Traffic Wavelength

A while back I was heading back home from work, unfortunately during rush hour. The streets were crammed and packed with cars, all trying to squeeze in front of each other. Pretty soon, I was standing in a traffic jam originating in a remote traffic light. This gave me the leisure to consider more carefully my surroundings, and I happened to notice something peculiar. Most of the time the car was stationary, but when I did go forward, the far-away traffic light was always red.

Of course, I’m no culprit, and when I did finally pass the intersection, the light was green. But, given the nature of traffic jams – slowly moving forward a couple of meters, then stopping and waiting – a lot of driving was done when the light in front of me was red. A curious thought popped into my mind: in a way, the traffic light and I were in “opposite phases”. While I spied a far away green, I grimly stayed in place. But when I did move, the stoplight showed red. This led me to consider the idea that traffic jams have wavelengths, frequencies, and speeds, and in certain ways behave like regular waves.
The core idea is simple: suppose that there is long line of cars standing in front of an intersection. The light turns green, but only one car manages to pass before it goes red again. Now, the second car oozes forward a bit, to replace the car that managed to drive on. The third car, noticing that the second has now taken the lead, also advances slightly, and so on. This “disturbance” propagates throughout the long column of cars, just like a single wave is carried about by a slinky.

I devised a very simple mathematical model to discover some of the properties of this wave. I later implemented this model in the computer in C++ so I could see graphically what was going on. The model has a few parameters and basic assumptions, which I will now describe.
Suppose we have an infinite number of cars waiting in a line in front of a junction, when suddenly the light turns green. All drivers have a parameter called “reaction time”, which I denote by r. The reaction time is the time it takes for us to react to an event. Although we would like to think differently, we never react instantly to what’s happening around us. From the moment light reaches our eyes, we have to send the information to the brain, process it, decide what to do with it, and then send the appropriate commands to our muscles. The reaction time is different for different individuals; you can test yours here. If you are extremely alert, you might get 0.2 seconds, but most of the time people don’t devote all their attention to noticing changes in the environment, so the value will be considerably higher (say, half a second).
The light turns green, the first driver takes a while to notice it, and then starts moving. The second driver also takes a while to notice that the first driver moved, but before he can put the pedal to the metal, he has to wait until there is a considerable distance between the two cars. This “speedup time” I call k. Normally, this would actually be a parameter dependent on the speed in which the cars are driving (you have to keep a certain distance away from the car in front of you; it’s the law), but for simplicity’s sake, I treat this as a constant. So, even after you notice that the car in front of you have started moving, you still have to wait for about a second or two before you can move yourself.
Using this model, we can see how much time it takes until a certain car starts moving. I denote by ni the time it takes for car number i in the line to start moving.




n_i=k(i-1) + i \cdot r

Lets say that the green light is only turned on for g seconds. Which cars can cross within this time frame? Only cars that satisfy:

n_i \leq g

k(i-1) +i \cdot r \leq g

i \leq \dfrac{g+k}{r+k}

So while the green light is on, i=\dfrac{g+k}{r+k} cars have started going forward. Unfortunately for them, not all will make it to the intersection in this round. Think of the last car, number i: it has just started driving when the light turned from green to red, and cannot hope to reach the junction in time. It will have to wait for the next time. I will later look a bit into this phenomena, but for now lets continue to focus on the “traffic wavelength”.
An interesting question to ask is, “during this session of green happiness, how much distance did the cars manage to cover?”. We all ask ourselves this when we are in jams, although this is usually accompanied by loud swearing. In this model, I take all cars to be of certain length l. This length takes into consideration both the average length of cars on the road, and the fact that you have to keep a certain distance away from the car in front of you. l turns out to be about 5 meters. In this case, all we have to do is multiply the number of cars by the length of each car, and discover how much distance we gained in the green streak:

d=l \cdot \dfrac{g+k}{r+k}

Although only a certain number of cars pass while the light is green, remember that even though the light is now red, cars further down the line keep advancing. They are indifferent to the state of the traffic light – all that the drivers care about is if there is room in front of them to move forward. In fact, the sole driver which really cares about the traffic light is the leader of the column, because it affects only him (and perhaps you will curse less if you remember this when you are stuck in heavy traffic). So even if the traffic light now malfunctions and stays red forever, there will still be cars in the middle of the line which move forward.
The interesting question to ask given this phenomenon is which cars move when the light is red, and which cars move when the light is green. For this I assume that the red and green lights are equal in duration [this cannot be true for more than two way junctions, but it is what allows us to treat the thing as a wave]. Lets look then at the time intervals [0, g], [g, 2g], [2g, 3g]…
During the first interval, [0,g], the light is green. The cars which move are those whose index is smaller than \dfrac{g+k}{r+k} .
During the second interval, [g, 2g], the light is red. The cars at the front of the line have stopped moving, but disturbance still propagates backwards. The cars that move now are those from \dfrac{g+k}{r+k} to \dfrac{2g+k}{r+k} .
During the third interval, [2g, 3g], the light is green. This means that the cars at the start of the line have started moving again, but this does not interest me. What’s more interesting is that the cars in the middle are still moving, due to the first appearance of the green light. The cars that move are those in the range from \dfrac{2g+k}{r+k} to \dfrac{3g+k}{r+k} , and they too all move while there is a green light (even though it’s not the same green light that started the moving process).
We can treat this phenomena as a square wave. Cars that started moving when there was a green light will be given the value “1”. Cars that started moving while the light was red will be given the value “-1”. The wavelength is defined as the distance between two peaks, e.g, between two “1”s. This means the difference, in length, between the cars that moved in the interval [0, g], and the interval [2g, 3g].

