Phantom Jam

Have you noticed how traffic jams sometimes occur for what seems like literally no reason? One minute you’re cruising down the highway at the designated speed limit, then the car in front of you suddenly slows down to about half speed, and within seconds multiple lanes have ground to a halt. A couple of minutes later, everything starts moving again and goes back to normal. Despite keeping your eyes peeled the whole time, you see no sign of an accident, road works, or anything in the way of an obstruction or bottleneck for kilometres afterward. What gives?

I’m sure there’s a satisfying answer to this out there somewhere. While I’m no traffic engineering specialist, Melbourne is quite a hotspot for these phantom jam incidents, so I’m sure someone has taken it upon themselves to model the effect mathematically and explain it through the sheer power of logic. To my mind, it’s hard to imagine how that could be done, and I’m inclined to hold the view that traffic eludes logic. I’m often left feeling about it similarly to how the ancients probably felt about the stars: that they are simply not to be understood by mere mortals. 

Even if I did understand it, it probably wouldn’t help me that much in practical terms. It’s not like you can just rock up to the VCAT, expert evidence in hand, and expect a solution – unless you’re proposing one yourself, I guess, and it’s good enough to satisfy the tribunal. That’s the thing about perplexing phenomena. In many cases, no matter how well you understand what’s going on logically, you still have to accept it, because what it would take to come up with a solution would not be worth it in the end. 

 

I mean, what’s a couple of minutes lost to mysteriously stopped traffic once or twice a day, compared to years lost figuring out how to get those minutes back?