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Why driving Twin Cities’ freeways can be harrowing

MinnPost photo by Judy Keen
When you’re entering the freeway during rush hours, you sometimes have to come to a complete stop on that shared bit of road before you can safely slide into fast-moving traffic.

I consider myself a pretty good driver.

I’ve driven in Manhattan and Los Angeles. I lived in downtown Chicago until this June, forcing me into regular encounters with the dreaded Kennedy Expressway.

In my four decades on the road, I’ve never been in an accident and I’ve gotten just one speeding ticket. Which I didn’t deserve.

Since moving to the Twin Cities, I’ve tensed up behind the wheel every time I’ve had to navigate in heavy traffic what traffic engineers call a weaving lane — the short section of pavement shared briefly by vehicles entering and leaving a freeway.

I had to deal with them in Chicago, too. Many freeways and highways and most cloverleaf interchanges have them.

If you’re trying to get off the freeway, you maneuver to the right as you approach the exit ramp, slowing down. The problem is that these ramp approaches also are occupied by vehicles trying to enter the freeway. They’re speeding up as they prepare to join the main flow of traffic.

So you squeeze in behind or, worse, in front of a vehicle that’s accelerating as you’re decelerating. When traffic is congested, you often have to slow way down while you’re still on the freeway, waiting for a chance to weave into the shared lane.

When you’re entering the freeway during rush hours, you sometimes have to come to a complete stop on that shared bit of road before you can safely slide into fast-moving traffic.

Stressful and frightening

The process can be stressful and frightening, especially when other drivers won’t cooperate by letting you edge out of or into the weaving lane.

Jim Rosenow, design flexibility engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, says short weaving sections exist in most big cities and the worst ones date from the late 1950s and 1960s, the early days of freeway construction.

Back then, he says, “the operational and safety effects of closely spaced ramp junctions weren’t as well understood as they are now.”

What Rosenow calls “possibly the most notorious” weaving lane in the Twin Cities is between East 35th Street and East 31st Street along Interstate 35W. It was built in the mid-’60s.

The first road design criteria to ensure adequate ramp junction spacing appeared as a research paper in 1975, he says, and became part of national design guidance for new construction in 1984.

“It’s difficult to improve ramp spacing on existing highways — even when we do full reconstruction of the road — because that generally means eliminating interchanges, and it’s pretty disruptive and unpopular to eliminate interchanges,” Rosenow says.

And the spacing guidance doesn’t apply to cloverleaf loops, “basically because it would be impossible to space the loops that far apart within the constraint of an interchange.”

Wenlong Jin is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California-Irvine’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “Safety is the No. 1 reason we want to avoid this kind of design,” he says. That’s not the only issue. Weaving lanes contribute to bottlenecks and can increase fuel consumption and vehicle emissions by up to 30 percent, he says.

Varying speed limits

Ramp meters that control the flow of traffic can help, he says, and some European countries vary speed limits along freeways to slow traffic approaching off- and on-ramps.

“If many people can slow down before getting to the weaving area, that helps,” he says.

“Collaborative driving could be really useful in this case,” Jin says, and he’s working to develop smart phone apps that would allow vehicle-to-vehicle communication to convey to nearby drivers information about a vehicle’s planned movements.

His practical advice for drivers: “When you get to this weaving area, even if you are not getting off or getting on, you can still anticipate a lot of lane changes. You want to stay away from the right lane.”

John Hourdos, an adjunct assistant professor of civil engineering and director of the Minnesota Traffic Observatory, a transportation research lab, calls the cloverleaf “a very challenging geometry” that requires drivers to pay close attention.

“At least in the Twin Cities,” he says, “none of the top 10 crash sites on freeways is on a cloverleaf.”

CloverleafCourtesy of MoDOTThere are design alternatives to the cloverleaf and its weaving lanes, Hourdos says, but most require a lot more space and bridges and some are much more expensive.

There are design alternatives to the cloverleaf and its weaving lanes, Hourdos says, but most require a lot more space and bridges and some are much more expensive.

Rosenow says alternatives have been built here. The most common is the collector-distributor road – a separated roadway from which all entrance, exit and weaving maneuvers are done. “It exits the main highway ahead of the congested area and re-enters downstream of it,” he says.

