BookExpo On-the-Floor Interview: Tom Vanderbilt on Traffic
With hundreds of authors making appearances at BookExpo last week, I managed to waylay an interesting few for on-the-floor interviews (listen for the tell-tale Antiques Roadshow buzz in the background), and I'll be posting them over the next week. One I especially wanted to talk to was Tom Vanderbilt, about his upcoming book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) (endless-subtitle trend noted here): as soon as I saw the galley for Traffic I (metaphorically) slapped my forehead and said, "Why hasn't anybody done that book before?" These days we spend almost as much time driving as we do eating (in fact, we do a lot of our eating while driving); Amazon has an entire category for food books, but I can't remember the last time I saw a book on all the time we spend stuck in our cars. (Here's one sign of what's missing: if you search our site under "traffic," the number two book that comes up--after Vanderbilt's--is a $103 textbook from 2004.) But it's a topic of universal interest: what more reliable subject to talk to strangers about is there? Traffic is like the weather, except that nobody has a strategy for dealing with the weather. Everybody has a strategy for beating the traffic.
Traffic has plenty of advice for those shortcut schemers (and Vanderbilt may well convince you to become, as he has, a dreaded "Late Merger"), but more than that it's the sort of wide-ranging contrarian compendium that makes a familiar subject new. I'm loathe to use a marketing tagline like "the Freakonomics of traffic!" but, well, this probably won't be the last time I do: Traffic fits right in with the Leavitt-Gladwell-Surowiecki-Ariely-etc. school of smart and popular recent books that use the latest in economic and sociological and psychological (and in this case civil engineering) research to make us rethink a topic we live with every day. And Vanderbilt comes to it with an excellent pedigree: along with being a busy freelance writer and the author of Survival City and The Sneaker Book, he is one of the original Baffler crowd, who put out the best indie intellectual journal of the pre-McSweeney's/N+1 era, and who now appear to have taken over the world. (I always thought Vanderbilt's robber-baron name was the most appropriate for their muckracking sensibility.)
With BookExpo being in LA this year, the "epicenter," as he put it, of traffic (and traffic talk), we of course began our discussion there, and soon had fully geeked out on such topics as the "commuter shed," "risk homeostasis," and "15% higher throughput through the bottleneck," as well as getting to the deepest motivations for human behavior and the explanation for how they get all those Oscars limos to arrive at the red carpet at the right time. Listen along and look for Traffic, out on July 29: