CS Column 1: Emergence

Emerging chaos: The rules of Vietnamese traffic

When I took this picture in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I was awe-struck by the chaotic traffic. Dozens of “motobikes” buzz down the streets, seemingly not paying any attention to traffic lanes and rules, oncoming traffic or anything in their vicinity. Cars move through the thick clouds of bikes, and some brave souls even pedal their bicycles straight through it.

For an outsider such as myself, it initially looked like a totally random and chaotic event. Did these people just hope for the best when they were driving through their city? It was obvious all of this chaos would have to work out one way or another. Eventually – I assumed – everyone got where they were going. But how?

Soon I learned there is in fact a systematic at play, and there are plenty of unwritten rules involved in the apparent chaos. You learn this with the one confrontation you cannot avoid: crossing a road on foot (a very intimidating undertaking at first). The basic rule is simple: keep on moving – as long as you do, people manage to anticipate your path and will make sure not crash into you. The next step is that of total immersion: hop on a bike and jump right into traffic.

Once you participate, you realize how simple it actually works. It felt like I was part of a flock – all neighboring motomen adjusted and maintained their speed based on mine and that of the other drivers directly around us. This was not at all obvious when I was observing the traffic from the sidewalk. Eventually I didn’t even worry about horrible fatal accidents anymore, a theme predominantly on my mind when I was only watching the traffic…

Even if it looks simple when you’re in traffic, there is still speeding and overtaking, not everyone is heading to the same destination, so people are constantly moving in and out of the flock. The same principle however applies: when you take a turn, all is fine as long as your movement is fluid. It’s not the turn signals that will save you here: clear and predictable movement will.

What at first seemed totally unnatural to me started feeling more natural, and eventually made sense to me. But it only started to make real sense once I was back home and started reading about swarm intelligence and flocking behavior. The same three rules flocking behavior dictates seem to apply in Vietnamese traffic: separation (avoiding neighbors), alignment (keeping roughly the same direction) and cohesion (sticking together). These simple rules are all you need to create a realistic computer model of a flock of birds, and indeed it’s also all you need to create what seems to be ordered chaos on the roads of a Vietnamese city – I followed the same rules when driving through Ho Chi Minh City on my rental motobike.

As a matter of fact, when I came back home I had to re-adjust to the way traffic works in Holland. Traffic lights, zebra crossings, and the rules of the road were deciding for me where I was going. The Vietnamese traffic which at first seemed unnatural, chaotic and most of all very scary, eventually felt natural, ordered and elegant in its simplicity.

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