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Take up the study of earthquakes, volcanoes or stock markets and the goal, whether voiced or not, is to find a way to predict future “events” in your field. In that sense, these guys have something in common with scientists who study traffic jams.

The difference is that traffic experts might one day reach their goal. The complexity of traffic flow, while awe inspiring, may well be fundamentally different to the complexity of stock markets and earthquake events.

At least that’s how Dirk Helbing at the Institute for Transport & Economics at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany, and his buddies see it.

Helbing says that one long standing dream of traffic experts is to identify the fundamental patterns of traffic congestion from which all other flows can be derived, a kind of periodic table of traffic flows.

Now he thinks he has found it: a set of fundamental patterns of traffic flow that when identified on a particular road, can be used to create a phase diagram of future traffic states.

The phase diagrams can then be used to make forecasts about the way in which the flow might evolve.

That’ll be handy. But only if it’s then possible to do something to prevent the congestion. And that may be the trickiest problem of all.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0903.0929: Theoretical vs. Empirical Classification and Prediction of Congested Traffic States

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