Going from A to B? Whichever way you choose to travel, Chris Baraniuk discovers the hidden technologies which decide when and how you’ll get there.
This is a really good little article that explains a little about one aspect of traffic management, which is a little understood component of optimized road networks.
One of the things it explains quite nicely is why cars appear to be deliberately slowed down, for example at motorway on-ramps, despite the fact that the motorway appears to be flowing fairly smoothly.
Traffic management is a science and an art. For every little tweak that’s made, any time there is a reasonable amount of traffic, there are reactions flowing off from the network and sometimes in surprising places, because despite elements of consistency, particularly in relation to large cities, campuses or business areas during peak morning and night flows, no two days are the same. It only takes a few cars to crash or breakdown in key corridors and the ramifications are significant.
There are a host of specialist people working behind the scenes that you will probably never see, except on the odd TV show, using highly sophisticated technology, 24/7 working in a model that is known as Monitor Inform Manage and Optimize MIMO for short. Without them our cities would be a mess.
Systems are getting more sophisticated as are the vehicles that drive on the road. Intelligent Transport Systems or ITS, the Internet of Things and communication technologies are going to make our journeys more reliable and safe. The only random element, which is also a significant key to an improved network is you.
As the article says, there are all sorts of factors that interfere with smooth flow on roads. One that is a major is rubberneckers. So often there is an accident on one side of a road, but whilst it is being cleared and controlled and traffic starts flowing smoothly again, the other side of the road, traffic in the other direction has slowed dramatically and sometimes even has its own accidents, simply because everyone going past in the other direction wants to see what happened, is anyone injured, what sort of cars were they, what condition are they in, what is being done on the site and so on. This is the human aspect.
Then we get people who start behaving unusually and dangerously because they are frustrated about the situation. Never mind that a driver, or perhaps a family with children may have had to be cut of their vehicle, may have suffered serious injuries or even died. They want to get past all this so they can go and do whatever it i the traffic is holding up. These people help generate secondary incidents by doing things such as reversing up the safety strip to the last ramp, or trying to create a new lane out of the safety strip. They don’t stop to consider that 1. Other people will follow them, some who don’t know how to reverse, some will move across simultaneously, both of these will cause secondary accidents. Of course there is a reason for the safety strip, one of those is so that emergency vehicles can quickly get to the scene.
So, the technology is getting better and and more sophisticated, but many motorists are not. That is a much more difficult problem to deal with. Many motorists become irrational for a variety of reasons. They feel they have more rights than other motorists and then blame the system. The fact that they are tired, driving and holding a mobile phone up to their ear, focusing on the call instead of the road, aggressively speeding up to make up time for the delays they experiences. If you could spend a couple of hours seeing what people in the Traffic Operations Centers see, you might be surprised. The things you see on weekly traffic shows aren’t isolated incidents that have taken years to collect, much of the same will be seen every day, even in small cities.
It’s up to us as motorists and fellow citizens to recognise that its often the decisions that we make, that concatenate into unexpected consequences which we then expect someone else to clean up. It may be that drive you took to pick up your kids who got you up out of bed at 1 in the morning, that one extra drink that slowed down your reaction time when a dog ran across the road, the yellow/red light that you ran because you thought you could get away with it, or the hot coffee you were drinking that spilled scorching hot liquid on your lap. It might be the little bit of speeding you did because you had been stuck behind a horse float for 10 miles and then took off overtaking on a slight bend and 20 or 30 mph above the speed limit to let off a little frustration. Technology will make our roads safer, but wouldn’t it be great if that happened together with a change in attitude from motorists rather than to try to compensate for them?
Sorry this wasn’t going to be a soap box. I see so many incidents and so many people complaining about the system, who don’t seem to get the point that they are the system. How about today, we all show a little courtesy on the road. Let someone in when they try to merge, if that’s you flick them a wave of thank-you. Be a little patient when someone crashes there car and it causes congestion. That could be you or someone you care about one day. Don’t hold your phone in one hand and the steering wheel in the other when you drive. You may think you’re a good driver, but when someone comes racing around the next corner on the wrong side of the road and you suddenly find yourself not seeing it until the last minute, with only one hand and one eye on the road, your driving skills may still be good, but your reactions will be slower and it could be you that ends up injured or worse. How crucial was that call and couldn’t you have made it safely from the side of the road? If it wasn’t important enough to do that, then maybe it wasn’t important enough to crash for.