How Lean Thinking Can Relieve Traffic Jams

Cars stuck in traffic at an intersectionSeattle owns the dubious distinction of having one of the 10 worst traffic experiences in the United States. This is due to a combination of geography, lack of long-term transportation planning, population growth, and driver behavior. Only one of those factors is within our control as individuals.

A problem as bad as Seattle’s transportation system is a complex one. It can only be improved by addressing multiple root causes. Typical taxpayer-funded Department of Transportations solutions include expanding or building more roads, reducing the number of cars on the road by promoting carpooling or public transportation, a puzzling removal of lanes by converting them to express toll lanes, and even magical thinking that large numbers of people will transport themselves across steep rainy hills in bicycle lanes. In some countries governments limit who can drive on what day of the week, based on license plate numbers. The effectiveness of measures such as these is mixed.

A local engineer in Seattle has been experimenting with different driving methods to see if one driver can prevent a traffic jam, as recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal. Braking and slowing can cause traffic jams because the spacing between cars is too small to allow for changes to happen safely. We cannot stop or switching lanes at normal highway speeds when there is no space. Braking leads to more braking, then critical slowing to jamming. The basic idea is to avoid making other drivers slam on their brakes by giving other drivers more space.

His techniques may seem counterintuitive. How can individual drivers allowing other drivers to cut in improve traffic flow? We may think that driving faster and with more skill, slipping into open spaces and passing slower cars, will help us arrive at our destination faster. While this may work for a few of us, one aggressive or distracted driver can create a chain reaction of braking that leads to jamming. The drivers and their cars are part of a traffic system. How we drive contributes to the condition of the system. We can only get there as fast as the system will allow. Making a single part of the system faster, such as one car, does not speed up the whole system, it may even slow it. As with lean, improving this system requires more than a change in driving technique, it requires a change in our thinking about how we drive.

A lean thinking lens may help us view our impact on traffic differently. First, let’s identify the customer. A driver may think that she is the customer of her driving, or perhaps it is her family whom she is going home to see. The way to improve bad traffic is to think of the car in front of you as the customer. As with lean, let the customer pace you by maintaining spacing that allows driving at a safe and constant speed. Imagine a steel cable connecting you to the car in front and leading you along. In flowing traffic, accidents and jams happen when we accelerate while others are braking, and when we brake while others are accelerating. Go with the pull, not push until you can safely pass it and become the pace car. We don’t need to “hoard” or “stockpile” the road for ourselves. It is not a consumable resource. It is not going anywhere. A steady flow is better than stop-and-go, keeping the whole system moving rather than speeding up to grab the space for ourselves. Last but not least, we need to solve problems as a team. Despite the WSJ article’s title, one driver cannot prevent a traffic jam. One at a time, as a team with a common aim, perhaps we can.


  1. Jessica

    October 17, 2016 - 3:41 pm

    Reminds me of a system used in the UK, where monitors tell each lane how fast or slow to drive in order to maintain that constant flow. It’s still traffic, but at least everyone is moving.

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