Honk and the World Honks With You

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A new book unsnarls the mysteries of car travel.

The next time you’re crawling along the highway at rush hour, silently cursing the drivers zipping past you in an empty lane that merges with your own somewhere up ahead, blame Tom Vanderbilt. Somewhere in the course of reporting his sweeping survey of driving, he switched teams and joined those self-serving opportunists who gum up the flow of traffic with their devious maneuvers.

To his credit, Vanderbilt (a contributing editor at I.D.) doesn’t pass judgment on such behavior, striving instead to penetrate the psychosocial mysteries that still surround driving after a century of practice. Traffic has proven to be so complex a system that it has outwitted every attempt by engineers to tame it (late mergers being just one finicky variable). Although the bulk of his book is given over to gracefully applied psychology in the mold of Malcolm Gladwell or Steven Johnson (“How Our Eyes and Minds Betray Us on the Road” is one chapter heading), Vanderbilt also does an excellent job of probing traffic’s blowback on American urbanism.

Without meaning to, his findings condemn a generation of architects and planners who have been asleep at the wheel for 30 years, failing to master the exigencies of the automobile before we exported it to the world’s newly affluent and aspiring middle classes. By 2020, he notes, the World Health Organization predicts road fatalities will be the world’s third leading cause of death.

“Affluence breeds traffic,” he writes in an especially trenchant chapter, deceptively titled “Why Women Cause More Congestion Than Men.” Traffic is worse than ever because while Americans are wealthier than ever, they’re not necessarily happier because of it.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, the population grew 7 percent between 1976 and 1985, while the number of jobs grew by 20 percent. But vehicle registrations nearly doubled. Why? “The more money people have, the more cars they own, the more they drive,” Vanderbilt writes. Ergo: “The better the economy, the more miles traveled, the worse the traffic congestion.”

How much worse? In 1960, the average American drove 20.64 miles per day; today, he or she drives 32 miles. That’s because in 1950, women made up only 28 percent of the workforce; today, they represent nearly half. Women now commute in the family’s second car, stopping at daycare, soccer practice, and Whole Foods on the way home. Because of that, Vanderbilt explains, “from 1983 to 2001, the number of annual shopping trips per household almost doubled—and those trips are getting longer.”

Thus stores became larger, which meant they needed to sit between communities—in the so-called exurbs—rather than in them, to serve more customers (not to mention make more room for parking). These same exurbs sprang from the idea of “drive until qualify”—referring to residents who drive away from the city center until housing prices fall far enough that they can afford to live there.

Between 1990 and 2000, commuting grew the most in counties where income inequality had worsened the most, a phenomenon the economist Robert Frank termed “the Aspen Effect.” In our unending quest for a McMansion to call our own—no matter the price nor subprime mortgage needed to secure it—we sacrificed miles and time, despite research suggesting that the pleasure of homeownership wears off, while the exquisite agony of commuting endures.

Traffic raises the question (although never explicitly) of whether it’s possible to master traffic, or will it always master us? Vanderbilt devotes an entire chapter to explaining why laying more asphalt never works (new roads just trigger latent demand). Using road sensors and GPS to re-route traffic jams in “real time” falls apart under the scrutiny of game theorists—drivers jam the alternatives in what one professor calls a “self-destroying prognosis.” The author endorses congestion pricing, which works well in London (and in Disneyland, which invented the idea to solve its own traffic jams), but good luck trying to implement it in New York or Chicago, America’s pedestrian-friendliest cities, let alone Mumbai or Shanghai, as he also produces evidence that traffic patterns are deeply rooted in local customs, resisting one-size-fits-all solutions. It doesn’t help that rising GDP and higher corruption both correlate with greater traffic fatalities; India isn’t likely to see its fatality rate fall until 2042.

All in all, it’s a strange time for this book to be published, what with $4-and-up gasoline having already killed cruising, SUV sales, and housing prices in the exurban belts of Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Florida. Sociologists like Christopher Leinberger and Richard Florida have already written off these places as the next “slums,” and announced that a “spatial fix” is underway that will kill the suburban landscape that driving is largely responsible for. With Traffic, Vanderbilt mounts a very convincing case why it should.

Greg Lindsay is a contributing editor at Fast Company. His book Aerotropolis, a critical look at air transport, urbanism, and globalization, will be published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK WEISS