What can scientific models tell us about the world?

Unavoidable Attraction

Posted in Statistics, Transportation by Alexander Lobkovsky Meitiv on March 2, 2010

Gridlock

When traffic is heavy, buses tend to form hard to breakup bunches.

Everyone who rides buses in a city is familiar with the dreaded “bus bunching” phenomenon. Especially during rush hour, buses tend to arrive in bunches of two, three or even more. Why is that?

To begin understanding this phenomenon we must first assimilate the notion of fluctuations. The bus’s progress along the route, though ideally on schedule, in practice is not. At each stop there is a difference between the actual and the scheduled arrival time. The nature of the fluctuations is such that this difference tends to grow along the route of the bus. In technical terms, the bus’s trajectory is called a directed random walk. There are several sources of the fluctuations: stop lights, variation in the number of passengers to be picked up and discharged and, of course, traffic.

When fluctuations are strong, and/or, the buses are frequent, it is unavoidable that consecutive buses find themselves at the same bus stop. What happens afterwards is less clear cut. It seems that it is virtually impossible for the buses to separate again. From that point on the two (or more) buses travel in a bunch. The average speed of a bus bunch is frequently greater than that of an isolated bus and therefore bunches tend to overtake and absorb buses that are ahead.

Let’s try to come up with a plausible explanation for the two observed phenomena: Why do bus bunches not break up naturally? Why is the average speed of the bunch different from the average speed of an isolated bus?

Let’s tackle the questions one at a time. When don’t bunches break up? There could be several reasons. Without real field data, I am afraid, we won’t be able to say for certain which factor is the most important.

Possible reason #1: Excluded volume interactions. Analogy with colloids.

Colloids are suspensions of small solid particles in a fluid. It is a well know phenomenon, readily reproducible in a lab, that when you combine colloidal particles of two substantially different sizes, they tend to separate even if the particles themselves are not attracted to each other. It may be counterintuitive, but the system can increase its entropy by separating particles by size. Once a small particle escapes from the aggregate of large particles, it is extremely unlikely to make it back there.

The same size separation might happen in traffic, although likely for different reasons. How much do you like being sandwiched between a bus and a dump truck? You try to get the hell out of there at the first opportunity.

So spaces between traveling buses may be unlikely to be filled up with cars. In a sense, there is an effective attraction between buses cased by the car’s avoidance of the space between them.

One would certainly need data to support or reject the excluded volume hypothesis of bus attraction.

Possible reason #2: Correlation between the number of waiting passengers and the distance to the nearest bus ahead.

Now this idea is something we could sink our teeth into. Suppose that the gap between two buses shrinks due to a random fluctuation of unspecified nature. Then, the mean number of passengers waiting for the second bus, which is proportional to the wait time (if the passengers arrive at the bus stop at a fixed rate), also decreases. Therefore the second bus will spend less time picking up passengers, it’s mean velocity will therefore increase and it will catch up with the bus ahead. We can therefore say that the state with evenly spaced buses along the route is unstable to collapse.

This idea can be formalized in the following simple toy model.

Suppose there is a circular route with equidistant stops (a linear route is really circular if the buses turn around at the end of the route and go back immediately). Initially a number of buses are uniformly distributed along the route. Passengers arrive at all bus stops at a fixed rate. The time a bus spends at a stop is proportional to the number of passengers waiting there.

Passenger discharge can be included in the model. However it does not qualitatively affect the results.

There are two important parameters in this model: 1) the product of the travel time between stops and the rate of passenger arrival. This parameter determines whether the bus spends most of its time traveling or picking up passengers. 2) The ratio of the number of stops to the number of buses.

It turns out that if the first parameter is large (most time is spent traveling) or the second parameter is small (there are lots of buses), bunching does not occur.

However, as illustrated in the figure below, there is a realistic parameter range in which bunching does occur and bunches have no chance to break up. In the figure below (which presents the output of the simple model above), the three buses were initially well spaced. Eventually, buses 1 and 2 form a bunch which catches up to bus 3.

Once the bunch of two buses is formed, the buses leapfrog each other and pick up passengers at alternating stops. Here is therefore the answer to our second question why bunches travel faster: each bus only has to accelerate/decelerate less frequently since they only stop at every other stop. Hence the average speed is greater.

It would be fun to go out there and time some bus arrivals to see if they can be well described by the model. Any takers?

Graph illustrating the bunch formation

Correlation between the space between buses and the number of waiting passengers results in the bunching behavior.

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6 Responses

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  1. Dan H said, on March 2, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    The system can get a bit more complex because there are times that the buses do separate. The two factors that make this happen are an uneven distribution of stops where people are getting picked up or dropped off.

    For example, let’s say there’s a commuter line where most people are picked up in the first 3 miles of stops and dropped off during the following 3 miles. If there is a long period without a bus, then large crowds build at the pick-up stops. The first bus gets over-full as the 2nd bus catches up. The closer they get, the fewer people are left to board the second bus. If the 2nd bus stays behind the first until the end of the cluster of pick-up stops, then it will spend the rest of the trip making much fewer stops dropping off people and less time getting people off. Thus the second bus can get reasonably ahead.

    I’ve seen this happen multiple times and I’ve also seen this happen imperfectly where the 2nd bus passes a bit earlier and makes one large pickup. That allows it to stay in the lead, but the buses remain within a couple of minutes of each other.

    • Alexander Lobkovsky Meitiv said, on March 2, 2010 at 10:07 pm

      Yes, buses can separate. Even in my overly simplistic model there is a parameter range in which the bunches can break up. I can imagine multiple scenarios for the break up.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. [...] just stumbled across a blog post of a friend of mine from graduate school, Alex Lobkovsky. In it, he discusses precisely this [...]

  3. [...] just stumbled across a blog post of a friend of mine from graduate school, Alex Lobkovsky. In it, he discusses precisely this [...]

  4. Sean said, on March 6, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    Alex –

    Interesting; I’ve often been fascinated by phenomena like this, and your explanations are intriguing. I particularly like that you pointed out that a key dynamic in bunching in reason #2 is the presumably constant rate of accumulation of new passengers.

    Another, unstated assumption, is that bus drivers stay at their stops only as long as necessary to board new passengers, and in this I think we have a clue to a simple fix that would avoid bunching and therefore increase the efficiency of the entire system.

    Let’s assume that a smooth route allots 30 seconds immobile time for each stop. There will always be times when there are too many passengers, a bus needs to stay longer, and will therefore fall behind.

    But there’s no reason a bus necessarily needs to leave the first moment available. They could wait for 30 seconds, even if boarding no-one (who’s not to say someone isn’t running for the bus?), thus avoiding clumping and decreasing passengers’ average wait time.

  5. Alexander Lobkovsky Meitiv said, on March 12, 2010 at 10:50 am

    Sean,
    Thanks for your comment. I looked into this and that is indeed how the schedule is set. They measure the mean travel time between stops and the standard deviation and set the scheduled travel at the mean plus at least one standard deviation. If the bus happens to run ahead of schedule, they are supposed to wait at a stop to get back on schedule. They even have a card (I saw it sitting on the dashboard once or twice) that tells the driver what to say in this situation. In reality, many drivers don’t like waiting at stops and never do. This leads to buses passing stops ahead of schedule — I have missed many a bus that way…


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