"Shockwave!!" Auto traffic, and article.

by Matt

I drive too much.

In the second-worst traffic in the US. As a matter of fact, I think that if this is the second-worst traffic in the nation logistically speaking, then it is quite likely the worst traffic overall, experientially speaking, because it is the second-worst logistical situation being executed by Washingtonians.

The nice thing is, the realization that I drive too much has led me underground, where a developing romance with the pretty great metro system unfolds.

Meanwhile, the Texas Transportation Institute publishes an annual report of US Traffic Congestion. A nice blog post about the report can be found here. Or, for the eagle-hearted, or the time-privileged, the report itself can be found here.

Current research on traffic congestion orients around issues of urban planning, public transportation use, the problems of urban sprawl, etc. But when I’m sitting in traffic, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the situation could be alleviated by basic codes of driver behavior while they’re in their cars and on the road. For example, if there’s a bottleneck up ahead, does it help the overall flow of traffic to get into the lane that goes through, right away, or is it in fact more helpful to follow the closing lane all the way down to where it tapers, and to merge? Seems to me, the latter is better for traffic, especially if all drivers accept a one-to-one entrance policy, and are smooth about this.

Or how about yielding when merging onto a freeway. Does it still make sense to lay the burden of yielding on the arriving driver alone? With traffic so fast, and entry ramps so short, shouldn’t it be a shared, cooperative responsibility? This is the lean of things on the road, but it’s not what the signs say. Nor is everybody on the same page about it.

Or this: It has long seemed to me that tailgating probably creates traffic jams, because it often forces a driver to react more dramatically to the car in front of him. If driver A slows down and driver B, behind him, is right on his bumper, then driver B is gonna have to really put on his brakes to be safe, where if he weren’t so close behind, he could be more mellow in his response because his window for figuring out what driver A’s slowing is all about would be larger.

At the same time, if everybody increased their following distance, that expands the volume occupied by the same number of cars. What’s the effect? I don’t know.

The thing is, I’d guess most people have had thoughts like this, and everybody has suffered the ardors of the simple necessity of getting yourself from one place to another. We all experience it, as millions of solitary events in these steel boxes. There’s no consensus about it. There’s no public forum!

Do I sound crochety about this? A little bit?

How about this: Have you ever been tooling along the beltway and found it turned into a parking lot for a few slogging miles, gotten to the end of it twenty or thirty minutes later expecting a spray of glass and twisted metal and body parts and huge smudges of blood and found, instead absolutely nothing? You probably assumed, as I have sometimes, that the accident was cleaned up awhile ago, and the traffic flow still hagn’t recovered — and I still don’t see why that couldn’t be the case.

But it also seems possible to me that that entire traffic jam may have arisen for almost no good reason at all, but rather as a “chaos” effect spiralling up out of a confluence events which all cause slowing. Sometimes, it seems vividly clear to me, in fact, that the only reason some traffic jams occur is because everybody believes there is one up ahead, and responds — thereby providing the primary impetus for jam itself. It’s like The Secret gone horribly awry, right there on our nation’s beltways!

Well, it turns out, this has been known by some mathematicians for awhile. At least the chaos theory part of it. Traffic jams do spiral up out of nowhere. It’s called the shockwave effect, and now it’s been reproduced experimentally in Japan.

Anyway, here’s the article, FYI:

Shockwave traffic jam recreated for first time

Parenthetically, someday, I think it’s possible that we will travel to Japan and find that the “Japanese” are all, in fact, robot dopplegangers, and that the real Japanese have been living in Utopic comfort in a cozy, terraformed corner of the surface of Mars, hidden under a hologram’s camouflage. Not unlike the Chinese in the Kurt Vonnegut novel.

But regardless of the fate of the Japanese — I’d like to conclude by saying this: these days, although we set the bar pretty low in this country as to what is considered acceptable in public places, we do still have some standards. Right? We, uh, don’t chew food so recklessly that it starts to dribble back out of our mouths, half-mashed. Right? Right?

Well, I think it would be great to re-visit our habits on the road and cultivate, in mainstream dialogue, a new sense of driver etiquette — one based on some basic sense of, you know, the Golden Rule, but also rooted in reason, and research.

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