Book Review

Why are our highways built the way they are?  What makes driving safe, or at least safer?  Is speed alone dangerous, or is it contextual?

Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) is one part research investigation, one part history, one part psychological analysis, one part cultural analysis, and 100% fascinating.  As a fellow amateur transportation enthusiast, I admire Vanderbilt for his drive to self education on the systems we all participate in.

I highly recommend the book to the transportation enthusiast and casual reader alike.  The book does far more than describe our roads and how they work.  Vanderbilt shares dozens of fascinating tidbits that will amuse and amaze you and your friends.  More importantly, he sheds light on human behavior and American culture.  Roads in and of themselves are rather characterless; what matters is how we use them and how those roads shape us as individuals and as communities.

After all, is there really a difference between old suburban and city roads with their right angle intersections and roads and communities developed over the last 50 years with their sweeping gentle curves?  Is one safer than another?  After all, all roads with cars traveling on them are inherently dangerous.  Cars are multi-ton machines carrying delicate human cargo, all while moving at speeds evolution did not prepare our bodies to handle.  Our bodies are not evolutionarily designed to handle the challenges of observing our surroundings at those speeds, or handling the trauma of collisions at those speeds.

It turns out that the old roads are safer, with their definite intersections, because cars are forced to stop and look, rather than casually yield.  Similarly the straight roads typically leading to these intersections provide for better sight lines when looking down the road and anticipating oncoming traffic.  All of this means that our older, pre-automobile designed roads are actually safer – for both the driver and the pedestrian – than the road designed with modern cars in mind.

Vanderbilt peers inside the mind of the driver and exposes just how amazing it is that we can drive at all.  It is amazing what we can see when we are driving, and how we can coordinate our sight and muscle movements at the fast speeds of the interstate.  However, with such miracles come some real challenges.  This book will be sure to make you rethink not only how you drive, but why you drive, and how our policy shapes our communities.

Traffic does not preach and does not lecture.  Vanderbilt’s adventures with bureaucrats, scholars, and business people illuminates what makes driving fantastic, what makes it dangerous, and how our culture is shaped by an activity we largely all take for granted.


On a different note, I apologize for my extended absence from this blog.  My last semester of law school took control of my life.  I will be working rather than studying this semester and anticipate dedicating much more time to this blog.  Thank you for your patience and continued patronage.


For transit lovers and planners across North America, and perhaps around the world, Jane Jacobs — the great opponent of highway builder and ultimate mid-century planner, Robert Moses — has achieved reverential status.  I fall into that group; forever grateful that Jane acted to save Greenwich Village, and forever inspired by her insights in the Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Two generations of urbanists, planners, activists and legislators have been influenced by Jacobs’ startling review of the obvious.  With an eternally curious and unassuming eye Jacobs reintroduced the beauty and intelligence of mankind’s greatest creation, its cities.  At the same time, Jacobs who was anything but dogmatic, has become the tabula rasa to be written upon by the sustainability movement, in its varied facets.  Some people complain Jacobs is cited too often.

The new essay collection in What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs illustrates the breadth of her influence and the genius of her observation.   While Jane was not a transportation theorist her descriptions of how cities operate and what makes for successful urban planning (or lack thereof) directly implicates sound transit policy.  The way we lay out our streets, the way we get to and from work, and the way we integrate uses of buildings into blocks, neighborhoods and cities all influence how citizens ideally move and how their choices are influenced. (more…)

Shipping containers are everywhere, millions of them.  They travel two high on rails across the country.  They are trailing big wheelers on the highways.  And thousands at a time are loaded upon enormous shipping vessels to be unloaded and reloaded in record times at port terminals across the globe.

I recently finished The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson.  The book profiles the intriguing history of the shipping container and how it affected local and world commerce.  Levinson’s portrait largely follows the narrative of entrepreneur Malcolm McLean.  The businessman founded Sea-Land shipping company, the first transportation company to specialize in containerization.

McLean had a brilliantly simple idea, instead of packing everything into a ship, unpacking it, sorting it, putting the various items on a truck or a train and unpacking them again, put everything in a container.  In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s McLean envisioned a universal transportation system where goods could be placed in one box and shipped around the world without ever being handled, merely placing the same container on a ship, a train and a truck.

However, the idea did not really take off until the Vietnam War when the US military endorsed containerization as the most effective means to supply the 540,000 troops in Southeast Asia.  When the military commissioned container ships standards suddenly needed to be enforced and there was an enormous consumer willing to pay for goods to be consistently shipped via this method.

Levinson does a wonderful job of making what could be a potentially dry corporate history become a world-changing event.  The book still has its dry spots as readers slog through paragraphs on shipping data and increases in shipping volume.  However, the book is full of great anecdotes regarding McLean and his competitors and the legal and business decisions they made.  One of the dramatic highlights of the book is getting an inside view of the longshoremen union battles with the shippers as containerization went into effect.  These tales make On the Waterfront look tame.

The book probes the larger questions not only of how containerization occurred but how it changed global commerce.  Shipping containers changed the nature of where things are made and how countries trade as it drove the price of international shipping way down.  Containerization condensed ports and de-emphasized the need for manufacturers and commodities to be close to ports.  It drove ports in New York out of business and created enormous demand for other areas like Elizabeth, NJ and Houston.  Containerization allowed incomplete products to be shipped and development of just-in-tine production by Toyota.

The book left me asking haunting questions like whether September 11th could have occurred without containerization.  After all, without the container would the World Trade Center have even been developed on the old port land in Manhattan?  Without it, those two buildings would not have been built or destroyed.  Shipping containers absolutely changed the world, especially from a business and consumer standpoint.  All the clothes we wear from Vietnam and China, the commodities from India, the electronics from Japan would not be possible as we know them without the greatest development in international shipping since the invention of the steamship.