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Go Play In Traffic

Go Play In Traffic!
An Introduction to Traffic Game Theory
by Patrick G. Salsbury

I don't know who you are. I don't know where you are. I don't even
know where you're going. But I'm sure of one thing - you've probably got
better places to be than sitting in the middle of a traffic jam. 
For almost four years, I've been driving around the San Francisco Bay
Area studying traffic patterns. I've seen how they work, how people act &
react, and have been figuring out ways to break up traffic jams to get things
flowing smoothly again.
Though it may often seem frustrating, you can actually have quite a
bit of fun in traffic, if you approach it from a fun perspective. I'd like to
introduce you to a concept that I call "Traffic Game Theory." That is, the
idea that when you're driving down the road, you're playing a game with all of
the other drivers. Each one is trying to get to their destination, each is
making "moves", and most don't even realize that they're in a game. They're
playing, but they aren't really enjoying themselves because they don't KNOW
that they're playing, so they forget to have fun.
The rules of this game are easy to learn, simple to do, and produce
fairly quick results. They also make the commute more enjoyable; for you, and
for others (if you're successful in breaking the jam). When you win, everyone
wins. When you stay stuck in the jam.
"Traffic Busting"
(Basic Rule Set)

*Please note:*
The rules are designed in such a way as to be easy to remember, *ONCE
YOU UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPTS BEHIND THEM*. They may not be intuitive by just
reading the one-liners themselves, though. Please be sure you study them
carefully, or it will affect your performance in the game.

This does not necessarily imply that you should ignore the speed
_limit_, (and DEFINITELY not the other cars around you!) However, when traffic
is moving along at a speedy 15 mph, signs saying "Speed Limit 55" aren't
particularly useful. Likewise, if everyone else is clipping along at 65-70,
someone doing 55 is likely to at least annoy others nearby, and may pose a
road hazard.
...So forget about the signs. They're just pieces of metal, and
you're a lot smarter than they are. Pay attention to your surroundings, and
the other players near you.

The secret to jam-free driving is S-P-A-C-E. When no one is on the
road at 2am, you could open it up if you wanted to and not worry about hitting
anyone. At 8:30am on a weekday, however, the roads are often packed to a
standstill. It's the same road. What's the difference? The amount of space
around each car.
Your Driver's Education teacher probably talked about putting a "space
cushion" around your car. In a jam, you want to make one for yourself. When
traffic starts to move, let the car ahead of you go for an extra second or
two. You can't easily control how close the guy behind you gets, but it's VERY
easy to open up some space in front of you. In the this game, space acts sort
of like "points" do in other games. You can create or "earn" space, which you
may "spend" later, whenever you need it.

How many times have you seen some space open up in front of someone,
then watched the driver speed up to 20 or 30 mph for about 4 seconds...and
slam on their brakes again? This person is only thinking about themself, not
the traffic around them. As a "Traffic Buster," you may have to do their
thinking for them, since they seem to be on autopilot.
Pay close attention to the speed of the cars around you (as per Rule
#1). When space opens up in front of you, maintain it...INCREASE it! Don't
rush to fill it up. Space is a valuable commodity on a choked road, and if you
spend it wisely, you, and all the people around you, can be zipping along at
normal speeds in just a couple of minutes. (I can usually get things going
fairly well within 5 minutes, and that's just my one car. What happens when
the rest of you start actively fighting traffic jams, too?)

It may sound sneaky and underhanded, but it works. :-) Remember, this
*IS* a game. You can play whenever you're on the road, and if you win, you'll
get to wherever it is that you're going a lot sooner than if you don't play.
It's your choice...
Remember that guy on autopilot? Well, he's on "The Other Side" in this
game. If you're a "Traffic Buster" then he's a "Traffic Jammer". You can,
however, get him to do what you want. Here's how it works:
As traffic starts to move, and you open up that "space cushion" in
front of you (as per Rule #2), the car ahead of you is accelerating away from
you. You are accelerating too, but not _quite_ as fast as him, so the space is
slowly getting bigger. The people behind you aren't likely to get annoyed if
they don't have to play "Stop & Go" every 5 seconds, so give yourself some
breathing room.
As the space opens up to a couple of car-lengths...maybe 2, perhaps
even 6 or 7 (it varies based upon the other players on the road), eventually,
one of the autopilot people in an adjacent lane sees that nice, big, open
space in front of you. Even if it's only 20 feet, they just can't STAND to see
prime real estate like that sit around unused, so they dart into it. ("Nature
abhors a vacuum", as they say.)
At this point, several things happen at once, so you've really got to
pay close attention:

-At least one of the autopilot people will move into the space in
front of you. Sometimes you can get more, but at least one ALWAYS takes it.
-When this person moves into the space you've created, they leave
another lane. Congratulations! You've just opened up space in a traffic lane
that you're not even driving in! This is what I call "Seeding a traffic jam";
like when pilots "seed" clouds in order to get them to start raining. You're
relieving pressure in these other lanes, inserting space, and now the people
over there can begin to speed up just a little bit, so the whole jam is
benefitting by gaining some forward space and motion, not just your lane.
-The driver of the car that just moved in front of you is probably
about to slam on their brakes and start jamming traffic again. (See Rule #3)
But if you know this in advance (and you _do_), you can plan ahead for it, and
make sure that they _don't_ slow down traffic. This technique is explained in
Step 5.
-Now it's time to start the process all over again, and to make sure
that the autopilot person who just moved ahead of you doesn't undo all of your
work. (Remember, he's playing on "The Other Side.")

