It’s quiet out there, almost too quiet, as they might say in a cliche scene from a western movie.
“Out there,” in this case, is Route 1 at rush hour and Nassau Street at noon, and other highways and byways that are normally the bane of our driving existence. For this summer, at least, with gasoline prices hitting an all time high, and the Bush economy hitting an alltime low (even if you don’t want to call it a recession), the roads I have traveled seem practically deserted compared to what I would consider the norm.
My boy Frank spent part of the summer working as a counselor for the Arts Council of Princeton, in a program located at the Princeton Junior School on Fackler Road in Lawrenceville. That meant that Dad’s Taxi service had to deliver Frank (and various of his colleagues) from downtown Princeton to Fackler Road by 8:45 a.m., and then — to reach the U.S. 1 office — had to buck morning rush hour traffic on both Princeton Pike heading into Princeton and then Route 1 heading north from Province Line Road. I expected a nightmare; instead it was a snap.
The other day I had to head back into the heart of Princeton at lunchtime to meet a contractor at my house. He had taken over the driveway, leaving me to fight for a metered place in front of the house. There was no fight; the meters were all vacant.
On Friday night I took my family to Calico Grill for some al fresco dining. Afterward we walked over to Thomas Sweet Ice Cream to take in the live music in the courtyard. I gritted my teeth as we came to the pedestrian crossing and the game of Dare that was likely to ensue. But there was no Dare; in fact, there were no cars. We crossed with ease.
But I know it won’t last. Next week is back to school and back to business as well. Gas prices are already coming down and the economy sooner or later will start gaining ground again.
So I decided to take advantage of these rush hour lulls to grab one more piece of summer reading, a book reviewed a few weeks ago in the New York Times, a book with the simple title “Traffic” and a more intriguing subtitle: “Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).”
Tom Vanderbilt, the author, caught my attention in his prologue, titled “Why I Became a Late Merger (and Why You Should Too).” Here Vanderbilt, a Brooklyn based writer who drives a 2001 Volvo, describes that all too familiar dilemma faced by all of us when we are on the interstate and see the dreaded sign: “Left lane closed one mile ahead. Merge right.” Your instinct tells you to merge right as soon as possible — get it over with and don’t be at the mercy of aggressive motorists when you finally run out of room in the left lane.
But an inner logic might suggest a different approach, as Vanderbilt explains. Over the objections of his wife, riding as a passenger, he stayed in the soon-to-be-closed lane until the very end. Then he merged, considerably ahead of where he would have been had he followed the crowd.
That’s been my argument for years: The highway has to be more efficient with both lanes in use — why cut down that distance? I am pleased to say that on interstates 380 and 81 in Pennsylvania, which I get to travel fairly frequently, the highway department now posts signs that announce a lane closing and then advise motorists to use both lanes until the merge point. At they point they counsel drivers to use an alternate merge. Why fight?
In fact, 30 or 40 pages later, in a chapter titled “Why Does the Other Lane Always Seem Faster? Vanderbilt makes the same observation about the Pennsylvania approach to late merging, a breakthrough approach started in the 1990s. Thus hooked, I sped through Vanderbilt’s book to see what other insights it could provide with respect to some of my peeves and concerns regarding traffic in central New Jersey.
Allegedly Unsafe Roads. West Windsor Township has decreed that the “S-curve” on Alexander Road, just before you come into Princeton Township from Route 1, is one of its most dangerous roadways. The media has joined the chorus, especially since a teenage driver was involved in a fatal accident there.
Since I drive that road twice a day almost every day I have my own opinion — that the road isn’t dangerous as all but that teenage drivers are. Vanderbilt has another explanation: That roads that seem the most dangerous are statistically safer than roads that seem “easy” to drive. In fact the gradual, sweeping Alexander Road S-curve may lull drivers into a false sense of security.
The Round-About. Along with the S-curve I also drive the round-about on Faculty Road more or less twice a day every day. There’s rarely much traffic when I travel Faculty Road, but I have been anxious about West Windsor’s current project to replace the old T intersection of Alexander Road and North Post Road with a round-about.
How many accidents will grace that “improvement,” I thought to myself. Based on Vanderbilt’s book, you might guess relatively few. “With a roundabout,” he writes, “only a fool would blindly sail into the scrum at full speed. Drivers must adjust their speed, scan for openings, negotiate the merge.” That’s in sharp contrast to an intersection with a light, where many drivers will speed up to get through the green at the moment when they should be more cautious.
Yielding to Pedestrians. I have written before about the inherent dangers for Princeton University students crossing Washington Road on foot. They have their heads in the clouds, or at least tuned to their iPods. Motorists, meanwhile, are aggressively combating rush hour traffic. The recently redesigned crosswalks now feature blinking lights embedded in the roadway. The lights can be activated by the pedestrian.
Does that make it safer for those pedestrians? Probably not. I assiduously stop for pedestrians (reminding myself that some day soon they will be paying my social security), and then I grit my teeth and hope that the motorist coming in the other direction will also stop. It’s a reasonable concern: As Vanderbilt writes, “the sad fact is that more urban pedestrians are killed while legally crossing in crosswalks than while jaywalking.”
And so it goes in this virtual tour of traffic and all it means to us. It’s a great time of year, there’s a parking spot free in front of my house, and here’s a book on traffic that quotes both Jane Austen (“When people are waiting, they are bad judges of time and every half minute seems like five”) and Einstein (“Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves”).
I’m enjoying the book, and the quiet while it lasts. But I have one eye on the calendar: Labor Day is next week and Princeton University classes resume the week after that. Drive safely. Walk safely.