An Attitude Adjustment for Traffic Jams

9 Oct

If you’re like many Americans you spend a lot of time in your car, and much of that time isn’t very relaxing. This interesting website from an engineer has some thought-provoking ideas about the nature of traffic jams, and how they relate to human behavior– http://trafficwaves.org. It also points to some ways to relieve some of those jams and also relieve stress at the same time!

From the site:

It’s always a good idea to drive without changing speed and without competing with other drivers for bits of headway. I’d always assumed that the reasons were philosophical rather than practical (i.e. try to be a calm, nice person.) But my above experience shows differently. A single solitary driver, if they stop “competing” and instead adopt some unusual driving habits, can actually wipe away some of the frustrating traffic patterns on a highway. That “nice” noncompetitive driver can erase traffic waves. I suspect that the opposite is also true: normal competitive behavior CREATES the traffic waves.

Suppose we push constantly ahead, change lanes to grab a bit of headway, and always eliminate our forward space in order to prevent other drivers from “cutting us off”. If tiny traffic waves appear, we will rush ahead and then brake hard, leaving larger waves behind us. Repeated action causes the waves to grow huge. Ironic that the angry people who push ahead as fast as possible might unwittingly participate in “amplifying” the very conditions that they hate so much. The solution seems obvious: drivers with a smooth “calm” style will tend to damp out the waves and produce a uniform flow… and the few drivers who intentionally drive at a single constant speed will wipe out the waves entirely.

Note: this is not about going 35 m.p.h. on the expressway… that would just be annoying and dangerous. It’s about purposefully leaving a large buffer space in front of you while maintaining a steady speed. This is a bit counter-intuitive because it’s natural to want to close up the gap ahead of you. Often, there is a desire to prevent another “competing” driver from stealing that precious gap ahead of you, so you try to tighten it up. But from what this engineer is describing, that is like shooting yourself in the foot.

I experimented with this myself on the Schuylkill Expressway a few times, not to the extent that this engineer took it- he really gets into it, it’s kind of scary. It was very strange: whenever I tried this my trips were not only much more relaxing, but it *seemed* that I made better time than I would have otherwise (hard to judge without a “control” trip to compare to). You may want to give it a try yourself, at the very least it can add an interesting element to your commute!

The Frequently Asked Questions section of this engineer’s site answers some of the obvious questions about these tactics. For example: This is all fine in theory, but it really doesn’t work, since people just go around you when you try to open up a space.

The engineer’s response:

I think the real issue here is emotions, and “losing” versus “winning.” If I let anyone jump into my big empty space, why, that makes me an inferior LOSER! That person is now ahead of me in the “race,” and they’ve stolen my glory. They’ll arrive at the finish ten feet before I do! So I must never open up a space ahead of me, that just makes me vulnerable. Right?

But if you think about it, you’ll see that there is no race. There is no finish line, so any small gains are wasted. I could spend my entire commute trying to get two car lengths farther than everyone else, but it would be stupid and pointless. We can beat any driver on the road no matter what their skill level… by simply starting our trip a few minutes earlier! This “race” is a bunch of stupid nonsense created by insecure immature drivers. Screw ’em. Instead do the opposite: look for ways which you personally can improve the traffic flow. Let people merge ahead of you whenever they need to, and you become the more professional driver.

It’s funny that an engineer recognizes that the real cause of (and solution for) this type of problem is found within people’s emotions. I think this topic is also a good example of how your attitude determines, to a large extent, how your daily life unfolds — if you go through life thinking that people are “out to get you”, that life is endless struggle and hardship, and that you’re surrounded by hostility, well, guess what? Life is like a mirror, and you tend to get what you expect, good or bad.

PS. Hypnosis can help a person strengthen their ego and gain self-confidence, so that they don’t feel a need to engage in silly, counterproductive behavior that is born out of insecurity.

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2 Replies to “An Attitude Adjustment for Traffic Jams

  1. Great find, Steve! This is something I as an individual can do every time I drive the freeways here in the jammed San Francisco Bay Area. Great metaphor for life, too.

  2. Thanks Joy! You know, it’s strange, but whenever I try this kind of driving, it really does seem to make the experience better. I would have expected that people would take advantage by zipping in front of me, negating the benefits of a large buffer zone, but it doesn’t seem to happen.

    I wonder if people are just so puzzled that they are avoiding getting in front of me, thinking that I must be a crazy person, or if it somehow makes them stop and think about how pointless it is to fight for every little bit of space on the expressway. In any case, it does seem to work.

    PS. Your blog is fantastic!

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