So slime mold, which is a fungus-like single-celled organism, has a tendency to build highly optimized networks across its food sources. In other words, if you scattered a bunch of food on a surface and then dropped in some slime mold, it would naturally create an interconnected web of linked veins across this surface. And this web would be based on the shortest and most efficient paths of travel between the various food sources.
I am mentioning this odd factoid because ten years ago researchers in Tokyo used this naturally occurring phenomenon for the purposes of trying to improve transportation planning. What they did was map out greater Tokyo. They then placed oat flakes (i.e. food) in spots that correspond to the various cities and urban centers that surround the city. Alongside this, they blocked off the areas where transportation networks do not typically run, such as through mountains and into the water. They then dropped in some slime mold, wet the surface, and watched it grow.
What they found was that the resulting network was remarkably similar to Tokyo’s actual rail network. The slime mold had found the most efficient routes, eliminated redundancies, and generally discovered the optimal way in which to connect its food sources. And if you think about it, this is basically what transit networks are supposed to do. They should connect clusters of people in the most efficient way possible.
It has been a decade since this slime mold transportation discovery was first publicized, and it would seem that it hasn’t really caught on as an invaluable planning tool. So I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that we should take out a map of every major city in the world, plot its population centers, drop down some oat flakes, and then let slime mold tell us all the ways in which we are screwing up and over-politicizing our transportation planning efforts.
Thank you to Angus Knowles for making me aware of this study. Angus writes an occasional newsletter about cities and housing, over here.