Monday, March 18, 2002 Volume 67, Issue 110



Columnist solves traffic problem

Richard Whitrock

As anyone who lives in Houston knows, Interstate 10 is home to some of the world's most horrendous traffic. Road rage on I-10 is like snow in
Antarctica: There is no escape.

There is, however, hope. The answer to traffic problems in Houston is surprisingly simple and cheap. An examination of the causes behind this traffic
yields the solution. Several factors add up to produce the nerve-wracking experience that is Houston traffic, and they can all be explained both
mathematically and through common sense.

First, traffic occurs when the amount of cars on the road inhibits the flow of travel, resulting in slow-moving vehicles and frequent stops. When this
phenomenon occurs, most motorists find themselves frustrated, asking questions like, "Why, when everyone is going the same direction and the
speed limit is 70 miles per hour, is the average speed in heavy traffic a breakneck 3 m.p.h.? What is wrong with all these people?"

Think about it logically. A car is traveling behind another car, and suddenly the driver in front puts on the brakes (perhaps because someone entered
the interstate in front of that car). To avoid collision, the driver of the rear vehicle also applies the brakes. Then, because that car slows down, the car
behind it must do so to avoid collision as well, and so on.

Three hours later, because there has been no break in the stream of cars, every vehicle must still put on its brakes when reaching that spot. Until there
is enough space between cars traveling through that area to eliminate the necessity for the car in front to brake, that cycle will continue. In physics, this
phenomenon is called density waves.

One might think the solution, then, is to make sure all motorists travel with enough space between them and the car in front that braking is not
necessary. Unfortunately, that only causes more traffic.

Say that there are 30 cars in one lane, with each car measuring 10 feet long and only 10 feet between each car. These 30 cars, then, take up
approximately 600 feet of space. Rush hour hits, and instead of 30 cars in one lane, there are 300 cars in each lane with the same dimensions and
space between. Instead of 600 feet, each lane now takes up about 6,000 feet.

Once this math is applied in the real world, it paints an ugly picture. Take the span of road between Katy and downtown Houston. Loads and loads of
people get onto the freeway, and each car that gets on takes up 20 feet of space. The 15 cars that got on the freeway at Chimney Rock Road now take
up 300 feet of space, and the cars that were already on the freeway have to slow down to make room for them.

This results in motorists putting on their brakes and slowing down all the way back to the exit before, where there are 15 more cars merging onto the
interstate and, because the cars ahead have their brakes on, those cars must enter more slowly.

This creates a snowball effect for each successive entrance and exit, and it's why anyone who is driving from Katy can't go more than five feet forward
at a time. All the people in front of those poor souls have to slow their cars down to make room for the 15 people who get on the freeway at every
entrance between Fry Road and downtown.

The situation is further compounded by the fact that a few minutes later, there will be 15 more people merging at every on ramp.

The mathematical formula for this is very similar to compound interest and works on the same basic concept. Simply put, the farther from downtown,
the slower and more congested the freeways are.

Now, consider the high occupancy vehicle lane. At any given point during rush hour, the amount of cars traveling in the HOV lane is roughly equal to
the amount of cars in stalled traffic. The difference is that the HOV lane is going much faster. In fact, no matter how many cars are in the HOV lane,
they always seem to be going at least the speed limit, even though there is only one lane. Why is that?

The answer is that because there are so few places to get on and get off, the number of vehicles exiting the HOV lane is almost always equal to the
amount entering. No motorist in the HOV lane has to brake to make room for new cars, since there is no real increase in cars in the HOV lane (and
more importantly, because no cars can enter in front of those already traveling on it).

The solution to Houston's traffic problem is simple. The city of Houston should make one lane of I-10 (and all other traffic-ridden roads that run from
downtown to the outskirts, such as downtown to Katy) that has only one or two entrances and exits called the "Downtown Direct Lane."

This lane would only be accessible at certain points and would operate precisely like the HOV lane, but without the passenger limit. Its limited
entrances would eliminate the effects of any influx in the amount of motor vehicles while the lane itself will alleviate the congestion on the other lanes. 

Whitrock, a freshman university
studies student, can be reached at

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