Getting Rid Of A Bad Merge

One of those temporary electric traffic signs has been rolled into place to give Columbus motorists some important news and another reason to be thankful as we head toward Thanksgiving:  the eastbound ramp from Third Street onto the combined I-70/I-71 highway is closing, permanently, on November 25.  Drivers who use the ramp to get from downtown out to Bexley and points east are going to have to find another route.

The closure of the ramp will be an inconvenience for some motorists, no doubt, but getting rid of the ramp will be a really good thing from a traffic safety and flow standpoint.  In fact, the ramp is part of one of those weird, inexplicable, irrational traffic patterns that really never should have developed in the first place.  Drivers leaving downtown come barreling down Third Street, heading south, when the street splits into three different flows, with one lane heading south into German Village, one lane turning left onto Livingston Avenue, and two lanes taking an abrupt left turn down to the highway.  Those two lanes then immediately merge into one lane — which makes you wonder why they were designed to be two lanes to begin with — at the same time drivers are supposed to be merging, on the left, into the traffic rushing past on the highway.

It’s a recipe for a bottleneck, and that’s exactly what it is.  Drivers who don’t know Columbus are baffled about where to go and are regularly shifting lanes at the last minute, the hard left turn means you’ve got people jamming on the brakes and then speeding up to match the speed of the traffic on the highway, and the virtually simultaneous merges while cars are trying to get onto a busy highway always cause delays, and sometimes cause accidents.  Is a driver supposed to focus on the merging lane from the right, or the merge onto the highway to the left?

Columbus is a great town, but some of the core downtown traffic design is desperately in need of updating.  Eliminating the Third Street merge is a good start.

 

Bike Lane Blitz

IMG_1131Downtown Columbus isn’t exactly a bike-friendly zone.  Don’t get me wrong, the city is trying to encourage bike-riding . . . but it isn’t easy.

The problem is a combination of bad traffic design (from a cycling standpoint, at least) and Columbus drivers.  The downtown area has lots of one-way streets with weird turns and splits, and many drivers who aren’t especially attentive to or considerate of cyclists.  On Third Street, for example, at the point where the street moves from downtown Columbus to German Village, a cyclist chugging along in the far right lane of that one-way street has to move over two lanes to the left to head straight into the Village, at the same time drivers are jockeying to move their cars to the right, to get onto 70 West/71 South, the far right, to turn onto Fulton Street, or to the left, to merge onto 70 East.  Only the hardiest cyclists stick to the road and run the risks.  Instead, they ride their bikes on the sidewalks — which isn’t exactly ideal for the pedestrians among us.

Columbus is trying to change that, by adding painted bike lanes on Third Street and other avenues that show when the lanes changes need to be made.  We’ll see if it works, but I’m skeptical.  The problem isn’t the absence of designated lanes, but the merges and moves that the road designs require.  If drivers are looking back to make sure the roadway is clear, or speeding up to make their merge, they could easily miss a cyclist — and the cyclists know it.  They aren’t going to be keen to move left into a lane that may already be filled with cars or that is the target of other cars trying to make various upcoming turns.

I think we walkers will continue to share the sidewalk with our helmeted friends until the entire Third Street/70/71 design is revamped into something that approximates rationality.

A Pedestrian’s Humble Request

I’ve written about the dangers cyclists face while navigating through vehicular traffic in American cities.  Now I’d like to add an appeal about a constituency that is even nearer and dearer to my heart: pedestrians.

For the most part, drivers are courteous to pedestrians like me — when they see them.  And therein lies the problem.

The big safety issue with downtown walking, in my view, is right turn on red.  Consider the following scenario that you’ve likely encountered during your driving day.  You approach an intersection in a city and you want to turn right.  You move out into the crosswalk to get a better viewpoint and see past those tall buildings that come right out to the sidewalk and block your view.  You crane your neck, peering intently to the left to see any traffic that might be approaching from that direction.  If you don’t see any to the left, you hit the gas and move ahead into that right turn.

But consider — what if a luckless pedestrian is walking toward you from the right?  He knows he has the right of way if he crosses with the “walk” sign in the crosswalk.  He might not even have been visible as you drove up to the intersection because his approach was blocked by a building on the right.  If you turn right without first looking right to see if a walker is there and he crosses just as you make your turn, the results aren’t going to be happy for either of you — but at least you’ll survive the encounter.

In my walks to and from work, I’ve seen this circumstance again and again, and the driver almost never looks to the right to see me entering the intersection.  If I don’t see them looking at me, I’ll stop rather than taking a chance of getting crushed by tons of rolling metal — and often the drivers just make the right turn, completely unaware of my presence and the fact that their inattention risks a terrible and entirely preventable accident.

