In a hugely flattering review in the Washington Post
, Jonathan Yardley noted that Traffic
"is one of those rare books that comes out of the depths of nowhere." While I rarely seek to qualify praise from others, I would note that Traffic
, like any book, really, comes from any number of definable somewheres. In this case, it's a mountain of reports, transcripts, notes, travels, random musings, and, of course, many books that in some way explored the very topics I'm writing about.
Given that I'm blogging for Powell's, a place whose delights are well familiar to me ? and these delights exploded into new abundance on my last trip to Portland, when I discovered, belatedly, the myriad wonders of Powell's Technical Books, just around the corner from the main store, a place filled with curious books, gadgets, toys, etc., like the cottage of an eccentric uncle found on the far edge of the grounds of the main estate ? I thought it would be useful to take a walk through my "traffic library," the books I found most useful or intriguing as I delved into what for me was an entirely new field.
If you read Traffic, and want to know more, here then, are a few of my favorites (I'm leaving some out, I'm sure), all no doubt available at Powell's, new or used.
Traffic Safety by Leonard Evans (Science Serving Society, 2004). Evans, a trained physicist and longtime researcher at General Motors, is a sort of one-man traffic safety institute, the go-to guy on all kinds of questions about road behavior, and Traffic Safety is his opus. Yes, it's pricey, as many traffic books can be, but on a dollar-per-interesting fact/argument/statistic index, it fares quite well. The book has some hardcore math/stats things, as you would rightly expect, but it's also quite accessible and often displays Evans' fine sense of humor.
Still Stuck in Traffic by Anthony Downs (Brookings, 2004). Downs, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, provides the book on the causes and potential cures of peak-hour urban congestion. His analysis is shrewd and often contrarian ? e.g., his gimlet-eyed dissection of the oft-quoted numbers about how much money cities lose to congestion (and the problems with those sorts of calculations).
The Physics of Traffic by Boris Kerner (Springer, 2004). Traffic, observes Kerner, is "an extremely complex spatiotemporal nonlinear dynamic process," and in this tome he sets out to explain exactly why, describing cars as "elementary particles" and invoking all kinds of curious "hysteresis effects" and "three-phase transitions." Much of this stuff is, quite frankly, beyond my ken, but fascinating nonetheless. If you're going to buy only one physics of traffic book this year, this would be the one.
Traffic Safety and Human Behavior by David Shinar (Elsevier, 2007). David Shinar, who teaches at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, is one of the world's preeminent road researchers. I only got this book, his sequel to the classic Psychology on the Road, as Traffic was in galleys, but I've been continuing to learn from it ever since. Shinar runs down the list of essential topics (young drivers, distraction, etc.) with impressive thoroughness and authority. I have no doubt this will prove as enduring as its predecessor, augmented as it is with even more research (the result of a research fellowship at NHTSA).
Understanding Driving: Applying Cognitive Psychology to a Complex Everyday Task by John A. Groeger (Psychology Press, 2000). I took the train one day in England, going past those wonderfully named English towns like Staines, to have a too-short chat with Groeger at the University of Surrey. In any case, Understanding Driving provides a deep-dive into the various cognitive processes that underscore driving, everything from the mental demands of shifting to our memory of accidents. The tone is academic, to be sure, but there's a wealth of fascinating material here about one of our most everyday, but often under-appreciated, activities.
Survive the Drive by David Rizzo (Lorikeet Express, 2006). I admittedly gave this book short shrift when I first acquired it, as I thought it was mostly about short-cuts on L.A. highways (it does give some sage advice on that front). But there's actually a lot more in here than that, and it serves as a great field guide to the intricacies of Southern California highway life.
Road-User Behavior and Traffic Accidents by R. Näätänen and H. Summala. (North-Holland/American Elsevier, 1976). Another classic in the field, this from a pair of well-known Finnish researchers. We're still waiting for the follow-up, a la Shinar, but in the meantime there's a lot on offer here.
Micromotives and Macrobehavior by Thomas Schelling (W.W. Norton, 2006). Not a traffic book per se, but an absolute classic in the field of economics. Schelling's essential theme here ? the way our individual actions combine with that of others, often to produce collective effects that are unintended or of which we're unaware ? certainly has implications for traffic, and indeed traffic seems to be a pet interest of Schelling (note his famous description of the dynamics of rubbernecking).
The Psychology of Driving by Graham Hole (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007). Another book that arrived as I was in galleys, but Graham Hole, also at the University of Sussex, provides a concise and thorough survey of perceptual factors, attention issues, risk perception, among other issues.
Human Factors in Traffic Safety by Robert E. Dewar and Paul L. Olson (Lawyers and Judges, 2006). This is a sort of bible for crash reconstructionists, lawyers, and others, and it's full of strange and interesting details about driver reaction times, visibility thresholds, the places drivers look while driving, etc.
Lastly, a number of people have taken looks at traffic in relation to some larger them they're pursuing, and among the best in that regard are James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, Tim Harford's The Undercover Economist, and Philip Ball's Critical Mass, all of which deserve readers regardless of the traffic bits.