It’s a Gas

One thing I’ve always been really amused by is a bit of the history of how the early 20th century engineers thought about designing for automobiles. I imagine them sitting around a poker table smoking cigars, but maybe they were hovering around a chalkboard smoking pipes. It doesn’t really matter.

A crude paraphrase of the philosophy that emerged would sound like this:

Engineer: You know, we’ll build these highways, and they’ll function like pipes. The cars will be like water molecules, flowing uniformly through these pipes. So we can design the roads for a smooth-flow condition, and it will just work perfectly. Once we’ve gotten rid of the intersections there will never be another traffic delay again.

Skeptic: Ok, but what about the drivers? How can you be sure they’ll use the freeways correctly?

Engineer: Oh, that’s easy: we make them get a license in order to drive, and we require *driver’s education* to get a license. So then we just put up a sign telling people what speed to go, and we teach them how to leave the correct distance between cars etc., and it’ll be great! Everyone will behave, because it’s in their own best interest to behave.

Of course, we know that isn’t what happened. Humans suck at driving. We get mad and honk and swerve and cut people off and rubberneck and don’t pay attention and nearly miss our exit and swing across 3 lanes of traffic nearly killing ourselves to save the five minutes it would have taken to just take the next exit and u-turn. Humans are nothing like water molecules. We have minds, and we have emotions, and somehow Engineers seem to have great difficulty understanding and correcting for that.

Now, today a friend emailed me a link to this video, which is basically an information campaign going in in Mexico to raise awareness of the social costs of auto subsidies. It’s interesting, not exactly the same situation we have in the US but certainly there are similar issues.

Here’s what really struck me from the video, though: in it they point out that traffic behaves like a gas. That is, it spreads out and fills all the available space. So it doesn’t really matter how much room there is in the system, traffic will spread evenly throughout and use any room that’s available.

I’m sure others have heard this before but for whatever reason I hadn’t, and it hadn’t occurred to me until I saw the video. From here on out though, I’ll remember that. And the next time someone asks me how my drive was, I’ll tell them: “It was a gas.”

Posted: Wednesday, April 18th, 2012 at 12:15 pm
Categories: move
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One Comment

  1. Free road use is the single largest subsidy there is. The video suggests that more subsidy should go to mass transit. They also suggest eliminating free parking. I would go further and suggest ending free road use altogether. All roads should be tolled per axle weight per use.

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