How Traffic Works and How We Fix It

The Fundamental Problem

Each individual driver can only directly influence the traffic behind them. There's no way to drive that will make your own traffic better. Worse yet, there's no accountability for driving terribly. No matter how bad someone drives, the traffic they experience isn't any worse.

This is a very real problem. It's not just about accountability but awareness as well. An individual driver can't even tell how their driving is affecting traffic. Not only is the effect taking place behind them, but that traffic is influenced by the sum total off all the drivers' actions ahead. Even if one driver does make a difference, it's difficult to tell. There's almost no feedback.

The Consequence

People feel like they can't or don't influence traffic in any significant way. Traffic is this terrible thing we can't do anything about. We can only deal with it. On top of that, some don't even care how they affect traffic because it doesn't impact them. It impacts the drivers behind them.

So what do we do? We ignore it until it's bad, and then we deal with it. How do we do that? We focus on our own position in traffic. We feel like we can control that. Tailgating. Inching ahead. Closing gaps. Accelerating into congestion. Most of us don't want to give up our position in traffic. Some of us think we deserve to move ahead.

Now, mix in those of us that deal with traffic by shutting down. Traffic comes to a stop, so we start looking at our phone. We quit paying attention. We feel helpless, so why bother? These people just compound the problem.

Ignoring traffic or not caring about it until it gets bad is the beginning of the end. Driving slow in the left lane is a perfect example. In light traffic, other drivers are able to pass on the right. As traffic builds, however, there becomes a point at which they can no longer easily pass on the right. A rolling traffic jam begins to build in the left lane. Drivers become frustrated, and they attempt to pass on the right. One of them doesn't make it and cuts back into the left lane causing every car behind them to slam on their brakes. The left lane slows to a speed even slower than the original slow driver due to the accordion effect. Traffic is continuing to accumulate in the left lane the whole time. The speed of the left lane may not recover until traffic volume begins to decrease. All the while, the original slow driver is uneffected. He may even look in his rearview mirror and think traffic isn't that bad because the driver who cut back into the left lane caused everyone to slow down.

All of these behaviors create and maintain traffic congestion. The way we drive makes traffic worse.

The Solution

We must acknowledge that together we create traffic. We are traffic. Our driving behaviors directly influence traffic flow. It's just the traffic behind us. But guess what! There's always someone ahead of you, and there's always someone behind you. Drive the way you want the people ahead of you to drive. We're all in this together.

We must also acknowledge that driving to get ahead in heavy traffic is ineffective, atleast at actually getting ahead. It's actually pretty effective at making traffic worse for the people behind you. You just don't have that much control over your position in heavy traffic, but together we do have control over how bad traffic is overall.

A small number of people can make a significant impact. If only one in ten drivers participated, we could virtually eliminate complete stops on interstates and freeways. The efforts of every driver help, even if it's hard to tell. Don't be afraid to be one of the first.

Commit to driving to make traffic better. Follow the Driving Guidelines. Drive different. Drive better.