Lane Closed Ahead

Author: Burt Constable

Before dawn, the precision Commuter Annoyance Squad hits the highways. In my imagination, the first row of vehicles, three-abreast to block all lanes, creeps along the empty pavement at exactly 18 miles an hour. The second row of cars, also spanning the width of the expressway, waits 30 seconds and then accelerates to 65 miles an hour before slamming on their brakes and screeching to a dead stop inches behind the rear bumpers of the sluggish leaders. They repeat this process ad nauseam, setting the pace for the morning rush hour that is neither in a rush nor completed within an hour.

The rest of us drivers fall in line behind them to form a commuter conga line that resembles a giant Slinky toy being pulled behind a crawling infant. The average speed may be 18 miles per hour, but the bulk of us stop, speed up, stop and speed up, all the while cursing that crawling infant.

Commuting to work (90 minutes through a construction zone behind a gravel truck) has replaced walking to school (6 miles uphill both ways through waist-high snow) as the “We had it tough” tale for a new generation. Every commuter has a story.

Mine begins in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park as I leave my home, which is south of North Avenue, north of South Boulevard, but east of East Avenue and west of Western Avenue. To avoid construction zones, I head south to get on the expressway, which takes me west to Illinois Highway 53, which takes me north to the tollway, which takes me east to my office. Sometimes the realization that I drive in all four directions to reach my job so bothers my sense of well-being that I instead take back roads.

My back road strategy mirrors the laws of nature. As if my car were water or electricity, it always follows the path of least resistance
I need to head northwest. So if I am driving west and a light turns red, I will turn right on red. If I hit another red light, but notice the left-turn lane signal will turn green first, then I will turn left. This absolves me of any poor decisions, as I have surrendered all power to the traffic gods and the whims of the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Technically, I am a so-called “reverse commuter,” driving away from the city in the morning and toward it at night. Yet, my travel times often are worse than what traditional commuters face. The suburban boom is largely responsible for the number of miles driven annually in the Chicago area increasing by 47 percent between 1980 and 1995, according to the Chicago Area Transportation Study.

As the houses popped up in the suburbs, the jobs and traffic followed. The suburbs have led the region in new jobs since 1970, the study concludes.

The suburbs are not the escape they once were, says Tim Lomax, a research engineer with the nationally respected Texas Transportation Institute. With the fourth-worst commute in the nation, Chicagoans and their suburban counterparts now spend more than a week’s vacation (44 hours) a year just sitting in traffic, Lomax says. (Europeans may spend an extra week in Monte Carlo; we spend an extra week in our Monte Carlos.) And the daily rush hour now lasts nearly six hours — 30 percent longer than it did just a few years ago.

“In some areas, the goal is to have the morning peak period over before the afternoon peak period begins,” Lomax quips. “It’s not getting that much worse because it’s already pretty bad. You can’t put 10 pounds of sugar in a 5-pound bucket.”

You know things are bad when traffic congestion in the laid-back, latte-sipping city of Seattle is blamed for a suicide try, as commuters, angered by a lengthy attempt to talk down a woman perched on a highway bridge, loudly and successfully urged the poor woman to jump, just so traffic could get moving again.

Nationwide, traffic congestion costs $78 billion when you figure in the 4.5 billion hours of extra travel time and the 6.8 billion gallons of fuel wasted while sitting in traffic, the Texas research concludes. While all 68 urban areas studied — from New York City and its 17.1 million residents to Boulder, Colorado, population 105,000 — suffer from severe congestion that lasts longer and affects more people, the smaller cities have been hit the hardest in recent years. The average annual delay per person climbed from 11 hours in 1982 to 36 hours in 1999, but that delay quintupled in areas with fewer than 1 million people.

And those figures don’t include the additional delays caused by construction, snow, rain, fog, sunlight or police.

When faced with a speed trap, commuters become either antelopes or cows.

Antelopes that stumble upon the only drinking hole on the savanna willingly quench their thirst, despite knowing the gators lurking in the water will grab a few of them from the banks. Giddy at the rare opportunity to make up for lost time, commuters continue to feed the need for speed, aware that police officers lurking along the shoulder will nab a number of the commuting herd.

Other times, the traffic trudges through so many construction zones and gaper blocks, with no chance to escape second gear, that weary commuters become accustomed to that fate and forget to speed. They are like cows penned in by an electric fence. After days of shocks break the bovine spirit, the cows won’t try to escape even when the rancher shuts the power off.

Then there are the crazy commuting stories such as the Saturday morning when I was traveling in the middle lane of a nearly deserted three-lane expressway, and the only other car on the road rammed me from behind and spun my car into a bridge abutment. The offending driver responsible for totaling my car wasn’t drunk, high, trying to kill me or even in a hurry. As police arrested him for hitting me, having no insurance, no license and a car that wasn’t his, he told them that I was going too slow for someone given such a splendid opportunity to speed. Homeless people who saw the accident from the overpass bridge scurried down the embankment to help me out of the wreckage. I gave $5 to the witness who told me he could identify the blue BMW that hit me. The second rescuer offered to finger a red Mercedes for $10.

By the time I left the hospital emergency room for home, my car had been towed, but the traffic jam I started went on without me. In many ways, a commute is like a glimpse back in time. Just as the light from an exploding star won’t reach Earth until years after the cosmic event, a minor car fire extinguished at 3 p.m. can still cause delays three hours later.

Still . . .

“The average commute has been between 20 and 30 minutes since the days of the Roman Empire,” Lomax says, noting his can be 10 minutes, or a little longer if he rides his bicycle. Desperate to reduce the load, many of today’s commuters stagger their work schedules, arrive earlier or leave later, to miss peak traffic times.

