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Driving is a fact of life. We are all spending more and more time on the road, and traffic is an issue we face everyday. This book will make you think about it in a whole new light.

We have always had a passion for cars and driving. Now Traffic offers us an exceptionally rich understanding of that passion. Vanderbilt explains why traffic jams form, outlines the unintended consequences of our attempts to engineer safety and even identifies the most common mistakes drivers make in parking lots. Based on exhaustive research and interviews with driving experts and traffic officials around the globe, Traffic gets under the hood of the quotidian activity of driving to uncover the surprisingly complex web of physical, psychological and technical factors that explain how traffic works.
Published: Alfred A. Knopf an imprint of Random House Publishing Group on Aug 11, 2009
ISBN: 9780307373175
List price: $21.00
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My father writes:
What a vast compendium of a multitude of studies of human behavior behind the wheel of an automobile. So many tidbits of information about how and how many accidents happen per mile driven, per passenger mile, per time behind the wheel. One of the many counter-intuitive claims is that because we tend to steer toward whatever we are looking at, we steer toward obstacles rather than away from them. I hope that fortunately people generally overcome that tendency before it is too late.Statistically, the riskiest (in terms of chances of an accident, not chances of being killed) driving we do is on quiet rural two-lane roads, such as around Battle Lake. It's hard to keep in consciousness that possibly someone just over the hill may be pulling out into the path of your car.I can personally testify from experience that drivers at an intersection do not see bike riders or pedestrians, especially if they are on a sidewalk, and particularly those coming from the driver's left, exactly the side to which the driver is looking before entering the cross-street or highway. I learned that to my cost when I rode in front of a car stopped on a side street entering a major thoroughfare in Lincoln. The woman seemed to be looking right at me, but started forward right when I was in front of her, and knocked me and the bike flat. She was still going very slowly, and stopped immediately, with a look of horror on her face. I wasn't hurt, nor was my bike, but that's just luck. I picked myself up, dusted off, and rode on to the restaurant a short distance away where I was meeting friends for lunch. But I don't assume any longer that drivers at intersections see me. If they are stopped and waiting for traffic to clear, and I'm impatient to cross, I tap on their hood and make sure I have their attention before I cross in front of them. This book reinforces my sense that this is a prudent thing to do.But much of the time we are at the mercy of chance when we drive, and there's not a lot we can do about it. When we read about those dozen-car pile-ups on interstate highways, we maybe think for just a moment about how close we frequently follow the car ahead of us, or, more often, how close the car behind is tail-gating. If we're in a string of cars, and the first one has to brake suddenly, the reaction time is less for each car down the string. So what is a reasonable braking distance for the second car in the string may be adequate, the same distance is not adequate for subsequent cars. But it's not plausible that each car down the string will keep a longer stopping distance.These are just a couple of thoughts suggested by a book that has more about driving behavior than anyone really wants to know, even if it is in everyone's interest to know.read more
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A rave review of this book told me it had changed the way the reviewer drives. Now I can say the same. Vanderbilt covers all the questions we have, about road rage, late versus early merge, the most dangerous places to drive, and more. a great read and an educational one.read more
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A fascinating look at the psychology of driving, based on the latest research into traffic patterns and driver studies. Cleverly-written, too.read more
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I had hoped Traffic would explain to me why there are these dead spots in my morning commute where traffic comes to a screeching halt for no apparent reason and why the idiots running down to the end of the merge lane are making life miserable for the rest of us. Vanderbilt did indeed discuss these issues and many more, but ultimately offered weak explanations for the most interesting (at least to me!) traffic phenomena. He's clearly done lots of research, and he tries to balance discussion between the issues of efficiency and safety. He's put together some really good discussion of the human factors and psychology associated with driving and with the interaction between drivers and the rest of the world. The discussion of why what appears to be less safe roads are often more safe is satisfyingly typical - it turns out when engineers make lots of allowances for safety, we tend to drive faster and more sloppily, so have more collisions.But understanding traffic is also about understanding noncooperative networks and the group behaviors that arise from collective individual actions. Vanderbilt is weakest when discussing these issues. This subject needs a little math to really provide understanding, and he avoids equations and graphs completely. For instance, models of the random stop and start nature of the morning commute are similar to models of lattice disturbances in crystals. While I'm not suggesting he cover soliton theory in solid state physics as a model of traffic, providing more technical discussion would have strengthened the book, although at the risk of chasing off some readers, I suppose.So what's my verdict? Traffic is a good book, especially for readers interested in human behavior and man-machine interactions, or the design of road features and how this ripples into safety considerations. Readers looking for an introduction to modeling and control of traffic flow and the impact on issues such as road design and urban planning may be a bit unsatisfied.read more
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For so many years I thought nonfiction was boring...but now that I've read several NF titles, I have changed my mind.

