Monday, April 29, 2013

A zippy thing

Driving in Minnesota is always, ahem, interesting. And there are a lot of habits that are difficult to change:
The zipper merge is aimed at curbing such behaviors as queue jumping, in which drivers move from the slower lane into the faster lane and then back to the slow lane closer to the merge point. It’s also aimed at preventing motorists who are in the faster lane from stopping abruptly and forcing their way into traffic. Some play “self-appointed trooper” and straddle the lanes so others can’t pass by. Motorists who impede traffic can be ticketed, said Lt. Eric Roeske of the State Patrol.
I see all these behaviors several days of the week on my commute, which takes me from my home in the northern suburbs to my office, which is more or less on the border between Burnsville and Savage. Minnesota drivers always merge at the first sign that a lane closure is coming and you will regularly see two lanes worth of traffic jammed into one lane, while the lane that is closed is empty for up to a half-mile before the merge point. It's a fascinating exercise and it's a behavior pattern that you don't see in other areas. You often see a variation on this behavior when you try to merge into traffic from an on-ramp. Cars in the lane where the merge point comes will refuse to move over to the next lane, even if there's no danger of encountering another car. It's passive-aggressive as hell. Personally, I always move over a lane if I can, or I'll slow down to let the merging driver in, but it's a courtesy that is only grudgingly given to me when I enter the highway. You just don't see this sort of thing in Chicago or Milwaukee or Kansas City.

The Star Tribune article notes the benefits of using both lanes, which should be evident but apparently isn't:
If followed properly, the zipper merge reduces backups, maintains uniform speeds in both lanes and creates a sense of fairness, said Sue Groth, director of the Office of Traffic Safety and Technology.

“We know that the majority of people understand that it is legal for them to use both lanes, but that they don’t because they don’t want to be the person that is perceived as barging in,” she said. “That is exactly why we want to educate people about the use of the zipper merge in construction projects when it is congested. We are hoping that by telling them it is OK — and in fact, we want them to do it because it helps reduce backups — they will be more willing to participate.”
But then, the Star Tribune undercuts the message by designating that using common sense only applies on certain stretches of highway:
In the metro area, the zipper merge will be used on Hwy. 169 at the Bloomington Ferry Bridge and between Crosstown and Hwy. 7 and I-694 and Hwy. 55.

It will be used on I-35 and I-35E through Lakeville and Eagan, and on I-494 between Hwy. 100 and Cedar Avenue.
Here's a thought. Can we use it on 35W during the rush hour, too? Or at any place where a bottleneck exists, which is all over the metro? Nah, it wouldn't be Minnesota Nice.

7 comments:

R.A. Crankbait said...

I dealt with road construction quite a bit last year on Hwy 110, and the zipper merge worked great. Everyone seemed to have the hang of it and it did make things go faster. I was surprised to see that the majority of Minnesota drivers are hanging on to the passie-aggressive thing.

Brian said...

There are few conditions more dangerous than having adjacent lanes on a highway moving at drastically different speeds. Someone always gets impatient and jumps out of the slow (or stationary) lane.

Drivers in the Pac NW are pretty good on the highway: they don't speed much, they merge well, and they move over. Most of the time.

However, on surface streets, they are terrible. Indecisive and prone to stopping for no apparent reason. I wish I was exaggerating about this, but I'm really not.

Bike Bubba said...

Understood about Minnesotans merging--I've seen the "meander" of just kinda going into the next lane without the use of a turn signal, a glance at a mirror, or any attempt to accelerate to match their speed to that of traffic.

That said, it's (a) amazing that it's working in that light, and (b) I'm having trouble seeing how it's really helping traffic flow except for the "amateur traffic cop" phenomenon.

Gino said...

in SoCal, we are just straight up aggressive, nothing passive about it. but those folks in the ATL are truly vicious.

my experience in the Pac NW are pretty much as Brian sums up. not a bad place to drive, highway wise. and nobody speeds much because there's a radar cop every 100 yrds.

the few days i spent in MN, i found the drivers to be rather polite and courteous, real sheeps to a wolf from SoCal, and i was able to have my way with it. that was cool.

W.B. Picklesworth said...

Out here in Iowa there's not a whole lot of merging.

R.A. Crankbait said...

Bike Bubba, it's an interesting engineering question of efficiency since only one car can pass through a bottleneck at a time, regardless. I know from studies I've read, however, that a bottleneck or disruption on a busy road has ripple effects that can extend back as many as 10 miles (IIRC) from the site itself. If you have everyone righteously shifting to one lane and scorning the "cheater" following the law it would seem to me that the line would be even longer and more disruptive than if you had two lines right up the choke-point and everyone taking turns. Does the person who was, say, 25th in the single-file line get through the bottleneck faster if he's 13th in line in lane 2? Perhaps not, but there would likely be more perception of movement and it would keep the overall line from taking up as much highway space.

Gino: right on re Atlanta drivers. My company HQ was there for awhile and I remember my first visit when - being a good employee - I opted for the econo-rental model. I thought I was going to sucked up and spit out on the belt heading for the Northwestern suburbs; I had it floored and was doing 75 and people were still crowding and passing me on both sides (I couldn't get over to the right lane because the oncoming speeders). Next trip out I was much wiser - I got the Mustang 5.0 and blasted right along with them.

Brian said...

Yeah, I learned to drive in metro ATL, and then lived just outside the city (about a mile over the Dekalb Co line) and commuted to Georgia Tech for a few years. It's pretty terrible, and it's actually gotten a little bit better in the last few years because of a concerted effort to crack down on aggressive driving. Still, when I go back and visit (not very often, but often enough) my blood pressure goes up a good 20 points at least, just from driving.