Social Behavior

The Counterintuitive Science Of Traffic

Traffic is frustrating. It's no wonder, considering that you're an individual navigating a system much larger than yourself. For this reason, traffic science is full of counterintuitive factors. We've gathered some of them here.

Road Closures Ahead

Consider, for example, the Braess Paradox, which confusingly states that closing roads can speed up traffic—a phenomenon illustrated flawlessly when New York City's 42nd Street was closed on Earth Day in 1990 and traffic improved. There's also the fact that the safest and most efficient way to merge is to use the "zipper merge"; that is, to wait until the last possible second and take turns merging with other drivers, instead of moving into the new lane ahead of time.

In The Driver's Seat

Of course, the oddities of traffic are compounded by our human instincts. A 1968 experiment found that drivers were less likely to honk at a high priced car than an older model, and another study in 2014 found that people were less likely to pass a slow-moving car if it was particularly expensive. A study in Arizona found that drivers honk more when it's hot outside, and a 2007 paper noted that drivers are more likely to speed, run stop signs, and break other traffic laws when they were driving in familiar locations than in unfamiliar ones. Explore the science of traffic with the videos below.

cars, city traffic, traffic jams, a stream of cars

What Causes Traffic Jams?

Why does it seem like they come out of nowhere?

Key Facts In This Video

  1. In New York City and Los Angeles, commuters spend up to three weeks per year stuck in traffic. 00:18

  2. The real culprit of traffic jams is the sudden fluctuation in driving speed. 00:32

  3. Traffic jams can be prevented with wider lanes and better-synchronized traffic signals. 01:24

How Not To Get Stuck In Traffic

Explore the weird science of traffic jams.

Closing Roads Speeds Up Traffic

Learn about the Braess Paradox.

Written by Curiosity Staff August 25, 2016

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