As I started my walk out of the River Valley to work this morning I was greeted by this sight on Bellamy Hill. As always happens when there is a lane closure here, there is a long line of cars in the left lane and no cars from the end of the queue to the lane closure in the right lane. In this case the queue is about 230m long and extends well past the intersection with 99 Avenue causing delays on that road as well. It’s horribly inefficient to have a lane sitting empty like that, and that’s why I (if I was driving and not walking) would drive right past the line of cars and merge at the end. That’s right, I’m a late merger. And you should be too.
Not everyone agrees though. In fact, I think the average driver probably thinks there is a special place reserved in hell for people like me. After tweeting about the benefits of the late merge I got a couple of responses that sum up the opposite view-point quite nicely:
@ryan_batty But everyone will hate you for jumping the line
— JRMarlow (@JRMarlow) August 29, 2013
@ryan_batty I wanna kick those knuckleheads in the nuts when they do it. They act like they are the only important ones.
— Brian Edwards (@eskinator) August 29, 2013
I understand the dislike for the late merger, you sat and waited and then some other driver, who’s probably an idiot, shoves their way in at the front of the line. This isn’t something we’d accept in a line at the grocery store, or anywhere else for that matter, and we don’t want to accept it on our roads either. But what if I told you that if we all merged late that everyone on the road be better off, and not just the late merger?
Think about the situation in the picture for a second. If the two lanes were used equally then the queue wouldn’t extend much past 99 Avenue if at all; which means that the next car turning right from 99 Avenue onto Bellamy Hill wouldn’t be entering the queue in front of half the cars in the picture (and if that driver happens to be a late merger they would be in front of even more cars). How would this work at the merge point? Simple, left lane, right lane, left lane, right lane, and so on. It’s not that complicated, and everyone would get through just a little quicker.
Now imagine if 99 Avenue were signalized. Does it really make sense to “wait your turn” in the left lane only get stopped at another red light, or to use the right lane and clear the intersection on the green? Obviously the latter. To go back to the line at the grocery store example that I used earlier, you wouldn’t wait in a line if an open checkout was available would you?
Growing up in St. Albert this is a situation I encountered all the time on 170 Street northbound at 137 Avenue. Once upon a time 170 Street transitioned from a four-lane to two-lane road immediately north of 137 Avenue, and the line back from that set of signals was unbelievably long. So long actually, that drivers in the through lane would force someone onto the shoulder before they’d let them merge. But I figured it out pretty quickly that I was better off (and a lot of other drivers would have been as well) to go through in the right lane and wait, even if that meant waiting for the light to turn red, than I would be waiting in line with everyone else. And thus the late merger was born.
Years later I would learn that I wasn’t the only person who had figured this out, and that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) was actually trying to get people to become late mergers, using what they call a zipper merge. It’s been so successful that other jurisdictions, including Saskatoon, are now doing the same. Originally the intent had been “to reduce the road rage between early and late mergers by informing drivers that it is permissible for traffic to travel in both lanes to the merge point,” but studies have found a number of additional benefits. From the above linked story:
[T]he lengths of the queues that form as a result of congestion are reduced by about 50 percent, because the queued vehicles are stored in two lanes instead of only one. The shorter queue lengths reduce the likelihood of them extending back beyond the work zone’s advance warning signs and surprising approaching drivers, which in turn reduces the potential of rear-end accidents. In addition, driver experience less anxiety about knowing which lane is closed, because either lane can be used to reach the merge point. The availability of both lanes also reduces the frustration levels of drivers. Drivers in the open lane are less likely to be irritated by others passing by them in the closed lane, because this maneuver is permissible with the Late Merge. Drivers are able to select the lane with the shortest queue and not be concerned about others blocking their path to the merge point.
The key concept at work here is lane utilization. Most roads are designed to accommodate the volume of traffic that uses the road during the peak hour. Obviously if you take capacity out of the system by closing a lane you take away capacity and a long line of cars forms. By joining the back of that line you’re not fully utilizing the open portion of the road, and are effectively lengthening the work zone. You know all those times you’ve driven by a closed lane when nothing is happening, and how frustrating that is, well by merging early you’re closing that lane on yourself. The road is there to be used, use it.
Like most things transportation related though, context is the key. In less congested situations merging earlier often makes more sense because it avoids a potential conflict between two vehicles looking to occupy the same space. I drive River Valley Road on the weekends occasionally, and when I do, I move over earlier because I know there is little benefit to the late merge in that situation. But during the rush hours why wouldn’t you want to merge in a way that’s going to get you through a pinch point sooner, safer, and with less frustration? Don’t look at the late merger and think that he or she is a jerk, embrace the benefits and become a late merger yourself. It will change your life.