We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

#39: Math—Combined With GPS—Could Fix Traffic Jams

Traffic jams are mathematically like explosions. Drivers armed with info can defuse the bomb.

By Stephen Ornes
Jan 26, 2010 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:09 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

During rush hour, maddening traffic jams can arise without an obvious cause. In May mechanical engineer Morris Flynn of the University of Alberta produced a model that shows how these “jamitons,” or phantom jams, develop.

Traffic jams have been represented mathematically as waves of alternating heavy and light car density. When Flynn analyzed these equations, he noted striking similarities to the detonation waves that radiate outward from an explosion. As in a detonation, jamitons divide the surrounding space into upstream and downstream regions. Downstream drivers are the ones caught in the congestion; upstream drivers are the ones who are unaware of the jam they are about to hit.

Improving data flow could provide an easy fix. “Since many cars are outfitted with GPS, you could interactively convey this information to drivers,” Flynn says. Drivers approaching a forming jam could then slow down well in advance, lowering traffic density: “It reduces the severity of a jam, and it reduces the likelihood of accidents in the jam.”

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.