How we drive

Occupying a sunny promontory between the sea of social science and the rugged mountains of ‘real engineering’, sit urban design and traffic engineering.  They recline on a piece of public furniture, watching the pedestrian, the driver, the public transporter, and even the bench-sitter interacting with the public space.

Occasionally Psychology will pop by and trade a few insights for a long-neck of homebrew and half a round of brie.  Sometimes they get their supercomputers out of the picnic basket and do some modelling.  Sometimes they may get on the phone with architects trying to design a public space people will actually use.

The shady promontory seems like a real nice place to be.  It’s largely about travelling.  Whether by bike or car or foot, travelling is an aspect of life we are all subject to, but don’t spend a lot of time thinking about.

Travelling through a city gets interesting because we don’t do it alone. It’s probably the time you have the most interactions with people you don’t know. They’re tucked up inside their metal shell, sitting in their comfy chairs, and they’re in your way.  It feels like they are blocking not just your route, but your ability to exercise control.

And worse, they’re doing it on purpose: it takes drivers longer to vacate a parking space if there is someone waiting, according to this study from the University of Southern California (and trust them to be the world experts on driving).

Despite the physical comfort of driving, the psychological toll it takes is huge. Driving is very stressful, and it’s the loss of control that irks. Noone would want to interact with mute, annoying, incompetent strangers for an hour a day in any other context. Public transport rage, bike rage and pedestrian rage aren’t unknown either.

So it’s high time the bright shiny light of quasi-academic bloggerdom was shone into the murky traffic jams.

This is the man holding that light:  His name is Tom Vanderbilt.  He has written a book called Traffic, and he updates his blog incessantly.  If you think cycling is cool, and public transport is really important, and you wonder a lot about why driving is the way it is, you might enjoy it.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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