People who commute to downtown Toronto from South Etobicoke via Lakeshore Boulevard will know specifically what I’m talking about here, but I think everyone knows of someplace where a similar drama unfolds on a daily basis.

Just past Lakeshore and Park Lawn, the civil engineers worked a bottleneck into the eastbound Lakeshore lanes. At first I peevishly thought it was to make room for more condo towers. Some years later, it dawned on me that they wanted to give exiting Gardiner collector lanes a fighting chance at getting onto Lakeshore a bit further eastward. This made me less angry, but I digress: it’s not the drama to which I’m referring.

The story begins as eastbound motorists on the Lakeshore approach the bottleneck. They know that three lanes of gloriously free-flowing boulevard will converge into a one-lane sphincter just before the Humber river crossing. Thinking ahead, they start to assume the lane that they know will be The One, well before arriving there. Polite citizens that they all are, a rather lengthy queue forms in the center lane, while lanes on the left and right open right up.

The drama happens as drivers who are possibly less civic-minded zoom up the free lanes, passing the lineup altogether, to merge at the last possible opportunity. In this case, it’s just past the intersection that lets cars turn left onto the Gardiner eastbound ramp. You might cut passers in the left lane some slack because they may be planning to take the Gardiner. Of course, many don’t. Passers in the right lane are unequivocally cheeky because there is no right lane: it’s technically the shoulder by this point in the road.

You can guess what happens. Drivers who have dutifully lined up with everyone else in the centre lane get annoyed by these irreverent yahoos who ignore the queue and merge way up ahead.

The Bottleneck

“Why the hell,” they seethe to themselves, “should I wait for three minutes in line to get across the Humber while these bozos speed past with no regard for the line?”

You see the result. Normally nice folks who have made their way to the front of the queue the polite way will tailgate the car ahead of them to prevent forming an opening for the latecomers who want to merge. Centre-lane cars surge and weave as they block the onslaught of queue jumpers from both sides. It’s ugly.

Even if you don’t start road raging, it still stresses you out. It’s just NOT FAIR.

Or is it?

In other similar situations, say, the grocery store, it’s acceptable behavior to pick the shortest lineup. At other places, like a fast food joint, there may be a couple of queues even though there’s only one cashier. The cashier keeps track of who got there first and serves accordingly. What if merging situations on the road worked more like this?

This would mean eliminating the big lineup in the center lane and adopting an approach where cars in each lane at the merge point take turns merging. Left lane, center lane, right lane. Left lane, center lane, right lane. And so on.

This of course assumes the right lane exists here, which it doesn’t. Maybe the city can paint some lines or something to make it a proper lane, or narrow the road so vehicles can’t use it as a lane. Or maybe just redeploy some of the officers manning useless cash-grab speed traps to police some basic road manners.

Look at me, digressing again.

So what if drivers took turns merging from each lane at the front? We’d have to change the social convention to have drivers always pick the shortest queue as opposed to the longest one. This approach provides a couple of distinct advantages compared to the current one:

  1. Cars waiting to merge use more available lanes, so the line doesn’t extend back so far at rush hour.
  2. Drivers who opt to ignore the social convention and join the longest queue would always be the ones disadvantaged (assuming people take turns properly at the front.) Those who ignore the current social convention by not joining the queue are rewarded in today’s scenario.

How do we change the social convention? Maybe signage would help. Someone in an orange vest directing the merging operation for a few months to train drivers in the new way.

Maybe the engineers can put some brainpower into this one. If this could be made to work, I’ll bet the collective stress level of South Etobicokians would drop a few levels. And that would be nice.