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I’ve talked about phantom congestion in my class lectures and training modules but have always explained it through figures and diagrams I usually draw on the board as I discuss the topic with my students or trainees. Here is a very informative, very visual explanation of what typically happens along many roads and how there is congestion when there seems to be no reason at all for these traffic jams:
Have you experienced these phantom traffic jams yourself?
I noticed that a previous post on common causes of congestion is popular among those who read this blog. The causes mentioned there focused on the lack of discipline among pedestrians and motorists. Their behaviour (e.g., commuters standing in the middle of the road to get a jeepney or UV Express ride, jeepneys and UV Express stopping in the middle o the road to load/unload passengers, etc.) often lead to congestion as they effectively reduce road capacities.
Another major cause of congestion are road crashes. They don’t have to be fatal crashes as the road capacity reduction caused by stopped vehicles is enough to cause congestion along the road including traffic along the opposite direction. The latter phenomenon, if we can categorise it as such, is due to the inquisitive nature (i.e., uses) of people. Traffic approaching the crash site typically slows down as drivers check what happened. Following are some photos I took as we approached a crash site atop the Marcelo Fernan Bridge connecting the Islands of Cebu and Mactan. Note the build-up of vehicles behind the crash involving 3 vehicles.
Road crash involving 3 vehicles in the middle of the Marcelo Fernan Bridge in Cebu
The resulting congestion behind the crash site
Such events are typical causes of congestion and can actually be analysed using traffic flow theory involving waves in traffic. A generally normal flow of traffic (before the incident) is disturbed by the crash, which is assumed to be an isolated event. This results in a change in the traffic characteristics (flow, speed and concentration of vehicles) triggering a shockwave. The shockwave moves backwards and manifests through the chain reaction of drivers hitting their brakes in succession to slow down due to the incident. As such, it is possible to determine how long the build-up of vehicles would be upstream of the incident location.