\lambda = [2g,3g] - [0,g] = l \cdot \dfrac{3g+k}{r+k}-l \cdot \dfrac{g+k}{r+k} = l \cdot \dfrac{2g}{r+k} .

The period is, of course, T = 2g . The speed of the wave is therefore:

c=\lambda f = \dfrac{\lambda}{T} = \dfrac{l}{r+k} .

Which is independent of the duration of the green light. If we take the following values for parameters:

l = 5 [m]; r = 0.3 [s]; k = 1 [s], we get:
c = 3.85 [m/s] = 13.8 [kph]

This is how fast the disturbance, the slow crawling of cars, propagates along the entire column.
To visualise this wave graphically, I built a small program that uses the above model in order to mimic the behavior of the traffic light. All cars start out white, and the moment they move forward, they are colored according to the color the light was when they just started moving.
Cars start out in a line to the middle, and generally try to drive to the right, if possible. The current stoplight color is shown in the top right. The junction where they stop is represented by the vertical line.
Here is an example of the program in action. WordPress doesn’t allow uploading videos without paying, so I uploaded an animated gif. Click on it to see the animation.

The following particular run has r = 0.5 [s]; k = 0.7 [s]; g = 5 [s], which means there should be 4.75 red or green cars each phase. Since only integer amounts of cars exist, we see mostly groups of four, but sometimes groups of 5, too.

One last thing I would like to discuss, is how many cars actually cross the intersection before the light turns red. This is hard to compute analytically for repeated cycles, and that is what the model is good for. However, for the first green light, it is possible, since all cars start out stationary.
Remember that \dfrac{g+k}{r+k} cars start moving during the first green light, but not all of them make it to the junction on time. Just how many of them do? In order to answer this, I assume that once a car starts going, it does so with a constant acceleration. This is not quite true – we switch gears quite often while driving, and certainly don’t reach infinite speeds – but for lower speeds, it’s a fair estimate. I will mark this acceleration by a. Just how large is it? Well, some Jaguars boast they can go from 0-90 [kph] in 4 seconds, but that’s a hell of a ride. Most cars, under normal conditions, would experience an acceleration somewhere between 2-3 meters per second per second.
Since the cars start stationary, the distance they cover against time of travel is \frac{1}{2}at^2 . Lets consider some car, c, that is in such a position in the car column, so it will start driving after m seconds. If this is the last car that can actually pass while the light is still green, then the time it takes to cross the junction must be just equal to the time left to drive, which is g-m. So all we have to do is solve the equation:

\dfrac{1}{2}a(g-m)^2=l \cdot \dfrac{m+k}{r+k}

The left hand side is the distance the car covers as a function of time. The right hand side is the distance of a car which moves only after m seconds from the intersection. The equation needs to be solved for m. I will not bother you with the actual calculations, but this is just a quadratic equation, so it’s easily solvable. As an example, taking:
l = 5 [m]; r = 0.2 [s]; k = 1 [s]; a = 2 [m/s2]; g = 10 [s], we get that 9.16 cars start moving while the light is green (according to i=\dfrac{g+k}{r+k} ). However, plugging in the numbers in the equation above, we get that only 5 cars will actually pass before the light becomes red. This is indeed what happens when the parameters are adjusted in the model: as you can see, 9 cars are colored green, which means 9 have started driving while there was a green light, but only 5 managed to cross the intersection.



  1. Cool article! I have a question: for reasons of stress reduction, suppose one car decides to not play the “endless accelerate/stop” game and just travel at a constant speed. What’s the fastest he could go?

  2. Reminds me of a conversation with Oded Margalit from years past (regrettably, in Hebrew):

    Oded: משוואות דיפרנציאליות חלקיות
    1:39 AM Oded: אני זוכר את השיעור הראשון בשנה השניה שלי – אנליזה נומרית. השתמשנו במד”ח כדי לפתור את בעיית הרמזור
    בעיה שימושית למדי. אני משתמש בה עד היום
    1:40 AM me: ‫מה היא?‬
    Oded: נניח שיש לך תור לרמזור. כל המכוניות במהירות אפס לפני הרמזור ובמהירות 30 קמ”ש מייד אחריו
    ברגע שהרמזור הופך מאדום לירוק, יש גל הלם של המכונית הראשונה שזזה. גל זה רץ לאחור. מה מהירותו?
    1:41 AM אתה מניח שכל מכונית “תקועה” נשארת כך, וכל מכונית פנויה קופצת למהירות שיוט של שלושים קמ”ש
    קצת משוואות דיפרנציאליות ואתה מגיע למסקנה שאם התחלת לזוז לפני שהרמזור הפך שוב לאדום – תעבור ברמזור הזה או הבא אחריו.
    1:42 AM בדקתי את זה מאז בהמון רמזורים – וזה עובד
    1:43 AM me: ‫לקח לי קצת זמן אבל אני חושב שאני מבין‬
    1:44 AM ‫מה שאתה אומר זה שאם גל ההלם הגיע אליך כשהרמזור עוד ירוק אז עד סוף הרמזור הבא באותן מהירויות גל הלם יביא אותך מעבר לרמזור כשהרמזור עוד ירוק?‬
    Oded: נכון
    ואם הוא מגיע אליך כשהרמזור הוא ירוק מהבהב, אז אתה עומד להיות גבולי (לעבור בירוק מהבהב)

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