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Traffic: the (un)expected side effect of Covid-19 vaccinations

As of mid-March pretty much everyone in Israel who could get the Covid vaccine did so. The ones who didn’t are kids under 16, people who were infected and recovered plus a small percentage (5%?) who decided not to get the shots.

As the numbers of new contagions crashed the Ministry of Health gradually started lifting restrictions and people began to move like never before. It started with a rush to nature reserves and parks during the Passover vacations and continued through the opening of malls, shops and working places.

As of this week all schools reopened in full: no shifts, no capsules, no Zoom. Add two more factors to the equation: Q1 registered the largest number of new cars on the roads in the country’s history and Israelis are not traveling due to Covid-19 restrictions in other countries. Israel is a net exporter of tourism with an average of 300k to 500k Israelis being abroad at any given time. Resulting in 3-5% more people on the roads than at any given time in the past.

The most noticeable effect is a continuous gridlock from early morning through the evening rush hours. Why is this happening even though the infrastructure has been expanded during lockdowns?

Roads have enough capacity, the proof being that everyone is able to reach their destinations, eventually, with some delay. Meaning no one gives up, does a U-turn and goes back home because traffic won’t allow them to reach their destination. So the real question is why are we experiencing congestion? What causes it?

One theory says that the problem is with the inception of congestion. At a given time during the day, usually in the early morning, traffic starts to pile up at a crossroad, at an intersection or a traffic light. That pile up slows down other traffic effectively reducing flow to a smaller than optimal capacity, which snowballs into heavy traffic and gridlock which stays with us through the better part of the day. To put it simply: traffic flows until one extra driver in the morning rush tips the scales and exceeds road capacity - after that there is little to be done since that extra driver is followed by thousands who add to the problem and cause the snowball effect.

So how can we solve the problem? One idea is to not ever allow the inception of congestion. The vast majority of Israelis (coincidentally excluding the under 16 and a 5% of the rest...) use a road planning app such as Waze or Google Maps. The position of every vehicle is known and so is the capacity of each road. The situation where that extra driver enters the road system and causes the inception of congestion is also known.

If we could use a smart mobility solution to delay that driver by just a few seconds and if we iterated that process for all the next drivers congestion would not happen. Intuitively the total result would be that roads will keep being used at their full capacity and the time spent on roads by the totality of the users will be reduced. Even drivers who have been delayed to avoid congestion will make up for that delay by driving on non-congested roads all the way to their destinations.

Can a smart mobility management solution be the vaccine against traffic congestion?