I’ve been reading and enjoying Tom Vanderbilt’s book Traffic, which led me to his interesting blog, which led me to this terrific story on Wired:

If humans took their cues from ants, they might spend less time in traffic.

When opposing streams of leafcutter ants share a narrow path, they instinctively alternate flows in the most efficient way possible. Studying how ants manage this could provide the basis for a system of driverless cars running on ant traffic algorithms.

“They never get stuck in traffic,” said Audrey Dussutour, a University of Sydney entomologist. “We should use their rules. I’ve been working with ants for eight years, and have never seen a traffic jam — and I’ve tried.” . . .

Dussutour’s team found that ants leaving the colony automatically gave right-of-way to those returning with food. Of the returning ants, some were empty-mandibled — but rather than passing their leaf-carrying, slow-moving brethren, they gathered in clusters and moved behind them.

This seemingly counterintuitive strategy — when stuck behind a slow-moving truck, are you content to slow down? — actually saved them time. . . .

If ants in the experiment behaved like the average human driver, they’d routinely run head-first into each other, causing insect versions of pile-ups and gridlock. Dussutour’s team calculated that patience reduced the average delay experienced by an individual ant crossing a crowded three-meter bridge from 64 to 32 seconds.

“One dominating factor in human traffic is egoism,” said University of Zoln traffic flow theorist Andreas Schadschneider. “Drivers optimize their own travel time, without taking much care about others. This leads to phantom traffic jams which occur without any obvious reason. Ants, on the other hand, are not egoistic.”

The Wired story, in its inevitable technophilic way, suggests that the proper lesson to be learned from this research is that we should create a system that would drive our cars for us according to the leafcutter-ant algorithm. Not sure whether even this President and this Congress could come up with a stimulus package big enough for that, which raises the question: is there any other way to prompt people to learn these lessons? Or is unthinking, reflexive egotism invincible? It seems to me that the prime problem here is that the leafcutter approach only works if pretty much everyone applies it. I’m not sure that partial compliance would have much effect.

UPDATE: I should have added here Reihan’s tribute, a year ago, to Hans Monderman. Seems relevant, since what Monderman discovered was ways to encourage good behavior without legal or technological compulsion.