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October 4, at 4: I'd always choose the half-speed option even if it has no effect on my commute time. I'm a double-E and science amateur. If the person behind me is aggressive, eventually they'll change lanes and pass me. You can also go to downforeveryoneorjustme. They stop pushing slowly through the far end of the jammed lane. Try downloading a different torrent.

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And a single driver can certainly wipe out many miles of traffic waves. I've done this myself. Yes, if everybody maintained a space, then the spaces would only need to be a couple of car lengths or so. I suspect that the effects on merge-zone traffic jams are far greater than that. After all, traffic lights are much better than four-way stop signs! Let twenty cars merge ahead of you, and you've briefly converted an excruciatingly slow "4-way stop sign" into a traffic light.

Actually, you've hit on a central point in the controversy between traffic physicists and traffic engineers. It seems that they're certain that traffic is a "linear" phenomeon like water flowing through hoses. If traffic has "linear" behavior, then in order to improve traffic flow, we would have to change the behavior of every single driver on the road. On the other hand, if traffic is "nonlinear," then it can experience phase changes.

It can display emergent patterns, spontaneous self-organization, and several other phenomena studied in Nonlinear Dynamics. If traffic is nonlinear, then a single driver can trigger a major reorganization of traffic patterns. If traffic is nonlinear, then a single driver has disproportionally large effects like the butterfly wings that create or cancel a hurricane. If traffic is nonlinear, then it might be full of "fluidic flip-flop" switches which can be "flipped" by the intentional actions of individual drivers.

Is traffic linear or nonlinear? I offer an "existence proof. Sometimes a single driver can create vast improvements in the flow. Zipper merges work fine in medium-heavy traffic. The effects of a Big Empty Space are awsome to behold!

On the other hand, in extremely heavy traffic conditions where a highway exit is overloaded and backed up, a zipper-merge cannot survive, and if I try the jam-busting trick on the merge jam, it doesn't work. But this type of overload is not common in Seattle. The overload isn't from some stoplight causing traffic to back up all the way through the exit and onto the interstate. Instead these jams are the type where, once you get past the jam and enter the exit ramp, there are no cars ahead of you at all.

You can take off at high speed. The only bottleneck was the jam itself, the clot of stopped cars. This type of jam can often be "busted" by a single driver. In somewhat congested traffic, before any jams occur, the merging area at a highway exit becomes "sensitive," and highway incidents can set off a jam.

A merge-jam can be triggered by a traffic wave on the highway. Or it can be triggered if traffic flow hits a momentary peak and the exit becomes temporarily overloaded. Or sometimes two egotistic idiots get into a race where the guy in the exit lane won't let the guy on the highway merge, and then one or the other has to hit the brakes, causing a jam to appear behind him.

In any of these cases, once the merge-jam has been created, it continues to exist, sometimes for hours. There is no reason for the ongoing jam, instead it supports itself, and if something should interfere with the jam, it may evaporate.

So, if I arrive at a huge traffic jam at a highway exit, chances are that the traffic flow is far too low to cause a jam on its own. Instead the jam was triggered by something earlier. And in that case a single driver can often un-trigger it again. Sometimes the backup is over a mile long. And nobody but me knows why the jam broke up.

It doesn't work every time maybe one success out of five tries or more. If everyone knew about it, then Seattle commuters would be triggering its evaporation all the time. The huge daily jam would cease to exist. Or maybe it would only appear when the exit ramp was actually overloaded during conditions where jam-busting fails to work. In any case, my fun would be ruined. Someday I'll have to do some videotaping and make some time-lapse footage of the jam and my effects on it.

But until I get it on film, that jam is an endangered species, and I must take care to preserve it in its natural state! The jam is the one shown in this video. Too many people are "popping it," so it never has a chance to really grow huge. But I'm not heartless; I'll reveal the location of a smaller one which also is sensitive to a single driver.

Just north of Seattle, on the southbound "Express lanes" which go under the huge I-5 bridge over Lake Union, the center lane gets backed up during morning commutes.

Sometimes the backup extends all the way to the bridge. This is the through-lane, and in the tunnel under the city center the Express Lanes neck down to a single lane which merges with I-5 just south of the city. If drivers maintain say a ten or twenty car space while trapped in that center-lane jam, sometimes the jam evaporates. This happens because the jam is kept alive by cars which get trapped on the wrong side of the clogged lane, and they're down there at the end, forcing their way through the backup so they can get to the city exits on the other side.