Among these C/D roads: along Interstate 94 at I-694/I-494, Rosenow says, as well as along I-394 at its intersections with I-494, U.S. 169 and Highway 100.

They work, he says, but cost more because of the need for extra pavement, lateral space for the extra roadway and a longer bridge.

Another option is to overlap short entrance/exit ramp spacing with what’s called a bridge braid. The off-ramp and on-ramp are built over or under each other. Examples: Plymouth, where the eastbound I-394 exit to Ridgedale Drive bridges under the eastbound entrance ramp from Plymouth Road; and along southbound Highway 252 as it passes under I-694 in Brooklyn Center.

“Anything that requires the construction of a bridge is relatively expensive and can be difficult to cost-justify,” Rosenow says.

Then there’s the “buffer lane” design, which was invented here a decade ago. It works like a collector-distributor road but is built as an auxiliary lane alongside the main highway, not a separate roadway.

The best example: both directions of I-94 at U.S. 169 in Brooklyn Park.

Its price tag is lower than some other alternatives and it can be retrofitted in existing interchanges. Rosenow says this innovative approach probably will be included in the next national highway design guide.

I asked Rosenow for some driving advice, too.

“Do your best to equalize your speed with the traffic stream you’re trying to weave with,” he says, and use your turn signal.

A research team that studied freeway ramp driving behavior found that the biggest problem comes when you’re merging from a low-speed ramp onto the highway. Resist the temptation to merge into highway lanes early and at a low speed, he suggests.

“I understand that this is due to a desire to get in there while the getting is good,” he says, “but it can tend to create a shock wave on the highway.”

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by jason myron on 10/11/2013 - 08:54 am.

    I’d feel a lot better

    if I knew that the majority of people around me were actually engaged in operating their vehicle rather than playing with their smart phone. Not to mention the absolutely stunning phenomenon, unique to Minnesota, of stopping when exiting the ramp instead of merging into traffic.

  2. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 10/11/2013 - 09:00 am.

    There *was* a better solution

    We would have fewer “weaving lanes” and fewer freeway intersections in general if we had routed the freeways around the cities like was originally intended.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/11/2013 - 09:02 am.

    For some reason, driving is a competitive sport in Minnesota….

    Turn on your signal for a lane change, and the person in the next lane speeds up to close the gap….

    Instead of the decelerating, exiting car slowing down and merging into the exit lane behind you, they speed up and slam on the brakes in front of you so you can’t really accelerate to highway speed to join the traffic lane…

    Even through the freeway is mostly empty, the car in the slow lane will not pull out another lane to allow the entering car to merge smoothly….

    In heavy traffic, the same thing occurs, and no space is created until the entering car runs out of merging lane space….

    When coming to a 4 way stop sign, if it appears you are going to stop, the crossing car, instead of coming to a stop also, instead accelerates without stopping through the stop sign…..

    When coming to stop at a yellow, almost red light, the car behind pull out and accelerates through the now red light….

    At a two way stop sign, the left turning car quickly accelerates into the intersection and turns ahead of the car that is going straight….

    At least 3 cars continue through their left turn through the intersection after the turn sign has turned red…

    In dense traffic, there is always the driver who has to pull around you so they can be 20 feet ahead of you, despite the fact they will end up going no faster than you could…

    I see multiple examples of this every week in my way around the city. Add in the fact that there are a lot of people on the phone and MANY people surreptitiously texting or otherwise surfing the net, and it is a bad mix.

  4. Submitted by mark wallek on 10/11/2013 - 09:56 am.

    Twin Cities is very stressful

    Like the author, I have driven in many different urban environments, here and abroad. Minneapolis is definitely home to some of the sloppiest drivers in the nation. Ignorance as to how to get on the freeway is abundant, but things like turning and lane changing without signalling, lip flapping on the phone, the idea that driving excessively fast, or double digits below the limit is a birthright, are all factors here. Driver education has become an oxymoron. Personally, I would like to see a ticketing campaign that went on and on. It would raise quite a bit of revenue and perhaps teach the ignorant about the proper way to get behind the wheel. That said, many bicyclists could be included in this program.

  5. Submitted by Joel Fischer on 10/11/2013 - 10:43 am.

    Adding to Neal’s list…

    but first, RE: additional cars making a left turn after the light has turned red.

