Car Nation

Are drivers the source of, or the solution to, traffic hell?

At first glance, Tom Vanderbilt’s study of traffic, Traffic, seems like a perverse idea for a book. Imagine the tired commuter, pulling into his driveway, entering his house, and sitting down to read a chapter about the hell he just endured. Yet it’s just that sort of vague assumption that Traffic consistently reverses. As Vanderbilt writes, many Americans enjoy commuting since it provides a slice of alone time each day. The car becomes a pleasant cocoon for private phone calls, podcast listening, and idle thoughts. When asked, we tell researchers that we don’t want a zero commute—16 minutes is about right. And we never hesitate to tell each other, at length, about our ordeals on the road; traffic is right up there with weather as a subject we can’t exhaust.

Vanderbilt’s book surveys the advanced auto-life of America, where we have spent the past 100 years reshaping our lives and cities around cars. The Volvo, the Honda, the Prius have become our public selves, the face we show to the world, and the result has been a general decline of civility. Oh, how much easier it is to give someone the finger at 70 mph than at the farmer’s market. “In traffic,” writes Vanderbilt, “we struggle to stay human.” He approaches traffic as a collective human act, with all the complexity that entails. Our driving is fraught with paradoxes, unintended consequences, and inexplicable behaviors.

Consider coffee, or specifically Starbucks, which exerts a strong influence on traffic patterns. Why are there two Starbucks across the road from each other? The difficulty of left turns against traffic. A researcher has coined the term “the Starbucks effect” to describe the bevy of middle-aged men making a morning latte stop: “They were leaving their homes before it becomes chaotic with the backpacks and the school.” And so the search for a bit of controlled calm jams the roads in a new, unforeseen way.

Next, look at the chimsil, the name for that third rear brake light that suddenly appeared on cars in the 1980s. Do they help? Hard to say. Initial hopes were high, but recent studies have concluded that the chimsil prevents only a small amount of rear-end accidents. The reason might be the Peltzman effect, which argues that drivers offset safety improvements such as seat belts and anti-lock brakes by driving more dangerously. Wait, does that mean it would be better not to wear seat belts, to keep ourselves more acutely aware of our mortality? And what about helmets? Cheaper than side airbags. Might not be a bad idea to wear them. Even if you look like a go-kart driver.

In a similar questing manner, Vanderbilt details the opposing sides of traffic debates great and small: Why do extra lanes not make a highway less congested? Is it safer to have a compact, maneuverable car or a big, honking SUV? Are women or men better drivers? Alas, the road yields no easy answers. (And Vanderbilt definitely looked for the answers; the footnotes to Traffic run to 90 pages.) But there is a big dilemma that orients and deepens Vanderbilt’s sedulous analysis: whether we should aspire to make our driving experience more human or less human.

At one point, Vanderbilt visits with celebrated Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who created the “intersection heard around the world.” Monderman redesigned a congested four-way crossing in the city of Drachten by basically removing all of the traffic signs. The lack of signals created uncertainty and forced drivers to slow down, cooperate with one another, and watch out for bicyclists and pedestrians. It also allowed traffic to flow more smoothly. His animating idea was to put some of the “social world” into the “traffic world.” While talking with Vanderbilt, Monderman demonstrated the success of his concept by walking backward into the street—with his eyes closed.

Monderman, who died in January (of non-backward-walking-related causes) acts as a kind of Obi-Wan figure in the book, instructing Vanderbilt: “I always say to people: I don’t care if you wear a raincoat or a Volkswagen Golf, you’re a human being, and I address you as a human being. I want you to behave as a human being. I don’t care what kind of vehicle you drive.” The importance of what you might call “driving human” appears throughout Traffic. We’re more careful with a passenger in the car or when we are in our own neighborhood. People with the top down in a convertible will wait longer before honking at a stalled car in front of them. Bikers who do not wear helmets are given more breathing room. And, as Monderman and his peers continually discovered, anything that suggests the presence of people near the road slows down traffic. Hence, the stunning example of the Dutch woonerven (“living yards”), which often have children’s sandboxes next to the street.

But humans are also the major, insoluble traffic problem, the X factor in every road design. Rubbernecking is the classic example. If we don’t look: no traffic jam. Yet we look, even if the emergency responders put up screens. (We stare at the screens.) Or what to do about the phenomenon of “phantom jams,” in which a car rapidly braking for no particular reason creates a wave effect that slows down traffic for miles behind it? Nothing.

More worrisome is the research of the company DriveCam, which mounts a camera near the rearview mirror and TiVos what happens on the road. (Watch some of the terrifying videos here.) After recording thousands of accidents, the company’s CEO tells Vanderbilt that everybody is a bad driver: “I guarantee you that you’ve got driving habits you’re not even aware of that are an accident waiting to happen.” Often, the only difference between an accident and a near miss is luck. You drift off the road while typing a text message, and there just happens not to be a tree there. Or you fiddle with the radio and look up just in time to see the stopped line of cars at the exit ramp.

Given our human failings, traffic engineers and car companies have been trying to engineer us out of the equation. They plan highways where every vehicle communicates with others, automatically braking and accelerating, thus improving travel times on congested roads. They design cars that will slightly vibrate your seat if you try to change lanes and another car is in your blind spot. Vanderbilt describes the harrowing experience of driving in one such high-tech vehicle and heading at speed toward a parked car; his car automatically stopped for him. This is the insect version of the future, where the automobile, that symbol of freedom and individuality, becomes more like an ant marching in file.

No need to fret, however, that “on the road” will become “on the computer-assisted generic freeway.” Vanderbilt demonstrates again and again, in country after country, that traffic always reveals a “surrealistic” side. Build overly straight highways and people crash more; new cars in Norway are more dangerous than old cars; it’s risky to drive with a doctor, etc., etc. Traffic can’t be explained because it’s ultimately human. Auto-life is something a culture teaches itself, mile by mile. In America, we have turned our cars into padded living rooms and now face the challenge of getting out of one another’s way (and recouping the time we are losing). Meanwhile, China and India are working to prevent soaring pedestrian deaths (a stage that America went through in the 1920s, when the street was claimed as a space for automobiles instead of streetcars, walkers, and playing children). These huge, emerging car cultures have the chance to learn from our mistakes, but if there’s anything that trafficology teaches us, it’s that they will inevitably create their own challenges in the process. In China, for example, there’s a problem with motorists stopping to urinate in the middle of the new highways.

Traffic, as Vanderbilt’s meticulous map reveals, is a microcosm of ecological, social, psychological, even spiritual puzzles. Traffic will definitely change the way you think about driving, which also means changing the way you think about being human. To be in the driver’s seat is to be at the mercy of a whole world of other people behind the wheel, just the sort of sobering perspective we need in the second car century.