Dawdlers and Barriers


The above is an article recommended at Judith Curry’s Climate, Etc site and WUWT.

I don’t expect you to have the time to read this article about scientific knowledge having created so much data that we may never be able to catch up and understand any of it.

But one passage made me want to share it.  Here is the passage:

We therefore stared at tables of numbers until their simple patterns became obvious to us. Johannes Kepler examined the star charts carefully constructed by his boss, Tycho Brahe, until he realized in 1605 that if the planets orbit the Sun in ellipses rather than perfect circles, it all makes simple sense. Three hundred fifty years later, James Watson and Francis Crick stared at x-rays of DNA until they realized that if the molecule were a double helix, the data about the distances among its atoms made simple sense. With these discoveries, the data went from being confoundingly random to revealing an order that we understand: Oh, the orbits are elliptical! Oh, the molecule is a double helix!

With the new database-based science, there is often no moment when the complex becomes simple enough for us to understand it. The model does not reduce to an equation that lets us then throw away the model. You have to run the simulation to see what emerges. For example, a computer model of the movement of people within a confined space who are fleeing from a threat–they are in a panic–shows that putting a column about one meter in front of an exit door, slightly to either side, actually increases the flow of people out the door. Why? There may be a theory or it may simply be an emergent property. We can climb the ladder of complexity from party games to humans with the single intent of getting outside of a burning building, to phenomena with many more people with much more diverse and changing motivations, such as markets. We can model these and perhaps know how they work without understanding them. They are so complex that only our artificial brains can manage the amount of data and the number of interactions involved. [emphasis added]

The bold passage immediately took my brain to traffic.

Traffic?” You are probably asking, right?

In occasional discussions about driving and traffic (a big deal in the Chicago area, I assure you) I have probably heard twenty or thirty people rag on about when there is a barrier in one lane ahead, and “everyone” is getting in the non-barriered lane, forming one long line of courteous people, but then there is one discourteous “bastard” who drives up the almost totally open OTHER lane.  These people get really LIVID about that guy “cheating” by not getting in line like everybody else.  There is more to it even than, “Who does he think he is, anyway?”

Me?  I grew up in an area where people didn’t all get at the back of one line, they formed two roughly equal-length lines, and merged when they got up to the front of each line, up at the barrier.

Which way is best?  I don’t know.

Who is right and who is wrong?  I don’t know.

But let’s discuss it a bit…

I am one of the guys who will get in that other lane and “jump” ahead of the other people.  I don’t always, but for the most part, if it is open, I will cruise carefully up that lane, looking for a moment when one guy is sleep-driving and is slow to move up.  Then, me getting into that lane helps me, but doesn’t hurt most of the people behind, because that guy was going to be slow every time the car ahead pulls up.  I’ve seen times when self-appointed ‘cops’ will actually fudge his/her car over so far as to try to block people coming down that lane.



I started wondering why putting a column one meter in front of the door helps get people out faster.  Or is the model wrong and it is just a GIGO stupid academic excercise?  As much as I don’t like models in general, I think that one is right.

Why?  Let’s look:

  • It “meters” the people.  (no pun intended)
  • Especially only one meter from the door, there is only room for one person through at a time on either side – effectively creating two doors where there was one before
  • Near the column the people have to separate into two groups, a left one and a right one.
  • Then when they merge after going around the column, each pair has time to face each other and merge, with one going behind and the other ahead.
  • Without the column they would be shoulder to shoulder, both facing the door
  • Is it important that the column is slightly to one side?  Probably. But why?
  • Because then one line of people becomes a dominant one and the other a recessive/passive one.
  • This forces the passive line (I assume the one that has to take the longer way around) to FACE the other line of people more head on
  • This view lets them assess slightly longer – and BETTER – and get a better idea of when and how to merge.
  • Certainly the same effect could be had by having a small vestibule one meter deep with two open door frames on the inside wall and one door to the outside.