Anyone who provides a huge empty space will let these cars flow through the jammed lane. They stop pushing slowly through the far end of the jammed lane. And this interferes with the process which keeps the jam in existence. Yes, so why isn't it common knowledge? And why do half the people reading my articles object violently to everything I say? This stuff can't both be well-known trucker wisdom AND ridiculous foolishness at the same time! We look at truck behavior in highway traffic jams and perhaps we make a wrong assumption.

We assume that trucks need large spaces because of braking distance. And so we imagine that cars should NOT preserve big spaces, since cars have short braking distance. We totally misunderstood the reason that trucks leave big gaps ahead of them. Think for a moment: This doesn't make sense unless the reason for the space has little to do with braking distance.

And, if it's not about braking distance, maybe the people driving cars should adopt the behavior of the professionals? This brings up an interesting point.

A macho "playa" who wants others to think they're a professional driver Should they be a total competitive asshole who cuts into every tiny space and screws their neighbors every chance they get? After all, the real goal is to drive 1mph faster than everyone else, right? Well, look at the most macho and professional drivers of all: Why are they so unnaturally polite? Why do they let people merge ahead of them?

Why do they group together and form rolling barriers? Why don't they act like properly competitive assholes who can drive 1mph faster than everyone in the traffic jam? The answer is simple. Truckers are genuine experts, and the guy in the hotrod who tears into your empty space while flipping you the bird is the total opposite.

Who would you rather be, a pro driver who knows the secret answers to extremely sophisticated questions of traffic dynamics? Or an ignorant little kid whose habitual selfish actions screw up things for everyone, including themselves? In the merge-jam's left-hand animation, the traffic jam occurs because people have trouble merging, right? Everyone in the through-lane is packed solid, so the other lane can't get in.

But if people left big spaces between their cars, then the whole reason for the traffic jam would be gone. It would never form in the first place, so we would never have a chance to be trapped in a weird "wide spaces" traffic jam. But the only way those cars could maintain large spaces is if they refused to pack together as they slowed down.

On the other hand, if the traffic jam had another cause besides the "merging lanes" congestion, then the wide spaces between cars would not reduce the traffic jam. Suppose that something caused the widely-spaced cars in the right-hand animation to all slow to a crawl. If they maintained their wide spaces, then they could all speed right back up again. They could keep merging as before, and no jam would form. However, if they packed themselves together as they slowed to a stop, then nobody could merge anymore.

Two rows of solidly-packed cars would form, and a long-term traffic jam would be created. Once the cars have packed together at a merge area, they cannot unpack themselves. Yet the jam can be cleared if a bunch of widely-spaced cars could enter from the rear of the jam. Even a single car, if it brings a large enough space into the jam, can sometimes "unplug" both lanes. I've done this several times on I-5 near Seattle. It might feel stupid to sit in traffic with a big wide space in front of your car.

But if merging lanes are ahead, then your space will help unplug the traffic jam. Which type of driver should be feeling stupid? A small space would ordinarily have just a small effect.

But here's my main point See all those people packed together in the left-hand animation? As you yourself drive forward, soon you'll be in the jam. If you bring a space along with you, you will free up the people who need to merge. If your space is very large, or if several people bring in spaces, then that "plug" of cars will dissolve.

One single person CAN affect a traffic jam, see traf. However, this will not affect the people ahead of you in the jam.

It will only affect the people behind you. If the people ahead of you allow merging, then YOU will not experience this type of traffic jam. If YOU allow merging, then you can dissolve the plug, and the people far behind you will never see the jam. On the other hand, if you care only about yourself, and if you refuse to aid the people behind you, then you should not complain when the people ahead of you do the same thing, and screw you up. When I manage to break up the daily jams at the express lanes south of Seattle on I-5, everyone ahead of me suddenly takes off at high speed.

The plug at the express lanes exit evaporates because merging drivers are no longer driving down to the end and then butting in at the last minute. This happens because those merging drivers merged early, merged ahead of me into my empty space, and I was still about half a mile from the exit.

The jam evaporated, and suddenly I could drive at 50mph. Sometimes the "cheaters" are not cheaters at all. Sometimes they are innocent people who cannot penetrate the solid-packed row of exiting cars.

If we provide space, they will merge early, and everyone will drive fast into the exit. But if we don't provide space, they'll take vengence by forcing their way in anyway, which brings our lane to a near halt. Usually you don't have to drive slower. Just bring your big space with you when you approach congested traffic. At worst, we only have to drift backwards for a couple of minutes in order to open up several car-lengths of space. I suspect that some people believe that, since slow drivers always have an empty space ahead of them, therefore any drivers with an empty space ahead of them MUST be slow drivers.

But instead if I drive with an unchanging 5-car space ahead of me, then I'm not driving slow. That space moves at exactly the same speed as the surrounding traffic, and so do I.

