Tuesday, October 11

Is the "zipper merge" rude?

So apparently this has become a trending topic in transportation circles. Several departments of transportation are publicly pushing a discussion on the issue, and we're seeing the topic pop up in social media feeds and on the news itself.
It's the "Zipper Merge".
The idea is simple: when approaching a merge situation on a road or highway - that is, when two lanes move down to one - the merge should take place as near to the merge point as can be done. Doing so can improve traffic flow and safety.
However, folks aren't doing it for a number of reasons. With this in mind, we wanted to take a moment to address the issues surrounding the Zipper Merge.

I don't like waiting to change lanes until the last minute

The feeling of trepidation over merging safely and appropriately are very real in heavy traffic situations. If you're moving at any sort of speed - be it 40 miles per hour or 70 - you don't want to make that merge at the last minute, risking the chance someone in the lane you're moving to is stubbornly unwilling to allow you the chance to get in. We get it - we're all about safety here.
The Zipper is most effective during heavy traffic, so you won't likely use this if you're moving at 70 miles per hour. So don't worry about this issue if you're cruising. Just continue about your business.
If you're moving through traffic, we'd hope you're using your signal every chance to get. We're also hoping you're following Texas law by using those turn signals at least 100 feet before you make your move (you can use your signal further than 100 feet away from your move, though). This should let others know of your intent.
Frankly, the hesitation to merge at the end stems from the assumption it's every driver for themselves out there. That's not the way we should be driving! If everyone uses the Zipper, this trepidation shouldn't even exist. In order to get there, we need to agree collectively to use the Zipper.

I don't want to be rude
We have no idea who made this meme,
but we love the sentiment. Thank you,
Google search, for helping us find this!
The only reason this is even a thing is because of all the folks who are doing it wrong. This includes the folks that move over at the first sign of a need to merge - sometimes more than a mile in advance - and get irritated at those who use the lane that's left vacant.
Here's the thing: we have standards telling us how to set up those orange barrels. If we didn't want you using a lane, we'd put those orange barrels in it. If there are no orange barrels in a lane, it's because we want folks to use that lane.
Because of folks who merge early and get frustrated, road rage becomes a major factor here. Unfortunately it's misdirected and, in most cases, the individuals getting frustrated are the ones truly at fault. Heck, one poor guy posted a video to YouTube shaming folks, when he was the one in the wrong (disclaimer: strong language in the linked video ... viewer discretion advised).
The bottom line: it's not rude to use that open lane, it's actually the way things are supposed to work.

Does it really move traffic faster?
In a word: yes. A 2008 study by the Minnesota DOT says the reduction in traffic backup is 40-50 percent. You read that right: by using the Zipper, you're cutting traffic in half. By the way, they also observed a safer merge and less road rage up there. Those friendly Minnesotans also discovered the Zipper put an end to the frustrations of folks trying to get to exit ramps or turnoffs blocked by that really long backup filled by early mergers.
Minnesota isn't alone. In 2014 the Washington State DOT promoted the Zipper, and the conversation started rolling. The popular tech publication Ars Technica did a piece on the issue that same year.
Some are calling the Zipper, or late merge, a "new" concept, but the reality is it's been employed across the globe for some time. Some countries - like Germany and Austria - require it by law.

Here are what others across the country are saying:
A graphic representation used