I learned so many interesting theories about traffic in this book. I think this book even made me a better driver!read more
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TrafficI have often been accused of being both an aggressive and an unsafe driver, much to my chagrin. I know I am aggressive, but unsafe? That I take exception to. It is true however that your own perception of how you drive is much out of whack with your passenger's perspective. Traffic - Why We Drive The Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt seeks to explore this most mundane of everyday activities. Driving and Traffic are technically separate but closely related subjects and Mr. Vanderbilt provides a fascinating discussion of both. Traffic begins with Mr. Vanderbilt's admission of being a 'late-merger', someone who waits till the last moment before exiting a closed lane and merging into a parallel one. There are some drivers who choose to merge early, as soon as they see a sign indicating their lane is closed ahead (or is exit only etc.), others wait right up to the last second and then indiginantly try to merge into the freer flowing traffic of the next lane. The first few chapters of the book focus on driving, taking into account factors like cognition, culture, human psychology (and psyche), self perception of who you are and who you want to be, reflex times and the meaning of gestures and signals. Chapter Five is provocatively titled 'Why Women Cause More Congestion Than Men (and Other Secrets of Traffic)' - but don't get offended yet, the author goes on to explain why that is so. Women continue to handle a lot of 'non-work' trips, taking kids to school and soccer practice for example. Women also tend to be engaged in what Vanderbilt calls "serve-passenger" trips, where they are taking passengers to places they don't have to be themselves and they tend to make several stops thus 'chaining' multiple trips. Women also tend to leave later for work than men and therefore drive right into already congested freeways. Hence, 'women cause more congestion than men'. About half way through the book Vanderbilt shifts gears (I couldn't resist that pun) and focuses on traffic engineering and management. Chaper Six talks about the confounding observation that as more roads are built, traffic only seems to get worse. The author explores the idea and travels around the US talking to traffic engineers and looks into the externalities of America's obsession with driving. Chapter Seven was my favorite, presenting the most interesting ideas in the book. The author talks approvingly of the work of Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman who supposedly hated traffic signs. The author argues, by citing examples and urging the reader to analyze his own experiences, that roads deemed to be unsafe tend have a lesser proportion of fatal crashes precisely because drivers are a lot more careful when using them. A smooth flowing freeway tends to induce boredom and distraction, and distraction at 70mph can be fatal. Chapter Eight is a quick romp through two of the worlds' most congested cities Delhi and Beijing. Both culture and corruption seem to affect accident rates and fatalities on the roads of these dense and, for a western driver, terrifying cities.Traffic could easily have been a work of pop psychology, filled with platitudinal wisdom. The appeal of the book is that it resists that temptation. This is a well researched book with a 110 pages of notes to satisfy the obsessive reader. The writing itself is engaging and enjoyable. Highly recommended.read more
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Note to the audiobook users: Be careful listening to a book on traffic while in traffic! You may find many of the insights a little too close to home.Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt takes a closer look at a phenomenon of modern living we're all familiar with and one that we all think (secretly, at least) we're better at handling than our peers. The way we drive is selfish, inefficient and messy and yet there is a certain ease and harmony to it which is why it is still the most preferred form of travel.The most compelling argument in this book is what I'll call "The Congestion Tax" or simply charging drivers for the privilege for using the most traveled roads. I've seen this argument in other forms (a carbon tax, for instance) and it is so compelling because there's an excellent case for both sides. The pros: Congestion would be eliminated, daily commute times would improve and fuel use per car would on average decrease. The cons: It's a regressive tax on the poorer auto users, it would be politically unpopular to enact and many would see it as a moral assault to our way of life which views roads as a shared public space freely accessible to all.As modern progress goes, traffic will only grow larger and more complex. A universal network of toll roads is probably inevitable. It's a common contradiction that most of us view traffic as what other drivers cause and not what we ourselves are a part of too.read more
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I enjoyed listening to this book on my daily commutes to and from the daily grind. Vanderbilt spent a lot of time researching the habits and tendancies of the modern day driver. He explains some of the reasons behind our actions on the road. He even gives some insight as to where oad rage might stem from. The author also suggests that the late merger might be helping us all get to where we are going much quicker; preposterous! I constanly found myself nodding in agreement to the comments he makes about other drivers, and even the way I myself drive. This was an insightful book and a pleasure to listen to, although I thought many times that I might not have found it so pleasurable having to have read it to myself. I guess it revolves around the context in which I enjoyed the book. It took on more relevance as I drove down the highway in search of another day, another dollar.read more
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This book makes you think differently about the way you drive. The author analyzes many different things that go into traffic and what causes congestion and accidents. Parts of it are interesting and many of the tidbits are eye opening. However my interest in in kind of waned after a while and I found myself not looking forward to listening to it and looking forward to when it would be over. So I would say it's not the most engaging book, perhaps thumbing through the print version may be different but as an audiobook it may not hold your interest. read more
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This is a surprisingly fascinating book, even (especially?) for car sceptics like me, shedding light on the many little-known facts that make traffic engineering such a complex matter. Exploring subjects such as congestion physics, group behavior, statistics, safety measures, traffic calming, culture biases and disturbingly adequate analogies with insect societies, Tom Vanderbilt gives a very thorough picture of the many counterintuitive facts about traffic. Reading this book won't help you avoid traffic jams, but at least you'll know how they work!read more
