The Zipper Merge: Let’s restore some sanity on the road.

If Jon Stewart says I’m right, and Tom Vanderbilt (the famous author of Traffic) apparently agrees (along with a professional traffic engineer who commented on his post), and CO and MNDOT say I’m right, and a nice blogger named Ed Koehler from Minnesota says I’m right, then I’m right. Right? Right!

OK, I know I covered all this at great length in the book, so let me say right up front that if you’ve got the message already (or have known for years because like many of us you learned to drive that way in the first place) and would rather skip this little review and just get on with your life, please feel free to do that, and you all have a nice day :-)

But if you’re wondering what’s got the zipper merge bee in Mother’s bonnet again, or you’re just not convinced yet, or you haven’t the slightest clue what the heck I’m talking about, stick around, and I’ll be right back with a great show, I mean blog post.

What’s the Stewart connection? Two things. First, the Stewart/Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear that’s coming up in Washington reminds me that in my experience (although, granted, it was quite some time ago), the DC area is one of those places where drivers’ Moms seem to have forgotten to teach them about taking turns, or maybe they failed to pay attention. Either way, it’s jamming up those lane closure merges, and who needs that? Especially when you’re from out of town and in a big hurry to get to a very special rally. Nobody, that’s who.

Second, thinking about the zipper merge, which happens to be the right way to merge at a congested lane closure, reminds me that Jon Stewart had some words of wisdom on that very topic during a chat with Drew Barrymore not too long ago. Normally, this is where I’d share the video clip, but I’m afraid that some parts are a little too, shall we say, adult for Mother’s wholesome, cheery audience. Or for Mother anyway. So instead I will simply quote the zipper merge portion, which was the highlight of the interview anyway, in my opinion. Here’s what Jon had to say:

Are you an every other car merger, because to me…To me, the hallmark of civilization, and I believe this on its core foundational level, is the every other car merge at tunnels. There is, it’s a, (guest interrupts) no, when you get up to that and there’s like four cars and it goes down to one, and everybody suddenly no matter what, Jew, Muslim, gay, straight, black, white, it doesn’t matter. Everybody just goes I’m next, now you’re next, and it’s like the zipper merge, And it really says to me, this is why we don’t drink the same water we bleep in any more, because we are a civilized society. That’s my theory. (great applause from the audience)

And not only is it civilized, but it’s practical, because in heavy traffic, using both (or all) lanes for as long as you can, then alternating one by one (sort of like a zipper!), is the best way to share the road and keep traffic flowing. Now isn’t that easier and more pleasant than a scenario (we’ve all been there, haven’t we?) that looks like this …

Merging early creates a long line of cars with drivers who are becoming increasingly irritated if not enraged about sitting there, especially when they’re (and they usually are) watching the occasional zipper fan drive by in the nearly empty lane next door. And then there are the few folks who are doing the driving by feeling guilty, never mind absorbing plenty of wicked hate vibes from their neighbors in the next lane, for simply doing the reasonable thing, which is driving in a perfectly good open lane. And finally, we have the occasional extra-irate busybodies who make things worse by blocking the open lane out of a possibly well-intentioned but misguided notion that it’s their job to be road monitors. Is this ugly situation fair to anyone? NO! Can this problem be solved? YES! In some areas they’re posting signs with instructions now, and Mother appreciates that, but once we know the trick, we can do the right thing without being told, now can’t we? Well, sure we can.

So when traffic is light, then go on and merge early because that works just fine. But when the highway is crowded, remember to use those lanes. Then take turns. And let there be peace on the road; it’s the reasonable way to drive.


PS Want to check out my sources? There are geekier ones, but these are my favorites:

Zipper Method Traffic Merging Comprehension Issues, The Deets, Ed KoehlerThe Zipper Merge and Civil Society, How We Drive blog, Tom Vanderbilt
(especially the comments, the post itself is the JS quote)

 

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