We’ve all been there, you’re on your way home from work after a long day and just as you start winding down, what do you see as you approach the highway? Cars, cars everywhere. Traffic jammed as far as the eye can see. This frustrating situation has plagued us for many years and creates an ongoing inconvenience to us all as well as increasing the risk of traffic accidents and injuries. The solution? Ants.

Yes, you read that correctly. A Japanese Engineer, Professor Nishinari, has studied the mathematics of traffic jams and observed the movements of large groups of ants to devise some rules that could eliminate traffic jams – both on roads and on pedestrian footpaths for good.

If you’ve ever seen a large group of ants on the move you would have seen that ants never have traffic jams. This is because ants don’t brake or slow down suddenly and it is the chain reaction of braking that creates the ongoing problem of traffic jams. Unlike us humans, ants always leave enough space/distance between themselves and the ant travelling in front of them. “A jam is caused by a wave in the opposite direction to the direction of travel… backwards waves are the result of braking but if there is headway then the next car behind does not have to break as much and these waves are dispersed between the cars”, Professor Nishinari said.

In order to maintain the constant gap between motorists and mimic the flow of ants, Professor Nishinari suggests that we need to leave a much bigger gap than the government-recommended 2 car length rule between us and the car in front of us – he believes the gap should be at least 40 metres! That’s more like 10 car lengths in total!

Don’t believe it? Well, Mr Nishinari tested his theory on Tokyo’s Shuto Expressway, Japan’s busiest motorway:

“At 4pm there was always about a 10km traffic jam. We asked eight cars to keep headway; we asked them to move more slowly than other cars and it was amazing. With just eight cars the jam didn’t appear for 40 minutes. If you continuously had all cars (keeping headway) maybe you can shift the onset again and have no traffic jam.

“It’s counter intuitive but if we slow down it makes the flow faster. Slower is faster.”

You might have encountered a similar problem where you’re in a rush but you get stuck walking behind a slow walker. The professor’s solution here to keep the pedestrian flow going is to create separate lanes – fast and slow lanes – for example, one for bikes, one for young people and one for elderly people.

The takeaway? Slow down and keep your distance. It only takes 8 people to change the flow of countless cars. You can be the change.