Could ants help us to ease our traffic problems?

It’s estimated that around 83% of the UK population lives in urban and suburban areas and their cumulative need for transport subsequently contributes towards massive traffic problems, right across the country. There’s hardly anyone these days who hasn’t witnessed congestion on the roads, especially at peak times in and around our cities and towns.

Traffic departments, police forces, traffic management apps and traffic alerts all do their best to inform us of any issues and to reduce the number of traffic jams. But what actually causes these jams and how else could we help to ease them?
It would be overly simplistic and completely unfair to blame the reason for traffic jams on any one single thing. Many factors affect the state of traffic flow on our roads such as;

  • An increasing number of vehicles on the roads
  • An insufficient number of roads to meet the demand of more vehicles
  • Insufficient lanes on wider roads [as above]
  • Hazardous weather conditions [precipitation, ice, dazzling sun etc.]
  • The constant number of road works and road closures
  • Accidents involving both vehicles and pedestrians
  • Inadequate phasing of traffic lights
  • Poor driving skills [late braking, incorrect lane usage, overtaking with insufficient speed, lane weaving etc.

Clearly, not all of these issues can be fixed by drivers themselves, but we can all contribute towards easing traffic problems by making simple and immediate changes in our habitual behaviour.

The University of Tokyo’s Professor Katsuhiro Nishinari is a leading authority on the  science and mathematics behind the cause of traffic jams and it’s a discipline he likes to call “jamology.”
Professor Nishinari claims that we could all be better off when we’re driving if we emulate the behavioural patterns of ants as they transport themselves from one place to another. We’ve all seen lines of marching ants but if you watch them closely, you’ll see that they keep a constant distance between them in order to ensure uninterrupted movement. They don’t ‘brake’ and it’s the chain reaction of braking – particularly at the last minute – which disrupts continuous movement and causes ‘elastic’ traffic when we’re driving.

Drivers are often trying to drive faster or weave in and out of lanes just to get ahead by a matter of seconds, but when they do they create fluctuations in distance and it’s this inconsistency in flow which contributes heavily towards traffic jams. Stop, start, stop, start, stop, start, stop.

Reinforcing these studies are the findings of two German researchers from the Universities of Potsdam and the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, where they state that ants actually engineer their flow of movement [traffic] and that it’s far more efficient and superior to that of humans. Ants never run into stop-start traffic and they never end up in gridlocks unless the route is completely obstructed. In fact, the more ants there are in one ‘convoy’, the faster they go as they’re moving more bodies across the same route in a shorter amount of time. This hasn’t happened by chance and is far too consistently
coordinated to be accidental in nature

So, could we learn from the behaviour of ants to help us ease our traffic jams?

Again, it would be wishful thinking to expect everyone to suddenly start following their behaviour, but here’s how we think we could start emulating some of these traits in order to create a better experience for all road users:
Maintaining a constant gap of 40 metres or more between the vehicle in front
Maintaining a constant gap between vehicles will reduce the amount of last minute braking and help to keep a constant flow. Most road agencies across the world advise all drivers to maintain a 2 second gap between cars, however according to professor Nishinari we should aim for 3 second gap when travelling at speeds of 40mph or higher. More time, however, is needed to maintain the minimum gap of 40m when driving at lower speeds.

Obeying variable speed limits on smart motorways and roads

A variable speed limit is dynamically set and usually communicated by digital sign board above each lane. They are now widely used on congested sections of the British smart motorway and roads network with the intention of easing stop-start congestion and helping to reduce traffic jams during peak times.
This also applies to live road and weather conditions such as accidents, obstructions, inclement weather and lane closures.

Societies are changing dramatically and at an alarming pace, often leveraging technology and the plethora of devices we now have at our disposal. But we can’t rely on technological advancements alone and many of our challenges become easier when people come together to solve them. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do at TangoRide and reducing the number of vehicles on the road is only one of the ways that we believe lift sharing can help.

Take a look at our website for more details on how we can all contribute to the health of our environment, the reduction in congestion and the saving of money whilst we’re doing it. And stay tuned to our blog or feel free to send us your feedback and any ideas for content. We’d love to hear from you.

Written by Vish Balyan – October 2019


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