There was a time when the distance from home to work was measured in miles instead of minutes. Long ago, or even today in some rural areas, a commuter could live 30 miles from work and still make the trip in 30 minutes. Now, commuters often spend a half hour in line waiting to drop coins into a toll basket. Traffic can come to a (often literally) crashing stop to allow people the opportunity to deposit offerings to the Gods of Road Rage. I know a Ph.D. college professor who was so irked by the cruel irony of being forced to pay for delays that he refused to pay tolls. His left fist empty, he would fling his arm out the window so that the security camera might think he actually hurled his fee into the basket. When the light remained red, he’d frown, shrug and drive through, confident that his act was more believable than an automatic coin-counter.

Back in the days before kids, when I commuted to work with my wife, Cheryl, riding shotgun, I looked at the toll basket as welcome entertainment — a child’s arcade game stuck in the middle of a traffic jam. I’d drop in 39 cents and make my embarrassed spouse roll down her passenger window and fling the missing penny over the roof of the car. A miss, and I’d quickly ante up another. But a successful toss was met with rejoicing and verbal reconstructions of the exploit that lasted several minutes, or until we were forced to merge with those who merely mope through the booths but are willing to die, or at least kill, to be one car length ahead of the likes of me.

Here is where bumper stickers can save a commuter’s life. As eight lanes merge into three, you scan the bumpers of your rivals. Zipping in front of a Chevette with the “What Would Jesus Do?” sticker should be safe, as Jesus would not leap out of his Chevy and bludgeon you with his tire iron. Conversely, the Camaro with the “This Car Protected by Smith & Wesson” notice should be given the right of way.

You can trust me on this, as I have been subjected to Chicago traffic since the ‘70s. Pity the poor newcomer who prepares for his first day of commuting by plotting his path on a map. He turns on the radio to get “traffic reports on the 8s” and discovers the traffic reporters don’t speak his language. They throw out travel times configured from local landmarks such as “the steel bridge,” “the cave,” “the junction,” “the Post Office” or “the Hillside Strangler.” The listener doesn’t realize the Bishop Ford turns into the Dan Ryan, which turns into the Edens, which turns into the Tri-State. He doesn’t recognize the report for I-290 because he doesn’t know that while maps and traffic signs call that road I-290, the locals refer to it as “the Eisenhower.”

Even if he knows that, the lost babe might not realize that “the Eisenhower” is nicknamed “the Ike.” The road might as well be called “Old Hickory” for all he knows.

Once he learns the lingo, he still might not realize that the inbound Ike travel time of an-hour-10 to the Post Office refers to a building that hasn’t been the Post Office for years.

The situation is further complicated by the knowledge that “94 East” heads south while drivers must get on “94 West” to head north.

Mastering the language and geography, while essential, leaves a driver about as ready to tackle the daily commute as an A in biology class prepares a teenager for a first date. There is no substitute for experience.

In the summer, you are treated to a parade of sounds (and sometimes smells) coming from the cars creeping along beside you. Not a rap fan? Roll up your window, turn on the air conditioning and rest assured that the pounding in your chest is their booming bass and not your thumping heart. Hoping to coax a merge from the person one lane over listening to an old Olivia Newton-John tune? Push your radio scan button until you find the station playing the hits of the 1970s.

I have been stuck in traffic next to drivers reading newspapers, magazines or even novels, listening to books on tape, learning foreign languages, talking on cell phones, taking notes, watching TVs, working on laptops, struggling to light cigars, tossing garbage, making out with passengers, changing clothes, playing handheld video games, turning around to put the fear of God into unruly kids, breast-feeding, shaving, applying lipstick, brushing teeth, clipping nose hair, tying ties, removing pantyhose, combing hair, putting on mascara, eating with both hands while the knees do the driving, ducking below the steering wheel to search for something, drinking alcohol, doing needlepoint and holding a battered car door shut with one hand.

In their distracted states, these people often miss the subtleties of commuter etiquette, which can inspire everything from road rage to questions for Miss Manners.

The answer may seem obvious to such queries as, “In an attempt to find ‘the fast lane,’ the guy in front of me just changed lanes four times in 15 seconds without signaling once. And yet, he is now the guy tailgating behind me. Can I empty my nose hair clipper in his direction?”

But etiquette isn’t so easy when it concerns a sign warning, “Right lane closed ahead.” This is the Queen Mother of Traffic Dilemmas. Most drivers agree that it is figuratively and literally crossing the line when someone whips out of the plodding, patient traffic lane and zips into the “Closed in 500 Feet” lane in an attempt to pass less aggressive cars and shave eight seconds off his commute. We cheer the fearless truck driver who swerves into that lane in an attempt to dissuade line-busters.

But it is the drivers who get out of the closing lane long before the merge who cause more trouble, concludes a study at this year’s annual convention of traffic engineers.

“That seems like the polite thing to do, but for traffic movement, it’s the worst thing,” says Dick Raub, a senior research scientist with the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety. Studies in Pennsylvania and Texas indicate that making drivers stay in their lanes and merging at the last possible moment helps traffic flow — as long as drivers observe the old alternating-car merge routine. “The moment one person does not let somebody in, you’ve got the same problem back again,” says Raub.

Even if that “who must yield to whom?” traffic tiff is resolved, it won’t help. The Commuter Annoyance Squad is always waiting just around the next curve.

Burt Constable is a columnist with the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, where his commute home from work ranges from a career best 25 minutes when his wife went into labor to a snow-hampered two-and-a-half hours.