Testing Pittsburgh Traffic

Last Sunday's New York Times had an entertaining and irritating essay about how the world of drivers is divided into "lineuppers" (who wait an eternity, and then some, to take their turn) and "sidezoomers" (who head to the front of the line and seize an opening there). The not-so-subtle premise was a lineupping author in search of a justification for her feelings of frustration and moral superiority. By essay's end, she had found neither; "queuing theory" provides a surprising amount of support for sidezooming. No one, it seems, really has the moral high ground.

At one of my other blogs, I described myself as a sidezoomer, and I offered a rationalization -- though in economic terms, not moral ones. (Driving, it seems to me, is not an inherently moral activity.) But I also distinguished Pittsburgh, with the "Pittsburgh left" and its "After you, Alphonse -- no, you Gaston tendencies," as a culture that largely deviates from the angry lineupping/ostentatious sidezooming depicted in the Times essay -- which was based on anecdotes from my native SF Bay Area.

A commenter claiming knowledge of Pittsburgh declared that the absence of middle-finger-waving lineuppers in Pittsburgh doesn't betray our equanimity at a social problem that threatens to bring down civilization elsewhere. Instead, the commenter argued, Pittsburghers offer the Pittsburgh wave while seething inside. We're just as frustrated as those crazy New Yorkers; we just keep it to ourselves, smoothing it over with our legendary civility.

The debate clearly belongs here, rather than at the other blog. Pittsburgh has its share of abysmal drivers -- perhaps even more than its share, I suspect, but by national norms for urban traffic, congestion is rarely the issue. More often than not, in my experience, the issue is drivers and pedestrians. Neither group of people knows how to watch out for the other.

So this may be a sideshow rather than a main attraction. But do Pittsburghers seethe silently at sidezoomers?

Comments

11 Responses to "Testing Pittsburgh Traffic"

Schultz said... 8/04/2008 6:39 PM

Besides never using a turning signal, another trait of Pittsburgh drivers is their fear of driving within a few feet of another car. Whenever there are cars parked on their side of the road, Pittsburgh drivers will wait for you to drive through first so they don't have to come within 10 feet of hitting your car or the car parked on the side of the road.

C. Briem said... 8/04/2008 7:38 PM

The experts are on your side: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/levin031/transportationist/2008/07/queue_jumping_or_zipper_merge.html

Jefferson Provost said... 8/05/2008 12:55 AM

This is an issue in Pittsburgh largely because of the ridiculously large number of bottlenecks from many different causes: (1) the sudden and unnanounced onset of street parking in the middle of (what used to be) the right lane of traffic; (2) two lane tunnels with 4 lanes of traffic flowing into them; (3) incomprehensible 2-into-1 merges for no reason whatsoever (e.g. Veteran's bridge -> Parkway North; Parkway N. -> I79; Crosstown Blvd -> Liberty Bridge).

When I moved to Austin I was stunned by how few bottlenecks there were. In particular, how I never, ever got caught trying to merge from behind a parked car in the right lane. (Austin wasn't perfect either. One place on the east side has a crazy 5-to-1 bottleneck, but since Austin is a culture of sidezoomers, it was pretty efficient.)

Seattle, on the other hand, is a culture of lineuppers, in all things. Being a sidezoomer here is like being a wolf in the fold.

Burgher Jon said... 8/05/2008 6:55 AM

The commenter on your other blog is a genius. :-P

Although Chris' linked post from the Transportationist does make me question my accuracy.

EdHeath said... 8/05/2008 4:06 PM

Bob Feikima had an essay in the PG a couple of months ago where he advocated using roundabout style intersections or even just our current intersections, just with any signage. No stop signs or traffic lights. We would just have to look at each other.

He advocated this because any cars zoom through intersections in Squirell Hill even after the light has changed. I can't imagine how removing all retraints would help.

But I am a seething lineupper. I see sidezoomers as making life more onerous. If everyone settled into the right lane when the left will close in a mile, we would all proceed at highway speed to the closure. But sidezoomers force the entire line of lineuppers to slam on their brakes and then start up again, wasting gas. Sidezoomers strike me as rationalizing egotists.

Now, if you can avoid interupting the flow of the lineiuppers even as you sidezoom, that is one thing. But most of the bottlenecks I experience are in construction, where one lane or other is going to close. Sidezoomers in that situation stop the rest of us. I have seen cars in lines of traffic drift out into the center of both lanes, to thwart sidezoomers. I applaude that strategy.

Jerry said... 8/06/2008 9:46 AM

I support sidezooming, though I don't always think of it. Then when I'm waiting in line and I see someone cruise past me, I get pissed because I didn't think of it first.

