My friends and I were trapped in the middle of the Santa Monica freeway, unable to move in any direction, when the conversation turned to the cause of our condition. "Why," one friend asked, "does traffic come to a stop on a highway that presumably offers nothing to stop it? We should be able to drive across the country without stopping, except for gas." It sounds like a silly question, but what stops the first car in the daily freeway tie-up?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Engineers have devoted considerable study to expressway traffic, and they’ve concluded that there’s a compelling psychological principle that causes the traffic to stop–namely, the fear of flaming death. Here’s what happens. In theory, given the old rule about maintaining one car length ahead of you for each ten miles per hour driving speed, the capacity of a single lane of expressway is 40 cars per minute (2,400 per hour) at 60 MPH. In practice, however, drivers instinctively begin to slow down at loads higher than 25 cars per minute (1,500 per hour). At 33 cars per minute (2,000 per hour), average speed drops to 35 MPH.
At this critical juncture, drivers are jumpy, and they’ll slam on the brakes at the slightest provocation–anything from an accident or a stall to a couple extra cars trying to merge into traffic at an on-ramp. The first guy slows down a little, the second guy slows down a lot, and the third, fourth, or fifth guys may stop altogether, bringing traffic to a halt. That’s why you almost never find smoothly flowing expressway traffic at speeds below 35 MPH–it’s usually stop-and-go, or, at best, speed-up-and-slow-down-quick.
It also explains why relatively minor increases in traffic volume, such as those caused by mass transit strikes or fare increases, can cause chaos on the highways. Remember that next time you’re tempted to bitch about subsidizing the bus.
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