Merge like a Decent Human Being, Please

I read something horribly discouraging yesterday, something that shook the very foundations of my being. But before I get into that, let’s start with a scenario.

Say you’re driving on the highway, gliding smoothly along at 68 mph, when you see the dreaded “Construction Ahead” sign, an orange diamond of doom glaring at you like a warning beacon. Minutes later, the even more foreboding “Left Lane Closed, 2 Miles” sign looms, and you know you’re in for it. When the “Merge Right” sign appears (still more than a mile from the merge site, but who’s to know?), you switch into “construction driver” mode. Like the good, conscientious human you are, you obey the traffic signs—now popping up every tenth of a mile, each sign more urgent than the last—and immediately get into the right lane, as most of the other cars on the highway do the same. A few opportunistic drivers continue on down the emptying left lane, speeding past the virtuous souls to their right. This annoys you—after all, you’re polite, and you like to obey the rules. But you’re at peace with yourself, because you’re doing the right thing, and when you finally get into that right lane, you sigh with relief.  

As you near the construction site, traffic slows to a crawl. After a few minutes of slow progress, you round a bend and finally see the cones marking the left lane closing. Then, suddenly, it happens. A car whizzes past you in the empty left lane, traveling all the way down to the merge point, where it stops 15 feet from the cones and flashes its right blinker. You bellow angrily and crane your neck to watch the imposter, hoping none of the gutless sheep ahead of you let the guy in. But then, sure enough, somebody—probably a Midwesterner—stops and waves him over. You sit there and inch forward, yard by painful yard, quietly seething at the fact that this person ignored the rules and got away with it; that, even more infuriating, he took advantage of his fellow rule-abiding drivers, and as a result saved himself ten minutes of aggravating driving; and that, worst of all, he now is contently inching forward a full quarter-mile ahead of where you currently sit, clenching your steering wheel.

There’s something wrong with this picture, right? I mean, morally wrong. Like cutting into the popcorn line at a movie theater, this rogue driver broke an unwritten rule of humanity. He took advantage of the politeness of his fellow travelers, thus committing an injustice. He thumbed his nose at basic vehicular decency.

Perhaps, having read my little rant, this goes without saying; but I get crazy when this happens. I’m not usually an aggressive guy—in fact, I like to think I’m pretty cool and collected most of the time. But when I spot an unethical merger, I lose it. (I once asked Carolyn, after a particularly egregious example of unethical construction-merge line-cutting, if my behavior was alarming or irrational. She looked at me for a moment, her eyes grew wide, and she said, “Tanner, are you seriously asking me that?” She was joking, I think.)

So it was with a deep sense of dismay that I encountered an article yesterday titled “The Beauty of Zipper Merging, or Why You Should Drive Ruder.” Oh, boy. Before reading a word, I could tell this was going to ruin my day (and that’s apart from the inelegance of the phrase “drive ruder”). The gist of the article—as you can probably glean, if you’re not a moron—is that its authors are of the opinion that it is more efficient, in traffic merging scenarios, to allow cars to travel down both lanes right up to the merge point, and then alternate entering the one-lane section. To wit:

[I]n the case of congestion, Johnson [a traffic engineer from Minnesota] said that this method reduces backups by a whopping 40 percent on average.

Adds Johnson, “I’ve been amazed at how consistent the flow is . . . You don’t have to put your foot on the brake at all. You just coast ahead and take turns at the merge point.”

Now’s let’s pause for a moment and acknowledge what we’re all thinking: “No kidding.” If you’ve thought about traffic, and in particular merging traffic, for longer than ten seconds, you’ve undoubtedly come to the same conclusion as these so-called traffic engineers. Spending two miles crawling along in one lane, while leaving the other unoccupied, always adds to the frustration because there’s a sense of opportunity lost. But here’s the thing: getting over into the right lane far ahead of any actual construction is often what the signs tell you to do. And more to the point, merging early is the polite thing to do, because there’s something inherently rude about speeding past people only to cut ahead of them at the last second later on. In deference to our law-abiding and not totally anti-social tendencies, we tend to get ourselves into the right lane earlier than we absolutely have to.

But never mind such piddling concerns as reality and decorum; as far as these traffic engineers are concerned, just “coast ahead and take turns at the merge point” and you’ll be guaranteed a “consistent flow.” “Play nice. Treat traffic like a team sport. You gotta play the assist role.” These are things that these people are actually saying, and what they are trying to get you to believe is that unethical merging is actually a good thing. And instead of calling it what it is—being a jackass—they’re half-heartedly trying to slap a new name on it: “zipper merging.” How cute!

“Treat traffic like a team sport.” I can’t get over that line. Sure, because people where I live (Baltimore) will totally get with the program as they sit for an hour on I-83 just to get ten miles up the road to Towson. This is not some Leninist utopia. Have these engineers ever tried to drive anywhere in a big city? Do they think frustrated, impatient people traveling to and from their lousy jobs care about optimizing traffic flow?

The article ends with a caveat, which gets to the bottom of why this whole experiment is doomed to fail:

The zipper’s catch [chuckle chuckle], of course, is that every driver on the road has to be aware of, and believe in, the style of merging before it reaches maximum efficiency. So long as enough drivers don’t fill both lanes or intentionally block the soon-to-end lane in the form of vigilante car justice, the concept still has to contend with confusion, whether from out-of-town travelers or oblivious commuters.

How bold of the authors to point this out in the third-to-last paragraph. “Here’s a good idea, guys, but in actually there’s no way it will apply in real life!” Reading this article actually makes me feel like I’m stuck in traffic, and these authors are the ones zooming down the left lanes of the world and cutting in line ahead of me, with me raging impotently in my car (all while claiming, “It’s good for you!”) Maybe this zipper-merging, “maximum efficiency” Xanadu will be a reality someday. I’m not holding my breath. Meanwhile, unethical mergers will persist with their selfish, immoral ways. And I will continue to lose my mind every time it happens.

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2 Responses to Merge like a Decent Human Being, Please

  1. Trevor Smith says:

    I don’t understand how one would get through the construction zone itself any faster… The zipper method as I understand it doesn’t change the fact of the speed-zone choke point, or the rate at which cars enter and pass through it. Are the authors simply trying to reduce the length of the line in front of that choke point, without actually saving time? Maybe I don’t understand how the system works.

    • Tanner says:

      I also do not understand the logic/math/whatever behind it. Carolyn’s sister swears the zipper method is best, but when I picture the effect/speed of one single line of traffic vs. two lines alternating I do not see a difference. In fact, it seems that it’d take LONGER for the closing lane to merge. Regardless, it’s unrealistic. And more importantly, I’ll never be able to justify the people who take advantage of everyone else.

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