    If the engineers who time those lights would have a better clue about local traffic patterns, I don’t think it would be such a problem. When there are a dozen cars in line to turn left and only three can get through on the short green arrow, what you described is exactly what is going to happen. Who wants to sit through two or three light cycles just because they can’t time the lights properly?

    I have one main pet peeve: drivers who drive as if they have no clue that there are other people sharing the road with them.

    If you’re waiting for a green light on a left turn, please notice that there might be other people in line behind you. If you’re new to the Twin Cities, I can maybe forgive your excruciating slow move through the intersection, but anybody who has lived here six months should know there is but a tiny window of opportunity to make a left turn while the light is green. Move with purpose! and for heaven’s sake, notice the other people sharing the road with you!

  6. Submitted by Arito Moerair on 10/11/2013 - 10:49 am.

    Worst interchange

    The worst interchange (weaving lane) that I regularly encounter is northbound I-35E to westbound MN-36. Traffic on 35E is moving at 60mph. There is only a very short weave lane and all of it is on a bridge; you must decelerate to about 25mph while weaving with traffic accelerating to freeway speed entering 35E. It’s treacherous and extremely dangerous. But being that it’s not in a well-to-do area, I doubt it will ever be improved.

  7. Submitted by James Crue on 10/11/2013 - 11:30 am.

    Minnesota drivers

    I lived in inner city Chicago until I was 31 and have lived in San Francisco and driven in most of the European countries. Minnesota drivers reflect the passive aggressive personality of Minnesota residents.
    They don’t know the difference between ” yield” and merge”. Try entering Hwy 100 from Excelsior Blvd near the AAA building. Those drivers entering from 36th St have a YIELD sign so the drivers using the on ramp to 100 from Excelsior Blvd. have the right of way. I have never seen a driver yield at that spot. The drivers entering from 36th St. pull onto 100 and expect those entering on the ramp from the left to move. They completely ignore the yield sign. I could go on and on but anyone reading this knows the problems with Minnesota drivers.
    I drove to California last Nov and was again reminded of the skill and competence of the California drivers. Minnesota has the worst drivers I have ever encountered.

    • Submitted by Arito Moerair on 10/11/2013 - 04:11 pm.

      Yep

      That is a really bad area in general. The whole intersection of Excelsior Blvd, Park Center Blvd, and MN-100 is one of the worst, most poorly designed in the entire Twin Cities. I’m guessing it was built at a time of less traffic, and it just can’t handle what we throw at it.

  8. Submitted by Nate Arthur on 10/11/2013 - 11:49 am.

    When is tailgating EVER a good idea?

    Tailgating is dangerous. In weaving lanes, it is ginormously dangerous. It keeps merging traffic out and creates an aggressive situation which means drivers take big risks. Come on Minnesota drivers. Get a clue.

  9. Submitted by Doug Gray on 10/11/2013 - 12:19 pm.

    The most cost-effective solution

    Learn to zipper merge. Unfortunately impossible given Minnesota “Nice.”

  10. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 10/11/2013 - 01:17 pm.

    An underutilized solution:

    Live close to where you work. Most days I run the 5 miles to work, and on those that I can’t run (early conference one day), I can drive city streets. A colleague does the same, and another bikes in. All of us chose homes/neighborhoods with this factor in mind. Freeways can be avoided to some extent.

  11. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 10/11/2013 - 02:03 pm.

    Worst Woodbury Weaving Lane

    I grew up in Minnesota but lived in northern California for 15 years, and I second all the comments made above about Minnesota drivers. The worst driving hazard I have to navigate on a regular basis is the I-94/494 intersection. Driving south on 694 toward Woodbury is a sporting proposition to begin with – speeding is the norm. ( I generally drive 5 miles over the limit to avoid being run over.) When the I-94/494 intersection appears ahead, the cars that want to exit that have been driving over 70 mph suddenly have to slow down and move right – I can almost hear their teeth grinding as the cars they whipped past a mile or so earlier sail past them to continue south on 494. Exiting cars going west can usually get off without too much danger, but cars trying to exit onto I-94 eastbound are confronted with the entering cars from 94 going south onto 494 RIGHT BEFORE THE EXIT RAMP. I am amazed more people haven’t been killed there. Whenever I can, I find an alternate route.

