Whenever there’s a big storm like yesterday’s that shuts down traffic in the area, I think about James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of the Crowds. In it, Surowiecki attempts to describe how groups of people can work together well and arrive at very precise solutions to problems, and why they often don’t. The basic problem with traffic jams is that there’s no way for people to share information easily. If a certain road is blocked (and this probably isn’t relevant for giant snowstorms when every road is blocked) there’s often no way to know not to go near that road until you’re stuck on it. The ideal solution would be one in which a large proportion of cars on the road all used GPS units for directions which could report instantly on traffic issues. If cars in one area weren’t moving, those cars’ GPS computers could tell others cars in the area to take alternate routes until the congestion cleared, spreading the traffic out to other routes that made the most sense for where that particular driver was going.

The Washington Post writes today about a system that does this sort of thing.