traffic jam

Traffic Jam – How do they work?

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Have you ever sit in traffic and try to imagine what is going on in front of you? It seems that there is nothing there, no accident, no red lights just cars, cars waiting for something to disappear that is not even there. Let’s see how a traffic jam work and why they occur.

The lack of coordination.

Unfortunately us humans are not as precise as machines. We are not even close to that actually. And THAT my friend, is the one and only reason of traffic jams.

Let’s see an example. Imagine one single road with a crosswalk and a semaphore. When the light turns green, the first car starts accelerating (probably with some delay). The next car only starts accelerating after the first one and the next car after the second car and so on and so on… The last car in the row will probably catch red again.

If all the cars started accelerating at the same time, a lot more cars would catch the green. See it in action below:

traffic in action

The cars on the upper lane accelerate in synchrony so a lot more of them can pass. Of course, this is not possible for humans. Even if we all paid attention as much as possible, we, humans, will not be able to drive this precisely. And we did not even talk about people who get distracted while waiting for the green light and only start to accelerate after a significant amount of time (Maybe motivated by some angry horns 🤷‍♂️) Self-driving cars, on the other hand, could accomplish this precision and decrease traffic jams in huge cities.

But dude, this is not a traffic jam yet!

Your right, this is not. But now imagine that there is an intersection before the crosswalk. Now those cars that did not catch the green light are stuck in the middle of that intersection. Does that seem like a traffic jam now? In general, we can say that the more intersections there are the bigger the lock is. Sometimes it can take hours to fully free up.

OK, but what about the highways? There are no crosswalks and intersections there!

True! I’m sure you all know the feeling of driving on the highway in turtle 🐢 mode, then all of a sudden, it frees up and leaves you in wonders: “Where in the hack was that accident causing this traffic jam?”

Well… I can only repeat myself. The lack of coordination! There are no intersections indeed but people still have to break sometimes. Some drivers change lanes without looking back, some are tailgating others and so for the smallest breaking of the car in the front, they have to slow down rapidly to avoid a collision. On such breaking can start a snowball that rolls and get bigger and bigger for hours! The first car had to just break a little, the one after that has to break more aggressively because they notice the front car breaking too late. Eventually, there will be a car in this chain that has to stop completely. Because of the high speed on the motorway, more cars are stacking up at the end of the row than how many can start accelerating again and leave. This type of traffic jam will not free up unless there is a big enough delay between two “incoming” cars for the last car in the stack to start accelerating so the next car only has to slow down but not stop and the whole process happens backward until the traffic jam completely disappears!


So what would be a solution? Well, the perfect solutions could only be self-driving cars. The precision of these machines and their ability to communicate with each other in a huge network would make semaphores useless as all cars could know when they have to slow down and when they can go. Unfortunately, this is still the future.

Don’t get me wrong here, I really like driving and I hope we will not get to a future where humans can no longer drive but unarguably there are times when self-driving cars would really be a better option.

Sooo the solution that is achievable for all of us is to pay more attention when driving and try to be more in sync with other drivers around you



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