Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The (Murphy's) Law of Convergence

Traffic patterns are an interesting thing. And interesting especially to observe on quiet country roads, where each encounter - rare as it is - stands out as an act of vehicular drama.

One curious phenomenon I've noticed, is what my friends and I have come to refer to as the Law of Convergence.

See if you've ever encountered something akin to the following:

It's a quiet day. I am cycling along a lovely, gently winding country road. I have not seen another vehicle for miles.

Along this empty road I pedal and pedal, till I finally notice something ahead: There is a delivery van pulled over on the side of the road in the opposite lane. The road has no shoulder, so the van takes up a good part of the actual traffic lane. Which affects me not at all, since it's the opposite side of the road. I keep riding.

Just then I spot something else up ahead. Another cyclist! I can just make out their figure in the distance, heading toward me in the opposite lane beyond where the van is parked.


As I squint at the cyclist to see whether I might recognise them, I then see yet another thing in the distance. It's just a dot on the horizon, in the opposite lane, beyond the parked van and beyond the approaching cyclist. An approaching car.

I can just about make out its shape, when I hear a faint sound behind me. I realise it's another car. Oh boy - we have gone from an empty road to a rural party in no time!

As I keep pedaling, the noise of the car behind me gets louder. The cyclist coming toward me grows more visible, as does the car behind the cyclist. And just as I am nearing that van on the side of the road in the opposite lane, it begins to dawn on me what's about to happen: We are all approaching that parked van at exactly the same time!

That is to say, the car behind me is going to catch up with me at the same moment as the car in the opposite lane is going to catch up with the cyclist pedaling toward me... the pairs of us will then intercept each other right in front of the parked van!

As I realise this, I try to take measures to avoid the bottleneck. I attempt to slow, so that the car behind me can pass me before we both reach the van at least. In fact it seems as if all four of us are now modulating our speeds to try to avoid all crossing paths at the same time. But it's almost as if these efforts only serve to enhance the inevitable. Here I am in front of the van now, face to face with the approaching cyclist, while the two cars have slowed to a crawl behind us, neither able to overtake.

In the end, we handle it all politely of course. Both cars stop completely, while me and the other cyclist proceed, crossing paths in front of the van. Then the car behind me lets the car in the opposite lane go first (they can't both fit with the van blocking part of the road). And finally, having passed the van, I am overtaken by the car that had followed behind me... after which the road remains empty again for miles.

Granted I am not great at explaining these types of scenarios. But I hope my highly technical drawing above was of help.

Now my question is this: How does it happen that 4 lone vehicles, traveling down an empty road, happen to cross paths not only at exactly the same time, but also in front of the only obstacle on an otherwise unobstructed swathe of land?!

I would dismiss it as a coincidence, except that it's happened on more that a few occasions. And I think the cause is a type of target fixation. With the presence of others being so rare on the empty road, all parties involved will naturally have a heightened awareness of each other, as well as of the stationary vehicle. Ironically, this awareness might unconsciously compel them to "gather" even as they try to avoid a bottleneck.

It's inherently a social instinct. And a rather endearing situation to find myself taking part in. We complain about congestion ...yet go out of our way to seek it out, when deprived of it entirely.


29 comments:

  1. Are they mice, or rabbits, riding the bicycles?

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  2. I absolutely agree with this experience which seems to happen far more often than seems natural and I've often wondered. Why?

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  3. Just curious... are the drivers in this parallel universe also rabbits?

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  4. This really speaks to me. I have experienced situations similar to this many times and wondered about it. I even stopped leaving my house in one direction because it became so predictable when leaving my house down a small Lane, as I approached the first intersection in the dark very early in the morning, there would invariably be a pedestrian just about to cross my path. Everywhere else would be totally quiet no traffic and no one around but at that precise moment I could almost be certain someone would step out in front of me alone or with their dog. Starats

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  5. In my part of the world, both drivers would accelerate and try to squeeze through at the same time -like a game of chicken- and the cyclists be damned. :-(

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    1. No, the sort of driving i describe is the norm here in the USA, but judging from what i've read, OZ, especially NSW, is pretty much becoming a cyclists' Hell.

      .

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  6. Happens to me all the time. Not in a setting you described but simply on the Minuteman Bikeway. I approach someone walking or a slower cyclist while at the same time there is a cyclist coming from the opposite direction. I try to pass the slower person while the cyclist form the opposite side tries to squeeze in. Yes, there is a 99% chance three of us meet in one point on the narrow bikeway.

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  7. I've felt THE EXACT SAME THING!

    You can be 10 miles from nowhere in the middle of the night, riding along minding your own business with a sackful of Cutlery and "Estate Goods" over your shoulder, and suddenly realize you're about to have one of those potentially difficult meetings with a Neighbor or Constable on one of our narrow winding roads. I hate to create a situation where we might inconvenience each other unnecessarily and so ALWAYS do the right thing and scamper off into the shadows in such a manner as to prevent them seeing me and having to feel awkward in the way you decribe. It's really the only course open to a considerate person in those circumstances so I try to be ready to do just that at any moment, since, like you say, those situations can be uncomfortable for everyone...

    Spindizzy



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  8. Similar natural law applies here in Scotland, motorists only catch cyclists at points in the road where there is insufficient clear view to pass. This is Sod's Law...

    Sadly an ever increasing number of drivers have not ridden bicycles in their youth and have no idea how to deal with us on the road.

