What COVID-19 can teach about preventing traffic congestion

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Traffic congestion and COVID-19 - two topics that seem unrelated, but most people want to avoid both.

But the spread of the virus can actually shed some light on how to prevent traffic congestion, according to University of Houston transportation policy professor Maria Burns.

Burns said coronavirus disease spread models might be able to help find a cure for traffic congestion, using the concept of density.

"Density is used to measure the level of a virus infection and the level of congestion in a city," Professor Burns explained.

Think of a city - and traffic - as a living organism, she said. If a freeway system doesn't function well, it is vulnerable to traffic congestion, in the same way a person with underlying conditions is vulnerable to the virus.

Burns concluded that there's at least one remedy that can help deter traffic and COVID-19 - working from home. It keeps cars off the road and encourages distancing, which keeps the virus from spreading.

"Because of the virus, many people are working remotely, so we are going to have the capability of eliminating congestion exactly because we don't have to commute as much," she explained.

Burns also noted that Houston's freeway system resembles the molecular structure of a virus - a circular loop structure with spokes sticking out. According to her, noting these comparisons will help traffic engineers find a cure for gridlock.

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