Macroscopic dynamics and the collapse of urban traffic

Stories of mega-jams that last tens of hours or even days appear not only in fiction but also in reality. In this context, it is important to characterize the collapse of the network, defined as the transition from a characteristic travel time to orders of magnitude longer for the same distance traveled. In this multicity study, we unravel this complex phenomenon under various conditions of demand and translate it to the travel time of the individual drivers. First, we start with the current conditions, showing that there is a characteristic time τ that takes a representative group of commuters to arrive at their destinations once their maximum density has been reached. While this time differs from city to city, it can be explained by Γ, defined as the ratio of the vehicle miles traveled to the total vehicle distance the road network can support per hour. Modifying Γ can improve τ and directly inform planning and infrastructure interventions. In this study we focus on measuring the vulnerability of the system by increasing the volume of cars in the network, keeping the road capacity and the empirical spatial dynamics from origins to destinations unchanged. We identify three states of urban traffic, separated by two distinctive transitions. The first one describes the appearance of the first bottlenecks and the second one the collapse of the system. This collapse is marked by a given number of commuters in each city and it is formally characterized by a nonequilibrium phase transition.

Macroscopic dynamics and the collapse of urban traffic
Luis E. Olmos, Serdar Çolak, Sajjad Shafiei, Meead Saberi, and Marta C. González
PNAS December 11, 2018 115 (50) 12654-12661