One of my great motivations for working from home is the ability to avoid traffic jams. I’ve coped daily with terrible traffic in the past, in Silicon Valley, Boston’s Route 128, and D.C.’s Beltway — commuting nightmares, all.
These days, I sometimes need to drive in and around Pittsburgh during rush hour, and the experience only reminds me how glad I am not to have to cope with such traumas on a daily basis.
Even traffic slowdowns aren’t so bad though. The emotional pain of traffic comes from having to merge — or more specifically, from having to merge with people who don’t merge the way you do. Depending on your point of view, the bad mergers either merge too soon or too late.
By nature, I’m a "get in line right away" driver. I studied a bit of queueing theory in grad school though, so I realize that everyone getting in line too early makes for an inefficient use of the roadway. Thus, I’ve trained myself to wait and get in line later, not at the very last moment but at least a bit close to the true merge point.
However, retaining those early-merge instincts as I do, I’m quite aware of how many people I’m pissing off as I cruise to where I intend to merge. I want to pull those people aside (or maybe contact them when they’re safely home and have cooled their tempers a bit) and explain that I have both queueing science and traffic laws on my side.
If you’re one of those early-mergers — or if you’re the type who skims along in an exit lane along a queue and then jumps into line at the last minute — take a look at this well-written article from today’s NYT Magazine: "The Urge to Merge" by Cynthia Gorney (herself an early-merger).
Most specifically, note how the perfect traffic merge would go:
FIRST, EVERYBODY REMAINS UNRUFFLED, without abrupt changes of lane or speed, as the lane-drop comes into view. Everybody takes three deep, cleansing breaths — all right, the experts didn’t say that, but they meant to — and considers both the imminent needs of everybody else and the system as a smoothly functioning whole.
Then everybody begins to slow, not too much, all in concert. All cars remain in their lanes, using all the real estate. (On the question of frontage roads and exit-only lanes, the experts waffled; those are arguably part of the real estate, they agreed, but they are meant for a different purpose, and this scenario relies upon everybody buying into the same rules. So no frontage-roading or fake-exit-laning, unless there’s a sign specifically instructing otherwise.) People in the narrowing left lanes refrain from shooting ahead, while people in the right through lanes — this is hard to swallow, for those of us inclined toward vigilantism, but crucial — leave big spaces in front of their cars for the merging that is about to commence. We resist the freeze-out-the-sidezoomer urge. We prepare to invite them in.
Finally, at clearly marked or somehow mutually agreed upon places, everybody starts conducting beautiful “zipper merges.” That’s the technical term — one-two, one-two or one-two-three, one-two-three — as indicated by the roadway configuration. The process has now worked at its ideal efficiency/equitability ratio: if all have behaved correctly, the tunnel passage has been both benign and, relatively speaking, quick.
Doesn’t that sound beautiful? Let’s all agree to adopt this style of driving and merging, shall we? C’mon, car-based world, we can do this!