Ant Road Workers

Readers of the book will know of my fascination with ant traffic. That’s why it was a special pleasure in Trinidad, while out walking in the forest, to run across massive streams of leaf-cutter ants. Occasionally, I would glance down to look at something on the ground, only to discern the slow movement of small macerated bits of leaf glinting as they were ferried by apparently quite strong individual ants. The leaf bits are used as compost to create a harvested fungus that sustains, and is sustained by, the ants. Exposed roots were favorite “road” surfaces, but the most astonishing thing was to look off the human trail and see the trails that the ants were emerging from — a few inches of ground cleared from the forest floor by the indefatigable six-legged march of massive ant colonies.

When I returned home, I was particularly excited to find in the mail the new book by E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler, “The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies.” The book, which updates and expands upon their canonical tome The Ants, is a sheer delight. The photos alone would be worth the price of admission.

In a section on the trail construction and formation of leaf-cutter ants, I was struck by this passage:

“In most cases, [the trails] are deeply engraved into the ground and conspicuous even to the most casual observer. They are retained for months or years. Even when abandoned for a time, they are commonly used again by the ants. Serving as the superhighways of the Atta colonies, they are continuously cleaned of invading vegetation and other obstacles by ‘road workers.’ The trunk route system enhances foraging speed four- to tenfold compared with that on uncleared ground.”

I rather imagine tiny ant workers, dressed in DOT orange vests, clearing debris (I’m actually not sure if there’s a special caste in the ant society that clears debris, or if everyone pitches in). This is of course a direct parallel to the whole idea of “incident management” in improving human traffic flow during peak periods; one stalled vehicle can seriously compromise the flow of a system, hence each additional minute it takes to clear means that much more congestion buildup (I’m not sure, Another parallel might be to imagine the trails as major, restricted access highways, and the uncleared ground as the smaller surface streets, with their traffic lights, double-parked cars, etc. I also learned from the book there is a species known as “driver ants.” Which I what I will know refer to my fellow vehicle operators as.

A few paragraphs on, the authors note another curious fact: The foraging area of an average colony (or “superorganism,” in the authors’ view) is 1.03 hectares, which “happens to be approximately the same ‘ecological footprint,’ or average amount of land utilized to sustain one person, in developing countries.”

This entry was posted on Monday, December 22nd, 2008 at 8:14 am and is filed under Congestion, Etc., Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



December 2008

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