Certainties of Life – Death, Taxes and Traffic Jams

Apart from death and taxes, the one thing that is certain in life is ‘traffic jams’. Over the past couple of weeks, I have been late to my meetings and appointments mainly due to traffic jams. Yes there is an element of bad time management, but the fact remains that bad traffic is something that we all take as an unfortunate reality and we helplessly make things work around it. I wanted to understand what causes traffic jams and if there are tactics one can learn to beat the traffic and thence started by learning and experimentation. This post is about what I have learnt so far.

Lesson # 1: ‘The road less travelled’ – is the wrong road to take.

I had a meeting in Bellevue, WA and I had two options to reach my destination during the morning rush hour from my home in Kirkland, WA  –  One obviously the freeway and the second was an internal road, the road presumed to be less travelled. I looked-up on my GPS for traffic data and the freeway showed solid red line (i.e. traffic congestion) through the exit for my destination. Given this real-time information on freeway (no traffic data is generally available for internal smaller roads), it was no brainer to opt for the internal road and beat the slow traffic.

Once I reached the internal road and 10 minutes in, I had not even moved couple of miles. It dawned on me that with the real-time traffic information available to almost everyone, many of the drivers would have opted to take the internal road based on a similar thought process I had. If I am doing what majority is also doing, then I am joining the crowd and by this analogy, lower number of drivers should have opted to take the freeway in spite of the real-time traffic data that shows solid red line (i.e. traffic congestion) on the freeway. Hypothetically the freeway traffic should be much faster compared to the internal road traffic –  Immediately I wanted to test if my hypothesis was right and took a U-turn to go back to the freeway.

The ramp for the freeway was backed-up with long traffic line but the line was slowly moving. Once I hit the freeway, the traffic was slow but it was moving at a steady pace.  Much better than the pace of traffic on the internal road. During off-peak hours, it takes usually about 15-20 minutes to reach Bellevue, WA from my home but this time, it took 35 minutes to reach my destination. Not bad at all compared to what I thought it would be and I am sure this was much faster than the internal road.

The lesson – don’t do what your common sense first tells you to do because everyone would be doing the same thing. Always do some backward reasoning. When Robert Frost wrote – “The two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference”, he literally meant the road in the wood where there are no drivers. Do not apply this to real world traffic especially during rush hour.

Lesson # 2: Building new roads – sometime causes delays and more traffic jams.

Building new roads can cause delays and traffic jams OR closing down roads can ease traffic jams. This is known as Braess’s paradox, after a German mathematician, Dietrich Braess, who found that adding extra capacity to a network can sometimes reduce its overall efficiency.  This paradox is very elegantly explained in this video.

Here are some real life examples extracted from Wikipedia

In Seoul, South Korea, a speeding-up in traffic around the city was seen when a motorway was removed as part of the urban space restoration project. In Stuttgart, Germany, after investments into the road network in 1969, the traffic situation did not improve until a section of newly built road was closed for traffic again. In 1990 the closing of 42nd street in New York City reduced the amount of congestion in the area. In 2008 researchers demonstrated specific routes in Boston, New York City and London where this might actually occur and pointed out roads that could be closed to reduce predicted travel times.

Lesson # 3: Tolls – more the better.

Even taking a small portion of drivers off the road contributes to a huge improvement in the traffic congestion problem. This fascinating TED talk (more than a million views) demonstrates the phenomenon –

Drivers from Seattle to Eastside may have witnessed this phenomenon when toll was levied on the 520 bridge.

Lesson # 4 – Keep distance – half way between the car ahead and behind you.

Couple of years ago I had listened on NPR to a talk by MIT computer scientist. Apparently one idiot is all it takes to cause a traffic jam. Traffic moves like a dynamic fluid and someone slamming a break suddenly forms a wave flowing backwards. Even though the driver slamming the break may have moved forward, the ripple effect of the wave has to flow through a long distance backwards, usually in quick succession before it is neutralized. Mathematically, if everyone keeps equal distance between the car ahead and behind them, the situation will improve tremendously.

Death and taxes cannot be avoided and the same is true with traffic jams. All you can do is prepare for them and sometimes a little bit of planning and awareness can make things a bit more manageable.

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