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Just the title of this book fascinated me. I tend to be interested in book topics that seems so mundane and everyday that one wonders how it is possible to fill an entire book. I quickly learned, however, that filling a 400 page book with information about traffic is rather easy. Perhaps because it is something that almost all Americans do, driving a vehicle only seems easy. In actuality, the act of driving is anything but natural and the occurrence of traffic has gotten exponentially larger as more automobiles have entered our lives (though traffic itself is an ancient phenomenon).Vanderbilt covers the bases in nine chapters (including the anonymity/lack of social interaction when driving, human misperceptions, measures to curtail traffic, parking, commuting, signs and road engineering, culture, and risk) citing study after study about traffic and driving. His writing style and congenial approach to the topic provide character to the facts without sacrificing the depth of the research. Also included are numerous conversational anecdotes that Vanderbilt amassed through interviews with the world's leading traffic and driving researchers. Traffic and driving are indeed complicated; there are no easy fixes that will work everywhere and with everyone. Counter-intuitively, more roads create more traffic, and the more we try to control and "fix" traffic, the more problems and traffic we create. I was enlightened by this book, and I daresay my driving has improved.read more
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A surprisingly absorbing account of what is known about the behavior and design principles that affect traffic. It begins with considering if late merging is more effective than early merging with respect to traffic flow, and concludes that the late merge is better. The author explores multiple societies, from the chaos of New Delhi to the sedate behavior of the Dutch, and explores a number of misconceptions about traffic. Road signs and barriers designed to separate pedestrians from traffic in cities seem to impede traffic flow in many situations. Roundabouts are more effective at moving traffic and are safer, despite the perception that they are more dangerous. Cell phones cause as much distraction and failure of traffic performance as drinking, and free parking on streets leads to congestion in traffic, although parking on streets may improve safety. The most dangerous roads are rural two lane highways, and doctors are among the most dangerous drivers. I read this in about two sittings, because it is well written and very absorbing.read more
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OK, I am a traffic and engineering geek, so I was pre-disposed to like this. But I think Vanderbilt does a good job of explaining the science to laymen, and getting into all the psychological stuff which you wouldn't normally think about associated with traffic.And, I've been driving way more carefully in my local streets -- it's a complete eye-opener in that sense.read more
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This book was full of interesting and important information about driving, something I never do. I'm probably even less likely to after reading this. A fascinating mix of physics, sociology, psychology, statistics, with a lot of good sense. If you do drive, it may change some things about your driving.read more
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A good read full of interesting information, but best when Vanderbilt stays away from the evolutionary psychology and a few other social things. The most glaring oversight was bringing up the idea of being able to report antisocial driving behavior, but without acknowledging that in today's society (full of systemic race, gender, and class-based bias) the reports would certainly be skewed away from "pure" driving behavior - indeed, other parts of the book explicitly discuss the limits humans have on objectivity. The majority of the book sticks to discussing less distressing ideas, however, and provides interesting facts and research on quite a few different topics. It is definitely worth a read.read more
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Very interesting, but rather repetitive. Vanderbilt has clearly done a great deal of research, illuminating human behaviors on the road and echoing observations and desires many of us drivers have. Skim when necessary; the book is worth it.read more
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I enjoyed this exploration of driving: driver psychology, traffic engineering, car design, accident analysis and cultures. Tom Vanderbilt did a lot of research -- both in the libraries and laboratories and in the car -- and has compiled this work into a highly readable, sometimes funny and often thought-provoking book.I think I will turn the cell phone off while I drive from now on, but I'm not quite ready to become a late merger yet!read more
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'Traffic' started off as a promising treatise on the counter-intuitive nature of driving: it's risks, management, and place in society.Unfortunately it didn't quite live up to my idealised image, but it was still a worthwhile read on all of the above topics related to driving, cars, and roads.read more
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I have driven across the United States something around thirteen times. Though my daily life does not involve jockeying through freeways at all--I commute on foot--I love driving. I love traffic. I love watching the shapes of traffic and the roads that carry it. I spend cross-country time daydreaming about the notions of traffic and the best ways to drive. To Tom Vanderbilt, I am at least in one way typical: I think I am an above average driver. Well, I am. I really am.So this book comes along--the book I have fantasized about writing. Written parts of, even, in my head. Done imaginary flights of research towards. As soon as I saw it, I had to have it. I coveted it with great fierceness. And I ordered it immediately.And yet: a letdown. Though Vanderbilt touches on the occasional wild fact that caught my interest, much of the book is a softer, philosophical discussion. I can't even really remember what it told me that I didn't already know. A few things, I suppose. But nothing that seemed much beyond the grasp of common sense.However, I think that this book could be wonderful for the right reader. Perhaps I, with my smug know-it-all attitude, am not being receptive. And, anything less than a masterpiece would have disappointed me, when it comes to this subject. Childishly, I was looking for radical facts I could awe myself with. I am being unfair.read more
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This book is well-written and extensively researched. Some of the more interesting ideas Vanderbilt discusses are congestion pricing and lowering speed limits -- both ideas sure to get lots of support (tongue-in-cheek). The best thing I learned -- driving is serious business and must be consciously done. We aren't just riding around in "mobile living rooms."read more
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I was really hoping that this book would answer such questions as why so many people don't use their turn signals or insist on driving below the speed limit in the left lane. I was disappointed in that, but did learn other interesting things, like why you drive on the right in some countries, and in the left in others. Also discussed is why people drive more safely when there are fewer traffic signs and other warning devices than when there are more. It turns out that people drive more cautiously when they don't know what to expect than when they do. Similarly, people drive more safely when the car has fewer safety devices. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt spends the bulk of the book on this point and much less on the question that his title indicated he would be answering.read more
