Monday, April 26, 2010

Traffic Lessons: How Slower Can be Faster

In his book Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt tells a story that I think helps explain how doing things slowly and metronomically by takt — the measured rate of adding work to a queue — can actually make a process faster.

Imagine you are going to pour a bunch of rice through a funnel into an empty jar. You can pour it in all at once. Or you can pour it slowly, in a measured way. Which method gets the rice through faster?

The answer is the second one — because the rice doesn't get jammed. 

The analogy doesn't exactly translate to orders on a conveyor line. Still, it's an interesting visual way to think about how doing something slowly can be faster overall.

Bonus! From the for-what-it's-worth-department, here are two other things I learned from his book, answers to timeless questions we've all pondered and argued about. Or, at least, I have.

Is it faster for traffic overall if, when faced with a reduction in lanes, drivers merge early or at the last minute?

Answer: last minute.

Why? Because both lanes are used to their full capacity up to the last minute.

Why is talking on a cell phone — even if it's hands-free — more dangerous than talking to someone who is sitting in the same car?

Answer: primarily because the person in the car can see the traffic that you see. They change what they're saying to you -- how fast they talk, when they pause, whether they scream -- based on what they see.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

That's actually really interesting. I'm surprised to hear about the merging traffic experiment, because it flies in the face of what we're taught in driving school to leave car lengths, not tailgate, and oddly enough, to -merge early-.

Really neat way of presenting things.