The Psychology of Traffic – 1

According to the book Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, I should expect a 30% increase in traffic congestion as the new school year starts. This significant increase in traffic is due to “parents on the ‘school run'” [p. 136]. It is this kind of data that makes this book an interesting read.

The book’s subtitle is: “Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us).” It is chock full of research by various engineers, cognitive psychologists, and others that Vanderbilt has either read or had the opportunity to interview. His rationale for a book on the subject? “Considering that many of us may spend more time in traffic than we do eating meals with our family, going on vacation, or having sex, it seems worth probing a bit deeper into the experience” [p. 15].

He’s organized this material into an engaging book. For example, Chapters 4 and 5 address traffic congestion. Here are few bits of information that might help you in a game of Trivial Pursuit:

  • The average daily commute to/from work is 1.1 hours. This is a worldwide average and there is reason to believe it is also true historically, when we look at Greek villages, ancient Rome, and so on. The faster our transportation, the farther away we move from work, but we tend to tolerate about 1.1 hours total.
  • Trip Chaining refers to various trips to and from work, such as trips to day care, getting the dry cleaning, soccer practice – trips made mostly by women and related to family size
  • One of the most recent shifts in traffic patterns is referred to as the Starbucks Effect, which refers to the trip chaining that involves stopping for a latte on the way to work, and the main demographic is middle-aged men
  • When we come across an accident on the highway, the “highway’s capacity drops an estimated 12.7 percent because of the line that forms – often on both sides of the highway – to take a look” [p. 163].
  • You’ve heard of rubber-neckers? Well, “digi-neckers” are making congestion even worse with their desire to take photos of accidents.

I’ll share a few more tidbits from the book, especially the psychology of traffic, if you will, as it is interesting material related to both cognitive and social psychology.

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