It may sound strange, but it's true: Every time you hit your brakes,
you're sending a signal back to the people behind you. That signal says "I
don't know what's going on up here. I'm not really in control of the
situation, so I'm slowing down, and you should, too."
Most of the people on autopilot are just playing "follow the leader."
The person ahead moves forward, so they move forward. The person ahead hits
the brakes, so they hit the brakes. Ho hum. These are the same people who are
packing their cars together approximately 2 feet from each other and causing
the jam. Why should you act like them?
Who in their right mind would drive at 55 mph just 2 feet behind
another car? Not me...not you...and apparently, not them, either. So everyone
putts along at 5 mph, not thinking to just insert some space into the jam.
They must be hoping that someone else will end the jam for them.
If you look far ahead of you on the road, as far as you can see, you
can watch a brake-light signal being transmitted down the car line towards
you. If you've inserted enough space in front of your car during the game,
you can watch the Traffic Jammer's signal come up to you, and REFUSE TO
TRANSMIT IT TO THE PERSON BEHIND YOU. (Why send a message that will help
prolong the jam?) Use engine-braking or coasting to try and absorb some of
that open space ahead of you *without* using the brakes. Only use them if you
start to get close and really need to slow down. Every time you hit that
petal, you're broadcasting "STOP!" to the people behind you, and most of them
will pass it on down the line. Sometimes for miles...
If you've been paying attention, and you're aware of that Jammer
signal coming at you, you'll have already prepared. You'll have built up your
space, and you can "spend" it on yourself while coasting towards the people in
front of you. If you time things right, the people in front of you will have
started moving again by the time you get there, and you can just start
inserting space again. (Rule #2) You've never touched the brakes, and the
people behind you haven't been passed the Jammer signal, so traffic keeps
flowing along smoothly back there.
Sometimes things don't time out quite right, and you _do_ have to
stop, but if you "spend" your saved-up space wisely, chances are you'll only
spend 3-5 seconds stopped instead of 20-30.
You've seen the standing waves on the road. We all have. Those spots
where everybody has to stop, even though there's nothing wrong there. Those
slow or stopped spots can last for hours, sometimes. Using the above
techniques, you can absorb some of those waves, break up the stationary nodes,
and get traffic flowing smoothly again.
Do you ever notice the jams that end immediate AFTER accident sites?
Everyone slows down to see what's going on, and by the time they look up from
the accident scene, the person ahead of them has sped up, leaving them with...
(you guessed it)...LOTS OF SPACE! 
Now it's their turn to speed up. There's no one slowing them down from
the front, so there's no traffic jam starting after the accident. This is
exactly the sort of space I'm suggesting you insert into the _middle_ of
jams. And while you're at it, DON'T SLOW DOWN TO LOOK AT ACCIDENTS. If you do,
you'll probably annoy other people just as much as they annoy you. :)
So, in quick summary:

(Pay attention instead to what's happening around you.)
(Space is your "money" in this game. Save it up, and spend it wisely.)
(Don't be an Autopilot/Jammer! Watch the other players as they move.)
(Let them go ahead of you, while you open up space in their old lane.)
(No need to transmit their signals for them...right?)

Just five simple rules. You can count them on one hand.
The object of this game is to get you to wherever it is that you're
going, as quickly as possible. That won't happen by speeding up to 30mph for 4
seconds, then sitting at a standstill for 45 seconds. It will only happen if
the jam clears up.
This whole thing may sound a bit strange, but I've been studying this
for a long time, and it _does_ work. There are identifiable phenomena going
on. If you recognize the various "moves" that are happening, you'll be better
able to plan your moves, and will become a better player, and a better driver.
I'm sure that the next time you're sitting there, in the middle of a jam,
you'll remember at least SOME of these techniques. Maybe you'll even give them
a try. After all, what have you got to lose? Certainly not time. That's what
you win if you spend your space correctly and clear the jam.
Oh, and REMEMBER TO HAVE FUN! :-) That's *also* the point of
games. It's certainly a lot more fun for me when I'm breaking up a jam than
when I'm just stuck in the middle of one. I hope you'll find the same is true
for you, too. It will be nice to have some more players out there

_Somebody_ has to do it, right? 

Now you know how.



For More Info: My friend, Daniel Adinolfi, recently pointed me to which has more info,
diagrams, and cool little animations to demonstrate the fine points of
busting up traffic jams. This is a HIGHLY recommended site for the serious

Another traffic sculptor is Bob van de Walle, who also lives in the Bay
Area, and actively works to break up traffic jams. Check out his pages at:

Most recent update: 12/05/02
Patrick Salsbury is a Design Scientist living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
He works on creating solutions for social problems such as traffic congestion,
homelessness, poverty, and poor education. 

He can be reached by:
Snail: Reality Sculptors
Attn: Patrick Salsbury
309 Cedar Street #23C
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
A final word:
Feel free to redistribute this (non-commercially, intact, and with
proper credit, please) wherever you think it would be of help. Please contact
me beforehand if you wish to reprint it in a commercial publication. Such
permission will most likely be granted liberally.