Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

December 1st, 2008 at 6:06 pm

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Non-fiction books of this ilk seek to discern some significant, useful meaning from our frenzied existence by closely examining a specific element of said frenzied existence, whether that thing is relatively big (traffic) or small (toothpicks).

And while Mr. Vanderbilt certainly succeeds in identifying several fascinating tics about our modern existence based on how and why and where and when we drive, he more importantly illuminates what someone much more wise and laconic than I was referring to when he mentioned that, (forgive my anonymous paraphrase) “Man is so great, he hangs suspended in a web of his own spinning.”

And that means bureaucracy.

In his quest to reveal an answer to “Why we drive the way we do and what it says about us,” Vanderbilt inadvertently takes a detour and descends into the boiler room of life in order to visit the bureaucrats who keep the pistons of society pumping.

Meet Sebastian Thrun, director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Stanford University.

Meet H.W. Heinrich, an insurance investigator for the Travelers Insurance Company and the author of a seminal 1931 book, “Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach.”

Meet crash reconstructionist J. Stannard Baker.

Meet Carl Andersen, a vision specialist with the Federal Highway Administration.

Meet Mark Nawrot, a psychologist at North Dakota State University and an expert in “motion parallax.”

Welcome to the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control.

Meet Ray Krammes, the technical director of the Federal Highway Administration’s Office for Safety Research and Development.

Meet Peter Weeden, a senior engineer with the Traffic Section of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Welcome to the Federal Highway Administration’s Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center. And the Human Centered Systems Laboratory at the Federal Highway Administration.

Meet Hans Monderman who was, until his death, the world’s best-known traffic engineer (Vanderbilt neglected to mention if he died in a car crash).

Meet Qamar Ahmed, Delhi’s joint commissioner of traffic.

Meet David Shinar, an expert in the psychology of traffic at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University.

Traffic is just gridlocked with a plethora of public health consultants, urban planners, transportation experts, engineers, psychologists, and risk experts.

And this is why I have such faith in books and feel so strongly about their importance. What other readily available place or thing do we have access to that provides such expertise and knowledge? Unlike museums and smart parents, books are shareable, transportable, and relatively cheap. They’re even free at public libraries!

But most of all people, can we please stop calling it a road? It’s a locomotor flow line.

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