So do me a favor, motorists:  Before you move out into the crosswalk and block it in advance of that right turn on red, look both ways and make sure no pedestrians are coming.  If they are near, let them have the crosswalk, unimpeded, that is their legal right of way.  Once they’ve gone, you can make that right turn.

The Honk And No-Honk Zones

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia:  the same brands of cars, equipped in precisely the same way, are sold in both the Midwest and New York City.  Even more surprising, there is no difference whatsoever in the configuration, design, or volume of horns in the cars sold in those two areas of the United States.

This seems impossible to believe, given the difference in honking practices between those two areas.  In Columbus, Ohio, you almost never hear a car horn.  Even in the face of the most egregious, selfish driving maneuvers imaginable — such as making a tardy left turn, blocking an intersection in heavy traffic, and stopping all movement on the crossing street — Columbusites will never, ever hit the horn.  It’s as if some prissy Miss Manners long ago declared that the rules of driving etiquette prohibited honking:  it just isn’t done.  And when Midwesterners, in moments of extreme angst, do lightly tap their horns, they will blush and look around to see if anyone they knew saw them commit such an appalling faux pas.  They obviously feel a deep sense of shame at their lack of personal control, like they just farted in an elevator.

In New York City, on the other hand, it’s as if drivers were actively looking for excuses to honk.  I suspect that Manhattan drivers’ training classes teach you to drive with one hand at 10 o’clock and the other positioned directly over the horn at all times.  In fact, I imagine that one full day of instruction is devoted to understanding the different levels of honking responses.  An NYC honk is never a single beep; the mildest option is a full-throated, goose-like triple honk and the scale ranges up to the ear-crushing continuous blast that can only be produced by an enraged, snarling driver who is leaning his entire body weight into hitting the horn to the maximum extent.  There doesn’t seem to be any relationship between the degree of traffic transgression and the appropriate honking response, either:  it all seems to depend on the stress levels of the driver.  If your day has sucked and you’ve been inhaling exhaust fumes forever in those concrete canyons  without making much progress, you might just welcome a mild violation of road rules that lets you unload some of that stress.

If you don’t believe me, take this test.  Go to the intersection of Broad and High Streets in the center of downtown Columbus and listen for a car horn.  You won’t hear one, even in the distance.  Go to any part of Manhattan and do the same thing and you will realize that the honking is so prevalent that it just blends into the cacophony of background noise.

Do drivers in Manhattan have to take their cars in for servicing on their horns?  When people go to buy a used car in the New York City area, do they always test the horn to make sure that it works?

Cleveland Under Construction

My guess is that almost everyone who lives in Cleveland was happy when the Republican bigwigs decided that the 2016 Republican National Convention would be held in the city.  Lately, though, Clevelanders have seen the pain that precedes the hoped-for gain.

IMG_5536_2In my two recent visits, there seemed to be construction everywhere.  A new downtown hotel is being built, and Public Square, the open area in front of the Terminal Tower, is completely torn up and blocked off.  Work is underway on a $32 million project to convert the square — which had become kind of a no-man’s-land of discrete congregation areas for homeless people, separated by wide roads with heavy traffic — into a more welcoming, traffic-free, park-like setting with restaurant options and a concert venue.  In the meantime, however, long-established traffic patterns have had to be changed.

When I was in Cleveland late last month for a meeting, traffic was a disaster.  Even though I arrived for a meeting in plenty of time, it took about 30 minutes to move two city blocks, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me.  When that happens, fellow drivers start to get testy, and inventive u-turns, curb-hopping, and other efforts to avoid the jam are bound to occur — which just makes things worse and dramatically raises the irritation level for other drivers.

As we drove to a dinner that night, a Cleveland friend said he’s expecting 12 months of disruption until the work is completed in time for next summer’s Republican get-together.  He explained that virtually every pothole-filling, bridge-refurbishing, scrape-and-painting, general-sprucing-up project that has been deferred over the last few years for municipal budget reasons has been hauled out and approved so the City by the Lake can look great for its turn on the national stage — and all of that work is happening at once.

Like other Clevelanders, he’s resigned to some pain in order to get the anticipated gain of positive national publicity, news stories about how Cleveland has really turned the corner, and resulting community good will.  He’ll accept crappy traffic, delays, and general disorder in the meantime.  Clevelanders are a hardy breed.

When Walking Is Faster Than Driving

This morning we had one of those dreaded early morning snow storms.  I pulled on my clodhopper shoes with the deep treads, cinched tight my scarf, donned my wool hat, and set out into the cold morning for my walk to work as the snowflakes pelted down.

