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To tame traffic, go with the flow

Lights should respond to cars, a study concludes, not the other way around

Traffic lights that act locally can improve traffic globally, new research suggests. By minimizing congestion, the approach could save money, reduce emissions and perhaps even quash the road rage of frustrated drivers. 

The new approach makes traffic lights go with the flow, rather than enslaving drivers to the tyranny of timed signals. By measuring vehicle inflow and outflow through each intersection as it occurs and coordinating lights with only their nearest neighbors, a systemwide smoothness emerges, scientists report in a September Santa Fe Institute working paper.

“It’s very interesting — the approach is adaptive and the system can react,” says mechanical engineer Gábor Orosz of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “That’s how it should be — that’s how we can get the most out of our current system.”

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