Wired Magazine 16.08

I’m up in Boston (hence the slow posting), home of that legendary creature, conductorus bostoniana — i.e., the “Boston driver” — a topic I’ll return to in another post. But just to note there’s a great write-up in the latest issue of Wired, by Josh McHugh (article here or after the jump). In it is discussed briefly a topic I’ll also want to return to in a later post: comparing internet traffic to vehicular traffic.

Tom Vanderbilt’s Why We Drive the Way We Do Unlocks How to Unclog Traffic
By Josh McHugh
Driving down a New Jersey highway three years ago, Tom Vanderbilt decided to stop being a goody-goody. He fought the urge to merge at the first indication that his lane was ending and rode it right to the pinch point, wedging his way in front of a furious driver at the last second. Racked with moral misgivings, he eventually looked into the science of merging and discovered salvation in high math, which proves he made the right choice — and not just for his own time-saving benefit, but for humankind (or at least commuter-kind — the seemingly selfish strategy keeps traffic moving faster for all). “It doesn’t have to be an ethics problem,” Vanderbilt says. “It’s really a system-optimization issue.”

That’s when he decided to write Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us). As part of his research, Vanderbilt set up Google Alerts to notify him about traffic-related news. “Half were about road traffic, and half were about Internet traffic,” he says. Unfortunately, drivers have a major disadvantage relative to data packets flowing across the Web: Humans think too much. Packets go where they’re told rather than relying on the scraps of incomplete intelligence and “superstition,” as Vanderbilt calls it, that humans use when choosing how to get from point A to point B.

Drivers make shortsighted decisions based on limited information — a combination of what they can see and traffic reports that, even at their most sophisticated, are an average of 3.7 minutes old. At 60 mph, that’s a 4-mile blind spot. “The fundamental problem,” Vanderbilt says, “is that you’ve got drivers who make user-optimal rather than system-optimal decisions” — a classic case of Nash equilibrium, in which each participant, based on what they believe to be others’ strategies, sees no benefit in changing their own.

Those who seek a more efficient traffic solution use not only network topology and queuing theory but psychology and game theory, too. A typical puzzle: Waiting for an on-ramp metering light — a mild and remarkably effective congestion-control measure — has been proven to rankle drivers more than merging directly into a traffic jam. “What bothers people is that they can see traffic flowing smoothly,” Vanderbilt says. “So they think, ‘Why should I wait?’ They tend not to accept that the traffic is flowing smoothly precisely because of the metering light.”

What about faster, better traffic info? One new technology, Dash Navigation’s GPS-based social networking system, may be a step toward dynamic traffic routing, but only for those who have Dash’s device, and maybe only temporarily. Suppose Dash were to become the hit its backers — including VC firms Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers — hope it will. As soon as drivers have all the information about which routes are congested, they’ll divert to others that are clear. But if enough people do this at roughly the same time, the clear routes become jammed. Vanderbilt laments this as the inevitable “death of the shortcut.”

The obvious answer, then, is to make the road network as efficient as the information superhighway. Make the packets (cars) dumb and able to take marching orders from traffic routing nodes. The obvious problem with that: No self-respecting, freedom-loving American would stand for it.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008 at 5:45 am and is filed under Book News, Congestion, 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:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

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For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
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Order Traffic from:

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Traffic UK
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For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

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



July 2008

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