IMG_4800About 20 minutes later — pretty much the standard time — I arrived at the office, face ruddy from the walk.  As time passed I dimly became aware that other people were struggling to make it to work.  When I heard a co-worker bemoan her two-hour commute, I realized that by walking I had dodged a bullet in the form of a rush-hour snow storm.

I hate to admit it, but I felt kind of good when I heard other people at the office  tell their commuting horror stories.  It legitimized our decision to move to German Village in the first place, because part of the motivation for the move was to avoid the ball-busting weather-delayed drives.  I wouldn’t quite describe my reaction as schadenfreude — because I wasn’t exactly reveling in the misfortune of others — but it was similar, because I was feeling good about the action we had taken to avoid experiencing such misfortune myself.

I’m very much enjoying my walks into work.

Suddenly, September Traffic

If Gershwin were a Midwestern commuter, he might have written: “Summertime, when the traffic is easy.”

That’s because, at any given point during June, July, and August, a good chunk of the population is on vacation. That means, in turn, a reduced number of cars crowding onto highways and byways at the peak hours. The result, typically, is a smooth and pleasant ride to work.

When school starts up again, though, everything changes — which is why it’s not only schoolchildren who dread the words “back to school.” Vacations are over. School buses and school speed zones are blinking their yellow lights. Everyone is back in town and — what’s worse — everyone is leaving for work at about the same time, after they’ve dropped their kid off at school or the bus stop. People who might have been leaving for work at 8 in July are now on the road at 7.

It’s like the Super Bowl, where everybody is watching the same TV channel and uses the bathroom at the same time, placing huge burdens on municipal sewer systems at the same moment in time. Roads that formerly ran free and easy are now clogged and filled to rank overflowing with traffic, and it stinks.

It’s why September driving is usually the worst and most congested of the year. This week, it was suddenly September traffic in Columbus.

Our Traffic Savior

016In England, they drive on the wrong side of the road. Of course, the Brits say the same thing about the United States, and every other country that wasn’t part of the post-automobile Empire.

Fortunately, some good-hearted Samaritan long ago painted helpful signs into the pavement to advise Americans which way to look for oncoming traffic when crossing the street. I can’t tell you how handy those signs are, even after a few days in the U.K. Sincere thanks to the Unknown Sign Painter, whoever you may be!

I Hate Sawmill Road

I hate Sawmill Road.

Those of you who live in Columbus know what I am talking about.  For those of you who don’t live in our fair city, think of a landscape denuded of nature and replaced with the worst imaginable combination of asphalt, concrete, strip malls, overhead power lines, parking lots, ugly signs, chain stores, and cars, cars, cars.

IMG_1194When you are on Sawmill Road, waiting — and, with the ridiculous traffic congestion that you always find there, you are assured of doing lots of waiting — depressing sights await you in all directions, unbroken by green space.  It’s like the worst aspects of commercial development have been mashed together by some giant economic forces and crammed into a grim four-mile stretch of road.

Shortly after our family moved to Columbus in 1971, I took driver’s ed.  The part of the course where you actually drove a real car took place on Saturday mornings, with the driving instructor supervising and several students trading places behind the wheel.  After I got picked up we always drove north to Sawmill Road.  It was a country road then, with trees and unbroken farmland on both sides.  About a mile up you would find Tuller’s Fruit Farm, a family farm and apple orchard with a rambling wooden store.  We would stop there for a cup of cider and a glazed doughnut before continuing with our lessons.

Sawmill Road was a pleasant drive 40 years ago, and now it is a nightmare that you avoid unless you absolutely must go there.  During the intervening years no one did anything to limit the wretched excess, and now the damage is irreparable.

The Elusive Alternative Route

The I-670 ramp to Third Street, which provides access from the east side to downtown Columbus, is closed for extensive repairs.  It will be closed for months.

It’s only one of thousands — make that hundreds of thousands — of highway ramps in the United States.  But for me, it’s perhaps the most important ramp.  Its closure means that my principal route to work, the one that has been ingrained into my brain and every fiber of my being after years of mindless commuting, is not available.  It means that I have to get out of my mental rut, abandon my snug comfort zone, and find another route to the heart of downtown Columbus during the morning rush hour.  It means I have to experiment with alternatives during a time of day when hastily selected alternative routes usually mean delay and disaster.

