Book review: Traffic; why we drive the way we do

This is a street designed for traffic.

I recently started reading paper books again, the kind found at the neighborhood library, rather than scanning the digital library and downloading books without having to leave the relative comfort of home. The paper library is still substantially more diverse than the digital library, with a much broader selection of non-fiction in particular, although admittedly it appears to offer less in the realm of evangelical romance novels (which are surprisingly difficult to identify based solely on title and cover art; this is why now I only download books that have gotten a good review somewhere, sometime).

Even though we rarely drive, it still really ticks me off that drivers park their cars right in our driveway, like, daily. Drivers who are really committed can even block the bikes.

While in this less ephemeral realm I picked up a copy of Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic, which is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in quite a while. For a long time I have accepted that getting on an airplane is the psychological equivalent of locking myself into a small prison cell, and I have prepared myself for flights accordingly. I drive more frequently than I fly (every week or so rather than every few months) but I hadn’t really thought before about how putting myself in a car is somewhat equivalent. I also only recently learned that cyclists call drivers “cagers,” which has a certain dark accuracy.

Riding a bike means never being stuck in traffic.

Vanderbilt discusses the many illusions of driving, including the expectation that early merging is more efficient than late merging, and the efforts of traffic engineers to reprogram people who resent late mergers and create traffic jams to force them out of merged lanes (I used to be one of these people). Even more fascinating was the illusion of queuing in traffic, where whichever lane you pick appears to be moving more slowly than all of the others. Ultimately, it turns out that they’re all moving at the same speed, but because everyone ends up waiting far longer than they end up passing—that’s what makes it heavy traffic—no one perceives the underlying equity.

This made me realize that one of the pleasures of cycling is never having to queue except at stop lights. Speaking as someone who cycled in Copenhagen, where bicycle traffic is thick, I can testify that this benefit is not an artifact of only having few riders on the road. Part of this is undoubtedly another counter-intuitive discovery by those who study traffic: slower speeds lead to faster movement; below certain speeds, there are no traffic jams. The rest is just inherent.

This is a street designed for people. Drivers complain that parklets are “too close to the road.”

It was particularly terrifying to read about just how awful most drivers are, which is something you can often ignore in the car because you’re busy being an awful driver yourself: trying to settle down kids, program acceptable music, talk to passengers, talk on the phone, or worse yet text. But I definitely notice it as a cyclist and pedestrian. Given that there is no feedback that all the dangerous things drivers do are dangerous until they actually hit something, why wouldn’t most drivers believe they’re doing a good job? Even when they do hit something, the fact that it doesn’t happen every day makes people believe the non-collision days are more meaningful. And my friends who work at power companies tell me that even people who hit utility poles argue that the pole was at fault (“It was too close to the curb!” or if seriously drunk, “The pole was in the road.”)

My husband is not a MAMIL

It was painfully familiar to read Vanderbilt’s discussion of how women end up creating and suffering in the worst traffic because of what is referred to as “serve passenger” driving. Taking the kids to school, picking up dry cleaning, doing the grocery shopping: these trips involve the most traffic—school pickup and dropoff zones are particularly notorious—because everyone needs to do them at the same time, and they are the least compatible with ride-sharing. And that’s before even mentioning parking. This is why there are dark jokes about the kinds of hardcore cyclists (Middle-Aged Men In Lycra, or MAMILs) who are able to commute the way they enjoy because their wives are doing all of the errands by car.

Doing errands by bike means never having to look for parking.

Although my husband handles his own dry cleaning and many other household tasks, he does far more business travel than I do, and when he’s away I do almost everything alone. This is part of the reason we’re in the market for a new family bike, and it’s part of the reason I get so annoyed that the market for bikes like these is so thin. I think there are more models of Trek Madone alone than there are family bikes of any brand. (I only recently learned that the Madone is a model of racing bike made by Trek that costs like $5k, and there are apparently a million versions, all of which sell like Big Gulps.)

My son will grow up riding his bicycle for transportation just like I did.

In my personal experience, when I transitioned to commuting primarily by bike I actually saved time, not to mention frustration, because I avoided so much traffic en route. In addition, as a working parent there is almost no other time to exercise. But it’s not possible to do these kinds of errands—picking up two kids at two different schools, etc., with a mountain bike or even a so-called commuter bike. You need something that can haul non-traditional cargo, like cartons of milk, kids themselves, and whatever fragile and emotionally significant popsicle-stick-and-cotton-ball art projects that they want to bring home unscathed.

At the end of this book, I understood why Vanderbilt apparently transitioned to riding a bicycle and public transit. I would have done the same thing if I hadn’t already. Public transit is unequivocally safer and the majority of research suggests cycling is as well (although people find this difficult to believe, or at least “not where I live!”–urban people insist they’d ride if they lived in the country where there’s less traffic, rural people insist they’d ride if they lived in the city where there are bike lanes, etc.) And either option is dramatically less grueling than driving.

When I was first hired at my university I went to a talk for junior faculty by a senior professor (who later won a Nobel Prize) about how to balance work and family. Although many of the things she did were not possible for me (e.g. having her first child at age 45—too late already!) her strongest advice was, “Kill your commute.” Do whatever it took to move close enough to work and school that almost all your time was spent doing something you valued (research, patient care, spending time with kids) rather than something you didn’t (driving, or more likely, sitting in traffic). And we took that advice. We moved from a large house in the suburbs to a small apartment in San Francisco that cost over 50% more per month, and my husband, after a long stint of unemployment and underemployment, found a new job within city limits. We slogged through the San Francisco public school lottery. (And we did all this before we had bikes. Between the hills of San Francisco and the absence of family bikes nationwide, cycling wasn’t an ambition for us at the time.) It was a long road, but our lives are infinitely better for it.