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I began this book with the hope of determining why my wife is such a horrible driver. Indeed, I get it now. But far from merely analyzing “women drivers,” Vanderbilt shows how we’re all terrible drivers (in fact, men statistically cause the most serious “accidents”). In a nut shell this is a story about how, no matter how well engineered vehicles, roads, safety and signaling systems are, the human element – “idiot drivers,” if you will – reigns supreme. In fact, the more auto-friendly the street or highway is, the more likely one is to find themselves limbless or deceased.It’s an interesting book. Vanderbilt includes studies and statistics covering seemingly every aspect of automobile use. Much as I’m typically bothered by dubious, one-off stats as espoused by journalists, grad student theses, and pharmaceutical company sales pitches (yesterday my ten year old son informed an incredulous me that the majority of monster trucks – 59% - were driven by midgets), the author at least weaves these all into a compelling narrative. Extending beyond the shores of the US and Eisenhower’s Interstate, I especially enjoyed his take on the traffic in Delhi – positioned at the extreme of seeming chaos. I spent a few days there once and somehow lived to tell about it. The first auto-rickshaw a couple friends and I stepped into immediately came within feet of a head-on collision with a dump truck as the driver pulled into the road (unfortunately there seems to be no “I Survived Delhi Roads” T-shirts). Good times, but as I’ve similarly faced my peril a few times on capacious, almost empty US roads as well, I’ll just stick to railed transit. At least I can read books like Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do without sideswiping a Beamer during my commutes.read more
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This follows the template of Freakonomics blending economics. sociology and phychology with counter-intuitive results. Unfortunately, it very much has the feel of a book comissioned to jump on the Freakanomics bandwagon. Here's an interesting subject - I'll write about 10 issues, roughly 25 pages each - please can I have an advance? The results are patchy. Some of the chapters are very interesting - notably those on cultural differences in driving, the economics of congestion and the Dutch experiments on integrating vehicles and pedestrians. Others feel like filler, with a whole chapters devoted to subjects that could have been dealt with in a shortish magazine feature. As a consequence, more than half the book is repetitive and some times tedious. Vanderbilt is preofessional and objective throughout but its hard to detect any passion for the subject. The prose is very competent in a journalistic style but rarely inspiring. It's a shame because, this is a good subject and if the book were cut down a bit and other aspects of traffic dealt with (some more history would have been appropriate, for example) it would have been much more successful.read more
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Comprehensive run through of the social science of traffic, but gets carried away with one major argument. If it's true (as he argues) that each safety breakthrough (ABS, airbags etc) is self-defeating because drivers are more aggressive to make up for it, why do motorbike riders die so much more often? Aren't they in the equivalent of a car with a dagger in the middle of the steering wheel? And isn't that meant to cancel itself out by greater care in driving/riding as he argues? He can't have it both ways.One possibility which he seems to preclude is that some accidents happen no matter how carefully a person drives. Someone stopped at a traffic light who is crashed into by a truck would be better off with half a dozen airbags and modern progressive crash structure than none. I.e. some safety engineering is NOT overriden by more aggressive driving.But that's only one argument among so many. Great book, and great that it's so popular.read more
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Not the best-organized book I’ve read, but full of interesting facts, and an example of the way behavioral psych has infiltrated practically every subject, so Vanderbilt recounts some of the classic experiments about how rational evaluation breaks down in predictable ways. He also argues that roads that feel dangerous can be safer, because we pay more attention when driving on them; he treats sympathetically various innovations like roundabouts (here’s a short piece he wrote on that), narrowing roads, removing signs, and creating other visual indications that the driver really needs to slow down in a particular space. There’s a lot of informative stuff in here, especially about national differences in driving behavior, and also why traffic is so frustrating and why you shouldn’t get so mad at the guy who stays in the lane that’s marked as about to close until it’s just about to disappear—turns out we’d all be better off if people in that situation stayed in both lanes until the end, then did what’s called a “zipper merge”--but it’s a long read.read more
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A well researched and thorough book that reads like a good article in "Wired" but book length! A little US centric but manages worldwide coverage. Topics covered include driving psychology, driving aids, traffic planning, problems with perception and concentration and lots and lots of good statistics. Despite being US centric, the author manages to provide a book that is interesting, and challenging. It is perhaps not a must read for everyone, but if you are remotely interested in why we drive the way we do, and in understanding our fellow motorists, this is a book for you. If you want to be a better driver, there is also plenty of good information here - but it is not primarily an advanced driving manual. Nevertheless it repays the time spent reading it.read more
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Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt is a new book (out in July 2008) that provides an exceptionally well-written and comprehensive survey of the more interesting questions in driver psychology, traffic engineering, human behavior and to a lesser extent transportation planning. Following in a line of non-fiction books like those by Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Johnson, it takes an idea and develops it thoroughly (with 96 pages of footnotes and references). It posits road travel as a microcosm of human relations that not only can be informed by an understanding of experimental and behavioral economics, but whose findings can be exported to help us understand the workings of society.The key questions Vanderbilt examines range from when to merge at a highway lane drop, why the other lane seems faster, drivers increasing (and unwarranted) self-esteem, misperception of risks and traffic safety, why slower can sometimes be faster and the ideas behind shared space, changing travel behavior patterns and increased female labor force participation, to questions of induced demand and travel time budgets.When exploring these topics, Vanderbilt discusses key evidence and findings, citing the work of relevant scholars or practitioners, so this is true reporting and synthesis, rather than advocacy or agenda-pushing that one fears with more popular books, especially popular books in transportation and planning where everyone is an expert).When interpreting the literature in a finite amount of space and time, there will always be omissions or simplifications or misinterpretations. As such I have a few nits to pick.p. 121 "The ideal highway will move the most cars, most efficiently at a speed just about halfway [between 80 and 20 mph]." The book is referring obliquely to the Greenshields model of the Fundamental Diagram of Traffic. Most of the