Most of us don’t know much about the causes of traffic and congestion, yet it’s one of the factors that plays a massive part in our daily lives, sending stress levels through the roof as we try to get around. Author Tom Vanderbilt has researched things a lot more closely though, and the results are pretty fascinating. We’ve been chatting to him to find out more about his book, Traffic.

So, what’s Traffic actually about?
‘Traffic’ is really about taking an everyday activity, both as an individual act and a larger system, and taking it apart, seeing how it works, and by extension, how it could be made better. What happens to people when they get behind the wheel? How do our individual actions affect traffic as a whole? What goes into road design? How do traffic jams form?

Do you think any of the key concepts in Traffic will change with smarter navigation – apps and in-car tech that can help people avoid congestion even if they haven’t asked for help?
One of the key themes of traffic is that the individual driver cannot often understand, or see, the traffic system as a whole. We might stick to habit even when there’s a better route available when congestion appears, we might think that always driving as fast as possible is the most efficient way to move cars down a road, when actually, research shows 55 mph to be a ‘sweet spot’ for maximum traffic efficiency.

Technology is coming into play here, with things like ‘dynamic speed limits,’ which change the maximum speed on a road when congestion levels change; or, of course, with increasingly real-time satnav services. Even if they do not actually produce some magically empty shortcut, simply knowing the estimated travel time on a congested road, or not being tense about missing a turn or being unsure of a route, makes drivers less anxious.

‘Traffic’ lists merging as one of the most stressful factors in driving – can things like this be helped by technology?
Absolutely. Anything that removes uncertainty over the driving situation will be a positive. That said, simply giving people information can be tricky. Already, for example, drivers routinely violate the suggestions of road signs. In general, I think there would need to be a rather large societal learning curve to learning to ‘be driven’ autonomously.
Engineers at automakers working on autonomous technology have told me, for example, that human drivers feel the gaps between vehicles – which the computer has determined are mathematically safe – are too large. So we would have to get used to what ‘safe driving’ looks like from the view of intelligent machines; in many cases, it’s a style of driving we do not adhere to, lulled by habit and sheer overconfidence.

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