Bug Blog

Ant Traffic Jams

Ant Traffic Jams

It’s five o’clock and not only are you relieved to get out of work, you’re psyched to get home and read your new novel, wash your car, take nap or visit with friends. So you hurry to your car, start it up, and drive out into traffic. After driving less than a mile, you stop and not because you want to. Traffic jams in some parts of the country are not just frustrating they are downright depressing.  There has got to be a better way.

Physicist Apoorva Nagar at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology believes that studying ants will reveal clues to reducing highway traffic jams? Nagar got interested ants and traffic when he read a study conducted by German and Indian researchers that demonstrated that ants were able to maintain a steady speed even when there were a large number of ants moving on the path.

According to Nagar, “there are three main reasons ants don’t jam up. No. 1, ants don’t have egos. That is, they don’t show off by zooming past people. The second thing is, they do not mind a few accidents or collisions.”  Unless the accident is serious, they keep going. The final reason is that “ants seem to get more disciplined when paths get crowded, running in straighter lines and varying their speed less. They’re less likely to make unexpected moves in this sort of heavy traffic. It’s the kind of steady control you see when a computer, rather than a human, is controlling a car. There’s less variability unless it’s absolutely called for.”

So what does all this mean?

Nagar is not sure how relevant his model will be for human traffic engineers although greater discipline and less ego on the road may help keep traffic flowing smoothly. In addition, Nagar is a physicist and not an entomologist. “I’ve talked with ant researchers who say that, for at least some species of ants, one will overtake another on the ant highway. And when the volume of ants is high enough, ants do jam up.” So maybe the solution is that human beings need to walk more, drive less and don’t step on the ants.