  12. Submitted by David Frenkel on 10/11/2013 - 03:25 pm.

    Worst place for drivers

    I moved from the Washington, DC area a few years and in one of the many surveys on driving DC was rated the worst which is believable. There is often complete gridlock in DC due to various government motorcades including the president going to church. It is also one of the few cities where you routinely see military figher aircraft flying overhead which creates the gowker slowdown.
    The Twin Cities has pretty mild traffic but no place corners the market on bad drivers, they are everywhere.

  13. Submitted by Joel Fischer on 10/11/2013 - 04:27 pm.

    Good for you Dmitri

    But it’s not just interstate driving that’s the problem. Bad driving is everywhere. I know I’m guilty of getting impatient with bad drivers and doing some things that annoy people, but I do my best to NEVER be the driver that gets in the way or is unaware of my surroundings and the others on the road.

  14. Submitted by Bruce Pomerantz on 10/11/2013 - 08:59 pm.

    Right on Red

    Let’s not overlook those drivers who think “Right on Red” is a MUST, not a MAY. The most frequent times I encounter road rage is when I decide to be cautious and not turn right on red. Yahoos behind me demand I follow their honking instructions to get out of their way instead. Once, a driver purposefully bore done on me from the outside lane of a one-way, two lane street, forcing me to the curb.

  15. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 10/12/2013 - 02:55 pm.

    Three basics

    I think 90% of road rage could be done away with altogether if people would follow three simple precepts: (1) Don’t hog the passing lane. Move into it, pass, and move back out of it. (2) Signal your turns, and do so BEFORE you start to turn. (3) Hang up and drive.

  16. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/13/2013 - 11:28 am.

    The worst idea in history

    “…smart phone apps that would allow vehicle-to-vehicle communication…”

    We’ve already been told that a person actively engaged with use of a cell phone while driving has the approximate skill level of a drunk driver. It is dangerous. Various states have passed laws against it.

    The idea of integrating the cell phone into driving is the worst idea I’ve heard lately – even more so if applied to the demanding task of traffic merger described in this article.

  17. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/14/2013 - 01:10 pm.

    Amen to all

    This obviously struck a nerve…

    I’ve not driven in Europe or elsewhere out of the country, but have lived in three different metro areas (St. Louis, Denver, Twin Cities), and traveled widely by automobile, especially west of the Mississippi. At least in my normal day-to-day travels, the Twin Cities has the highest proportion of genuinely inept and/or oblivious drivers of the three.

    My own most-hated intersection is northbound I-35 onto westbound I-694. It’s another weave lane that’s too short by half a mile, and combined with drivers suffering from the various maladies described by other commentators, I, too, wonder why people aren’t killed there on a regular basis.

    But that’s just one intersection, and there are dozens with equal potential for fatality. Combine with geezers and geezerettes who do everything s-l-o-w-l-y, teens who think warning and speed limit signs are for others, and cell phone users, and I wonder why there aren’t fatal accidents by the dozen every day, with state troopers retiring after 3 years due to PTSD.

    Meanwhile, Jeff Klein’s comment seems particularly apropos. As a culture, we missed a great opportunity by building interstate highways through downtown areas. Those highways were/are intended for *fast* travel between cities, not use by thousands of commuters. Unless I’m traveling between 10 AM and 2 PM, I tend to avoid the area interstates precisely because they’re terrible driving experiences, at least during daylight hours outside that little 4-hour window.

  18. Submitted by Reilly Liebhard on 10/14/2013 - 01:24 pm.

    Cloverleaf merging

    As a frequent driver of westbound 394 to southbound 169 (which is a cloverleaf once you exit the 394 C/D road), I compare cloverleaf merging to a down-bound elevator arriving at the first floor of a busy office tower. Regardless of when they board, upward-bound passengers can’t ultimately GO anywhere until the current occupants are disgorged. Similarly, inbound cloverleaf traffic at a congested interchange can’t go anywhere until outbound traffic allows room. And the best way to create room in the mainline traffic is to expedite the departure of vehicles wishing to exit that traffic. In practice, this means I’ll always tip “close call” timing situations in favor of the exiting vehicle, ie fall slightly behind to let it complete its movement first.

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