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The Science of Traffic and How it Could End

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The Science of Traffic and How it Could End

Sitting in traffic is an unavoidable part of life. Even if you live out in the country, commute during odd hours in the day, or opt to take the bus, you’re still bound to find yourself stuck in commuter traffic sooner or later. Some estimates report the modern driver will spend up to three months of their lives sitting in traffic. That means you likely have plenty of time to sit and think about traffic.

A common thought during these times of boredom and frustration is: if only everyone drove just like me, then we wouldn’t have these issues. While that’s not exactly the truth, it’s not exactly far off either. Dr. Eddie Wilson of Bristol University cracked the code after becoming increasingly fascinated with the traffic jams he was subjected to on his daily drive home from work. Wilson’s research found that indeed if we all drove at a uniform pace, the common traffic jam would simply not exist.

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In part, it’s the speed demons weaving out in and out of traffic that are to blame. But they share the blame equally with the timid drivers that are too quick to tap the brakes at the slightest of surprises. Some research suggests that one vehicle’s sudden braking on a moderately populated highway can send waves of slow traffic as far back as twenty miles. So now we know the secret to traffic-free highways, and yet it seems like heavy congestion on roadways is here to stay. There’s just no realistic way to ensure every motorist will keep the same constant speed.

One of Dr. Wilson’s experiments involved 15 cars driving around in one connected circle with the instructions of keeping a pace of 15 MPH. He found that even in this controlled environment some drivers would inevitably go a mile or two over the “limit”, and then compensate by hitting the brakes. After just a few minutes, one side of the circle had cars coming to a complete stop while they waited for the vehicles ahead to catch up. To see it in action, it almost defies logic. It’s human nature, and human nature doesn’t always make sense.

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So what can you do to reduce the risk of traffic jamming? Don’t hit the brakes prematurely, and try to keep yourself moving at a standard pace. The easiest way to do this is by staying in the right lane until you’re ready to pass people on the left. Once you’ve passed, simply pull right back into the right lane until the time comes for you to pass again. Unfortunately, that’s the best you can do as an individual. Otherwise we have to rely on the tactics of other drivers to keep things moving, which to many feels like a long shot.

And yet, life without congested roadways may be possible someday. If self-driving vehicles become the standard, freeways that look like parking lots could quickly become a relic of the past. Many researchers agree that if every car were self-driving, even stop lights would become unnecessary. Instead, slight variations in speed could allow every car on the roadway to sail through intersections at the same time, whizzing right by each other without ever touching.

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Beyond relieving the annoyance and tediousness of rush hour commutes and construction back-ups, a world without traffic congestion would drastically reduce emissions. In addition, it would also reduce individual fuel consumption. Without any significant difference between ‘highway miles’ and ‘city miles’ vehicle lifetimes would likely see radical improvements. Traffic-free cities would also allow firetrucks, ambulances, and other emergency vehicles to ride easy without ever facing the risk of an unclearable congested road.

While the implementation of a regulated speed for every driver is impractical and unfeasible, the resulting un-jammed roads are likely coming regardless. Most experts and futurists agree self-driving cars are the wave of the future, and in my state of Illinois, so-called “Smart Highways” (which communicate traffic information to smart phones and vehicles) are already being implemented. So to many, it’s not a question of if we’ll see the end of traffic, it’s just a question of when.

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Featured photo credit: pixaoppa via pixabay.com

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