Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Reasonless Traffic Jams

I don't know about you, but the the roads seem to be me to be increasingly populated with a mix of octogenarians driving little more that battery powered wheelchairs at speeds that would have made the proprietor of Mr. Tom Chandlebutt's Steady Cart Transport Company doze off and surly faced hoods driving cars with twice as many kilowatts as they have braincells. There seems to be an attitude, at least around here, that the right hand lane is for "long term residents", rather than being the "fast lane". In fact, I'm sure some people assume that since they are turning right sometime in the next few days, they are entitled to just stick in the right lane (here in Australia we drive right hand drive cars, and so our roads are built to work opposite to those in the US and France). I have developed a desire for instant capital punishment to be meted out on those I deem to be infringing the rules of good sense, and in my less cheerful moments, feel that a line of smoking wrecks lining the road would serve to discourage those who feel the need to brake to a stop before merging onto a freeway. Not very charitable, I know, but I'm sure I'm not alone. Breath in if you've ever felt frustrated at other drivers on the roads ;)

Anyway, an article
linked from Slashdot today reminded me of some cool information I found a while ago about traffic. The article described how Japanese researcher has shown how on a saturated road system, even with no traffic hazards or obstacles, jams will form and travel back through traffic like a shock wave. The Japanese experiment involved 20 or so cars, driving on a 230m circular track. Each driver was told to drive at a constant speed of 30 km per hour, yet before long, inconsistencies in their drive patterns were resulting in jams and slowdowns.

A few years back, a guy called William Beaty wrote a series of articles on traffic waves. He wasn't a traffic expert, but they are really very cool, and illustrated with animations that show the results of his experiments. Another interesting resource is this animated tool, which although a little old now, allows you to model traffic conditions and see the effect sped up.

My own thoughts on the matter are that governments need a few things done. There is no way that the world can afford to continue to widen roads to accommodate more traffic. Both economically and environmentally this is mad. Governments need a better program of driver education that trains people on how to merge effectively and at speed, change lanes safely and how to handle a traffic hazard (have you ever noticed how if there has been a traffic accident, even though the vehicles and emergency staff a now well off the road itself, all the traffic still slows almost a stop? I just don't get that ... Who wants to look at an accident ... Oh look there! Theres a victim on a stretcher. I spy with my little eye something beginning with "Ambulance"). Insurance companies could be the point of entry into re-education for existing drivers, forcing people who have made certain types of insurance claims to attend the program.

Another thing that would help would be if GPS systems were better equipped to tell me traffic conditions on my route. I don't just want to know where I am, but where all the other cars are and how fast they are traveling. That way, the load could be spread better among alternate routes. Even if government traffic authorities were to have the control to put recommended quota levels on roads in real time, so that roads with ongoing work or traffic hazards could have their quota reduced so that GPS systems recommend drivers away from that route after the quota is reached.

I reckon a light on the roof of every vehicle that indicates if they are traveling at or above speed or not would be good. Green for at or above the speed limit, orange for below. This would mean that rather than breaking when I see the car in front braking, I could see the line of amber lights ahead of me, and chill out about going any quicker. So rather than breaking suddenly and causing a shock wave of traffic, I can help lower the average speed a little rather than a lot.

Anyway, clearly I worry way too much about this and have spent way too much time thinking about this.

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