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Books on Cities: Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) (2008)

Malcolm Gladwell once described his typical reader as “a 45-year-old guy with three kids who’s an engineer at some company outside of Atlanta.” That same guy, I would wager, is the typical reader of Traffic, which was published between Gladwell’s Blinkand Outliers and adheres to the same mid-2000s publishing trends exemplified by those books. It has the minimalist design, the descriptive one-word title, and the explanatory subtitle — Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) — that holds out the promise of practical insight into real-life phenomena. And that’s just the cover: the content offers a Gladwellian abundance of expert testimony on its subject, both judiciously quoted and snappily (but not over-simplistically) recapitulated in digestible chunks of conversational prose. It could only have have failed to win over our middle-aged suburban engineer for one reason: not actually having been written by Malcolm Gladwell.

Traffic did win him over, in the event, and other reading demographics besides. Its attainment of bestseller status put a bright feather in the cap of its author Tom Vanderbilt, who’d previously written books on the sneaker industry and “the ruins of atomic America” (missile silos, fallout shelters). In the dozen years since he’s put out two more volumes, one on the internet-driven superabundance of choice and another, just this year, about learning new things past a certain age. (45, say.) As it stands now, Vanderbilt’s bibliography evidences a broad curiosity that I can’t help but admire. But it was Traffic that first brought his name to my attention, as it did for many others, and it’s been floating around the lower middle of my reading list for some time. Only in the 2020s, writing about books on cities, did I realize I finally had a reason to prioritize it.

A journalistic exploration of driving makes for an unlikely “city book,” granted, but approaching it as one does satisfy my contrarian impulses. In recent years, I’ve noticed that when I say I write about cities, people increasingly tend to assume that I must “hate” cars. Though some urbanists do indeed base their identities in large part on opposition to the automobile, I can’t quite get it up to do the same. Admittedly, I’ve never bought a car, nor even driven regularly since high school. Years now go by between instances of my laying eyes on a vehicle capable of inspiring any semblance of desire. Yet part of me will always remain the teenager longing for a T-topped Trans Am, or maybe an MR2 — and if things went right, a Delorean DMC-12. Even now, living in Seoul in my mid-thirties, I fantasize about American road trips on a near-daily basis.

Read the whole thing at Substack.