Sunday, November 09, 2008

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

You know that a non-fiction book is meant to be taken seriously when it has ninety pages of detailed notes after less than three hundred pages of text. Traffic is that kind of book; it reads easily and covers a lot of ground, but Vanderbilt has done a lot of research to get to that point, and it's all here for those who want to check him.

If you read The New York Times Book Review, you're familiar with Traffic -- it was cover-featured in the August 20th issue. (And it took this long for me to get hold of my library's copy; I -- and thousands of others -- have been looking for it ever since.)

Vanderbilt is a strong researcher and a clear writer -- he's clearly dug into his subject very deeply, talked to the top people in the field, and thought about it himself a good deal -- and his conclusions come with gravity behind them.

But I should back up, first (looking carefully over my shoulder, and keeping my speed slow), and explain what this book is about in the first place. The subtitle -- possibly the most important thing about a nonfiction book, as I've learned over this past year -- is "Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us"; this is a book about the ways Americans live and drive in their cars (and somewhat about the rest of the world along the way).

Vanderbilt looks at commuting, parking, merging when lanes disappear, the role of governments and societies in creating local driving cultures, which kinds of drivers are more dangerous than others, and how everyone thinks they drive better than the average driver. If there's one big lesson to take away from Traffic, it's that people make the individual choices that seem best for themselves at the time, even when those choices make things worse for everyone -- and, sometimes, even are bad choices for that particular person.

Books about complex systems fascinate me, particularly emergent systems, and traffic is certainly that -- there is an element of design to the flow of traffic, but that design is nearly always in response to the needs and demands of a myriad distinct and different users. Traffic is a good book on a complex subject: readable, coherent, authoritative, with a point of view but not an axe to grind.

No comments:

Post a Comment