recent evidence suggests that maximum flow can be achieved at about freeflow speed, i.e. the fundamental diagram is a truncated triangle rather than a parabola for a single road segment. The issue is more complicated for a network which has spillovers from downstream links, where the combination of segments produces a more parabolic shape.p. 158 The explanation of Braess's Paradox could really have been aided by a graphic (and an equation, at least in the notes). I know this is for a general audience, but the book totally lacks in what would be very helpful illustrations of some of the key concepts. It would also have been aided by an introduction of Wardrop's Equilibrium and System Optimal principles. One suspects it was cut, as there is an allusion to the topic, and Wardrop is mentioned in the notes. On the same page, Roughgarden is mentioned, but not his poetic "Price of Anarchy", which is also really interesting in this context (the loss to letting drivers navigate themselves is much less than one might think). This would also have tied really well into the subsequent discussion of road pricing, which aims to internalize the congestion externality so that system optimal and user equilibrium costs are the same.Finally, I need to get his agent. The book was on the Amazon Top 20, and currently sits at 49. In a way it is a book that I wish I had written, with a much better title than "Freakoportation" which I had (facetiously) suggested to Kara Kockelman of the University of Texas.Nevertheless, I eagerly await Traffic 2, or whatever Vanderbilt's next project turns out to be. There is so much more in the field of transportation to cover, and really it is much more difficult and interesting than rocket science.read more
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Read this in 2008, but was reminded of it recently. I remember enjoying & finding interesting the information about traffic control measures in the US and other countries, psychology of driving, traffic calming measures, and the counterintuitiveness of some measures and the effect they have.read more
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My father writes:
What a vast compendium of a multitude of studies of human behavior behind the wheel of an automobile. So many tidbits of information about how and how many accidents happen per mile driven, per passenger mile, per time behind the wheel. One of the many counter-intuitive claims is that because we tend to steer toward whatever we are looking at, we steer toward obstacles rather than away from them. I hope that fortunately people generally overcome that tendency before it is too late.Statistically, the riskiest (in terms of chances of an accident, not chances of being killed) driving we do is on quiet rural two-lane roads, such as around Battle Lake. It's hard to keep in consciousness that possibly someone just over the hill may be pulling out into the path of your car.I can personally testify from experience that drivers at an intersection do not see bike riders or pedestrians, especially if they are on a sidewalk, and particularly those coming from the driver's left, exactly the side to which the driver is looking before entering the cross-street or highway. I learned that to my cost when I rode in front of a car stopped on a side street entering a major thoroughfare in Lincoln. The woman seemed to be looking right at me, but started forward right when I was in front of her, and knocked me and the bike flat. She was still going very slowly, and stopped immediately, with a look of horror on her face. I wasn't hurt, nor was my bike, but that's just luck. I picked myself up, dusted off, and rode on to the restaurant a short distance away where I was meeting friends for lunch. But I don't assume any longer that drivers at intersections see me. If they are stopped and waiting for traffic to clear, and I'm impatient to cross, I tap on their hood and make sure I have their attention before I cross in front of them. This book reinforces my sense that this is a prudent thing to do.But much of the time we are at the mercy of chance when we drive, and there's not a lot we can do about it. When we read about those dozen-car pile-ups on interstate highways, we maybe think for just a moment about how close we frequently follow the car ahead of us, or, more often, how close the car behind is tail-gating. If we're in a string of cars, and the first one has to brake suddenly, the reaction time is less for each car down the string. So what is a reasonable braking distance for the second car in the string may be adequate, the same distance is not adequate for subsequent cars. But it's not plausible that each car down the string will keep a longer stopping distance.These are just a couple of thoughts suggested by a book that has more about driving behavior than anyone really wants to know, even if it is in everyone's interest to know.
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A rave review of this book told me it had changed the way the reviewer drives. Now I can say the same. Vanderbilt covers all the questions we have, about road rage, late versus early merge, the most dangerous places to drive, and more. a great read and an educational one.
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A fascinating look at the psychology of driving, based on the latest research into traffic patterns and driver studies. Cleverly-written, too.
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I had hoped Traffic would explain to me why there are these dead spots in my morning commute where traffic comes to a screeching halt for no apparent reason and why the idiots running down to the end of the merge lane are making life miserable for the rest of us. Vanderbilt did indeed discuss these issues and many more, but ultimately offered weak explanations for the most interesting (at least to me!) traffic phenomena. He's clearly done lots of research, and he tries to balance discussion between the issues of efficiency and safety. He's put together some really good discussion of the human factors and psychology associated with driving and with the interaction between drivers and the rest of the world. The discussion of why what appears to be less safe roads are often more safe is satisfyingly typical - it turns out when engineers make lots of allowances for safety, we tend to drive faster and more sloppily, so have more collisions.But understanding traffic is also about understanding noncooperative networks and the group behaviors that arise from collective individual actions. Vanderbilt is weakest when discussing these issues. This subject needs a little math to really provide understanding, and he avoids equations and graphs completely. For instance, models of the random stop and start nature of the morning commute are similar to models of lattice disturbances in crystals. While I'm not suggesting he cover soliton theory in solid state physics as a model of traffic, providing more technical discussion would have strengthened the book, although at the risk of chasing off some readers, I suppose.So what's my verdict? Traffic is a good book, especially for readers interested in human behavior and man-machine interactions, or the design of road features and how this ripples into safety considerations. Readers looking for an introduction to modeling and control of traffic flow and the impact on issues such as road design and urban planning may be a bit unsatisfied.
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For so many years I thought nonfiction was boring...but now that I've read several NF titles, I have changed my mind.

I learned so many interesting theories about traffic in this book. I think this book even made me a better driver!
