20 November 2009

Recreating the dynamics of traffic jams

Traffic that grinds to a halt and then restarts for no apparent reason is one of the biggest causes of frustration for drivers. Now a team of Japanese researchers has recreated the phenomenon on a test-track for the first time.

The mathematical theory behind these so-called "shockwave" jams was developed more than 15 years ago using models that show jams appear from nowhere on roads carrying their maximum capacity of free-flowing traffic - typically triggered by a single driver slowing down.

After that first vehicle brakes, the driver behind must also slow, and a shockwave jam of bunching cars appears, travelling backwards through the traffic.

The theory has frequently been modelled in computer simulations, and seems to fit with observations of real traffic, but has never been recreated experimentally until now...

Pinpointing the causes of shockwave jams is an exercise in psychology more than anything else. "If they had set up an experiment with robots driving in a perfect circle, flow breakdown would not have occurred. Human error is needed to cause the fluctuations in behaviour,"
More at the link.


  1. We see this all the time, a slow down for no apparent accident. I love this demonstration, it was a novel idea to use a circular track to more quickly show the wave effect on traffic speed when we have human error.

  2. I read an article years ago that hypothesized that such phantom congestion was a result of an accident hours earlier. Because traffic had slowed or stopped, it created a ripple effect in that area when traffic was heavy. Same idea. No matter what causes it, it sucks.


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