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How traffic impacts our everyday lives: an expert tells all

How traffic impacts our everyday lives: an expert tells all

Most of us don’t know much about the causes of traffic and congestion, yet it’s one of the factors that plays a massive part in our daily lives, sending stress levels through the roof as we try to get around.

Author Tom Vanderbilt has researched things a lot more closely though, and the results are pretty fascinating. We’ve been chatting to him to find out more about his book, Traffic.

So, what’s Traffic actually about?

"Traffic" is really about taking an everyday activity, both as an individual act and a larger system, and taking it apart, seeing how it works, and by extension, how it could be made better. What happens to people when they get behind the wheel? How do our individual actions affect traffic as a whole? What goes into road design? How do traffic jams form?

Do you think any of the key concepts in Traffic will change with smarter navigation — apps and in-car tech that can help people avoid congestion even if they haven’t asked for help?

One of the key themes of traffic is that the individual driver cannot often understand, or see, the traffic system as a whole. We might stick to our habits even when there's a better route available when congestion appears. 

Or we might think that always driving as fast as possible is the most efficient way to move cars down a road, when actually, research shows 55mph to be a "sweet spot" for maximum traffic efficiency.


Technology is coming into play here, with things like 'dynamic speed limits,' which change the maximum speed on a road when congestion levels change; or, of course, with increasingly real-time satnav services. Even if they do not actually produce some magically empty shortcut, simply knowing the estimated travel time on a congested road, or not being tense about missing a turn or being unsure of a route, makes drivers less anxious.

"Traffic" lists merging as one of the most stressful factors in driving — can things like this be helped by technology?

Absolutely. Anything that removes uncertainty over the driving situation will be a positive. That said, simply giving people information can be tricky. Already, for example, drivers routinely violate the suggestions of road signs. In general, I think there would need to be a rather large societal learning curve to learning to "be driven" autonomously.

Engineers at automakers working on autonomous technology have told me, for example, that human drivers feel the gaps between vehicles — which the computer has determined are mathematically safe — are too large. So we would have to get used to what "safe driving" looks like from the view of intelligent machines; in many cases, it's a style of driving we do not adhere to, lulled by habit and sheer overconfidence.

Do passengers and drivers experience the same feelings when stuck in traffic?

Researchers have hooked up people doing simulated driving to fMRI, and people who were simply passengers in a simulated driving experiment, and very different areas of brain activity were observed. Passengers tend to feel driving is riskier than people actually driving, for example.

Passengers also do not quite experience the same angst over traffic congestion as drivers. I think there is literally something about being at the controls of this machine in motion that binds one closer to the experience — one feels more personally affected. When there are multiple people in a car, incidentally, research has shown that waits do not feel as painful as when one is alone.

Are drivers (by and large) predictable and logical when it comes to congestion, or do the results tend to be more surprising?

We are humans and we take our very human proclivities with us as we navigate these immensely designed, complex environments in our small cocoons of private space. Traffic really is like a large applied psychology laboratory, and a potential experiment lurks at every interchange.

Which driver will give another right of way at a four-way intersection controlled by a stop sign? You can study who is at the wheel, what kind of car they are driving, whether they exchanged eye contact, whether they were alone or with passengers — among other variables — and find very discernible patterns. Driving is hugely complex, and yet for us it becomes a reflexive gesture. I wanted to return some of the complexity to it.

Have you tried using the traffic features in sat-nav apps?

As you might imagine, I have had many different systems and apps in my car. At the most fundamental level, they are hugely helpful — I would even wager they have helped, in a small way, make driving safer, not just by reducing driver anxiety or distraction by giving proper, legible navigation, but by reducing the extra — and usually stressful — miles driven by drivers who are lost.

What I find most useful is real-time fidelity — it’s no good knowing about a jam after I'm already in it; and granularity — the more information, the better. Rather than being advised to 'look for parking,' I'd rather be given the closest lot at the best price with the most availability.

The more intuitive, the better, as well; anything that increases stress while driving is to be avoided. On a recent trip, I was trying to find somewhere to eat in central California. But my nav system kept giving me restaurants that, while geographically closest, I had already passed. I can't imagine there are many drivers on a road trip who want to turn around and drive 10 miles back for a bite to eat.

For a fascinating insight into how people react to something as seemingly simple as congestion, you can check out Tom’s hugely interesting Traffic on his website.


Philip Barker

Philip Barker

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