Saturday, July 11, 2009

Books Review: Bodies in Motion and Traffic

Bodies in Motion, Steven L. Thompson. 417 pps., Aero Design & Mfg. Co., $19.95

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt. 416 pps., Knopf., $24.95

Steve Thompson’s Bodies in Motion begins by relating an experience that’s probably happened to you in one form or another. On a hot summer day in 1965, he was riding his motorcycle to lunch when it slid out on some slippery pavement, high-siding him onto the ground. As he surveyed the bloody wreckage of himself and his bike, a white-haired lady in an Oldsmobile pulled up, lowered her electric window, said disapprovingly, “young man, you’ve gotten glass all over the road,” raised the window and drove off.

Two members of the species homo sapiens sapiens, but clearly not on the same page. And that incident put the question into Thompson’s mind: why do some people dig motorcycles and some people just do not? We all know that there is something different between motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists, and Thompson lays out his case for what that is in his book.

In Tom Vanderbilt’s book Traffic, the question is different: Why do so many people insist on driving like assholes? And what can society do to encourage better behavior? I read both books recently and thought it would be interesting to contrast the questions, assumptions and conclusions of the two writers.

Of course, as a motorcyclist, Thompson’s POV is much more interesting to me. But it’s also more interesting because it’s non-traditional as far as books on transportation go. It’s much more like a scientific paper, using biology, psychology, anthropology and physics to figure out what the hell’s wrong with us, anyway. He looks at traits in our ancestors – like a proclivity for swinging through trees, or taking risks to be better hunters – that may be stronger in motorcyclists, as well as the cultural forces that direct transportation choices. He then digs still deeper, trying to figure out why some riders like cruisers and why others are obsessed with speed and power. He even commissioned a study at Stanford’s Smart Product Design Lab in 2001 analyzing vibration from nine different motorcycle models with “archetypical” engines; V-Twins, V-Fours, thumpers, even a CBX Six-cylinder.

It’s not as esoteric, but for a frequent rider in the murky swamp of Bay Area traffic jams, Vanderbilt’s book offers plenty of insight. He conducted much of his research with traffic engineers and planners, and the perspective, while entertaining and packed with gee-whiz factoids (example: men honk more than women, but both men and women honk more at women then they do at men) is much more detached in its tone than Thompson’s book, seeing people in vehicles as factors to be managed. And how they should be managed is what is most surprising. After a few chapters, it is clear that rules, regulations and traffic cops don’t necessarily make us safer or help traffic flow. The afore mentioned assholes on the road may not even be making things worse: when drivers wait to merge at the last second, traffic actually moves faster, where early merging is the cause of many snarls. The best way to keep things moving and everybody safer may even be to eliminate lanes, traffic lights and crosswalks altogether.

What I noticed in Traffic – and I don’t think even Vanderbilt really picks up on this – is that in general, people don’t like being in cars and trucks, especially when they are boxed in by thousands of other people trapped in their cages. What Thompson shows us is that motorcycles, with their ability to lean into turns, accelerate swiftly and slip between gaps, feel more natural to the human body, a body evolved to swing from trees and freely explore the open veldts and savannahs of East Africa.

That’s why these two books complement each other so well. Both books are entertaining, well-written, even scholarly. Traffic shows us the artificial misery of the car-centered environment and what it does to human interaction, where Bodies explains why motorcycles are so liberating and rewarding to those with a genetic and cultural disposition to two-wheeled machinery. Vanderbilt has little to say about motorcycles, and I think the book suffers for it, as motorcyclists don’t display the behavior that other road-users do. Thompson illuminates why we’re different.

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