Nudging Traffic

It’s the middle of the night and you’re zooming down an empty two-lane highway. You pass a sign: “Left lane closed – 1 mile.” No worries. It’s 1:34 AM. Shouldn’t be a problem.  And then you hit the backup.  The endless sea of red brake lights appears out of nowhere.

Why? Why can’t two relatively empty lanes of cars efficiently merge into one without grinding to a halt?

The culprit is the free rider problem.  If every driver merges at the first opportunity, traffic would continue at three-quarters speed. However, as some of these “good samaritans” merge early and efficiently, the left lane becomes faster. Looking to take advantage, aggressive drivers  stay in the left lane as long as possible. This leads to a disproportionate amount of cars all merging at the last possible moment.  Rather than merging at half speed, these cars are forced to merge while nearly stopped.

Can anything be done to fix this problem?

Things would clearly improve if cars  were forced to merge before the last possible moment.   A series of signs could potentially warn drivers that road work beings in 3000 feet, but that they must merge in the next 2000 feet.  Authorities must be careful not to enforce the new law too strictly (perhaps via cameras), otherwise it merely creates the exact same problem at the new “last change to merge” point.  Alternatively, if the rule isn’t enforced enough to create a deterrent to late merging, it will also serve no purpose.

You can also take matters into your own hands, as I sometimes do when road rage gets the best of me. My solution? As I get close to the merge area I drive in between the the two lanes. That forces all the “free-riders” in the left lane to merge behind me rather than at the bottle neck up ahead.

Although we tend to overlook traffic as a great scourge of society, traffic robs people of time, a commodity whose flexibility makes it infinitely valuable.  Some simple congestion innovation/regulation could save hundreds of thousands of man-hours, and it’s a shame the powers that be aren’t more concerned with it.

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