Phenomena

Traffic Fluid Dynamics

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What does traffic have to do with fluid dynamics? Rather a lot, actually! Many parallels exist between traffic and compressible fluid flow. One such example, the concept of a shock wave, is demonstrated in the video above. As the traffic jam develops, the cars experience sudden changes in their velocity and relative distance (in a fluid, this would be density). This change travels backward through the traffic in the form of a shockwave, just the same as discontinuous changes in a fluid.

Road construction provides another common example of compressible-flow-like behavior in cars.  For an incompressible fluid like water, reducing the area of a pipe would increase the velocity, but just the opposite happens when a road is reduced from two lanes to one.  Traffic slows down and clumps together. When the road opens back up from one lane to two, suddenly the speed and the distance between cars increases. This is exactly what happens in a rocket nozzle–it’s the expanding bell-like shape that causes air to accelerate supersonically. (Video credit: New Scientist)

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