Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

This is my first Kindle book. I’ve resisted going to ebooks for a long time since I like physical books and have had bad experiences with reading on my laptop. But my friends got me a Kindle for my birthday (Thanks!), so now I have no excuses to not try it. Even though the setup and navigation were much more user unfriendly than I had expected, the actual reading experience on the Kindle was nice. My eyes didn’t get particularly tired, and the real game changer is being able to read and still have two hands to eat. One annoying point though – I thought this book was super long. As I got to the point where I asked myself what more can this book talk about, it still said I was 64% through. But then the book suddenly ended. The rest were notes.

1) Pascal of the triangle also said, “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact. That they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”

Too wise.

2) In the US, the passenger side rearview mirror is convex. The driver side’s is not. In Europe, both are.

The convexity of the mirror allows drivers to see more. But by doing so, the objects in the mirror look smaller (think of how it’s fitting more in the same space, vs a flat mirror). We understand smaller objects to be far. Hence the warning on the mirrors – objects are closer than they may appear.

3) The actor observer effect says that when one is the actor, we tend to attribute behavior to the situation/environment. But when one is the observer, we tend to attribute the actor’s behavior to his/her personality.

This book is chuck full of social science terms. All in all, it must have referenced over 100 studies. It definitely got tiring really quick, but I liked this actor observer effect. Surprised I’ve never heard of it before.

4) It’s an illusion that we are always getting passed more than we are passing others.

Of course this is true, but reading a former “analysis” was still eye opening. When you’re breaking away, you zoom by a bunch of stopped cars in the other lane. But when your lane becomes the slow lane, you spend more time looking at the cars passing you.

5) The Hawthorne effect says that people in experiments change their behavior because they are in experiments.

This is probably the biggest problem in social science experiments, after p-value fudging.

6) Mormon crickets move as a giant group, but not as a cooperative swarm. It’s actually competition. When they get hungry, they try to eat each other. Each cricket wants to move away from the others trying to eat them but also towards those they are trying to eat. Staying in the group is better off than going off on its own.

I watched a Youtube video of these Mormon crickets. They are scary.

7) Braess’s paradox states that by building (closing) roads, travel time may get longer (shorter).

Braess’s paradox is a specific application of Nash’s equilibrium. An example would take too long to explain, but essentially, new roads may incentivize everyone to take a certain road versus spreading themselves out. But because everyone chooses the same road, it reduces everyone’s speed and ends up hurting all.

8) Traffic circles are not roundabouts.

Cars already in the circle must yield to cars entering. In roundabouts, entering cars yield to those already in the roundabout. Traffic circles are also typically larger and feature traffic signals. I feel like I knew this distinction at some point. Probably when I was taking my permit test.

9) Woonerven – “living yards” – get cars and people to coexist.

Woonervens started in Europe in the early 1970s. Pedestrians, cyclists, and cars share the same space.

10) In Bermuda, the island-wide speed limit is about 22 mph.

Wow. Island life is real.

Bonus) In Mexico City, female traffic officers have replaced all male traffic officers to fight corruption and bribing.

I can’t decide if this is sexist or progressive. It’s probably both.

I learned a surprising amount from this book (I feel like I say this a lot), and it’s definitely something that will come up in my mind as I drive around. Traffic is such a big part of everyone’s lives, but it feels like not enough people are putting in the effort to improve it. Tragedy of the commons is likely a culprit. Throughout the book, the author focuses on the human factor of driving, and how it’s the root cause of almost all driving-related frustrations. This was written in 2008 though. Although there is a chapter on self driving cars, the author doesn’t really consider the prospects of this possible paradigm change and how it can affect traffic. I think we are now at a point where self driving cars will happen. It’s a matter of when humans can accept it. What are the liabilities? How do you sue a car without a driver? If, like Vanderbilt claims, traffic is so much about human factors, does that mean self driving cars will solve the puzzle?

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