If you are in a burning building which is full of people, would you hope for an orderly exit, or would you want everyone to rush towards the doorway as fast as possible?

They should go fast, right? Pushing ahead will remove all the space between people, and so creates blockages. Traffic jams are created by people who attempted high speed and agressive manuvering. This has been called the "faster is slower effect. People die in fires while learning this fact. If they'd exited the building "slowly" in orderly lines, then clogs wouldn't form, and they could escape far more quickly.

What most drivers don't realize is that this same burning-building crowd-dynamics can apply to highway congestion. When drivers pack together and refuse to allow anyone to slip in ahead of them, unfortunately they will take turns getting "stuck in the theatre doorway," and they slow down everyone behind them as well. When traffic is heavy, TRYING to drive faster can often cause stoppages, while intentionally driving non-aggressively can sometimes "flip" the stoppages into orderly single-file merge-patterns.

How often have you watched some idiot trying to drive fast in congested traffic, yet after many minutes they've only gained a few car lengths? So-called "fast" driving is not fast! If it causes traffic jams, then "fast" driving is actually FAR slower than patient, polite driving.

Also, "slow" driving is not slow! If we refuse to constantly switch lanes, refuse to push ahead and close up gaps, refuse to participate in stop-and-go wave cycles, then suddenly a traffic jam can spontaneously vanish.

How can slow driving ever improve traffic? It's much like this question: Throwing away money is stupid, I would never give to a charity. Giving to charity improves the whole world in the long run even though you lose money in the short run.

Reciprocal altruists give to charity they aren't true altruists, instead they are paying out money and expecting long term results! With charity work, the return on investment is greater than the investment. It makes the world a better place over time.

Commuter traffic is similar. Momentarily driving slowly while approaching any traffic jam helps to shrink the region where cars are actually stopped.

A bit of driving slowly is an investment which expects a big return: A short-term thinker wants results NOW, and doesn't understand long-term investing. A short-term thinker will never drive even slightly slowly under any circumstances, and will refuse to experiment with these techniques, since the techniques seem to be used by suckers who throw away money for no reason.

In merging-lane traffic jams in particular, a big space in the "thru" lane can have amazing positive results. I've seen this actually occur on several occasions, it's not "just a theory. The traffic jam evaporates and the fast flow begins. Once formed, the "Zipper effect" persists.

In that case you did immediately help yourself by driving slowly to open up a big space. You broke the "clot" as you approached it. If there was no big space ahead of your car, then you'd still be inching along with everyone else, as is shown in the left-hand animation.

Traffic can be an ethics lesson in miniature: The Three Stooges can never get through the doorway because they cannot bear to surrender the lead and walk single file. Too bad they have to punish everyone behind them as well.

There's a famous UK version on the M circular highway which surrounds London. But in some situations my "Pace Car" or "rolling barrier" idea is a bit less expensive, and can be used as needed when a traffic jam develops. Look up the Blokrijden technique used in some countries in Europe. Or for example, if an accident triggers a persistent traffic jam, then the police vehicles can move the jam upstream and away from the accident scene, and convert it into a large moving traffic wave which does not block the highway.

Perhaps someday ALL the speed limit signs will be programmable just glue on some Digital Paper with a solar-powered internet satellite link? Or even create traffic-waves intentionally, which could give the merge zones a "virtual stop light" so they stop acting like 4-way stop signs with such low throughput. PS For those who don't believe that a rolling barrier can help You may think that it is obvious that it has to reduce the time everyone spends in traffic but I don't buy it without some sort of mathematical proof.

There must be some point where too many people leaving too large of gaps just slows everyone down. How do you know that your technique reduces the time people spend in traffic? Sometimes removing the traffic waves or merging-lane jams will not affect the time spent in traffic. In this case the effects become a matter of personal opinion: OR would you rather drive at half speed for 40 minutes?

A slowdown without a "jam? I'd always choose the half-speed option even if it has no effect on my commute time. As for traffic waves, the "stopped" part of a small wave can trigger a much larger jam if it moves past a merge-zone on a highway. I've also heard that stop-and-go driving is a major cause of fender-bender collisions. And it eats gasoline, of course. If people enjoy traffic waves, if they see no need to smooth them out, then they should not complain if a hard-braking situation gets them rear-ended.

This doesn't increase or decrease the time that everyone stays on the road, at least at first. Do large spaces between cars cause traffic to fill highways? Only if people increase their spaces on average, but that's not what I'm discussing here. Suppose traffic is moving at 40mph. Those cars will have several car-lengths of space between them.

