Ants are far better drivers than we are

Ants are far better drivers than we are


Traffic is a bit of a paradox. It simultaneously offers freedom and takes it away. It’s kind of our own fault, though.

People love the idea of driving, but hate the reality of it. It’s progress. It’s freedom. It’s a validation of our very existence. But it’s also stressful. It’s uncomfortable. It’s soul-destroying.

Traffic is also an inherently selfish act while also being a necessarily cooperative process. I need to get somewhere, and couldn’t care less if you have to as well. But, each person’s journey has a direct impact on everyone else’s.

Too bad we aren’t as smart as ants.

Might it be possible to make people behave like ants, who act solely for the benefit of the colony? Could we produce a conception of traffic that shifts people’s understanding of their journey as one that benefits everyone, including me, by cooperating rather than taking each opportunity to serve our immediate self-interests? Why can’t we see traffic as a body that we are all part of but that we are doing our best to exhaust until it collapses? Is there signage, or policies that reward or punish certain decisions, or design that could encourage this?

Unlike worker ants, who are not able to reproduce and are therefore presumed to only labour for Queen and colony, we do have a reason to be selfish. This is displayed all around us, all of the time. Our society is built around competition. On the road, we constantly experience the reality that being aggressive will get you that parking spot, or through the amber light before you’re stuck at the red, or around the cyclist, or through the roundabout first. Anything short of taking everything you can is a direct and tangible loss. Right?

Ant traffic works so very efficiently, however, because they don’t know any better. ” From Tom Vanderbilt’s excellent book, Traffic (p.107):

…no one’s time is more valuable than anyone else’s, no one is preventing anyone else from passing, and no one is making anyone else wait. When bringing back a piece of food that needs multiple carriers, ants will join in until the group hits what seems to be the right speed. Ants will even use their own bodies to create bridges, making the structure bigger or smaller as traffic flow passing over it requires.

I have a hard time imagining that ants, individually, face a decision each time they set out, as to whether they will act for their own benefit or for the colony’s. I hardly think that they have the capacity to be self-reflective.

Their instinct is for self-preservation, and that happens through the success of the colony. “The progress of each ant is integral to the health of the colony, which is why ant traffic works so well.” (Vanderbilt p.107) Our instinct is for self-preservation too, so why can’t we see the benefit of cooperation?

Aren’t the individual journeys of humans integral to the health of our cities? Certainly not like ants. Worker ants as a collective have one purpose and that purpose informs how they all travel. Humans have individual goals that usually have nothing to do with those around them. The only common goal that we have with our fellow travelers is that we want to get where we want to go, – the same as ants – but everything in between is a competition. Rather than saying, “let’s work together so we can both achieve what we desire, and do so more consistently”, we frame everything we see as an obstacle to our individual success.

For people driving cars, all traffic is an obstacle. Other cars, mostly, but also buses, pedestrians, and cyclists. The only real obstacle for pedestrians are intersections, and particularly those that are controlled. Even then, often the only remaining obstacle is the law that says that they can’t cross until permitted. The same goes for cyclists, as, though we have to share the same space as cars and buses, we have the ability to slip around them.

The competition between motorists is far and away the biggest battle, but the competition between motorists and cyclists is far more frustrating to motorists for the very reason that the competition is mostly one-way. Cyclists are somewhat outside of having to compete for progress, even as we are often forced to compete for our actual lives.

It’s not that people on bikes are above this competitive drive. In places where cycling is sufficiently popular, cyclists do have to compete with each other for space, for progressing at the pace that they desire, and for parking, though in Australia, of course, this isn’t yet a real problem. With cyclists, and even more so, pedestrians, our size and increased mobility can accommodate for more efficient travel compared to cars, trucks, and buses. We’re a bit more like ants in that way, able to go around, through, or even over if need be.

I suppose that ants, though their colonies number in the millions, don’t really have to deal with the same physical constraints as humans do, with our roads, bike lanes, and sidewalks. We can’t simply spread out if we run out of space, but even so, there is a level of cooperation between ants that would solve for this problem if that were the case.

The fundamental issue at stake here is that we humans lack the cooperative single-mindedness required for maximally efficient mass-transport. We’re just too selfish to do this voluntarily.

I’m not under any illusions that humans will ever evolve to be more selfless, or that simple appeals to do so, as we so often feebly attempt with safety campaigns (“share the road”, etc), will result in increased cooperation.

No, I think that the only way we are going to improve our situation, the only way we will achieve the superior transportation efficiency of ants, is through efficient design.

The design of our physical environment, for one. To fit more people in the same space, we need to make the most of that space. To increase the mode-share of cycling and walking, we need to design and implement space for it.

But it is equally the policy design that will make the difference. We need to shift the way people think about how we get around.

To achieve what ants do, we need to, if it’s even possible, come up with something to unite our cause. Like some great traffic deity. As I suspect that this will never happen, I suppose we will have to be united through a lack of options. A lack of autonomy, to a certain degree. That’s essentially the role that laws play.

Like (the red herring of) autonomous cars.

If, for example, everyone sat passively in cars that were coordinated by a central traffic-control command centre with a priority on maximizing efficiency, then merging, parking, intersections, speeds, and everything else would be run dispassionately, objectively, and therefore, efficiently. Quite a lot like good public transport, as it happens…

Because that’s not going to happen in the near future, nor will it address the pressing issues of fading resources, what we can do is re-design our streets and how we use them to mimic this as closely as possible.

Street diets. Street diets maximize flow as well as safety by separating the forward movement of traffic from those wishing to divert from it. A little more like freeways. Or ants. They also dedicate more space to cycling and walking, and sometimes even for pursuits that involve staying right where you are (parklets, cafe seating, etc).

Segregated cycle lanes. Motorists don’t have to ruin their whole day by going around cyclists when cyclists and motorists are separated. Not only is this safer, but both parties can get to where they are going with increased efficiency and peace of mind.

By introducing policies that shift the balance of power over to active and public transport, while providing the space and opportunity for people to take advantage of it, we can artificially introduce more ant-like behaviour to the way we get around. We won’t all of a sudden become more generous or consider the bigger, more efficient picture, but at least, through our designed environment, we’ll start to reach the lofty organizational and results-oriented level of an ant.

Ants move as one, and they all benefit from doing so. They support the deficiencies, bringing balance to their travels. By curbing the volume of unnecessary trips made in cars and supporting cycling and walking, we can restore the balance and health of our communities.


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