To me that is a dead parallel to the traffic situation.  And IMHO, it tells me why the courteous single lane approach is not the best means of getting traffic though expeditiously.  The concept that the cars will go faster because they are already all in one line does not necessarily follow.  See below about dawdlers…

Of course, all of that may be b.s on my part, trying to justify my preference as the better way, right?  Right, that may be true.  But maybe there is something there in that study.



Now, as to the barriered lane problem above, the people who get in the single file usually talk about it in terms of being courteous.  Somewhere long ago someone told them – or they concluded on their own – that getting in the back of the line is always what a good citizen does.  They talk about it as if to “jump” the line is to be antisocial.

But my discussion here isn’t about politeness or being a good citizen.  Not unless getting the most people through the intersection soonest is being a good citizen.  So, which gets people through fastest?

A different  illustration (but analogous):

A frequent thing seen on 4-lane roadways is that at a red light, if a delivery truck or semi is sitting in one lane (call it lane B), many more than half the people will get into the other lane (lane A) – even if that lane has more vehicles in it.  Only when Lane A has a lot more cars in it will any drivers get into lane B behind the truck.

I have a rule of thumb.

If I can be in the first FOUR cars AFTER THE FRONT OF THE TRUCK, in lane A, I will go into lane A.  If I can’t, I will get in lane B behind the truck.

Why?  Because almost every time, at least ONE of those 4 cars in front of me in lane B  will dawdle and create a gap ahead of him/her and slow down the people behind.  This often creates an opportunity for someone behind the truck to pull from lane A into lane B.  

I now know from long experience that lane B is best for saving time, if I am going to be five cars in lane A behind the last vehicle in lane B. I KNOW that there is a REALLY good chance of moving into a gap in front of a dawdler in lane A.  But I need to be in lane B to take that opening.  If I am in lane A I am stuck.

Really, now, how many times have you been in lane A and had some dawdler (on his cell phone or not) who just will NOT pass that truck in lane B?  Lots of times, right?  A good number of people who get in a more full lane A are dawdlers.  They aren’t really paying attention, and they see a truck in one lane and they just automatically go in lane A.

Dawdlers are, as I see it, people who drive with their brains on automatic.  Most of my time on the road is spent in negotiating my way around dawdlers.  It doesn’t mean I am an aggressive driver.  It means I am paying attention and some others aren’t, and I prefer they not be in the way.



Now take this to the barrier lane problem.  I KNOW that out of every four people in that non-barriered lane (let’s call it lane B again), one of them will be a dawdler.  Take that times perhaps 15 or 20 cars and that is a lot of dawdlers in one lane, slowing down the people behind them.



The truck in lane B or a barrier in lane B – it is all the same, functionally.

But in people’s minds, it is not the same thing.  When there is a truck in lane B, people think, “I will get into lane A because it will go faster; everyone knows trucks accelerate slower than cars.”  So, they get into the lane that will – they think – move faster.  Makes sense, right?

Yet a barrier they treat differently.  Even though the barrier is not moving at all, which is 100% going to be less acceleration than cars, in THAT situation, the drivers put on a different halo.  In that case, they talk about it as courteous or discourteous.  But it is all in their minds.  It is fine to want to be selfish and get past a slow-moving truck, but it is not okay to  be selfish to get past a barrier.  Huh???

You see, part of the problem is that MANY drivers simply don’t pay enough attention to their driving and do not consider that they may be slowing someone else down.  And the only time they really even SEE what is going on around them is when someone does something unexpected – meaning something ‘non-dawdler.’



One more point:  The people who get in the lane with the barrier are the opposite of dawdlers.  They are people who are actually paying attention and are alert, not daydreaming.  So, even though they get up in the front of that line, they are intent on seeing an opening in front of a dawdler.  A good amount of the time spent in that lane, for people at the back, is spent waiting for the dawdlers to catch up, each inch-worm movement of the line.  Their 1-second or 2-second delay, multiply that times the number of dawdlers. Now multiply that times the number of inchworm movements in a line of backed up traffic in lane A. The delay because one or two alert drivers “jumped the line” is a whole lot less than what the dawdlers are costing the other drivers behind them.  That is my opinion about that.

I just prefer to not be at the mercy of all those dawdlers.

