Book Review: “Traffic” by Tom Vanderbilt

One of the joys of working in a library is that I often have access to free books — particularly sample review copies sent by publishers. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt caught my eye a few weeks ago, and I’m glad I brought it home.
Traffic is published by Alfred A. Knopf (New York, 2008).

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

This book is an utterly fascinating look at the physiological, psychological and social dynamics of motor vehicle use worldwide. In a nutshell, this book contains insights into everything you’ve ever thought of (and a lot of things you never dreamed of) while stuck in traffic: why is the other lane always moving faster? What’s up with all these signs? Why do our personalities change when we get behind the wheels of our cars? Why is it so hard to find a parking space?

Vanderbilt traveled the world, speaking to traffic engineers, road planners and law enforcement officials. Along the way, he discovered many tidbits, from the absurd — topless Danish models holding speed-limit signs (strangely enough, it worked — no one sped!), to the nearly-suicidal traffic frenzy in Delhi, India, where somehow traffic moves efficiently. Vanderbilt also spends a good bit of time discussing the work of Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer and visionary who is the father of the Shared Streets concept.

The book is wonderful; filled with lighthearted humor and great insights into what’s happening on the streets of the world. Although it is not geared towards cyclists, exactly, there are tidbits contained within these pages that address some of our concerns.

You may ask yourself, “are humans REALLY meant to drive?” after reading this book. I know I did, and as far as I’m concerned, the jury’s still out on that…in any case, I sincerely hope that motorists who wind up reading this book may start to consider bicycles as a valid mode of transportation. Put this book on your “short list”, reading-wise. It’s really good stuff!


  1. Shek September 23, 2008 4:08 am 

    I just placed a hold on it at my library.

    If you haven’t read, try Divorce Your Car by Katie Alvord too. She has done a lot of research on America’s history and how Americans have come to be so dependent on cars.

  2. Shek September 23, 2008 7:02 am 

    I read Chris Balish’s book before reading Divorce Your Car. They are aligned in topic but Divorce Your Car is probably ten times more exhaustive with historical facts and figures.

    Take it a step further and also watch the movie: End of Suburbia and you will be just as flustered as I am :)

  3. bikingbristol September 23, 2008 8:44 am 

    the nice thing about working in a library….
    two or three clicks and the book should arrive by courier tomorrow.

    I am so spoiled.

    i am interested in the history of roadways. Any good reads that you know of.

  4. burnhamish September 23, 2008 9:01 am 

    I put it on my “wish list”, anyway. I heard a piece on this book on NPR, and it sounds intriguing. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  5. Ken Steinhoff September 23, 2008 1:41 pm 

    One of the nice things about working for a newspaper (up until the end of August, when I retired), was that I, too, had a shot at looking at the review books when they came in.

    Traffic was a great read and both reinforced and challenged my previous beliefs about what happens on the roadway.

  6. db September 24, 2008 7:44 am 

    the nice thing about working in a library….

    You don’t even have to work at one. Where I live, I can go online, search for a book/CD/DVD/video game, and then have it delivered to the nearest branch (well within biking distance). Libraries, when well run, are fantastic resources for depending less on your car.

  7. Ghost Rider September 24, 2008 8:30 am 

    Amen, db! Most libraries have implemented such systems…and they are great resources if you don’t want to use your car.

    In my case, I actually get to keep all these review copies — I’ve been a lifelong “print junkie”, and my dining room/living room reflects 30+ years of collecting books — they’re everywhere!

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