On Cue for the Holidays: Algorithms to Avoid Queue Aggravations

WPI professor sees math where others see mayhem
November 24, 2015

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As motorists and shoppers gear up for the holiday season, they can expect traffic jams and long lines in the stores and malls.

To help navigate the usual seasonal snarls, WPI math and computer science professor Bill Martin has a simple suggestion which is based on the mathematical concepts of predictive modeling and "Conservation of Flow": "become an optimizer."

To that end, Martin offers the following tips:

Drive predictably – When highways are congested, even the smallest disturbance can have a large-scale ripple effect. Cars driving erratically, changing lanes without warning, or braking for no apparent reason cause others to slow for safety—and then traffic slows to a crawl. While there will always be bad drivers out there, do your part to keep things moving by staying in your lane, merging gracefully and, when safety allows, coasting rather than braking.

Navigate lane closures on highways – When a multi-lane highway narrows to a single lane flanked by a protective jersey barriers drivers tend to proceed very slowly through the single lane (instead of maintaining normal speed), reasoning that further trouble lies ahead. In reality, says Martin, the trouble is over once motorists merge. Drivers who keep their eyes on the road and proceed safely at a faster clip through the bottleneck will free up space for motorists behind them, leading to improved traffic flow.

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Look beyond the center tollbooths – Turnpikes often have a tollbooth tucked on the wings and used primarily by trucks. Many motorists look straight ahead and don’t even see the open lane on the far left or right.

Hunt for the open checkout lines – Shoppers often converge on the same three or four checkout aisles, creating gridlock in the front of the store. Avoid this pack mentality and make a conscious effort to find a less obvious line. Many stores accept regular customers for checkout at the pharmacy or service desk.


"Another bonus of using these models during the holidays is that student travelers can see how their technical problem-solving skills give them an advantage in navigating these crowded situations," said Martin.