Traffic Waves

In 2008, physicist Yuki Sugiyama of the University of Nagoya demonstrated why traffic jams sometimes form in the absence of a bottleneck. He spaced 22 drivers around a 230-meter track and asked them to proceed as steadily as possible at 30 kph, each maintaining a safe distance from the car ahead of it. Because the cars were packed quite densely, irregularities began to appear within a couple of laps. When drivers were forced to brake, they would sometimes overcompensate slightly, forcing the drivers behind them to overcompensate as well. A “stop-and-go wave” developed: A car arriving at the back of the jam was forced to slow down, and one reaching the front could accelerate again to normal speed, producing a living wave that crept backward around the track.

Interestingly, Sugiyama found that this phenomenon arises predictably in the real world. Measurements on various motorways in Germany and Japan have shown that free-flowing traffic becomes congested when the density of cars reaches 40 vehicles per mile. Beyond that point, the flow becomes unstable and stop-and-go waves appear. Because it’s founded in human reaction times, this happens regardless of the country or the speed limit. And as long as the total number of cars on the motorway doesn’t change, the wave rolls backward at a predictable 12 mph.

“Understanding things like traffic jams from a physical point of view is a totally new, emerging field of physics,” Sugiyama told Gavin Pretor-Pinney for The Wavewatcher’s Companion. “While the phenomenon of a jam is so familiar to us, it is still too difficult to truly understand why it happens.”