Friday, July 05, 2013

Very Timely Topic

Thanks to PeterJ on Twitter, I saw this article about something called a "zipper merge" approach to one of my biggest pet peeves: the traffic congestion that happens on a highway when a lane is closed.  We just experienced this today, coming back from a couple of days spent at Toronto Fringe.

As the article says, there's always been two philosophies about when to merge in that situation: what I'd call the "considerate driver" who gets out of the closing lane as soon as they're notified of the closing, and the "inconsiderate asshole" who races up in the empty lane to get past as many slowed cars as possible before being inconvenienced by the slowdown.  Vicki and I have always dutifully fallen into the first category, as it's just seemed ignorant beyond description to be one of those "me me me" types who thinks his/her time is so much more important than anyone else's.

The science of the situation, though, points to the inefficiency of that approach when the volume of traffic is high: you end up with fewer lanes of traffic ealieer than you need to, and therefore everything slows down sooner.  Now a new strategy is being tried (the aforementioned zipper merge) where signage along the highway will instruct all drivers to stay in the closing lane right up until the point where it terminates, keeping all lanes full of cars for as long as possible.  The zipper merge eliminates the opportunity for the two types of drivers mentioned above, as there won't be any openings for the me-first types to speed up through, and therefore everyone will be inconvenienced equally by the slowdown, which (to my mind, anyway) is preferable to what happens today.  Assholes who think they deserve better, of course, won't be happy.  I really hope this takes off and becomes the new normal for highways everywhere.

The one caveat to this, of course, is that if we had more of a collective mind when it comes to such things, the "get out of the closing lane as soon as possible" approach would still win out.  To see this in action, just drive through one of those zones when traffic's lighter and you'll see that the speed of the traffic barely changes (other than to possibly go down 10 or 20 kph as the speed limit drops) as all drivers typically bail early out of the closing lane, for the simple reason that there's no disadvantage to doing so (in fact, it seems downright prudent!).  So I always used to like to imagine a society where you could notify drivers many km ahead of the problem, have them quickly get out of the problem lane (and never return to it, no matter what), and have it be a non-event by the time you got up to the lane closure.  Realistically, though, that's not a society that I can imagine our selfish species ever being a part of.

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