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TrafficI have often been accused of being both an aggressive and an unsafe driver, much to my chagrin. I know I am aggressive, but unsafe? That I take exception to. It is true however that your own perception of how you drive is much out of whack with your passenger's perspective. Traffic - Why We Drive The Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt seeks to explore this most mundane of everyday activities. Driving and Traffic are technically separate but closely related subjects and Mr. Vanderbilt provides a fascinating discussion of both. Traffic begins with Mr. Vanderbilt's admission of being a 'late-merger', someone who waits till the last moment before exiting a closed lane and merging into a parallel one. There are some drivers who choose to merge early, as soon as they see a sign indicating their lane is closed ahead (or is exit only etc.), others wait right up to the last second and then indiginantly try to merge into the freer flowing traffic of the next lane. The first few chapters of the book focus on driving, taking into account factors like cognition, culture, human psychology (and psyche), self perception of who you are and who you want to be, reflex times and the meaning of gestures and signals. Chapter Five is provocatively titled 'Why Women Cause More Congestion Than Men (and Other Secrets of Traffic)' - but don't get offended yet, the author goes on to explain why that is so. Women continue to handle a lot of 'non-work' trips, taking kids to school and soccer practice for example. Women also tend to be engaged in what Vanderbilt calls "serve-passenger" trips, where they are taking passengers to places they don't have to be themselves and they tend to make several stops thus 'chaining' multiple trips. Women also tend to leave later for work than men and therefore drive right into already congested freeways. Hence, 'women cause more congestion than men'. About half way through the book Vanderbilt shifts gears (I couldn't resist that pun) and focuses on traffic engineering and management. Chaper Six talks about the confounding observation that as more roads are built, traffic only seems to get worse. The author explores the idea and travels around the US talking to traffic engineers and looks into the externalities of America's obsession with driving. Chapter Seven was my favorite, presenting the most interesting ideas in the book. The author talks approvingly of the work of Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman who supposedly hated traffic signs. The author argues, by citing examples and urging the reader to analyze his own experiences, that roads deemed to be unsafe tend have a lesser proportion of fatal crashes precisely because drivers are a lot more careful when using them. A smooth flowing freeway tends to induce boredom and distraction, and distraction at 70mph can be fatal. Chapter Eight is a quick romp through two of the worlds' most congested cities Delhi and Beijing. Both culture and corruption seem to affect accident rates and fatalities on the roads of these dense and, for a western driver, terrifying cities.Traffic could easily have been a work of pop psychology, filled with platitudinal wisdom. The appeal of the book is that it resists that temptation. This is a well researched book with a 110 pages of notes to satisfy the obsessive reader. The writing itself is engaging and enjoyable. Highly recommended.
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Note to the audiobook users: Be careful listening to a book on traffic while in traffic! You may find many of the insights a little too close to home.Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt takes a closer look at a phenomenon of modern living we're all familiar with and one that we all think (secretly, at least) we're better at handling than our peers. The way we drive is selfish, inefficient and messy and yet there is a certain ease and harmony to it which is why it is still the most preferred form of travel.The most compelling argument in this book is what I'll call "The Congestion Tax" or simply charging drivers for the privilege for using the most traveled roads. I've seen this argument in other forms (a carbon tax, for instance) and it is so compelling because there's an excellent case for both sides. The pros: Congestion would be eliminated, daily commute times would improve and fuel use per car would on average decrease. The cons: It's a regressive tax on the poorer auto users, it would be politically unpopular to enact and many would see it as a moral assault to our way of life which views roads as a shared public space freely accessible to all.As modern progress goes, traffic will only grow larger and more complex. A universal network of toll roads is probably inevitable. It's a common contradiction that most of us view traffic as what other drivers cause and not what we ourselves are a part of too.
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I enjoyed listening to this book on my daily commutes to and from the daily grind. Vanderbilt spent a lot of time researching the habits and tendancies of the modern day driver. He explains some of the reasons behind our actions on the road. He even gives some insight as to where oad rage might stem from. The author also suggests that the late merger might be helping us all get to where we are going much quicker; preposterous! I constanly found myself nodding in agreement to the comments he makes about other drivers, and even the way I myself drive. This was an insightful book and a pleasure to listen to, although I thought many times that I might not have found it so pleasurable having to have read it to myself. I guess it revolves around the context in which I enjoyed the book. It took on more relevance as I drove down the highway in search of another day, another dollar.
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This book makes you think differently about the way you drive. The author analyzes many different things that go into traffic and what causes congestion and accidents. Parts of it are interesting and many of the tidbits are eye opening. However my interest in in kind of waned after a while and I found myself not looking forward to listening to it and looking forward to when it would be over. So I would say it's not the most engaging book, perhaps thumbing through the print version may be different but as an audiobook it may not hold your interest. 
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This is a surprisingly fascinating book, even (especially?) for car sceptics like me, shedding light on the many little-known facts that make traffic engineering such a complex matter. Exploring subjects such as congestion physics, group behavior, statistics, safety measures, traffic calming, culture biases and disturbingly adequate analogies with insect societies, Tom Vanderbilt gives a very thorough picture of the many counterintuitive facts about traffic. Reading this book won't help you avoid traffic jams, but at least you'll know how they work!
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Just the title of this book fascinated me. I tend to be interested in book topics that seems so mundane and everyday that one wonders how it is possible to fill an entire book. I quickly learned, however, that filling a 400 page book with information about traffic is rather easy. Perhaps because it is something that almost all Americans do, driving a vehicle only seems easy. In actuality, the act of driving is anything but natural and the occurrence of traffic has gotten exponentially larger as more automobiles have entered our lives (though traffic itself is an ancient phenomenon).Vanderbilt covers the bases in nine chapters (including the anonymity/lack of social interaction when driving, human misperceptions, measures to curtail traffic, parking, commuting, signs and road engineering, culture, and risk) citing study after study about traffic and driving. His writing style and congenial approach to the topic provide character to the facts without sacrificing the depth of the research. Also included are numerous conversational anecdotes that Vanderbilt amassed through interviews with the world's leading traffic and driving researchers. Traffic and driving are indeed complicated; there are no easy fixes that will work everywhere and with everyone. Counter-intuitively, more roads create more traffic, and the more we try to control and "fix" traffic, the more problems and traffic we create. I was enlightened by this book, and I daresay my driving has improved.
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A surprisingly absorbing account of what is known about the behavior and design principles that affect traffic. It begins with considering if late merging is more effective than early merging with respect to traffic flow, and concludes that the late merge is better. The author explores multiple societies, from the chaos of New Delhi to the sedate behavior of the Dutch, and explores a number of misconceptions about traffic. Road signs and barriers designed to separate pedestrians from traffic in cities seem to impede traffic flow in many situations. Roundabouts are more effective at moving traffic and are safer, despite the perception that they are more dangerous. Cell phones cause as much distraction and failure of traffic performance as drinking, and free parking on streets leads to congestion in traffic, although parking on streets may improve safety. The most dangerous roads are rural two lane highways, and doctors are among the most dangerous drivers. I read this in about two sittings, because it is well written and very absorbing.
