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There are four billion hours of travel delays in America each year, contributing to pollution,
fossil fuel waste and costing us all money; an estimated $87.2 billion dollars! Not to
mention traffic is just plain annoying! But is there a solution to your traffic woes?
Traffic is often due to construction, an accident, or bottlenecks created by on-ramps and tunnels.
But do you ever feel like congestion just seems to appear for no reason? You aren’t imagining
it! In a 2008 experiment, drivers were instructed to drive along a circular road, following
the car in front of them while trying to maintain a constant speed. As the participants drove,
they started to have fluctuations in the speed. These fluctuations increased, eventually causing
cars to stop completely, which broke the free flow and led to traffic jams without any added
factors. Researchers compare traffic jams to the particles in a liquid and a solid;
moving cars are like the free flowing particles in a liquid, but can undergo a ‘phase transition’
to that of a compacted solid. Once the particles/cars reach a critical density, gridlock happens.
One of the key reasons gridlock happens is our inability to maintain a constant speed.
When a traffic break happens, most accelerate to catch up to the vehicle ahead, resulting
in eventual braking, that forces the drivers behind to slow down, only causing the jam to grow.
When you’re in a traffic jam, you’re part of the problem. Study showed that 80-90% of
drivers think they’re better than the average driver, which is... impossible. Additionally,
as humans, our attention is selective, and we tend to forget that other drivers are people
too - kind of like commenting online, we can dehumanize other drivers in ways we wouldn’t
face-to-face. This leads to jerks on the road - following too closely or constantly changing
lanes - which contributes directly to the congestion that creates traffic jams.
Thankfully, as the good driver you are, you can make a difference! Pay attention to the car ahead
and behind you to keep a buffer of space around you. This way, if the driver in front of you
brakes, you have room to slow down and won’t pass the braking tension along the chain of
traffic. Drive slower. Set your car to cruise control or try driving at a consistent speed.
In Belgium and the Netherlands, there’s a technique implemented at times of high volume
known as ‘block-driving’, where a chain of cars drive at a consistent speed to help
others keep pace. Police have also used this strategy for 15 years, driving at an appropriate
pace in groups to keep the flow of traffic moving.
Of course, the advent of autonomous self-driving cars will see automobiles that are able to
connect and communicate with one another, vehicle-to-vehicle, and is expected to reduce
traffic jams significantly. Additionally, researchers are using biologically inspired
algorithms to reduce travel times. In one study, researchers apply a model based on
ant travel behaviour as a way to route traffic. Changes in infrastructure work too; recently
LA became the first city to synchronize every street light, causing lights to make automatic
adjustments based on flow, which has reduced travel time by 14%.
Traffic aside, another solution is taking public transit when possible. An MIT study
of Boston traffic found that if 1% of current drivers took transit, everyone's commute would
be reduced by 18%.
Of course, companies like Toyota - who supported this episode - are finding new ways to address
mobility challenges, developing future technologies to interconnect drivers and vehicles with
road infrastructure. Toyota is launching their new Corolla iM Hatchback with the Toyota Safety
Sense technologies like pre-collision systems, automatic high beams, and lane departure alert
- all of which will be standard and launching across Canada this September. They also have
a goal to produce vehicles with zero emissions by 2050, which is something we really support!
So, special thanks to Toyota for supporting our channel and being a leader in the science
and technology space!
And subscribe for more weekly science videos!
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How Not To Get Stuck In Traffic

24573 Folder Collection
吳D published on March 25, 2017    Vivi Chu translated    Mandy Lin reviewed
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