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Key source of Bay Area traffic headaches revealed by top researchers

groundbreaking study by UC Berkeley and MIT researchers has pinpointed a small group of drivers making Bay Area freeways miserable for the rest of us, though the reason may surprise you.

These commuters aren’t necessarily slow or bad drivers. Instead, they come from a few outlying neighborhoods and travel long distances together in the same direction like schools of fish — clogging up not only the roads they drive on, but also everyone else’s.

The study’s authors anonymously tracked more than 350,000 Bay Area drivers using their cellphone and GPS signals — the first time that’s been done — to gather some of the most detailed data yet on what causes our traffic jams. Caltrans and local transportation
officials are now reviewing the results and plan to incorporate simple measures such as additional metering lights to spread out the volume of drivers coming from places where residents suffer the worst traffic, including southeast San Jose, Hayward, Dublin, San Rafael and San Ramon.

By targeting those drivers to reduce the number of vehicles on Bay Area roads by just 1 percent, drivers would see the time they spend fuming in traffic drop by 14 percent — nearly 8 minutes saved per hour, the study concludes.

“This has enormous potential,” said study co-author Alex Bayen, a UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “These findings are going to come into practice in the near future. This is not just a
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scientific study.”

Skeptics may wonder how such small tweaks could produce such big results.

But consider how freeway traffic flows smoothly until it reaches a tipping point — when too many cars cram onto the road and, out of nowhere, you’ll go from cruising along to creeping by, even when there aren’t any accidents. That’s because traffic increases exponentially once a road’s capacity has been reached. When the number of vehicles on a congested road grows by 1 percent, you’re likely to slow down by 5 percent.

The good news is that you can speed up noticeably when just a few cars leave the roadway, one of the main reasons officials have tried chipping away at the edges by encouraging people to take transit, carpool, telecommute or avoid rush hour. The new study found that effort will be about three times more effective if you can get certain drivers from the corners of the Bay Area off the road during peak travel times.

Take the southeast San Jose region along the Highway 101 corridor, where residents spend more time in traffic than just about anywhere in the Bay Area, including people living in denser districts around downtown. That’s because downtown San Jose residents drive off in several directions,
Commuters slow down as they approach the Caldecott Tunnel in Oakland, Calif, Jan. 7, 2012. (Laura A. Oda)
spreading out the traffic flow, while residents on the south side are all driving north together to jobs in the heart of Silicon Valley, jamming the freeway.

If a driver from southeast San Jose can avoid rush hour, he would not only commute faster but also contribute toward speeding up commutes for his neighbors driving north on 101 and Interstate 280 and people from different neighborhoods going to the same destinations. The same thinking would hold true for people in the East Bay who drive west to work, often across the Bay and San Mateo bridges or through the Caldecott Tunnel, and North Bay commuters who head south across the San Rafael and Golden Gate bridges.
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