one of the rewards of city life."

Los Angeles has improved in that regard over the half-century since, but it was hardly the only city to suffer deliberate sensory impoverishment. As a lodestar of urban restoration Vanderbilt points to Seven Dials, a roundabout connecting seven streets in London's Convent Garden. "There are no guardrails protecting the pedestrians sitting in the center from the road. There are no speed bumps on the approaches. There are no signs warning, PEOPLE EATING LUNCH AHEAD." Nor are there indications of the nearest Underground station. "I paused, looked around, and decided to take the road that had the most people on it. This was the social world, and I was relying on human instincts. My choice was correct, and I found the Tube." The place’s genius inspires him to quote a line about the importance of a man seeing "enough around him to keep his curiosity awake." Its author: noted urbanist Charles Dickens.


Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His current projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.