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OK, I am a traffic and engineering geek, so I was pre-disposed to like this. But I think Vanderbilt does a good job of explaining the science to laymen, and getting into all the psychological stuff which you wouldn't normally think about associated with traffic.And, I've been driving way more carefully in my local streets -- it's a complete eye-opener in that sense.
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This book was full of interesting and important information about driving, something I never do. I'm probably even less likely to after reading this. A fascinating mix of physics, sociology, psychology, statistics, with a lot of good sense. If you do drive, it may change some things about your driving.
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A good read full of interesting information, but best when Vanderbilt stays away from the evolutionary psychology and a few other social things. The most glaring oversight was bringing up the idea of being able to report antisocial driving behavior, but without acknowledging that in today's society (full of systemic race, gender, and class-based bias) the reports would certainly be skewed away from "pure" driving behavior - indeed, other parts of the book explicitly discuss the limits humans have on objectivity. The majority of the book sticks to discussing less distressing ideas, however, and provides interesting facts and research on quite a few different topics. It is definitely worth a read.
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Very interesting, but rather repetitive. Vanderbilt has clearly done a great deal of research, illuminating human behaviors on the road and echoing observations and desires many of us drivers have. Skim when necessary; the book is worth it.
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I enjoyed this exploration of driving: driver psychology, traffic engineering, car design, accident analysis and cultures. Tom Vanderbilt did a lot of research -- both in the libraries and laboratories and in the car -- and has compiled this work into a highly readable, sometimes funny and often thought-provoking book.I think I will turn the cell phone off while I drive from now on, but I'm not quite ready to become a late merger yet!
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'Traffic' started off as a promising treatise on the counter-intuitive nature of driving: it's risks, management, and place in society.Unfortunately it didn't quite live up to my idealised image, but it was still a worthwhile read on all of the above topics related to driving, cars, and roads.
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I have driven across the United States something around thirteen times. Though my daily life does not involve jockeying through freeways at all--I commute on foot--I love driving. I love traffic. I love watching the shapes of traffic and the roads that carry it. I spend cross-country time daydreaming about the notions of traffic and the best ways to drive. To Tom Vanderbilt, I am at least in one way typical: I think I am an above average driver. Well, I am. I really am.So this book comes along--the book I have fantasized about writing. Written parts of, even, in my head. Done imaginary flights of research towards. As soon as I saw it, I had to have it. I coveted it with great fierceness. And I ordered it immediately.And yet: a letdown. Though Vanderbilt touches on the occasional wild fact that caught my interest, much of the book is a softer, philosophical discussion. I can't even really remember what it told me that I didn't already know. A few things, I suppose. But nothing that seemed much beyond the grasp of common sense.However, I think that this book could be wonderful for the right reader. Perhaps I, with my smug know-it-all attitude, am not being receptive. And, anything less than a masterpiece would have disappointed me, when it comes to this subject. Childishly, I was looking for radical facts I could awe myself with. I am being unfair.
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This book is well-written and extensively researched. Some of the more interesting ideas Vanderbilt discusses are congestion pricing and lowering speed limits -- both ideas sure to get lots of support (tongue-in-cheek). The best thing I learned -- driving is serious business and must be consciously done. We aren't just riding around in "mobile living rooms."
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I was really hoping that this book would answer such questions as why so many people don't use their turn signals or insist on driving below the speed limit in the left lane. I was disappointed in that, but did learn other interesting things, like why you drive on the right in some countries, and in the left in others. Also discussed is why people drive more safely when there are fewer traffic signs and other warning devices than when there are more. It turns out that people drive more cautiously when they don't know what to expect than when they do. Similarly, people drive more safely when the car has fewer safety devices. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt spends the bulk of the book on this point and much less on the question that his title indicated he would be answering.
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I began this book with the hope of determining why my wife is such a horrible driver. Indeed, I get it now. But far from merely analyzing “women drivers,” Vanderbilt shows how we’re all terrible drivers (in fact, men statistically cause the most serious “accidents”). In a nut shell this is a story about how, no matter how well engineered vehicles, roads, safety and signaling systems are, the human element – “idiot drivers,” if you will – reigns supreme. In fact, the more auto-friendly the street or highway is, the more likely one is to find themselves limbless or deceased.It’s an interesting book. Vanderbilt includes studies and statistics covering seemingly every aspect of automobile use. Much as I’m typically bothered by dubious, one-off stats as espoused by journalists, grad student theses, and pharmaceutical company sales pitches (yesterday my ten year old son informed an incredulous me that the majority of monster trucks – 59% - were driven by midgets), the author at least weaves these all into a compelling narrative. Extending beyond the shores of the US and Eisenhower’s Interstate, I especially enjoyed his take on the traffic in Delhi – positioned at the extreme of seeming chaos. I spent a few days there once and somehow lived to tell about it. The first auto-rickshaw a couple friends and I stepped into immediately came within feet of a head-on collision with a dump truck as the driver pulled into the road (unfortunately there seems to be no “I Survived Delhi Roads” T-shirts). Good times, but as I’ve similarly faced my peril a few times on capacious, almost empty US roads as well, I’ll just stick to railed transit. At least I can read books like Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do without sideswiping a Beamer during my commutes.
