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How Do Traffic Jams Actually Happen?

1st Mar 2018
By Daniel Jones


The majority of traffic jams are actually our own fault – and are entirely avoidable. It’s controversial, but you’ll be stuck in traffic jams that are down to the way we drive.

Indeed, when we tell people that we are “stuck in traffic”, we often forget that we are the traffic – and therefore we are part of a larger system.

So let’s have a look at the main causes of traffic jams, and what we can do about them.

Being too nice when merging

We all hate it when someone nips out of the back of a queue, zooms down the spare lane, and budges in at the front. But it’s precisely this kind of behaviour that would reduce traffic jams.

It’s called the “zipper” merge – where two lanes merge into one. Our problem is that most of us merge too soon, which forms a longer queue of traffic. If we were less ‘nice’, and more of us merged at the last minute, queues would be shorter, and we’d spend less time in traffic.

Traffic snakes

This little video explains how traffic snakes happen:

In the UK, we often refer to it as “phantom traffic jams” – in which a tailback occurs despite there being no roadworks, and no obstruction. A phantom traffic jam would occur because somebody has had to brake quickly, causing the person behind to brake, causing another person to brake, until the last person in the chain stops completely, waiting until the cars in front have pulled away.

This might happen because a lorry has pulled out – or because a driver has been tailgating another vehicle.

There’s not much that can be done about traffic snakes or phantom traffic jams – unless we all decide that we’re going to travel at a consistent speed, only pull out into another lane when there is sufficient space, and not tailgate other vehicles.

Too many drivers

There is a study that says if 1% of commuters took themselves off the road, then the rest would get home 18% quicker. That’s quite a time saving, when you think about it. Imagine the impact it would have on the economy.

As we saw in our study of the UK towns and cities with the worst traffic jams, they tend to flare up from certain neighbourhoods – and not from others. If you travel from the north of Liverpool, you’re far less likely to encounter a traffic jam than if you come in from the east of the city, or even from across the river in Birkenhead.

The study revealed that if you reduce the number of car commuters from just those troublesome neighbourhoods, then you would achieve your target.

So what can be done? Car sharing is a possible option, if implemented widely enough. After all, public transport cannot always be relied upon – so rotating vehicle usage may be an option.

Or – as suggested in our report – leaving 20 minutes earlier. Not everyone wants to wake up at 6 in the morning, but leaving the house at 7 can have a dramatic impact on the amount of time spent in traffic, and reduces the number of drivers on the road at peak time.


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