Streets can change. People can change.

Most people wouldn’t have to move and sell a car and change their jobs and their kids’ (pre)schools to change their commutes, as we did. And some of the best changes, which involve transforming streets themselves, are not individual decisions but collective decisions: removing parking, adding bike lanes, creating parklets, developing bike share programs, lowering speed limits, and narrowing roads. But having seen the result of changes like these, in our own lives in San Francisco and after visiting cities like Copenhagen and even Paris that have implemented them, those changes are most assuredly worth it. They scale cities back down to human size. Calming streets is really calming people. It takes the stress out of living.


Filed under advocacy, cargo, commuting, Copenhagen, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

8 responses to “Book review: Traffic; why we drive the way we do

  1. The funny thing about many of those “serve passenger” trips you mention (kids to school, picking up dry cleaning, doing the grocery shopping) is that in the 1950s-1970s, women didn’t do many of them. There were school buses, and dry cleaning, drug store and even grocery delivery. I had a friend who grew up on Fell St whose mother used to have 50 pound bags of Japanese rice delivered. I suspect her mother didn’t even drive.

    I’m guessing the delivery services began going away when families bought a second car, and the school buses began going away when women went to work. After all, they were already in the car anyway, why not drop off the kid.

    • Really interesting observation! When we lived in Paris, all grocery stores offered delivery. We lived in a fifth floor walk-up and given the cost and hassle, had no car, and we had everything delivered. There are still stores in the city (like Cal Mart) that offer neighborhood delivery as well, but I think it is becoming less common. San Francisco also has extensive laundry pickup and delivery services, unlike any other city I’ve known. But most of the families we know don’t use any of these services. They buy a second car as you note, or have one parent (usually the mom) run around in their only car. I suspect that buying the service would be cheaper.

      School buses are not used much in SF because there aren’t any neighborhood schools anymore, so a different problem, but the result is once again that families spend a lot of time in the car.

  2. Ha! I made that point about MAMILs myself when I was sitting in the Women’s Biking Forum at the National Bike Summit back in March. The situation of MAMILs (and their cousins, the Freds) undertaking mega-commutes enabled by wives who are picking up the slack on the home front really pushes a lot of feminist/work-life-balance/domestic equity buttons with me.

    At one point, the panel of women cyclists was asked “What could men do to get more women on bikes?” and I was so tempted to stand up and yell, “The dishes!”

    I’m working on a post on that very subject for Big Orange Bike–something nice and ranty like the “Duckie” post that will inspire Professional Bike Advocates to throw up their hands in irritation and despair (again). As you might imagine, it’s taking some time to compile all the arguments into something more coherent than “GAHHH!”

    Thanks for shouting out the particular challenges of moms-as-chauffeurs among the women of the cycling world. 🙂

    • I hear you! When men ask me, because I ride with my kids, how to get their wives on bikes I say: start doing all of the errands by bike, including picking up and dropping off the kids. And take the kids with you on errands as well, instead of treating it as free adult-only time. Thus far I’ve only had one dad take the idea seriously. But his immediate conclusion was that he would need a cargo bike to do that (which he didn’t have) and that he didn’t have the leg strength to carry his two kids up the (really serious) hills to their schools. To his credit he had tried it. And I said: EXACTLY!

      Ultimately he still preferred driving and having his wife drive because putting an electric assist on a cargo bike would somehow compromise the purity of riding. Which I just do not get: how is putting an electric assist on a bike to make a formerly impossible trip possible less pure than using a 2-ton gas-powered car to make the same trip?

  3. Brad Hawkins

    Amen to all of this. The inequity of errands, the need to kill one’s commute, the sacrifices that you have made to live the life.

    Of course, we are following the same path and I did put electric assist on a cargo bike and haul the kids to school as my exercise. I thought I would put the assist on so that Claire would feel more comfortable riding more but it turned out that the real winner was me as I was able to do so much more. I consider myself a serious cyclist who can ride with the big dogs and look after a peloton, but dang, I wish more people would see the purity that electric biking represents.

    Awesome writing.

    • I didn’t realize you’d put the assist on for Claire originally! That is interesting. A friend of ours from preschool made the first move toward electric assist with a cheap e-bike scored on craigslist and told us how that was basically the whole family’s gateway drug to stop driving to school and work. After I heard that I got the mamachari the same way (what another dad called “proof of concept”) and I was completely sold. We rode so much more with the assisted bikes we rented in Portland than we would have without the assists, particularly as it got hotter (over 100F? Kill me now).

      People here seem to have less trouble with the idea of electric assist; for all but the most hardcore long term riders it is appealing from Day 1. The biggest issues seem to be first, that almost no one has ever heard of it when I mention it, and second, the cost.

      • Brad Hawkins

        We got the bike and sized it for both of us, but the weight proved too great for her. She once dumped it while stopped but with three kids and tons of camping gear so she was a little wary. We talked electric for using the bike more and getting to the top of Queen Anne for Thorvald’s impending Kindergarten year and electric assist really made sense. She drives it differently than I do. For instance, she will use the throttle on the uphills and when starting while I will set the assist level for the pedals and never use the throttle. To each her own.

        If my system weren’t in the warranty treadmill all the time, more people would be impressed with electric assist and our outfit. It works, except when it doesn’t. Julian of Totcycle told me over the weekend that perhaps the Lithum Ion batteries are not as robust as the older technology. I have no opinion on the matter but electric assist is at least two weeks from being repaired.

        In the mean time, I really like my tandem. It goes fast, handles like a road bike, and carries more than an extra cycle (with 6 panniers or a trailer). The downside is that my three year old is way, way back there, the bike is not as visible from the back, and it’s not as maneuverable.

        I’ll still evangelize for electric power though. It’s awesome.

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