A solution for traffic jams?

The other day I was in my workshop listening to NPR, Car Talk, specifically, and they had a caller who was suggesting a solution to traffic jams. The caller suggested that the reason why traffic jams occur was that people follow too closely, and then the slightest slow-down becomes an emergency stop down the line because of human reaction times. Once you get traffic all stopped, because some troglodyte up ahead dropped their cell phone or whatever, that “lump” of stopped traffic will be there forever.

Thus, the solution was to spread out and increase the interval between cars – in fact, he suggested that we should spread out so much that we wouldn’t even need to use our brakes to deal with the usual eb and flow of rush hour traffic. With such a large gap, when we see brake lights on the car ahead, we simply let off the gas and let our speed drop. The flaw in this reasoning is already apparent, if everyone did it, because there would be no brake lights to use as a cue.

This won’t work.

Each lane of a road has a certain capacity, in cars per hour. If you decrease speed, or increase the amount of space between cars you decrease the capacity. Less capacity means less cars get through, and rush hour lasts longer. The reason we have the traffic jam in the first place is that there are too many cars on the road – there isn’t enough capacity. Reducing the capacity isn’t going to solve the problem.

It’s really very obvious when you look at it the right way, but we usually don’t, because we don’t look at the entire road. We just look at the part we’re on.

So, should we tailgate? NO!

Now, I am NOT advocating that we tailgate. In fact I’m not advocating you do anything other than what you learned in driver’s education. Just drive like a normal, attentive person. While in theory you could increase the capacity of the road a bit by shortening your interval, if we start solving road-capacity problems for the government there’s no telling what else they’ll have us doing. Besides, rear-ending someone just isn’t worth it.

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