Going with the flow

Bad drivers, poor signage, rotaries? No problem for 'Traffic' guru.

August 16, 2008
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E verybody says Boston traffic and drivers are the worst. So here was a neat assignment for an Olde Bostonian driver: Take the out-of-town author of a new book, "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)," on a midday spin and get the real skinny on the local madness.

Tom Vanderbilt, 40, grew up in Wisconsin and moved to New York in the 1990s to become a freelance writer. He has written for newspapers and magazines, as well as online. "My specialty is design and architecture - the way space affects people's behavior," he said as we met in the Back Bay. One of his previous books is "Survival City," about how Cold War fears and ideology influenced American architecture.

A few years ago, driving on a New Jersey highway, Vanderbilt came to a sign: "Lane ends one mile. Merge right." He had always reacted as most people do: Merge immediately to foreclose the choke point. This time, he decided to stay put to the end, braving angry glares from early mergers. Later, when he described his decision on an Internet chat site, impassioned quarrels broke out. When he looked at traffic studies, he was surprised that "late merging" actually eases traffic because it spreads cars across more of the available space.

"Having found out that what I had thought was right for so long was actually not doing the system any good forced me to think," Vanderbilt says. "OK - traffic. It's this weird thing happening all around us. How much do I know about it?"

He found no serious general books about it but did find a mountain of research. So for three years he immersed himself in the subject, traveled around the world, interviewing drivers, researchers, and traffic engineers. With almost 90 pages of footnotes, the book is a bottomless compendium of research, and Vanderbilt has much of it in his head. During our jaunt around central Boston and Cambridge, he proved to be as chatty and observant as a sportscast er. Who knew there was so much to see in traffic?

From Copley Square, east on Boylston Street: At the corner of Arlington Street, just as the light turns green, a couple darts across Boylston from the median strip along the Public Garden. The Olde Bostonian starts ahead, grumbles, and pauses in mid-intersection for them to pass. "It's interesting that they didn't look at you," Vanderbilt says. "Studies indicate that if they had looked, you might be less willing to give them the right of way. You didn't know what they were going to do. It gets into what Thomas Schelling wrote about game theory and Cold War strategy: asymmetry in communication, not revealing our intentions to the Russians until the very last moment, you gain a certain power."

David G. Mugar Way, then right on Revere Street, Beacon Hill: "We just passed a classic sign: 'Slippery when wet.' It's a sign that, on the days when it's not wet, nobody pays attention to. When it is wet, do you then pay attention? The more signs that don't apply to your situation at the moment, the more you disregard them. 'Slow, children' signs are the bane of traffic engineers. People get frustrated with speeding and get towns to put up these signs, but they tend not to accomplish anything."

Around Beacon Hill: "Very European-inspired city, isn't it? This sort of narrow street, with a lot of obstacles and parking on both sides, is called a self-explaining road - you don't need a speed limit. Whether this always works is hard to say, but it's natural traffic-calming. If you put a speed bump here, people would speed up after the bump."

Keep on truckin'
With years of driving, Vanderbilt says, "we form a lot of stereotypes and ill-founded opinions." For example: that big trucks cause horrific highway accidents.

"They are large, their mass is 10 times that of a car, and when the two collide, in 9 out of 10 cases, it's the truck driver who walks away alive. So people think truck drivers are causing all the trouble. But one study analyzed crashes that happen between cars and trucks. In a majority of cases, the cars had more to do with it." More shocking news: "Well-designed rotaries are safer than conventional intersections."

At the foot of Walnut Street, a furniture truck is idling eastbound on Beacon Street, waiting for traffic to move. Will the driver wait and let us turn left? A Boston trucker? Not likely. "This would be a good place to make human contact, if possible, but he's got what Seinfeld calls 'the stare-ahead,"' Vanderbilt says. "He's not looking at you, so you can't get his cooperation." Just then, the trucker glances over, nods, and lets us in. Another good stereotype spoiled.

The Olde Bostonian is cheerful enough at the start, but it's hot, and traffic is inching along all over town. He keeps saying, "We should be out of this soon." No such luck. Not that Vanderbilt cares. He says, "Congestion is as old as cities. Cities thrive on congestion. To have a Boston that you could whisk through magically at some free-flowing speed in a car would raise a question: Would it still be Boston? The easier you make it for drivers, the more driving you're going to attract. The easier you make it to get into a city, the farther out people will choose to live."

Congress Street, behind City Hall: Another ruined prejudice: "I've read 'The Boston Driver's Handbook' [by Ira Gershkoff and Richard Trachtman], and it's a very funny book," Vanderbilt says, "but I'm not seeing a lot of crazy behavior. Not much honking. I was looking at some statistics that said Boston, per thousand people, has fewer accidents than a number of cities in Massachusetts. Cities are inherently safer - what damage could you do right now?" Standing still, not much. "Massachusetts as a state is the safest in the country, based on fatalities per million miles [of driving]. Montana is more dangerous than Massachusetts."

Eyes on the road
Vanderbilt says most of us don't appreciate how difficult and energy-consuming driving is. Besides managing the machine, we have to watch what other cars, bicycles, and pedestrians are doing (or might do), read a tangle of signs, think about the rules, watch for light signals, react to horns. We look forward as well as sideways and backward with mirrors. Meanwhile, we're talking to passengers, listening to a radio, fumbling with a CD or a cigarette, talking on a cellphone. Somehow we usually live through it.

Cambridge Street, approaching Charles Circle: An ambulance comes screaming up behind. The Olde Bostonian yaws to the right to let it pass, then grumbles as it fakes him out and turns left up Grove Street. At the circle, in addition to all the usual blizzard of signs, there are new ones, warning large trucks away from the Longfellow Bridge. The Olde Bostonian intends to get on Storrow Drive. The near entrance ramp is marked "Storrow Drive EB," and the farther one says "Storrow Drive West." In the second's hesitation it takes to realize that "EB" means "eastbound," an overtaking SUV roars past on the right and veers onto the westbound ramp. A woman is standing at the far corner of the ramp. As we enter gingerly, Vanderbilt said, "You probably just violated her right of way," then adds forgivingly: "It isn't well marked."

After a glacial peregrination through Harvard Square (torn up by construction), the by-now-grumpy Olde Bostonian returns to Boston and heads for the Prudential Center Garage. "Garages generally cost more," Vanderbilt says. "[Economist] Donald Shoup's argument is that if you raise the price of meters to the point where spaces are never more than 85 percent occupied, you'd eliminate a lot of bargain-hunting, meandering around, adding to the traffic with destinationless driving."

The Olde Bostonian announces he always finds a space in this garage as he snatches his ticket from the machine. Soon he is fuming quietly as he wanders fruitlessly all over the garage's weirdly shaped segments and infuriating dead-end corridors. Vanderbilt says, "I interviewed a biologist who compared the search for parking to what animals do when looking for food. You were just trying to decide: 'Do I look for a spot or watch for a driver who might have just left a spot? Do I leave this area and try an area that offers more rewards?"'

The Olde Bostonian is about to remark testily, "That is just so interesting," but then, mercifully, a space appears.

David Mehegan can be reached at

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