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  9. This happens all the time on a local multi use trail that I use. I call it the "Triple Bi-Pass"

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  10. Pottinger's Law: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/hometruths/pottingerisms.shtml, so often experienced by cyclists all over the world.
    I think our favourite experience was the time we'd been riding for about 4 hours on a rail trail in Canada without seeing a soul. The moment we parked the bikes at the side of the trail for a lunch stop, 6 ATVs appeared, three from each direction. Wishing, of course, to pass each other at the exact point where we'd parked the bikes 😏 For remaining time on the trail, needless to state, we met no-one.

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  11. Happens all the time. In my experience often involves a dog walker, a family of erratic cyclists (including toddlers on training wheels) and an approaching Fred or two. "Law of Convergence" is good, better than my "Law of Coincident Obstructions".

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  12. Oh, yes. This has happened to me many times, but without the parked van — three distant entities all arrive at the same spot at the same time. One memorable time it was a bike (with me on it), a car, and a large truck; another time it was a car (with me in it), a large truck, and a couple of deer. Years ago I read a story in a cycling publication that identified this phenomenon as a corollary of Murphy’s Law and provided a name for it. I’ve since been unable to find that corollary, but found a few while searching for it that cyclists might appreciate:

    Andrews's Canoeing Postulate: No matter which direction you start it's always against the wind coming back.

    Bicycle Law: All bicycles weigh 50 pounds:
    • A 30-pound bicycle needs a 20-pound lock and chain.
    • A 40-pound bicycle needs a 10-pound lock and chain.
    • A 50-pound bicycle needs no lock or chain.

    One that might address your issue:

    Titanic Coincidence: Most accidents in well-designed systems involve two or more events of low probability occurring in the worst possible combination.

    There are many more here: http://bluebox.ippt.pan.pl/~vkoval/vk_files/funny/Murphy.pdf

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    1. I occasionally used to read the professional pilots rumour network, PPRUNE. They use an analogy of Swiss cheese in safety systems.

      That is, each system is like a slice of Swiss cheese - mostly "solid" but with some holes in it. For safety, there are multiple slices of cheese used. Accidents only happen in those rare occasions when the holes line up through several slices of cheese.

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  13. ....yes! some type of cosmic adhesion of matter and that's how the universe started, right?
    Plus, your illustration made a lot more sense when i realized i ride on the other side of the road. Thanks

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    1. What makes you so sure? They could all just be backing up.

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  14. This can be such an aggravation, in my experience there are two common scenarios, one occurs right at the point of leaving my residence; I live in a small, quiet street, however at the precise moment in which I am about to enter it on my bike, apparently every motorist in the vicinity and beyond decides that this is the place to be, cars coming from all directions and out of every driveway. The second situation is the most puzzling and infuriating, there is a rather large car park which I pass on my daily travels, during the week it is crowded with cars but on the weekend it is not used - except when I decide to ride through it; as I enter the car park, from the extreme opposite side a car will enter, which should not be an issue as there are about a thousand parking spaces, but I can be certain that no matter where I ride in that car park, the lone motorist will track directly to wherever I happen to be.

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  15. I've never known a road to be empty. Encounters happen and those are the ones we remember. It's that simple.

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  16. I've thrown caution to the wind, as here we have elected a spiteful impulsive 9 yr. old, with the nuke code...or, as Jim Morrison said,"I'm gonna have my fun, before the whole Sh..house comes down".Have a Nice Day.

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  17. I haven't had the experience described above, but I am intrigued about the country roads being gently winding. Are they windy because of topography?

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  18. This happens to me on almost every commute, riding along on the right side of the road, no traffic, car parked up ahead and don't you know as soon as I need to move Left to go around it a car suddenly arrives behind me! Hrumppp

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  19. Something similar happens to me once in a while on my commute. There's a road near my house where there's almost always a car parked in the street in front of a house. I have to ride past it in order to get where I'm going without using a massive detour. Once in a while, there will be a car driving the opposite way just as I pass the parked car, but it doesn't happen with anywhere close to the frequency that you describe.

    Around here, what should happen is that the driver with the obstruction is required to yield the right of way to the person with the clear road, and the vehicle operator with the obstructed road may proceed only "when it is safe to do so" (fun fact: that phrase probably comprises about 10% of the driver's ed manual around here). I practice that policy whenever the situation arises, and whether I'm on two wheels or four. Unfortunately, what often happens is that both vehicles tend to squeeze through at the same time, which rarely works.

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  20. I can completely relate to this situation. I always try to imagine the odds of this happening and then wonder what the same odds would be of this occurring, if we had tried to plan it down to the last second...which I am convinced would take many repeat efforts to get right ;-)

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  21. This happens all the time to me, both on roads and on paved trails with joggers/walkers/people pushing baby carriages. Its gotten to the point where if I see someone ahead of me and there's some obstacle they are going to pass (a narrowing of the path), I know someone will be coming the opposite direction so I just plan on waiting behind them until it is clear to pass. I have yet to be proved wrong. I find this quite odd.

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  22. I've wondered about this also. While I like the notion that there is some cosmic force drawing humans together I have come up with a more rational explanation.
    Say I'm riding along and I see a car approaching form the opposite direction; if a car arrives from behind then the driver will see (hopefully) me on my bicycle and accelerate a little to pass me before the arrival of the other car. As the majority of drivers are not terribly proficient at judging either distance, or their car's acceleration the driver realises that they cannot pass in time and, all 3 vehicles converge simultaneously.

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  23. I've always chalked this up to either the competitive or sheep like nature of humans combined with the sense of entitlement drivers have. Drivers seem to be incapable of having someone in front of them without being right up there arse or attempting to pass that someone. Drivers need to slow Down, hang back, and take a minute to think about these situations arising when they see a cyclist. But God forbid drivers are inconvenienced by having to be considerate of other road users.

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