In The Field

World Science Festival: %#&$ traffic!

Posted on behalf of Neda Afsarmanesh

In a symposium on traffic, I was mesmerized by what the speakers said about present-day innovations, and about what possibilities are still in store when traffic design and engineering look towards the interactive collaborations of insects and the mathematical basis of our social behavior. It was an entertaining panel with many lessons, including…

Insects follow simple rules of science:

Iain Couzin talked about how blind army ants quickly travel about without crashing into each other or getting lost (it’s because each one lays a pheromone that others can detect and follow).

We are all selfish:

Anna Nagurney added immediate relevance by describing how she utilized mathematical modeling to social behavior when working with New York City officials to partially alleviate traffic jams in Manhattan by blocking off part of Broadway to cars.


Sci-fi is a good barometer for what is possible in the future:

Mitchell Joachim (aka Dr. J) opened the door to a futuristic world of possibilities with images of “smart” cars fabricated from huge air bubbles that could easy glide past another air-bubble car or car wheels that could communicate about road conditions to other cars, or better yet, to City Hall.

Moderator Robert Krulwich was possibly the most impressive part of this lecture; he proficiently weaved a free form lecture into a cohesive and entertaining dialogue. But somewhere in the midst of it all my brain started woke up and I realized there was something missing from the lecture.

Couzin’s stories were great, but there was a simple lack of how his work is being used or could be specifically used when organizing or re-designing traffic in cities. Nagurney referenced the use of math in understanding traffic flows, but didn’t give the audience any taste of this math or the different types of computer models that she may use in her work. And Dr. J had the creative ideas, but did not talk about the engineering or technological difficulties that would arise. His tag line was, “vehicles need to be created for a specific context.” His context was and could only be New York City since cars that can only reach 30 mph or personal jet packs with two-hours worth of fuel life would fail if you’re commuting in Los Angeles or trying to travel through America’s farmlands.

I wanted more of the scientific groundwork in the lecture. But admittedly, I am being overly critical because it was thought-provoking; the questions unanswered did sparked lively conversations between my friends and I. What I appreciated about this lecture, versus the Transparent Brains lecture the night before, was that time was allocated for audience questions. The best question, appropriately enough the last one asked: Since people are selfish and prone to causing traffic jams, how do you recommend the audience leave so to cause the least amount of chaos and time delays? There was more laughter than response.

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