a book about traffic & why we drive the way we do

traffic different placestraffic (2008) by tom vanderbilt is about the psychology of driving & how traffic engineers accommodate human nature & perception <and its limits> when designing roads & highways, controlling traffic flow, relieving congestion, increasing driving safety & minimizing accidents

driving is an everyday task & skill that most of us take for granted / though as the book explains it is possibly the most complex task that some of us will ever undertake \ in split seconds and in high speed with no eye contact with our fellow drivers, we “communicate” by our actions & signals what our intent is on the road / but do we interpret actions & signals the same way?*

i found the work of hans monderman <dutch traffic engineer who disliked traffic signs> the most interesting & is an application of psychology & sociology / it also takes from the architecture toolkit | the use of space \ his work revolved around the idea that there are two kinds of space: the traffic world & the social world \ the traffic world, exemplified by the highway, is the realm of the car and is all about speed, efficiency & homogeneity / the social world, such as a village, is place where the car is just a guest and behavior is governed by local customs & interpersonal contact <the analogy is you behave differently when you’re in the living room as when you’re in the kitchen or bathroom>

monderman applied an innovative street design in oudehaske, a small village in the netherlands / the problem was that cars coming from the highway were speeding as they go through oudehaske & the villagers were understandably not happy about it \ his street design did away with traffic signs and instead provided subtle cues that cars had to share space with pedestrians & cyclists / the streets were redesigned to look more villagelike \ the width of the road was six meters <two cars cannot pass each other & share with a bicycle> | the curb was low which means that there was no separation between vehicles & people / in essence, this street design forced cars, pedestrians, cyclists to interact with each other \ the effect was that drivers slowed down and were more cautious / this came to be known as “psychological traffic calming” \ alternatively, physical traffic calming devices could have been employed <such as speed bumps or humps, chokers, diagonal inverters and forced turn-islands> but would have cost more & may not have been as effective

another one of monderman’s interesting work was the “squareabout” <a traditional village square with a roundabout> in drachten pictured above / the problem was that the four-way intersection of laweiplein in the city of drachten had a high traffic volume of cars <20k a day>, cyclists & pedestrians and was increasingly congested \ the roundabout did away with signs, traffic lights, zebra crossings & raised curbs | and solved the problem / the traffic flowed, with drivers & cyclists slowing down but not stopping

the seeming paradoxes are that the more a road or highway is made “dangerous” or “unsafe,” drivers behaved more cautiously and therefore made the road or highway safer \ and slowing down made traffic go faster & reduced congestion / interesting read | but it just reinforces what i already know and that is driving is dangerous & i really do not enjoy it

*the yinzer practice of the “pittsburgh left” is mentioned in the book | this is bolting left as soon as the light turns green / the car with the right-of-way accedes to this if they’re yinzers but upsets those who are not

thanks to my favorite curmudgeon for suggesting this book

2 thoughts on “a book about traffic & why we drive the way we do”

  1. I read this book a couple of years ago and thought it was very good. The part about traffic lights and colour blindness was good. The historical bit about traffic flow in Roman times made me laugh. Seems we’ve always had traffic jams.


  2. hi russ,
    so you’re a driving instructor! what’s your advice to someone like me who’s neither a late or early merger – i just totally avoid highways so i don’t need to merge 🙂 but i know someday i will need to get on it.

    curious, are uk drivers very different from american drivers?



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