Archive for April 1999

The Number One Asshole Move

1 April 1999
Categories: Rants, Transportation

(continued from Part 2)

Which brings me to my next point about driving. It’s what I consider to be the Number One Asshole Move. I see it on the streets of Chicago every day, and it probably happens on every highway in the U.S.

The upshot is this, breaking a rule we all learned in kindergarten: Don’t Cut In Line.

You’re on a typical Chicago street, Division for example, where there’s one lane for traffic each way and parking on both sides. You pull up to a red light, and before it turns green somebody pulls alongside you, on the right, into a space that usually only exists because it’s a bus stop. When the light turns green, they step on it and cut you off before the lane they’re in turns back into parked cars.

Of course, this act has its basis in a legit manoeuvre. If you were turning left at that light, then it’s quite convenient for other drivers to cut around you and continue on. But what I want to know is, if I’ve been sitting in a long line of cars, all waiting for the light to change so we can continue our lemming parade, who do these jerks think they are to cut around all of us as we politely wait our turns in line?

The answer is, they think they’re the most important people on earth. Of course, they’re wrong.

Likewise, on highways you often will lose a lane for any number of reasons. The Skyway, as it enters onto the Dan Ryan, goes from two lanes to one as you come over that hill, and especially on Sunday nights it gets pretty backed up. We’ve all seen it: everybody gets over and waits in line, and some asshole zips by in the vanishing lane and cuts in at the last second.

Now, when both lanes are backed up and you know you have to get down to one lane, the rule of thumb is: Zipper. It’s so simple: one car from the left, one from the right, repeat ad infinitum.

I admonish everyone to take their chances with the road ragers of the world and stand your ground. When zippering, declare your space in line but keep over in that vanishing lane as long as possible. Block those assholes from cutting around you and everyone else and make them wait with the rest of humanity. I’ve done this several times and have made a few enemies, but likely more than a few friends. Sometimes a semi driver behind me will take my example and do the same, which gives a pleasant buffer. Who’s gonna mess with a semi?

The Butterfly Effect on the Expressway

1 April 1999
Categories: Rants, Transportation

My driving theory (see Part 1), if universally applied, could in my opinion solve many of the congestion problems we face in the city and on the expressways. The reasoning is couched in a little basic chaos theory.

Chaos theory is that relatively new science that states that any system, no matter how simple, has a certain balance of order and chaos. As a system increases in complexity, a very tiny event can cause very large changes in the system. The textbook example is of the butterfly in China that flutters its wings and causes a snowstorm in New York; since weather patterns are extremely complex, the tiny effect of the butterfly’s wings could theoretically result in a cascade of effects, each more powerful than its predecessor, until finally the east coast is socked in by a blizzard.

Highway driving is much the same. Each car is an individual element of a complex system. They all follow some basic rules, such as stay out of the ditch, try not to stop, etc., but also each driver has a different style, choice of speed, level of aggressiveness, etc., that makes the system even more complex than it would be if, say, every car were driven by a robot.

We have all been caught in traffic jams that slow traffic to a crawl for a few or several miles, then suddenly dissipate without any sign of an accident or other obvious root cause. Well, that’s the butterfly effect. Scientists using computer models based on chaos theory have shown that even the slightest fluctuation in the system can lead to a cascade effect. (Actually, this description might be misleading. The computer models don’t exactly have “chaos elements.” Instead, they just achieve a decent level of accuracy in modelling, taking into account such variables as driver aggressiveness, intended top speed, and even vehicle performance. When there are enough variables in the model, the chaos just appears, inherently.)

Say, for example, a driver (for whatever reason) lets up on the throttle a bit, slowing their car slightly. The driver behind them might not notice right away, and will have to tap their brakes to match the slower speed. Then a third driver, seeing the brake lights, might hit the brakes for a little longer, just in case. Or if they’re aggressive, they might change lanes and cause another driver to slow down to avoid them. You can see where this is going. Often the little slowdowns like this will be absorbed into the flexibility of the system, but sometimes, especially in heavier traffic, the cascade will continue to snowball and a few minutes later, a few miles up the road, a complete logjam will appear.

The throttle-off driver, like the butterfly, is innocent and utterly oblivious to the havoc he has caused. The aggressive driver, however, that asshole who thinks he’s God in an SUV, who has to drive 80 during rush hour, who changes lanes without signalling and cuts off other drivers, is not innocent, merely ignorant. Even if he doesn’t cause that ultimate delay, the collision (I shan’t say “accident”), he’s deliberately introducing an extreme element of chaos into the system. That stop-and-go traffic you’re sitting in now might have been caused by some careless, leadfooted jerk that passed through here half an hour ago.

Imagine, though, a utopian world (and by “utopian” I mean “it’ll never happen”) where everyone maintained a reasonable speed, kept a safe distance between cars, signalled their intent before acting, and refrained from changing lanes without good reason. My contention is that the entire system would flow smoothly and with a minimum of collisions and slow-downs. Sure, no one would be able to do 80, but how amazing would it be to drive south on the Dan Ryan at 5:15 at a constant speed of 45?

On to Part 3

My First Theory of Driving: A Thought Experiment

1 April 1999
Categories: Rants, Transportation

I’m a big transportation buff. I like to drive, think trains are way cool, enjoy sailing, want to learn to fly. And, of course, being a nerd I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about transportation systems and how they work. (Spending three years driving every weekend between Lansing, Michigan, and Chicago gives you plenty of time to think.) I have come up with a theory that applies to every aspect of travelling:

The apparent conspiracy of delaying events is directly proportional to the perceived importance of a timely arrival.

To put it more colloquially:

The more you’re in a hurry, the more assholes will get in your way.

This sounds like a joke, but I’m quite serious. Try it sometime, as a thought experiment. Even if your destination isn’t all that important, decide it is. Not only will every idiot in town be in front of you, but even the traffic lights will turn red just to spite you. Then, when you’re headed somewhere really important and running late, convince yourself that you’re really out for a leisurely drive, and watch the road open up before you. You might even find easy parking when you get there. I swear it works.

Just another example of how reality reflects one’s inner state of being.

On to Part 2