The science of traffic flow

Back in college a buddy and me were having one of those 3 a.m. drunken conversations while listening to music and watching really bad infomercials staring the OxiClean Guy. For whatever reason, the conversation turned to the moment when you’re driving down the highway and you fall into line with another car and for a good stretch of the highway you’re riding in perfect harmony for no apparent reason.

The two cars are swiftly moving in and out of traffic, blocking during lane changes, allowing smooth passes, that sort of stuff. In a moment of Eureka, my buddy and I thought, holy shit we should study Traffic Psychology!

And that in turn developed our fascination with amateur traffic dynamics: the reason why traffic slows to a crawl at car crashes on the opposite side of the road and why it crawls to a halt for bottlenecks, the science of traffic patterns, and driver psychology, etc.

Seriously, there is an entire subculture of people obsessed with this stuff. I’m not alone.?

Cynthia Gorney examined this very phenomena in an article for the Sunday NY Times Magazine, published this morning. Her piece is an insightful look into the hazards of bottlenecking and the human folly which produces it. In any given bottleneck there are sidezoomers and lineuppers.

Neither are technical terms, but you know the types: those who zoom ahead and cut in at the last moment and those whose noble struggle and personal ethics cause them to zoom ahead and prevent others from merging.

Surprising, she finds, the experts are inclined to believe that both types of people cause traffic to crawl to a stand still.

So how do we prevent this from happening? There are several methods to prevent traffic from crawling.

“People in the narrowing left lanes refrain from shooting ahead, while people in the right through lanes ? this is hard to swallow, for those of us inclined toward vigilantism, but crucial ? leave big spaces in front of their cars for the merging that is about to commence. We resist the freeze-out-the-sidezoomer urge. We prepare to invite them in.

“Finally, at clearly marked or somehow mutually agreed upon places, everybody starts conducting beautiful ?zipper merges.? That?s the technical term ? one-two, one-two or one-two-three, one-two-three ? as indicated by the roadway configuration. The process has now worked at its ideal efficiency/equitability ratio: if all have behaved correctly, the tunnel passage has been both benign and, relatively speaking, quick. Personal sacrifice has been called for, to be sure. The former sidezoomers have sacrificed the pleasure of high-speed bypass, also known as I Beat Out the Stupid Sheep Just Now, Ha Ha (less truculent rendition: I Want to Get Home More Than I Care About Strangers Whose Faces I Can?t Even See). The former lineuppers have sacrificed the pleasure of self-congratulatory umbrage, also known as Hmph, Good Thing Society Has People Like Me.”

My early fascination with traffic psychology lasted until the next morning, well, okay, for about three weeks. The truth is I’m an aggressively-standoffish-take-no-prisoners horrible driver. I know being from Boston isn’t an excuse, but I hate waiting. Sue me, I’m a Masshole.

I’m impatient to a fault. When I drive, I’m looking for the angles, the fastest routes, the method to go from point A to point B without stopping or slowing down. If I can go there in three hours, the next time I go there I want to make it in 2 and a half hours. Over-competitiveness is not a good thing, especially when it comes to driving.

Cut to the present day: I live in Portland and there is a vile stretch of poorly laid out highway known as Highway 26, starting in Portland and extending towards the western shore. Specifically, where 26 essentially starts in the intersection of 26 and 405. Because the merging intersection is only one lane each for both highways, with a third middle lane going into downtown (think of it as a trident with 405 on the left and 26 on the right) the eventual bottleneck causes any decent volume of traffic to crawl to a standstill. It’s stop and go traffic for about 5-miles leading to this tangled web of roads.

It drives me batshit crazy every day. The one thing I always do, however, is allow for zippering at bottlenecks. I’m not such a bad driver, or even a vengeful one for that matter, that when someone zooms passed me to squeeze in that I also speed up to prevent them from merging. I want people to let me merge without having to slam on my breaks and so I afford that courtesy to other asshole drivers. Which still doesn’t excuse my habit of not using signals or bumper fucking the car in front of me.

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