Scientist proves Braess paradox 'disappears' under high traffic demands

Sep 14, 2010 By Lisa Zyga feature
A new study shows that, under high enough traffic, an additional route will not increase traffic times because the route will not be used. Image credit: The Infrastructurist.

( -- In an urban area with a lot of traffic, adding a new road to distribute the traffic may seem like a sensible idea. But according to the Braess paradox, just the opposite occurs: a new route added in a transportation network increases the travel times of all individual travelers. Formulated in 1968 by Dietrich Braess, the paradox is not a true paradox, but rather a counter-intuitive finding regarding an everyday situation.

However, in the past few years, scientists have reanalyzed the Braess paradox and found that it stops occurring as the demand for travel increases. Scientists have hypothesized that, under higher demands, the new route is no longer used due to a “wisdom of crowds” effect.

Now, for the first time, Anna Nagurney, the John F. Smith Memorial Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has proven this . She has derived a formula that shows that an increase in demand guarantees that the new route will not be used and will no longer increase travel times. In other words, the Braess paradox holds only for a specific range of demand.

Although the Braess paradox itself is counter-intuitive, this negation of the paradox under higher demands is also counter-intuitive. As Nagurney explained, one would expect that, at a higher level of demand, the network should get more congested and so more of the routes should be used.

Perhaps the result can be explained by an underlying “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon, Nagurney suggested. There are generally thought to be two types of travel behavior: user-optimizing behavior, in which travelers select their optimal routes of travel individually, and system-optimizing behavior, in which a central controller directs traffic. The Braess paradox and its negation occur only for user-optimizing behavior, which is generally characterized as “selfish.” But taken together, the user-optimizing behaviors of a large enough group may somehow optimize the travel times of all users.

“I would say that a certain 'tipping point' has been reached because of the high travel demand at which the traffic flows on certain roads (because of the network design and topology) add so much to travel time that commuters, over time, learn to switch their paths/routes of travel, and where the Braess paradox may have occurred, is then negated,” Nagurney told “Such a wisdom of crowds phenomenon has been observed by commuters -- at higher travel demands certain crossroads may be essentially empty of .”

As Nagurney explained, the opposite is also known to be true: under sufficiently low levels of demand, the Braess paradox no longer holds.

“There have been studies as to what happens at very low levels of demand (when a potentially troubling new route) is added,” said Nagurney, who contributed to earlier studies on this subject. “The new road in the original Braess problem was actually attractive, under low levels of demand, and all the travelers, acting selfishly, switched from their original routes, to the new road (and no Braess paradox occurred at this low level of demand). Such switching resulted in a reduced travel time for all travelers. Only the new route was used and the original routes were abandoned. Informally, I have seen this happen during my commutes to the University when I see my colleagues and myself alter our routes based upon the time of day and the congestion.”

The new formula is applicable to any network in which the Braess paradox originally occurs, from transportation networks to electric grids and the Internet. Since Braess first proposed the paradox more than 40 years ago, many major cities have used it to make policy decisions on road closures, including Seoul, Korea; Stuttgart, Germany; and New York City.

In a sense, the negation of the paradox actually adds to the paradox's original conclusions: when designing transportation networks (and other kinds of networks), extreme caution should be used in adding new routes, since at worst the new routes will slow travelers down, and at best, the new routes won't even be used.

“Improvement of infrastructure has become a priority in the United States as well as in other developed and developing countries,” Nagurney said. “As investments are made in our roads, in our rail and air networks, the electric power grid, and even the Internet, it is important to analyze not only the old and the proposed network topologies, but also the demands, the underlying congestion-dependent costs, and the behaviors of the users of the networks so that these investments are made wisely.”

Explore further: And so they beat on, flagella against the cantilever

More information: A. Nagurney. “The negation of the Braess paradox as demand increases: The wisdom of crowds in transportation networks.” Europhysics Letters, 91 (2010) 48002. DOI:10.1209/0295-5075/91/48002

3.9 /5 (26 votes)

Related Stories

Physicists resolve a paradox of quantum theory

Jan 14, 2009

University of Toronto quantum physicists Jeff Lundeen and Aephraim Steinberg have shown that Hardy's paradox, a proposal that has confounded physicists for over a decade, can be confirmed and ultimately resolved, a task which ...