And I think all that has a parallel in the panicked room with the column.  The column turns each of the people into an alert “driver” when they round the column.  They have to (more than people shoulder do) face the other people and are – because of the column – given more time (which works for them!) to gauge when it is best to merge.

I think that the alert drivers jumping the line are nearly ALWAYS doing that, because they know they HAVE to, to merge back into the line.  And the alert non-dawdlers know they will do just fine in that situation, since they’ve done it many time before.

Trust me on this: A major reason the dawdlers don’t go in that lane B – whether it is a truck or a barrier – is because they have a fear that they will not be able to merge back in.  Of course they will be able to – but they have the fear anyway.
Now, I mentioned that I grew up in an area where they FILLED both lanes pretty much equally.  My experience was that equal lines get more people through faster.  But I am remembering that from a long time ago, so maybe I am stroking myself… LOL
When I hear people rant about the line jumpers, I just keep my mouth closed, because I’ve learned that nearly ALL of those who rant about them are dawdlers, as best I can tell.   They are squeamish and hesitant people.  And they are the ones who get an alert driver merging in front of them, into the space the dawdler created.  And what are they crying about?  “If I had to wait in the line, then so should everyone else!”

I just hope that if I am ever in a panicked room, there is a column in front of the door, so that the dawdlers (who I am sure are NOT good in a pinch) don’t get other people killed.

4 responses to “Dawdlers and Barriers

  1. OMG! This has been an ongoing observation and experiment zone for me. Why? Two reasons.

    1. To observe human behavior where one feels a degree of seperation due to an outer shell (vehicle) which reduces a personal accountability factor in one’s actions.

    2. To observe the response of others when one CHOOSES to create a PACE or shall I call PEACE zone.

    When traffic is heavy, I purposely start to PACE, or create enough space between me and vehicles in front of me to reduce braking and start a flow or collaborative dance on the freeway. It amazes me when I look in the rear view mirror and see everyone behind me doing the same thing!!!


  2. Hey, Kimbo!

    Yeah, I’ve done the PEACE thing lots of times, too. I start chanting “Harmony and Smoothness.” And I project it out to the horizon – in all directions. Different words, but very much exactly the same exercise. 🙂

    I swear it works. Rush hour is one time I often forget it, though!

    I had no idea you actually read my blog. I am glad! I have so few comments here.

    I have to post one tomorrow. It is kind of cool, so come back and read it. A synchronicity thing, but also just the subject is cool.

    Gotta hit the hay, now. Nice seein’ ya!


  3. Seems there is a “like-like” thing here. That proximity creates an attractive resonance in most things. It’s a “you think, therefore I am” “you are, therefore I am” thing.

    The Weinberger quote referencing Brahe and Crick point to the scientific method and the relationships of consciousness method — the “line of cars,” the history of observation revealed a whole ‘nother PACE for them. In that Oh! is an essence of proximity with things “seen” and things “known.”

    It’s the Tibetan Mandala and the double helix… still, sequence (time) does count for a whole lot. Gotta drive the car over the bridge…

  4. “Gotta drive the car over the bridge”…

    Hmmm – That makes me wonder if there is a better way to get cars over a bridge, something like the post in front of the door. I live west of a river with Chicago and most of the jobs east of the river. The few river crossings are pretty big log jams come rush hour – making rush hour much longer than an hour, I assure you. One town has a crush from 3:00 till 7:30 or later. (And the funny thing is that they are going to build what they call a ‘bypass’ that will not actually bypass but feed the traffic more efficiently – right into the center of the logjam. Doh! How DUMB can you get?)

    But suppose this post thing works for people on foot. Can it be made to work for cars? What would happen if we built a 4-lane road with a merge, and we had two features – a post/barrier very close to the merge, and signs telling drivers to fill up both lanes equally?

    If we built the post area so that the two drivers could see each other more head-on and be able to cooperatively decide which goes first, would they do it more efficiently than current designs, ones in which merging was with them parallel and not able to SEE each other directly, only see them peripherally?

    This is actually something that could be studied and a paper done.

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