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Traffic Behavior and Operations Research

mergingThe New York Times Magazine has an article today entitled “The Urge to Merge” on how people handle tunnels, construction, and so on, when driving, where the number of lanes decreases. Some people, the lineuppers, carefully get into one of the continuing lanes and wait patiently to go through the tunnel. Others, the sidezoomers, zip along one of the ending lanes until the last minute, and then force themselves into the lane. Of course, whether they can merge in depends on the mood and attention of the lineupper involved. All this leads to aggravation and, worse, inefficiency, since the constant stop-and-go allows less traffic to flow through than a smoothly flowing system.

When I lived in Germany, traffic patterns were noticeably more organized (as was much of life). There, cars all go up to the merge point, at which point the cars alternated in the use of the lane. This “zipper” effect could be done at reasonably high speed, since there was never any question on whose turn it was. The only worry was some silly American messing up their system (at which point I got to learn lots of German words that were not taught in my classes). This is a great example of the value of coordination. Almost any solution where people each know what the others will do is better than uncertainty.

My only complaint about the article came in the following part:

So I started consulting professionals on my own: traffic engineers, the highway police, queuing theorists. The learning curve, it must be said, was robust. I hadn’t known queuing had theories. But of course it does, mathematicians and business-operations people have to work them out, the heart-attack patient gets in ahead of the sprained ankle and nobody has a problem with that, and anybody who has been to Europe intuitively understands what one engineer meant when in midsentence he said to me, “perfect England,” meaning culturally mandated compulsive queuing, and, “perfect Italy,” meaning culturally mandated compulsive nonqueuing.

Operations Research, dammit, Operations Research!

{ 3 } Comments

  1. PlanBForOpenOffice | August 11, 2008 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    I can only confirm, the zipper method is taught in German driving school and it is mandatory.

    Logically it is the only way to make it work smoothly. If not at end of the lane where should you merge? If everyone makes up his own mind on this, than some will pass those that already merged and therefor be unfair to the one’s that waited in the continuing lane. But mandatory driving education (in Germany) helps to get 90% of people in line with a useful system. The same is true in general. Traffic is much more predictable in Germany, than at least here in Boston.


  2. Curtis | August 12, 2008 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    Has always amazed me how more efficient the Germans are at many things. This needs to be taught in our driver ed courses in the us.


  3. Susan Hamburg | September 28, 2008 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    I actually did my learners driver license in Germany and can confirm that Germans are very efficient drivers. Even though they don’t have speed limits on their autobahn’s, the system is very efficient and feels safe.

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