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The Physics Of Traffic Jams

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Posted by Aurino Souza on July 12, 2002 15:17:11 UTC

Once, many years ago when I was stuck in a traffic jam on my way to engineering school, I realized something quite interesting: there are a lot of similarities between traffic and electricity. I realized I could think of whatever it was that was motivating people to go out and drive as "voltage", the average speed of cars as "current", roads as "resistors", and parking lots as "capacitors". I could never find the traffic equivalent of an inductor; if I did perhaps I could apply Maxwell's equations to find a faster way to move around.

Anyways, the cool thing about it is that it explains why the average speed is lower when there are more cars on the road, which is sort of a paradox. In actuality if you measure the "current" on the road (cars per minute), it does increase with the "voltage" (number or cars), it's just your limited "electron" (driver) perspective which makes you think otherwise. Paradox resolved!

Of course there's always the situation when a tractor-trailer jacknives and brings 16 lanes to a complete halt. But even that can be explained if you think of the stupid truck as a switch. Then you can use Dirac's equation and work out all sorts of fancy metaphysics to discuss with your wife when you get home late for supper.

As Morgan Freeman would say in his memorable performance as Hoke Coburn, "ain't that a thing Miss Daisy"

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