Extra lanes were meant to help, but drivers hinder commute


March 14, 1994

If roads are widened, but nobody uses the extra lanes, were they ever really there?

We seem to recall it was either Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist, or Dave Sandler, the aerial traffic observer, who first posed that philosophical question.

Anyway, Intrepid Commuter was reminded of it after reading a very perceptive letter from faithful reader Frank Bowman of Abingdon concerning the juncture of Emmorton Road, Route 24 and Interstate 95 in Harford County.

It's a rather complicated problem, but it comes down to this: Extra turn lanes were added on both Emmorton Road and Route 24 last year to alleviate a traffic jam, but the benefit has been blunted by misbehaving motorists.

How could such a thing happen? Try to picture this:

* You are traveling Emmorton Road on a weekday morning headed to southbound I-95. You must turn left onto Route 24 and then make an immediate right for the interstate ramp.

* There are two left-turn lanes from Emmorton to Route 24, but naturally the right-most lane fills up first because commuters know they have to make that immediate right from Route 24 onto the I-95 ramp.

* These people turning from that right-most left-turn lane hog the center of Route 24. They have the option of going straight or turning right at the I-95 ramp.

* Being aggressive commuters, the folks in the center won't move to the extra lane to the right to let in the other motorists who came from Emmorton. Only one lane of traffic ends up using the two-lane ramp to I-95.

The result: Despite the almost-vacant extra left-turn lane on Emmorton and extra right-turn lane on Route 24, traffic is painfully slow.

"If everyone cooperated and used both lanes turning from Emmorton onto Route 24, and then turning from Route 24 onto southbound 95, then merging into southbound 95, the long lines would be eliminated at rush hour," Mr. Bowman writes.

We brought this to the attention of the State Highway Administration and Intrepid Commuter's main man when it comes to traffic jams on state roads in Harford County. SHA traffic engineer Darrell Wiles had just two words for Mr. Bowman's observations:

"Well said."

Like Mr. Bowman, Mr. Wiles says he's been a bit chagrined by the failure of some drivers to use the new lanes since they were added last summer.

The widening project "has relieved traffic to some degree, but it hasn't reached its full potential for the very reasons stated," Mr. Wiles said. "Drivers tend to stick to their old behavior, but there are a couple of things we can do that might help."

In the spring, the SHA intends to paint dotted lines on the pavement to steer motorists from the right-most left-turn lane on Emmorton to the right lane on Route 24 and from the left left-turn lane to the center lane of Route 24.

In addition, crews will install bigger signs, putting the I-95 shield above the right-most left-turn lane on Emmorton and the Route 24/I-95 designation on Emmorton's left left-turn lane.

Mr. Wiles hopes the combination of signs and pavement markings will change behavior. He can think of little else to do.

Logical directions, faster ticket machines

In some commuting situations, seconds count.

No better example of that can be found than on light rail, where slow ticket machines have been a bane to travelers.

When the Central Light Rail Line opened in the spring of 1992, families headed to Orioles games quickly learned an appalling fact: You sometimes had to stand for minutes at the ticket machine to purchase a group of tickets.

Not only were the machines hard to figure out (instructions were far too wordy), but you had to punch in a code and insert money for each individual ticket. Getting a block of four tickets meant making four transactions.

The machines were also slow. Each transaction took an average 40 seconds, pretty good if you're a 500-meter speed skater, but not so hot for a vending machine.

Believe it or not, this did not go unnoticed at the Mass Transit Administration. The instructional verbiage was reduced, and so was the amount of time it takes to perform a transaction.

Unfortunately, the transaction time increased when the MTA tinkered with the machines again last year to add the options of weekly and monthly passes, and to allow customers to buy up to eight tickets on a single transaction.

That brings us to the present. The latest changes wrought by the MTA may be the most helpful yet.

First, the agency has done a major overhaul with the instructions. Instead of a 150-word explanation, ticket buyers will find a simple, four-step process outlined in less than two dozen words.

As regular light rail riders have figured out, you have to give the machine instructions BEFORE you deposit money. A new sign, "Look Here," directs customers to read that instruction on the video screen first.

"Most people are so used to vending machines where you insert the money first, we needed a way to get people to look at the screen," says Lisa Darnall, the MTA's customer services manager.

Secondly, the machines are being programmed to reduce transaction time from 35 seconds to between 17 and 20 seconds, a 40 percent decrease. Buy four tickets at a time, and it will only take 40 seconds total, says Raymond Wright, senior systems engineer.

Mr. Wright notes that the reprogramming was done at no extra cost to the state, and should not interfere with the accuracy of the machines.

All the improvements are expected to be completed by April 1. The next step will be to make the machines easier to use in the rain -- the MTA is experimenting with overhead canopies to keep patrons dry and clear shields over the bill collectors to keep money dry, too.

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