by the Arkansas HTD promoting

use of the Zipper
  • A representative of the Alabama Department of Public Safety discussed the Zipper with The Huntsville Times six years ago.
  • The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities got into the fray through Twitter earlier this year.
  • The Arizona DOT branded the Zipper as a new merging method to get buy-in from folks driving along their major projects on I-10.
  • The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department began pushing the Zipper in 2015.
  • Per the FHWA in 2012, a driver in California had a Zipper graphic placed on his car to educate drivers nearby. Oddly enough, the California DOT has thus far remained skeptical of the technique - one of two states in America to do so.
  • The Colorado DOT posted a video to Facebook in 2014, hoping to encourage the Zipper.
  • In a work zone safety document from 2012 the Connecticut DOT advocated the Zipper in heavier traffic conditions.
  • Last month Delaware Online posted a piece reflecting what's being said elsewhere, encouraging drivers there to do the same.
  • All the way back in 2009 Florida DOT published a paper regarding the strategy behind the late-merge system (the engineering term for the Zipper).
  • The Georgia DOT posted in 2014 this WSJ piece discussing virtues of the Zipper.
  • University of Hawaii Professor of Driving Psychology Leon James is quoted a few times on our resistance to the Zipper, including this piece in Canada. Canada.
  • The Idaho Transportation Department has been talking about the Zipper since at least 2011.
  • Officials from a variety of agencies are telling Illinois media outlets to take turns at the merge point or caution against trying to prevent folks from using the extended lane that's closing.
  • The Indiana Toll Road is trying to get folks to use the Zipper where possible, and INDOT is starting to design highway on-ramps to employ the zipper permanently.
    This unofficial bumper sticker
    was developed by a driver in Iowa
  • This op-ed from an Iowa reporter confesses her hesitance and eventual embrace of the Zipper.
  • Kansas DOT has a great YouTube video of two traffic cones discussing the merge, and is leading the way on this topic.
  • The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet discusses the Zipper on their official site. Pretty cool stuff.
  • Folks in Louisiana have a lot of other issues to worry about, but the Zipper is still making its way into news media there.
  • The town of Lewiston, Maine, posted signs directing what they call an "alternate merge" movement - which is basically a Zipper - and the Portland Press-Herald got their editorial board together to endorse Zippers to Mainers. For real.
  • The Washington Post positioned the Zipper against other issues Maryland drivers are facing back in 2015.
  • The Massachusetts DOT discussed the dynamic merge - their version of the Zipper - in a series of public meetings earlier this year.
  • Michigan DOT employs a new orange sign with a zipper on it, reminding drivers to use the Zipper Merge.
  • Googling "zipper merge" yields this story about the nice folks in Minnesota still getting used to the Zipper, though MnDOT is among the leading agencies championing this method.
  • Mississippi is one of the few states relatively silent on the issue....
  • Af all the videos out there, the one by MoDOT is our fave. Missouri is all-in with the Zipper.
  • The conversation in Montana is much more grassroots - take a look at the comments section on this piece.
  • Remember all that fuss about the Zipper in Indiana? That's because of studies conducted by folks at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
  • The folks at Boulder City (Nevada) Police Department have this little ditty jumping on the Zipper bandwagon.
  • New Hampshire Public Radio got in on the Zipper craze in 2014.
  • The Neward (New Jersey) Star-Ledger points out there's no law regarding the Zipper, but drivers should do it anyway. Or else.
  • With a major project in Albuquerque, the NMDOT has asked folks to do the Zipper.
  • Apparently the New York Times has dubbed those merging early "Lineuppers", but this practice is discouraged after visiting with engineers.
    The NCDOT started posting these signs
    in construction zones earlier this year
  • Drivers in North Carolina are seeing a new sign on NCDOT projects encouraging the Zipper.
  • A Reddit user in Cincinnati implored Ohio drivers to read up on the Zipper.
  • The folks involved with Sooner Politics seem to think Oklahomans really need the Zipper.
  • Joseph Rose of the Oregonian loved endorsements of the Zipper, and raved about studies that showed its effectiveness in 2014.
  • Drivers in Pennsylvania got schooled by publications in Lancaster, Reading and from PennDOT itself on the Zipper.
  • Rhode Island may be smaller than Bexar County, but the Zipper is still an issue there.
  • South Carolina shares the opinion of pretty much everyone: the zipper merge is the most efficient option out there.
  • Tennessee is the other state that likes the early merge over the Zipper. In fact, it's actually illegal to do the Zipper up thataway - they consider it a violation of the "no passing zone".
  • Texas ... well, you're reading what we think about it right now!
  • All the way back in 2007, early proponents of the Zipper appealed to the righteousness of drivers in Utah to merge later.
  • Vermont's DOT encouraged the Zipper back in 2013 for a project in Montpelier.
  • Virginia DOT published a paper in 2004 recommending the Zipper in a 3-to-1 merge, as well as using it nominally (under heavy traffic) in a 2-to-1 or a 3-to-2 merge.
  • We already pointed out Washington's advocacy of the Zipper, but here's another piece from the PacNW, just for fun.
  • Another great DOT video - this one from Wisconsin.