I have seen highway signs that say "Use both lanes to merge point"; but I have never seen a highway sign that said "form one line an arbitrary distance from merge point". If the traffic engineers encourage sidezooming, who are we to say differently?

Drew said... 8/06/2008 10:03 AM

I just moved here from Boston (sidezooming is completely the norm). If you don't cut people off in Boston, you won't get anywhere. Aggression is not considered rude driving, it's a survival method. But here in Pittsburgh, I have adapted to the lineupper culture, and rather than honking and flipping off siderzoomers, I just refuse to let them in front me :)

Anonymous said... 8/06/2008 6:24 PM

KGC says: I'm a sidezoomer and proud of it. Why should i get in line like a lemming and inch along? Even PENNDOT posts signs that say to go to merge point. If everyone would take their turn at the merge point, we'd have a lot less issues.

I have to travel I-80 a lot an done Sunday evening it took me ~2 hours to go less than 10 miles. Truckers were blocking the "open" lane. (Of course, EdHeath condones this type of BS. Hey, Ed.. you want to sit in traffic, be my guest. Just don't get in my way.) I only with the State Police would enforce the truck blocking issue. If I'm not mistaken, such action is not legal.

BTW, I do NOT race to the front. I use a very reasonable and safe speed, recognizing that some numb-nut may decide to veer out into the open lane at any time.

Ms. Monongahela, Ms. Chief Editor said... 8/07/2008 8:30 AM

You should check out the post on my blog about the guy driving a rascal on the road ... can you believe he didn't bother to use a turn signal, either?

I'm a "sidezoomer" because you're supposed to merge at the merge point. It seems pretty damn logical to me, but others don't understand the reason traffic is backed up to kingdom come is because people have to get over FIVE MILES BEFORE THEY NEED TO!

Ack!

As far as Schultz' first comment -- I have to say that although I'm lucky enough to have off-street parking in my semi-suburb, when I'm guilty of waiting because ... well, would you like to know how many times *I've* been sideswiped or had my mirror shaved off?

At least five. My neighbors have all had similar experiences. Ah, I just laugh though. Sometimes I wonder if we're all doing it to each other. I can't open the trunk of one of my vehicles because my neighbor slammed into it when she was parallel parking downhill.

Christ.

Know the dimension of your vehicle, people!

It would certainly help if people didn't park Hummers on the street... I think the city should make people pay an extra tax if their vehicle sticks out in the street more than other vehicles.

Because I'm just plain crazy.

EdHeath said... 8/08/2008 2:58 PM

Well, let me clarify a bit. I have seen the signs that say use both lanes to merge point, and in those situations I leave extra space in front of me because I anticipate the car in front of me will stop suddenly soon, as sidezoomers force their way in. But, since the signage warns you, I can't feel too pissed about that.

And if traffic is light, and I am puttering along at 55 mph because is it a) the speed limit, or b) what I choose to drive at because it saves gas (and increases the possibility I would survive a crash), then I can't feel too bad about a sidezoomer who whips by me and zooms into my lane. No brakes, no foul.

But when the sign says merge right, and there is a line of cars, and rather than get into the back of the line some "special" person zooms along in the left lane and muscles their way into the right lane ahead of me, forces thirty cars to slam on their brakes and stop, when we all could have rolled along at thirty or forty mph and gotten through the construction in good time ... this is when I get pissed. It's like when people use ambulances as their own personal path through traffic.

So I think it is situation dependent. But I gather some sidezoomers feel like they are morally justified in *always* sidezooming and maximizing their advantage, no matter if it inconveniences others or not. Kind of like the Bush administration's foreign policy.

Bram Reichbaum said... 8/10/2008 7:11 PM

Gah! I admit it! Although there is clearly (I suppose) no practical or moral imperative to do so, the moment I spy a flashing arrow or construction sign advising me of what the story is up ahead, I immediately shift into the correct, operative, slow lane ... and I seethe FURIOUSLY at the "sidezoomers" who breeze past me heedlessly, sometimes two miles past, until the moment of reckoning. I hate them.

I remember just the other weekend I was stuck in one such situation on outbound 379 E, when three lanes of traffic were to merge into just ONE, the far right. I swear I could discern by vehicular and personal appearance differing levels of human repugnance between those sidezoomers who merely zoomed down the middle lane next to me, and others who had the temerity to zoom down the FAR LEFT HAND lane as long as they could. With bare feet dangling outside the passenger side windows, more often than not. CRETINS! WRETCHES! SCUM!

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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