Why Don't Ants Get Stuck In Traffic?



This episode is supported by Prudential


With more than 7 billion people on Earth and one car for every six of us, traffic is bad

just about everywhere.


Last year, American drivers wasted nearly

a million collective years staring at each other’s tail-lights.

The average driver in London has it the worst, spending more than four days a year in gridlock.

"There's Big Ben, kids! Parliament!"

But Earth is home to another great commuter, whose populations number in the trillions,

and they don’t get stuck in traffic.

An army ant’s day is a lot like ours.

Set off in the morning alongside thousands of our neighbors, moving out and back in neat

little lines so we can provide for our brood

I mean family.

Crowding, bottlenecks, slowpokes, ants face the same traffic challenges we do.

But they don’t get in traffic jams, which is why scientists are looking to them for

solutions to human traffic.

In a perfect world cars could pack in bumper to bumper and drive at that magic speed, but

were not perfect.

One wrong tap on the gas or brakes, and OH COME ON!


When speed and density hit a tipping point, jams are inevitable.

Yet in the ant world, traffic jams don’t happen, even when things get crowded.

The easiest solution to an overcrowded road is to make it bigger.

But ants can’t just cut trails as wide as they want.

Wider roads take time and energy to maintain, and the pheromones that mark them become weaker.

Instead, ants get organized.

It might not look like it, but there’s lanes here.

Ants headed back to the colony loaded up with food use the center lane, while outbound ants

stay to the edges.

Why three lanes and not two, like our roads?

When two ants are on a collision course, eventually one’s gotta give.

The loaded inbound ants are less maneuverable, so the empty-handed ant almost always turns

first, half the time to either side.

And voila: three lanes, no crashes, no traffic jams.

If you think youre so different from an army ant, pay attention next time youre

in a busy crosswalk.

We naturally form similar lanes in crowds, mindless individuals contributing to a larger


But put us behind the wheel, and this happens.


There’s a simple reason we hate traffic.

Because we hate waiting in line.

Queueing up plays weird tricks on our brainssense of time.

Occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time.

This is why people listen to the radio, or play that license plate game.

And it’s the same reason supermarkets put magazines in the checkout lines.

Ever been late for a big meeting and felt like the universe is standing in your way?

Anxiety makes waits seem longer.

Ever been in a traffic jam with no obvious cause?

The worst.

Uncertain or unexplained waits are longer than known or explained waits.

But traffic engineers have learned that simple information signs can change how we experience


But more than anything else, we hate unfair waits.

You see a sign that sayslane closed ahead”, so you get over with plenty of time to spare,

only to see some jerk zip past you and get over at the last second.

Whatyou can’t wait like the rest of us, Mr. Hurrypants?

Quick side note.

Gonna let you in on a little secret.

Traffic researchers have found that late merging is actually better.

If everyone drives up to the bottleneck and goes one-by-one like a zipper, traffic moves

up to 15% faster.

We use both lanes at max capacity, no one gets cheated, everyone wins!

The more you know.

And where were we?

Oh yeah.

Our innate sense ofwhat’s fairleads to the biggest psychological illusion that

we experience on the road.

Why does traffic always move faster in the other lane?

Well, spoilers first: It doesn’t.

Let’s say two cars enter your standard stop-and-go traffic jam side by side.

Let’s count the time each one spends passing versus getting passed.

One driver zips past a few cars in the other lane, only to stop and wait and watch other

cars pass.

And then go!


And then wait.

Even if the two cars cross some invisible finish line together, the same way they started,

each driver will feel like they spent more time being passed than passing, because they


Our brains pay more attention to the losses than the gains.

All of this points to the real problem with traffic.

Our ego.

Human drivers care about minimizing their travel time and don’t give two honks about

what other drivers want.

Driving slower may be faster for everyone else, but it’s not faster for me!

I don’t care if we all get where were going at the same time, I don’t like being


When leaf-cutter ants get stuck on a twig behind a heavily-loaded slowpoke, do they

honk and yell bad ant words?


They simply slow down and march behind the ant returning with the goods, because that’s

what’s best for the group.

Worker ants are all related and working toward the same goal, the good of the colony.

That’s the cooperative genetic programming that underlies their awesome traffic systems.

The fact that we have big, complicated brains is the very reason that we get stuck in traffic

and ants don’t.

We think of traffic as something that happens to us rather than admitting we are the problem.

Ants are essentially tiny machines with simple programming.

Put them on a trail with a few rules, allow individuals to communicate and interact with

each other, and voila, youve got complex traffic networks running at near-maximum efficiency.

Sound familiar?

It should!

That’s basically what well get when we stop letting our egos drive and put traffic

in the hands of a network of self-driving cars optimized to serve the collective good.

Sure, sentient machines may enslave humanity, but at least theyll cut down on our commute!

But that’s a video for another day.

Stay curious.

Thanks to Prudential for sponsoring this episode.

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