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This follows the template of Freakonomics blending economics. sociology and phychology with counter-intuitive results. Unfortunately, it very much has the feel of a book comissioned to jump on the Freakanomics bandwagon. Here's an interesting subject - I'll write about 10 issues, roughly 25 pages each - please can I have an advance? The results are patchy. Some of the chapters are very interesting - notably those on cultural differences in driving, the economics of congestion and the Dutch experiments on integrating vehicles and pedestrians. Others feel like filler, with a whole chapters devoted to subjects that could have been dealt with in a shortish magazine feature. As a consequence, more than half the book is repetitive and some times tedious. Vanderbilt is preofessional and objective throughout but its hard to detect any passion for the subject. The prose is very competent in a journalistic style but rarely inspiring. It's a shame because, this is a good subject and if the book were cut down a bit and other aspects of traffic dealt with (some more history would have been appropriate, for example) it would have been much more successful.
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Comprehensive run through of the social science of traffic, but gets carried away with one major argument. If it's true (as he argues) that each safety breakthrough (ABS, airbags etc) is self-defeating because drivers are more aggressive to make up for it, why do motorbike riders die so much more often? Aren't they in the equivalent of a car with a dagger in the middle of the steering wheel? And isn't that meant to cancel itself out by greater care in driving/riding as he argues? He can't have it both ways.One possibility which he seems to preclude is that some accidents happen no matter how carefully a person drives. Someone stopped at a traffic light who is crashed into by a truck would be better off with half a dozen airbags and modern progressive crash structure than none. I.e. some safety engineering is NOT overriden by more aggressive driving.But that's only one argument among so many. Great book, and great that it's so popular.
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Not the best-organized book I’ve read, but full of interesting facts, and an example of the way behavioral psych has infiltrated practically every subject, so Vanderbilt recounts some of the classic experiments about how rational evaluation breaks down in predictable ways. He also argues that roads that feel dangerous can be safer, because we pay more attention when driving on them; he treats sympathetically various innovations like roundabouts (here’s a short piece he wrote on that), narrowing roads, removing signs, and creating other visual indications that the driver really needs to slow down in a particular space. There’s a lot of informative stuff in here, especially about national differences in driving behavior, and also why traffic is so frustrating and why you shouldn’t get so mad at the guy who stays in the lane that’s marked as about to close until it’s just about to disappear—turns out we’d all be better off if people in that situation stayed in both lanes until the end, then did what’s called a “zipper merge”--but it’s a long read.
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A well researched and thorough book that reads like a good article in "Wired" but book length! A little US centric but manages worldwide coverage. Topics covered include driving psychology, driving aids, traffic planning, problems with perception and concentration and lots and lots of good statistics. Despite being US centric, the author manages to provide a book that is interesting, and challenging. It is perhaps not a must read for everyone, but if you are remotely interested in why we drive the way we do, and in understanding our fellow motorists, this is a book for you. If you want to be a better driver, there is also plenty of good information here - but it is not primarily an advanced driving manual. Nevertheless it repays the time spent reading it.
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Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt is a new book (out in July 2008) that provides an exceptionally well-written and comprehensive survey of the more interesting questions in driver psychology, traffic engineering, human behavior and to a lesser extent transportation planning. Following in a line of non-fiction books like those by Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Johnson, it takes an idea and develops it thoroughly (with 96 pages of footnotes and references). It posits road travel as a microcosm of human relations that not only can be informed by an understanding of experimental and behavioral economics, but whose findings can be exported to help us understand the workings of society.The key questions Vanderbilt examines range from when to merge at a highway lane drop, why the other lane seems faster, drivers increasing (and unwarranted) self-esteem, misperception of risks and traffic safety, why slower can sometimes be faster and the ideas behind shared space, changing travel behavior patterns and increased female labor force participation, to questions of induced demand and travel time budgets.When exploring these topics, Vanderbilt discusses key evidence and findings, citing the work of relevant scholars or practitioners, so this is true reporting and synthesis, rather than advocacy or agenda-pushing that one fears with more popular books, especially popular books in transportation and planning where everyone is an expert).When interpreting the literature in a finite amount of space and time, there will always be omissions or simplifications or misinterpretations. As such I have a few nits to pick.p. 121 "The ideal highway will move the most cars, most efficiently at a speed just about halfway [between 80 and 20 mph]." The book is referring obliquely to the Greenshields model of the Fundamental Diagram of Traffic. Most of the recent evidence suggests that maximum flow can be achieved at about freeflow speed, i.e. the fundamental diagram is a truncated triangle rather than a parabola for a single road segment. The issue is more complicated for a network which has spillovers from downstream links, where the combination of segments produces a more parabolic shape.p. 158 The explanation of Braess's Paradox could really have been aided by a graphic (and an equation, at least in the notes). I know this is for a general audience, but the book totally lacks in what would be very helpful illustrations of some of the key concepts. It would also have been aided by an introduction of Wardrop's Equilibrium and System Optimal principles. One suspects it was cut, as there is an allusion to the topic, and Wardrop is mentioned in the notes. On the same page, Roughgarden is mentioned, but not his poetic "Price of Anarchy", which is also really interesting in this context (the loss to letting drivers navigate themselves is much less than one might think). This would also have tied really well into the subsequent discussion of road pricing, which aims to internalize the congestion externality so that system optimal and user equilibrium costs are the same.Finally, I need to get his agent. The book was on the Amazon Top 20, and currently sits at 49. In a way it is a book that I wish I had written, with a much better title than "Freakoportation" which I had (facetiously) suggested to Kara Kockelman of the University of Texas.Nevertheless, I eagerly await Traffic 2, or whatever Vanderbilt's next project turns out to be. There is so much more in the field of transportation to cover, and really it is much more difficult and interesting than rocket science.
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Read this in 2008, but was reminded of it recently. I remember enjoying & finding interesting the information about traffic control measures in the US and other countries, psychology of driving, traffic calming measures, and the counterintuitiveness of some measures and the effect they have.
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