In Twin Paradox Twist, the Accelerated Twin is Older

Jun 09, 2009

Just when you thought you were beginning to understand the twin paradox (maybe), scientists have found something new to ponder. In the original version of the famous thought experiment on time dilation, one ...

Recommended for you

And so they beat on, flagella against the cantilever

Sep 16, 2014

A team of researchers at Boston University and Stanford University School of Medicine has developed a new model to study the motion patterns of bacteria in real time and to determine how these motions relate ...

Tandem microwave destroys hazmat, disinfects

Sep 16, 2014

Dangerous materials can be destroyed, bacteria spores can be disinfected, and information can be collected that reveals the country of origin of radiological isotopes - all of this due to a commercial microwave ...

Cornell theorists continue the search for supersymmetry

Sep 16, 2014

( —It was a breakthrough with profound implications for the world as we know it: the Higgs boson, the elementary particle that gives all other particles their mass, discovered at the Large Hadron ...

How did evolution optimize circadian clocks?

Sep 12, 2014

( —From cyanobacteria to humans, many terrestrial species have acquired circadian rhythms that adapt to sunlight in order to increase survival rates. Studies have shown that the circadian clocks ...

User comments : 14

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4.3 / 5 (6) Sep 14, 2010
There's more factors than simply travel time in play.

On highly congested roads, switching lanes, finding and getting to exists, shorter distances between cars, agressive behaviour, constant stop&go and so forth all increase the stress for the driver, who may opt for the slower but less congested route because it's more pleasant to drive.

5 / 5 (1) Sep 14, 2010
^YES! This seems like more of a problem for psychology than comp sci.
not rated yet Sep 14, 2010
/^NO! Not for an electric grid or telephone network, therefore not for any Braess Paradox problem (?).
3 / 5 (2) Sep 14, 2010
Alas! :-( It costs $30. Too much for us poor students whose library is out of money to purchase subscriptions.
2.5 / 5 (2) Sep 14, 2010
Publish the paper on your home page please. Who needs the validation of a peer reviewed journal anymore ?
If it's that brilliant, it'll survive the crunch of internet criticism. If it's rubbish it'll perish.
2 / 5 (1) Sep 15, 2010
Alas! :-( It costs $30. Too much for us poor students whose library is out of money to purchase subscriptions.

Why would you ever pay for a subscription or buy a virtual item when they are free? You can wait a few moments for a highly speculative piece of research to filter out to the free domains can't you?
5 / 5 (3) Sep 15, 2010
So lets see if I have it right
The Braess theory was that new routes don't work because no one uses them,
Scientists reanalyzed and said that once traffic is really high then the new route would be a good thing,
Now Anna Nagurney has proven the "scientists" theory that the new road would be used. but the article says that "She has derived a formula that shows that an increase in demand guarantees that the new route will not be used" So it won't be used?
Is it the article or have I been staring at the screen for too long to capture the intent of this post.
not rated yet Sep 19, 2010
So instead of adding new routes, add more lanes to the overcrowded route.
not rated yet Sep 19, 2010
So instead of adding new routes, add more lanes to the overcrowded route

OK, as long as they are bicycle lanes!
not rated yet Sep 19, 2010
If people can't figure out which routes to use, they need to be instructed. Just rig the GPS systems to guide people into the extra routes when the others are congested.
not rated yet Sep 21, 2010
The Braess theory was that new routes don't work because no one uses them


Just rig the GPS systems to guide people into the extra routes when the others are congested.

you need (1) a terrestrial radio system with accurate and timely traffic data and (2) intelligent navigation gadgets able to dynamically choose the best route according to geodata (maps), traffic data and position data (computed using GPS).

(2) is already done. what about (1)?

while examples for Braess paradox are not difficult to understand and the paradox itself stems from the selfishness of individual drivers, "Braess paradox not happening" is a bit harder to chew. I wonder...
5 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2010
Avoid all work schedules that put you into a '9 to 5' position.

Meaning, avoid the herd mentality, and herd life.

Go to the root of the problem.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 24, 2010

Meaning, avoid the herd mentality, and herd life.

I did. It sucks. It means you're alone because everyone else is working when you have free time, and you're working when they have free time.
not rated yet Sep 24, 2010
Wikipedia's description of Braess's paradox includes 'can in some cases' (reduce overall performance), which makes more sense, otherwise the optimal road network would be a single road.