So far I’ve tried two options.  The planned alternative has the weird, jury-rigged feel you often get with traffic engineer reroutings.  You exit I-670 at I-71, follow a narrow, two-lane channel between temporary barricades, then make a hairpin two-lane exit onto Spring Street.  I’ve taken that route several times, two of which embroiled me in significant traffic jams.  The other option was an experiment that ended in colossal failure.  I exited I-670 one stop early, wound through some city streets, then found myself snarled in complete gridlock around the Columbus State campus.  I won’t be trying that option again.

I’m steeling myself for the challenge of finding that elusive alternative route that will take me smoothly downtown on uncongested streets.  In the meantime, I’m just going to brace myself — and leave 10 minutes earlier than normal.

The Roundabout Way

In the past few years, roundabouts — what non-engineers call traffic circles — have been cropping up all over central Ohio.  They are a very welcome addition.

In my view, roundabouts are vastly preferable to traffic lights.  The intersection at Morse Road and Rt. 62 near our home was a dangerous bottleneck for years and consistently ranked high on the list of the most dangerous intersections in central Ohio.  We knew of its dangers first-hand, because one of our family members got into an accident that was due entirely to stopped traffic blocking the view of a car trying to exit a shopping center parking lot.  Since the traffic light was replaced by a roundabout the traffic flow is much better, and the long lines of stopped cars are a thing of the distant past.   Traffic engineers say that the roundabouts not only improve traffic flow, they also reduce crashes generally and significant injury crashes specifically.  Because every car on the roundabout is moving to the right, the chances of head-on collisions or T-bone crashes is dramatically reduced.

Of course, you have to get the hang of merging onto the roundabout.  As you approach, you look to your left for traffic in the roundabout or about to enter the roundabout, and then you merge onto the roundabout to the right when there is an opening.  Fortunately, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission has prepared an unintentionally hilarious step-by-step guide to how to drive through a roundabout that makes you feel like you are back in drivers ed class.  No doubt it will be the source of amusement for our British friends who have driven through roundabouts for decades.

Labor Day Weekend On The Road

Like many other Americans, Kish and I hit the road this Labor Day weekend.  In our case, it was a quick, overnight trip to Chicago to attend the 30th wedding anniversary of our old friends Ken and LuAnn (more on that later).  We left yesterday morning on a clear day, made good time to Indianapolis, rolled past the sun-dappled fields of slowly turning windmill turbines north of West Lafayette on I-65, zipped through Gary . . . and then we hit the inevitable stopped traffic on I-94 east of Chicago.

When Richard was at Northwestern we drove to Chicago in all seasons and at all times of day.  It made no difference when we arrived in the vicinity — any time of night or day, any day of the week, there was a traffic jam of angry drivers that started east of Chicago.  Without fail, you lost an hour and a half crawling west through the snarl until you were well past downtown.

It is a real pain, and always makes a trip to Chicago much less enjoyable.   I don’t think I could live in Chicago if I had to drive downtown to work.

Pondering A Seemingly Pointless Electronic Sign

Every day I drive to work on I-670, a road that connects the I-270 highway that circles Columbus with downtown.  A few years ago they erected an electronic road sign above the westbound lanes, the kind that lets some unknown person change the message on the sign if they choose to do so.  In that sense, it’s like the sign that talked to Steve Martin in the movie L.A. Story.

I don’t understand why someone concluded we need this variable sign.  Nine mornings out of 10 the sign reports that it will take exactly the same, minimal amount of time to reach I-71 and other upcoming destinations.  On the tenth day, the sign might state that it will take a slightly longer period to drive the mile and a half to the next exit.  Is there anything to indicate that that kind of information on the sign influences any driving decisions or helps traffic flow?  Does anyone actually veer off I-670 and onto side roads because the sign is advising that it will take two minutes longer to reach their destination?  And, how many of those people would have veered off after they observed slowed or stopped traffic up ahead, regardless of whether the sign was there or not?

One time Kish and I were driving past the sign and it was filled with information about a missing adult male who was driving a Mercedes with a particular license plate.  We wondered precisely what we were supposed to do in response to that message.  Quickly grab a paper and pen and jot down the license plate?  Hope that the car in question was driving directly in front of us when we saw the sign?  It hardly seems like sound traffic safety to have drivers of cars speeding by at 65 miles an hour fumbling for a pen and paper to try to write down a license plate number.  And if we aren’t supposed to do that, what’s the point?

I imagine a large part of the decision to buy the sign was that some people wanted Columbus to seem more like, well, L.A.  Guess what?  It isn’t — and most of us are very happy for that.  We don’t need signs to tell us how long it will take to get to an exit that is only a few miles away, and we don’t need pointless signs to consume tax dollars and clutter our highways.