If those drivers encounter a slowdown This doesn't increase the space between drivers, since they already were widely spaced when they were moving at 40mph. Yet if they maintain their wide spaces as they slow down, then they will have little trouble in later speeding back up again. On the other hand, if they pack together bumper-to-bumper like a parking lot, then nobody can move until the car ahead of them moves.

In that case we end up with a traffic wave which "dissolves" excruciatingly slowly. And if people need to merge as well, then the close-packing of the cars creates a permanent traffic jam: Removing the waves could make traffic worse if the traffic was approaching a congested area, and waves had actually slowed the traffic on average. If removing the waves doesn't affect the average speed, then there is no danger of creating jams downstream. If removing the waves DOES significantly raise the average speed, then sometimes the traffic waves might be beneficial, and act as a natural regulator where they accidentally improve the traffic far forwards far downstream.

In that case the traffic waves improve regional traffic flow, and smoothing them out would be bad. After messing with these techniques, I have the distinct impression that they speed up traffic often, have no effect sometimes, and slow things down rarely.

If I saw evidence that they were causing more harm than good for much of the time, I would quickly stop doing them. My goal after all is to do my tiny bit to fix the screwed-up traffic, not to pump up my ego by showing how easily a single driver can manipulate traffic. The merge-zones might stop jamming, but the capacity of major highways would be reduced. On-ramps would become choked as traffic backed up into them, and there would be slowdowns extending far out into the countryside.

Yet if ALL drivers were to change their habits, then only small extra spaces would be required, yet waves and stoppages would be seriously squelched. If we erase traffic waves and stoppages, would we spend less time on the road?

If they exit in an orderly fashion, they exit more quickly. To exit fast, they must maintain order and not let any "jams" develop. Smart drivers in heavy traffic are like "intelligent" molecules of fluid.

They're like an additive which suppresses turbulence. If we adopt the right habits, then traffic waves and merging-lanes traffic jams will not be triggered as easily as they are today. No need for robotic driverless cars. Just let a small percentage of commuters start using the same driver behavior which the driverless cars would use.

If some people insist that, since official proof is lacking, we should do nothing, then that's their opinion. My opinion is that the psychological benefits alone make these driving techniques incredibly worthwhile. I don't drive like a competitive idiot anymore. Instead I get to play the role of a playful altruist. Rushing forwards all the time would make me enraged and frustrated, and wouldn't increase my average speed by much at all.

Even if removing traffic stoppages did turn out to have little effect on the time we all spend on the highway, I myself would still choose to drive in a way which leads to smoother flow. It has a peak! Suppose a highway is at maximum flow and moving at around 40MPH. If the flow then transitions into a series of waves, notice that the empty part of the wave is actually a low-flow section of highway.

And, the stopped clot of cars is also a low-flow section. With waves in effect, most of the highway is now far from that high-flow peak which occurs whenever the entire population is moving at 40MPH. And when flow rate falls while the influx was very high, backups may start growing continuously, leading to far longer delays than just the ones expected from lowered flow. Wiping out the waves may not restore the original high flow rate.

But letting waves appear during congested conditions, that certainly will lower the flow. They are caused by the uniform behavior of the drivers. When a driver approaches a long row of stopped cars, that driver stops, and this certainly is not "widely varying behavior.

Yet they do exist. Therefore, in many situations, drivers ARE enough like identical molecules after all. It is my experience that heavy traffic forces people to act much more like identical molecules.

In heavy traffic it becomes nearly impossible to pass other drivers, or to drive faster than the average speed. Uniform behavior is forcibly imposed, and the traffic behaves like a sort of compressible "crystal.

And when traffic is light, these "antitraffic" driving suggestions stop working, yet also they are no longer needed. I drive that section too and get to play with jam-cancelling techniques there. I'm convinced that this clot is caused by all the people trying to merge left to get to the exit. It's a runaway process: Slow drivers pack themselves together. This closes the holes and prevents others behind them from merging, which makes merging drivers go even slower, which packs the cars even closer, etc.

During rush hour this causes a jam. At other times it causes a mysterious slowdown. If people knew the trick of maintaining large spaces, if they encouraged others to merge, then I bet the daily "ship canal" traffic jam would be greatly reduced.

If I'm wrong, and if the slowdown is caused by something else, then my recommended large spaces between cars would obviously have little effect on that particular jam. Here's a more exotic possible explanation. Traffic waves move backwards against the flow, correct?

However, sometimes the waves move very slowly. If a slight inconsistency in the highway tends to momentarily slow down the individual drivers, then a slowly-drifting traffic wave might become "pinned" in place by the inconsistency. The backwards-crawling wave of slow traffic would halt its upstream motion, and would become a sort of standing wave.

See the above animation. That's a "pinned wave. Won't this sometimes make the traffic worse, not better?

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