Sunday 21 July 2013

Zipper Merge

So I was driving recently on the freeway in Saskatoon and ... oh wait ... maybe I should explain for those of you who have never driven in a city besides Winnipeg: a "freeway" is a road with no stoplights where you can drive at highway speeds. Saskatoon, a city one third the population of Winnipeg, has one. It's called Circle Drive.

As I was saying ... I was driving on Circle Drive in Saskatoon when I approached a construction project to extend the freeway to the west. That's when I saw it: a sign that said "ZIPPER MERGE AHEAD".

The concept is simple: drivers are to stay in their lane until the point at which one of them ends, and then they are to take turn merging -- one from the left, one from the right -- like a zipper.

I quite like it.

It's a nice alternative to the situation that we normally encounter here in Winnipeg. That is, the majority of drivers all pile into the single lane that is continuing, causing a huge backup in traffic. Then a minority of drivers zip ahead and cut in at the front of the line or somewhere close to it.

There are a couple of problems with this, one being that it creates an unnecessarily long traffic queue, another being that it causes animosity among drivers. The drivers who get in line right at the start of the queue and wait patiently as the line trudges along resent the selfish nimrods who zip past them in the empty lane and cut in at the front.

But why should you get in line half a mile before the construction starts when there is a perfectly good lane that can legally take you right up to the merge zone? That isn't rational.

I've been on both sides. Sometimes I get in line, and when I do I get annoyed at those who don't. Depending on what kind of mood I'm in that day, I may even do my best to keep them from merging in front of me. Sometimes, if I'm in an unusually pissy mood, or if the guy trying to merge is driving a pickup truck with a license plate that says "GORJUS" and is wearing a ball cap backwards (I have seen this), I'll even tease them by leaving space for him to merge and then closing up to the car in front of me at the last second, and then I'll go extra slow to give the guy behind me a chance to close up behind me too.

That's how I roll.

However, sometimes I'm the douche bag who zips up the empty lane, although in my head I say to myself "Oops, is this lane closing off? Gosh, I hadn't noticed. I guess I ought to merge over here at some point." -- as if I can telepathically communicate to the drivers waiting in the queue that I didn't mean to drive up the empty lane, it's just that I didn't notice the construction signs. Silly me.

However, I won't drive right to the front of the line because that would be rude, and it would negate the little excuse that I made for myself that I only inadvertently failed to get in line.

This is all normal behaviour, right? Good. Just checking.

Sometimes those who set up the construction sites make it worse than it needs to be. For example, the signage for the construction on the Pembina overpass on the south Perimeter Highway in Winnipeg begins more than 2 kilometers in advance of the lane closure, with signs that warn you that there is a lane closure ahead and the speed limit is reducing to 70 km/h. As a result, most drivers pull over into the right hand lane and slow down to 70 km/h on the highway so far in advance of the construction that you can't even see where the construction begins.


In writing this blog post, I found out that the zipper merge is a new thing for Saskatoon. They only started to experiment with it in May, because, as one person put it, "People have been so bad historically in this city anyway on road construction and merging that anything might improve it".

Saskatoon borrowed the idea from the state of Minnesota, a pioneer in the zipper merge revolution, and so far they have found that it works quite well. My own experience with it was pretty good. I mean, about as good as merging at a road construction site can be. It's not comparable to, say, a full-body hot oil massage, but you know ... it wasn't painful.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation says that the zipper merge "has proven to help traffic flow by decreasing queue lengths as much as 35 percent" and "reduced lane-changing conflicts and sudden-stop crashes."

However, even in Minnesota not everyone is an advocate. One blogger: "I get how the zipper merge is supposed to work, the problem is the people who don’t. ... The zipper merge is going to be this century’s conversion to the metric system in the ’70s. Great idea, made perfect sense, and was dead on arrival."

Much like a roundabout, I don't know how you could fail to understand how it works. Having never experienced such a thing before, I found it exceedingly easy to understand. Mind you, I have underestimated the stupidity of other drivers before.

Even if some people don't catch on to the concept of a zipper, I think it's worth trying out here in Winnipeg because it eliminates the dilemma of deciding between two bad options: burn 5 minutes of your life in a line of cars, or be rude and selfish by cruising to the front of the queue.

Taking turns is something we're taught to do as little kids. As adults driving cars it shouldn't be that hard.

Monday 8 July 2013

Winnipeg Trails: The old and the new

Introducing Winnipeg's newest active transportation trail:

looking north
The trail joins Beaverhill Blvd in the Niakwa neighbourhood to the north with Bishop Gandin Blvd to the south, near the intersection with Royalwood's Shorehill Drive.

looking south towards Bishop Grandin
bridge over stormy water ditch
The path is called Shorehill Trail. It was paved and functional about two weeks ago and is currently undergoing some finishing touches. The provincially funded strip of 4-meter wide asphalt was budgeted at $720,000. At less than 300 meters long this new trail is not cheap, at almost $2500 per meter.

