Anomalous Diffusion and the Structure of Human Transportation Networks

The dispersal of individuals of a species is the key driving force of various spatiotemporal phenomena which occur on geographical scales. It can synchronise populations of interacting species, stabilise them, and diversify gene pools [1–3]. The geographic spread of human infectious diseases such as influenza, measles and the recent severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is essentially promoted by human travel which occurs on many length scales and is sustained by a variety of means of transportation [4–8]. In the light of increasing international trade, intensified human traffic, and an imminent influenza A pandemic the knowledge of dynamical and statistical properties of human dispersal is of fundamental importance and acute [7,9,10]. A quantitative statistical theory for human travel and concomitant reliable forecasts would substantially improve and extend existing prevention strategies. Despite its crucial role, a quantitative assessment of human dispersal remains elusive and the opinion that humans disperse diffusively still prevails in many models [11]. In this chapter I will report on a recently developed technique which permits a solid and quantitative assessment of human dispersal on geographical scales [12]. The key idea is to infer the statistical properties of human travel by analysing the geographic circulation of individual bank notes for which comprehensive datasets are collected at the online bill-tracking website www.wheresgeorge.com. The analysis shows that the distribution of travelling distances decays as a power law, indicating that the movement of bank notes is reminiscent of superdiffusive, scale free random walks known as L`evy flights [13]. Secondly, the probability of remaining in a small, spatially confined region for a time T is dominated by heavy tails which attenuate superdiffusive dispersal. I will show that the dispersal of bank notes can be described on many spatiotemporal scales by a two parameter continuous time random walk (CTRW) model to a surprising accuracy. To this end, I will provide a brief introduction to continuous time random walk theory [14] and will show that human dispersal is an ambivalent, effectively superdiffusive process.