The ergodic theory of traffic jams

Lawrence Gray, David Griffeath

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


We introduce and analyze a simple probabilistic cellular automaton which emulates the flow of cars along a highway. Our Traffic CA captures the essential features of several more complicated algorithms, studied numerically by K. Nagel and others over the past decade as prototypes for the emergence of traffic jams. By simplifying the dynamics, we are able to identify and precisely formulate the self-organized critical evolution of our system. We focus here on the Cruise Control case, in which well-spaced cars move deterministically at maximal speed, and we obtain rigorous results for several special cases. Then we introduce a symmetry assumption that leads to a two-parameter model, described in terms of acceleration (α) and braking (β) probabilities. Based on the results of simulations, we map out the (α, β) phase diagram, identifying three qualitatively distinct varieties of traffic which arise, and we derive rigorous bounds to establish the existence of a phase transition from free flow to jams. Many other results and conjectures are presented. From a mathematical perspective, Traffic CA provides local, particle-conserving, one-dimensional dynamics which cluster, and converge to a mixture of two distinct equilibria.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)413-452
Number of pages40
JournalJournal of Statistical Physics
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Nov 1 2001


  • Conservative flow
  • Ergodic
  • Interacting particle system
  • Phase separation
  • Traffic jam

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