A large part of the cost is due to the bridge spanning the storm water ditch that runs along Bishop Grandin. The bridge seems over-engineered for a walking/biking trail to me. Workers have been building that bridge or whatever you want to call it for several months, and have constructed it much like a road bridge over a creek. Installing a prefabricated walking bridge likely would have cost a fraction of the half-million dollars or so that this thing cost, but perhaps they want it to be able to support vehicular traffic -- an ambulance in emergency situations, for example, or an escape route for Niakwanians trapped by a derailed crude oil train.

The primary purpose of this path is to allow kids to safely walk from their homes in Royalwood to schools in Southdale. Previously they would take a shortcut through the ditch or walk along the railway tracks if there was water in the ditch. Somebody who grew up in a small prairie town might say: 'what's the big deal? Just don't go on the tracks if a train is coming.' But I guess there is a new safety standard these days. Everyone is all like 'don't go on the tracks' or 'wear your helmet' or 'don't play with the guns'. Where will it stop? I don't know but I won't complain because this new path personally benefits me.

I run. I bike. I rollerblade. I use the trails in Winnipeg all the time, and I would love to see a network of functional paths connecting the city, allowing people to get around with minimal interaction with traffic, if such a thing is feasible. They need to be functional and well designed though. (Note: a two-meter wide path with a red-light camera stuck in the middle of it is neither ...)

We've made great strides in the past 5 years, but much like Winnipeg's roads, old trails crumble as new ones are built.
painful memories
This photo shows the approximate location of The Incident last week whereby my rollerblade wheels jammed in a crack in the path, slinging me down into the concrete, splitting open the end of my finger and gouging out a gruesome wound in my knee that could take months to heal.

This nameless path is less than half a kilometer from the spiffy new trail shown earlier. Sometimes older cracked paths are repaired temporarily with tar that gets soft and sticky in the sun and the heat. Sometimes paths -- those that are forgotten or deemed less important -- are simply left to break apart. Rarely is a path torn up and redone (although I have seen one example lately).

Even trails that were built only a few years ago have large cracks running through them. This is a reminder that, like our roads, we need to be able to maintain and occasionally rebuild the new infrastructure in addition to the existing stuff. As the network grows, this cost will grow too. It's not slowing down either, as new developments like Bridgwater Forest incorporate trail accessibility into their neighbourhood design.
All this trail building seems to be paying off. More people are biking to work than ever before, and even more are using the trails for exercise and recreation. It's a good thing. However, trails will never replace roads in a town like Winnipeg. They instead constitute a duplicate network of infrastructure. Your MLA may secure provincial funding to build a new path in your area, and pose for a picture in your local Canstar paper ... all of which is fine ... but where will the money for the upkeep come from down the road?

All things considered, I think Winnipeg Trails Public Works is doing a pretty good job. It can't be easy to stay on top of repairs to existing trails as all these new ones get built. However, the challenge for the city will be to ensure these hundreds of kms of paths are kept in good shape, and don't end up like this:


Tuesday 2 July 2013

Reston flood update - with pictures

I don't know what's happening with the weather these days, but man, the Gods must be mad about something. Heat waves and massive tornadoes are killing people in the US, and here in Canada it's flooding all over.

Of course everybody knows about the disastrous flooding in Alberta, but recently a pair of freakish storms swept over Reston Manitoba dumping 10 inches of rain in 2 days. I stopped by Reston on my way back to Winnipeg from Saskatchewan to check things out. Here is my report:


Hi. Cherenkov here reporting from Reston. As you can see, most of the water has receded from the town, but there is still a lot of work to be done to get things back to normal.

Reston Golf Course - Hole #1
Roughly half the houses in this town have been flooded. Many basements were destroyed, and the foundations of some older houses have crumbled, likely requiring the the houses to be demolished and rebuilt. As of Friday, water continued to rush through the ditches towards town, and pumps were running constantly to drain low-lying areas.

Pumpin' Water

Like most disasters, this was a story of a community coming together to help each other. Families, teenagers, friends of residents, and people who weren't even connected to the town, came to help.

Mennonites from southwest Manitoba descended on the town to help however they could. Some of them were still there on Friday when I visited. They are good folk, those Mennonites. Well ... most of them.

As all the basements were torn apart and emptied onto the streets, volunteers drove around and picked up the garbage, hauling it to a temporary dump at the old elementary school where it was sorted out into giant piles.

I know one young man who, with his friends and some others, hauled in rocks to shore up Highway 2 to prevent it from getting washed out. Highway 2 was acting as a dike, holding back water that was building up on the north side of the road. Although water was rushing over the highway, if the road had collapsed the situation would have been much worse.

Note that it was residents and friends who protected the town and shored up the highway -- not the province. Sure, the Premier drove out five days later and toured the area for a photo op, but I've heard that the town and municipality have been on their own to deal with the situation. I do expect, however, that some disaster assistance will be coming their way at some point. We all know how good the province is about doling out flood compensation.

The damage wasn't limited to houses. The CP Rail line through town was washed out.
Rail line on western edge of town
This is a minor line that dead-ends not far into Saskatchewan, and it would not be a surprise if CPR shuts it down rather than repairing it. If so, that would be a blow to the grain elevator in town that was purchased and reopened by some local farmers.

It will take a while for everything to get fixed. If another big storms rolls through I'm not sure what will happen, but them country folk are resilient.

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