Book Notes: Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic

Before I launch into my more complicated reactions to some of the material in the book, I should be clear: this is a really good book (and Vanderbilt has a nice blog to go along with it). If you get twitchy about Malcolm Gladwell’s almost complete stripping out of references to his source material, you’ll like this a lot better, as it is much easier to follow the trail of breadcrumbs from Vanderbilt back to his sources and research. The book is written as an exploration of the state-of-the-art in traffic studies, rather than driving inexorably towards a single strong thesis or synthesis view of driving and transportation.

I’d say that it made me think in some new ways about my own experiences as a driver, particularly in terms of the way I read the behavior of other drivers as having moral or social significance.

However, I also did find myself feeling some familiar frustrations as the book went on, not so much towards Vanderbilt as towards some of the expert views or perspectives he features. (Though he does have the occasional annoying habit, common in this kind of non-fiction, of temporarily adopting the perspective or filter of the dominant expert perspective that he’s exploring in a given chapter, even if in a later chapter, he’s looking at a different, conflicting perspective or approach.)

Here’s the two things which sometimes got under my skin.

The inability of experts to see the history of their expertise as part of the problems that they’re trying to solve today. There’s a certain amount of talk by traffic and transportation experts in the book about the degree to which the awareness of drivers about the intent of traffic engineers alters the behavior of drivers. E.g., that if drivers know that a particular design for a road network or signage, etc., is meant to elicit a particular behavior from drivers, they sometimes seem to perversely foil or resist that intent.

So at least some of the people Vanderbilt is talking to actually try to veil or hide what they’re doing on the logic that this is a better way to herd human cattle towards desired ends. They also seem to have no way to understand why people react to expert solutions in unexpected or unplanned ways except to see those reactions as perverse products of some kind of root-level psychological quirk.

I know this is an old theme at this blog, but the fact is that Americans (and other national citizenries) have perfectly good reasons to view expert-driven management of everyday life with some degree of suspicion. Vanderbilt’s book offers plenty of examples of how the certainties of yesterday’s traffic engineers or planners created serious problems precisely because those certainties were based on fundamentally flawed understandings of the consequences or were justified in terms of some mainstream social ideology about how people should live. Knowing this history doesn’t seem to check the hubris of contemporary expertise in many case: instead, they relentlessly double-down their bets. This time they’ve got it right! This time, we should live in a signless utopia where all the roads have roundabouts and there are naked women and children on tricycles crossing in front of us so that we pay attention to our surroundings.

If the perception that an expert solution is redirecting our behavior in our physical or social landscape often goads people to do the opposite (or to simply elide or evade some of what they are being encouraged to do), that is on some level a perfectly rational processing of the actual history of expert policy formation and intervention over the last century. Sometimes this is also because (then or now) what experts are trying to get people to do is very actively not in the interests of most people, but sometimes people are simply trying to keep their options open, to make sure that they don’t get overly committed to one way of behaving in advance of some proof that it’s a good solution or system.

Until this leads to some greater measure of humility about the value of expertise itself, expect this kind of wary evasion of expert solutions to continue, for completely rational reasons.

Secondly, at least some of the experts that Vanderbilt relies upon have a typical problem that afflicts a lot of applied social science, namely, that local culture (habits of thoughts, ways of seeing the world, routinized practices, belief systems, etc.) is treated either as an incomprehensible externality which has to be compensated for but not investigated or is taken to be a hidden universal that is disguising itself as a local particularity.

In the first case, when planners become aware that people in a particular society or community or place have very particular habits or understandings of driving or transportation, they just bracket that off as another technical challenge like “it’s very hilly hereabouts” or “it snows a lot in this place”. Cultural practice isn’t something they investigate or try to understand in its own terms, and because planners take it to be a fixed property of the locality that has to be accomodated rather than engaged and understood, they’re often flummoxed when the culture of driving or moving through the environment changes, sometimes in dynamic response to the changes made by planners themselves.

In the second case, planners look at some practice or behavior that’s manifestly cultural and decide that it’s actually some universal facet of human neurobiology or social psychology or economics that only appears to be local, particular and mutable. So as soon as they can get everything they’re seeing safely packaged back inside that universal, they can get back to building the better mousetrap. I don’t doubt that a lot of the research Vanderbilt describes is perfectly correct that many universal aspects of human biology, psychology, perception and economics are at play in how we drive or move through the world. For example, the material on how we perceive the speed of an oncoming object, and how road design affects that perception, is totally convincing, and I’m sure influences what happens on the road in Kenya as much as it does in Wyoming. On the other hand, when we’re talking about how (or whether) people view queuing for lane changes in moral terms, I expect that to vary a lot based on cultural expectations and practices of everyday life, and to have a bit less tossing about of generic homo economicus formulations.

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4 Responses to Book Notes: Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic

  1. joe o says:

    This time, we should live in a signless utopia where all the roads have roundabouts and there are naked women and children on tricycles crossing in front of us so that we pay attention to our surroundings.

    This part of the book was made a lot less persuasive by the other part of the book that talks about what a death trap the roads in china and india are.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I had the exact same thought, and it sort of irritated me that Vanderbilt had such a strong firewall up between the different chapters that he didn’t even try to be thoughtful about the contradictions. But here’s where “culture” also functions for some branches of applied social science as an endless get-out-of-jail-free card: universal prescriptions don’t hold or fail where culture is somehow perversely unaligned with universal conditions. (See “the reason the predicted results did not actually happen is that there is informational asymmetry” in mainstream economics.)

  3. Simon Shoedecker says:

    I found it a very annoying book: there were some good points on “perverse” behavior, but the statistics were never measured against expectation. So half of all accidents occur at intersections, aren’t at least half of all cars crossing your path at intersections? If more sober drivers have accidents than drunk drivers, aren’t there a heck of a lot more sober drivers than drunk drivers? (He didn’t say it was per capita.) Vanderbilt’s amazement at these statistics is reminiscent of the H.R. manager who was outraged that a full 40% of sick days were taken on Monday or Friday.

    That’s just what I remember from having read the book six months ago. Your post would have been more helpful had you given specific examples of the phenomena you discuss, other than one passing reference to merging. Statements about drivers having “very particular habits” or “trying to keep their options open” seem vague and disconnected without some examples of what these are in reality, and they don’t bring back to my mind anything specific from the book.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    When I write about books here, I generally want to give myself the indulgence of writing quick, impressionistic reactions to a text, because I feel like the more thoughtful and careful I feel I need to be, the more I’m going to fall into the paralysis that I often feel around writing reviews of academic work in academic journals. But I take your point–I’ll dig through the book a bit this afternoon if I can for some of the really striking parts that I underlined or noted along these lines. One off the top of my head is the discussion of queueing and the way American drivers view queueing behavior on the road in moralized terms: Vanderbilt’s sources take this largely as a consequence of deep human psychological reactions to anonymity, or as utility-maximizing responses to scarce goods, whereas it seems to me that there is something else involved that has to do with American individualism, etc, that queueing behaviors on and off the road are very different in other parts of the world and have been different at past moments. Another thing that largely drops out is simply the particularity of American car culture and its history and its relationship to American ideas about movement and transportation.

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