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!

Guest Article by Frederick Lippens: Riding on Cobblestones

Frederick Lippens spends a good mile of his commute rolling over cobblestones. While most of us don’t have commuting routes that rough, there are some good tips to share, so Frederick offered to write an article about his experiences. I’ll add some of my observations at the end, since just under a mile of my own commute (including the street right in front of my house) is on 1920s-era cobblestones.


On my daily commute in Antwerp, Belgium I have about one mile of cobblestones, which is not disturbing because it’s quite short and more of a welcome variation. Some people think they are remains of Roman roads; well, most are not, although a few of them still exist and are even still in use. But believe me: you don’t want to try those; just take a close look at Via Domitia, a preserved stretch in Narbonne (South of France):

via domitia

But it is true that quite a few of these roads still follow the original itinerary; they just put a new layer over it — why bother building a completely new road?

Enough history, let’s get down to business.
What do you do when it’s a longer stretch…what’s the best way to tackle a road like this?
Is there a secret recipe telling you how you should do it? Some just fly over them while others have to visit the dentist for new dentures after a stretch of these cobblestones.
There are different ways to approach this problem:
– weight plays a role; heavy bikers have less problems because they are more steady
– contrary to what most may think, you must remain seated, stay on your saddle — that way you have more control
– if it’s really a long distance you might consider deflating your tires a bit (more comfy that way)
– a curved fork is better than a stiff straight-bladed fork as is a frame that is less stiff (so people with bent forks and wobbly frames have an advantage)
– riding faster is better because it ‘flattens’ the road surface, you ‘float’ from bump to bump
– of course do not try the ‘ride faster method’ when it is wet, because cobblestones are very slippery
– always make sure you wear a helmet

more cobbles

The fact that these cobblestones are so slippery when wet is something I learned the hard way when I was young, but there is one big advantage when you fall on a surface like this. You don’t get any abrasive wounds as you would get on tarmac or even worse on gravel.

If you don’t know where you kidneys are located, believe me, you will be able to pinpoint them exactly when you have tried a nice stretch of cobblestones.

Still they have a certain charm; think Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, … … aaah, la douce France.

When cobblestones are wet, they are tremendously slippery. The rough surface and all those nooks and crannies trap water, grit and oils right at the surface, and in some cases the road will become almost as slick as ice. I’ve seen many a cyclist go down on the cobblestones in Tampa…the tiniest bit of moisture is enough to cause concern. Riding steadily at a moderate pace seems to be the trick — no sudden accelerations or braking, no hard steering efforts…sort of like driving on snow or ice (I know what you’re thinking: “what does a Florida resident know about driving in snow?”). Lowering your tire pressure is good for a little extra contact patch, as is swapping out skinnier road tires for something a little meatier (28mm or 32mm tires are nice).

These techniques apply for any rough road surface — whether it is old, cracked asphalt or “chip and seal”. My favorite “tip”, though, is to use your imagination: I like to pretend I’m in the Paris-Roubaix on the stretches of cobbles. Taking your mind off the incessant rattling is a good thing!

even more cobbles

Flip That Bike-Fila Torino:SOLD!

I wanted to post an update on my recent flipped bike. The Fila Torino sold this afternoon for a cool $150! I had originally posted it for $175 but after one week, I didn’t sell it and decided to relist it at $150. Sure enough, after one day being listed, the bike sold.

The funny thing was, the guy that I sold it to said he’d take it without even riding it. I still felt compelled to give him my sales pitch so I did and I encouraged him to at least test ride the bike.

Now that transaction is over, I have two more bikes to flip! I’ll keep you all posted since these bikes will take more work than I had originally anticipated.

Not Something You See Every Day…

I don’t usually carry a camera when I commute…I wish I did more often, but it is one extra thing to worry about. Today, though, I had some time on my hands and I wanted to snap a disturbing photo to share with you.

Before that, though, I got a couple shots of something most of us don’t get to see very often on our commutes. We’re used to seeing cars, buildings and the like, but when was the last time you saw a dolphin on your commute?!?

Just a few blocks from where I work is the Tampa Convention Center, home of the fabled (and way behind schedule) Tampa Riverwalk. This section of the Riverwalk is at the confluence of the Hillsborough River and both Seddon and Garrison Channels. I was standing at the seawall, catching my breath and getting a drink of water when I saw a couple of huge splashes. I whipped out my camera just in time to capture a young Tursiops truncatus, the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin, chasing a fat mullet…

You can see him just to the right of the red arrow:

And here he is ducking under the edge of the seawall:

How cool is that? There were at least three others feeding in the area, but my batteries died on me so I didn’t get shots of them. I’ll go back, though…it was exciting to see such beautiful creatures mere feet away from me!

After that, I took a spin over to Tampa General Hospital, where a crosswalk sign caught my eyes a few months ago. Within days of the installation of this sign, I noticed that it had some damage done to it. Since then, the damage has only gotten worse:


Yeah, that’s right: cars keep driving OVER this sign! This sign is placed squarely in the middle of a well-trafficked crosswalk that separates the hospital’s parking garage from Davis Islands, where there are a number of hospital-affiliated offices. It’s a surprise that no one has gotten creamed by a vehicle here; if motorists can’t avoid a bright green warning sign, what’s to stop them from hitting a person?

NYC Bike Commuters Survey Published

Back in March, we were contacted by Matthew Ides, a graduate researcher from Hunter College in New York City. He was looking for NYC-area bike commuters for a project he was working on. Matthew wrote, “The sole purpose is to record the subjective perspective (mental image/imageability) New York City bicycle commuters have of the build environment, good or bad, through a survey.”

He sent me a note today — the completed survey results are now available for viewing. Check it out by visiting his Scribd site.

Good work, Matthew…and thanks to the readers who responded to the initial call.