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Science may have answers for traffic jams

December 11, 1998
Web posted at: 9:01 p.m. EST (0201 GMT)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Commuters irked by traffic jams may soon get relief -- not from police, but from scientists and mathematicians researching better highway flows, German researchers said.

Dirk Helbing and Martin Treiber of the University of Stuttgart's Institute of Theoretical Physics said in Thursday's edition of the journal Science that progress is in sight.

"Recent advances have yielded a better understanding of traffic flow phenomena as well as realistic and fast simulation models," they wrote.

"Scientists are now prepared to design online controls for efficient traffic optimization, calculate the environmental impact of congestion and develop methods for traffic forecasts."

Analysis methods filched from physics and fluid dynamics helped them to understand car movement in traffic.

Motorists, like fluids, move in a way that is most beneficial to them, given imposed physical constraints.

"By treating huge numbers of interacting vehicles similar to classical many-particle systems, physicists have recently contributed to a better understanding of traffic flow," the researchers said.

People drove for maximum speed, despite such obstacles as speed limits, stoplights and other cars. A fluid's flow is impeded by its own density and by the path it moves along.

Studies looking at cars on highway on-ramps had shown that even when there were several lanes, all cars would slow down to a similar speed in ramp areas.

Cars in different lanes would slow to similar speeds, even if they could not see cars from on-ramps edging into traffic.

Applying this observation of "synchronized traffic" to a simulation, similar to a fluid dynamics model, researchers found ways to trigger and relieve congestion "upstream" of the ramp.

Variables that can be tweaked to change upstream congestion in traffic unencumbered by an accident or construction include the length of ramps and the amount of traffic on them.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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