Lane Envy, or not?


I drive 35 miles to work a couple of times a week and take public transport the other 3 days (ferry, bus, BART). I don’t usually come out ahead time-wise one way or the other,unless it’s Friday light (getting rarer and rarer), or I drive in early Saturday morning. Making the 35 mile trek takes me about an hour and half, any way I do it. The advantage of taking public transport is that it is almost always consistent – leaves at the same time, arrives at the same time. And of course there are the environmental considerations. Dealing with traffic is always a gamble – there have been commutes that have taken me nearly 3 hours to go the 35 miles, and once in a lovely while I can make it in about an hour. But I’m always looking for ways to shave off some time and get there earlier when I drive. I often pick up riders and enjoy what advantages remain of using the carpool lane. I must admit to occasionally jumping into the carpool lane as a single driver to move past gridlock, and once fairly recently I did just that and wound up in the arms of the highway patrol. An expensive and humiliating experience I will not repeat. More about that in another blog.

I am not a habitual lane changer, although I do pass those 10 and 12-wheeler truck monsters who are always out there. But I’ve noticed as I meander along with the pack, usually at about 20 mph or less, that other lanes seem to be moving faster. I’ve switched to those lanes, and move ahead a bit speedier and then once again find myself falling back to the same sluggish pace, enviously eyeing an adjacent lane zipping by me. Makes me wonder if I’m just unlucky, just not picking the right lane, and I envy the drivers who always seem to be getting it right.

A Stanford University professor did a study using computer simulations to study drivers perceptions of freeway traffic, and concluded that one lane moving faster than another is an illusion. And that we all move pretty much at the same speed. Stanford Article

I decided to test the theory the last time I was in heavy slow moving traffic. I spotted a black van in an adjacent lane that appeared to be in a faster-moving lane and kept my eye on it to see if was indeed moving ahead. To my delight, MY lane began to pick up speed and as I passed the black van I felt a smug satisfaction in being the car in the fast lane. How sweet it was. I’d finally got it right! But only temporarily. The black van and his comrades soon passed me and I lost track of them as I navigated the sluggish stop and go commuter traffic. I felt depressed and discouraged to know I could never win at the fast lane game. But as we all trundled along to the toll plaza lanes near the end of my journey, there, two lanes over, was the black van again. Ha! He hadn’t gone faster at all. Maybe Stanford had it right. Perhaps one lane is pretty much like another. But I think we can all definitely agree that commuting in bay area traffic does indeed put us all in the same lane – the over-crowded, over-priced and unsustainable lane.

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