Traffic Jam Torment: Physics Proves That Bottlenecks Are Bulls**t

Illustration for article titled Traffic Jam Torment: Physics Proves That Bottlenecks Are Bulls**t

Traffic jams stand no chance under the onslaught of giant throbbing Japanese physicist brains! Well, to be accurate, physicists from the Land of the Rising Sun haven't exactly cracked the traffic-jam conundrum. But they have figured out why it took me four mother!@#$ing hours to crawl up the mother!@#$ing I-5 from San Diego to L.A. last week.


It's my own fault for choosing to live and drive in SoCal and on certain occasions regrettably choosing to drive to drive on major freeways between 3 and 7PM. Thanks the Lords of Cobol that I now have an explanation. No more will I pound my forehead helplessly into the steering wheel of my '98 Saab, baffled, dismayed, enraged, confused as I stab fruitlessly at the radio, trying to find a traffic-jam-compensating soundtrack of Cool Jazz.

Knowledge is power. Here's what the Japanese researchers discovered and published this month in The New Journal of Physics, under the rubric "Traffic jams without bottlenecks—experimental evidence for the physical mechanism of the formation of a jam":

A traffic jam on a highway is a very familiar phenomenon. From the physical viewpoint, the system of vehicular flow is a non-equilibrium system of interacting particles (vehicles). The collective effect of the many-particle system induces the instability of a free flow state caused by the enhancement of fluctuations, and the transition to a jamming state occurs spontaneously if the average vehicle density exceeds a certain critical value. Thus, a bottleneck is only a trigger and not the essential origin of a traffic jam.

In a nutshell, when you're trapped in the keening hell that is a traffic jam, it's pointless to salivate over the eventual, if sort of inverted, money shot: the final witnessing of the bottleneck that caused all the trouble. Coz the bottleneck isn't a cause; it's merely a symptom of the inherent instability of a whole mess of particles (cars) interacting (driving) in a flow state (on the freeway).

Upshot? Traffic jams are a "physical phase transition"—put too many cars on the road and they just happen. Get past a point of "critical density" and you're gonna find yourself inevitably offering nasty opinions of the other guy's mama.

Obviously , this throws a wrench into the idea that uniform speed flows can solve the problem. Still, according to this report, the sacrifice of free will to the Skynet might be the answer.

Don't you just effing love science?


Rob Emslie


My sentiments exactly. Thanks for putting that out there. That should be read at the beginning of every driver training and traffic school class.