An Unapologetic Sidezoomer

Yesterday’s NYT Magazine essay about “lineuppers” (drivers who sit patiently in line on the highway, waiting to get on the bridge or through the tunnel or on or off the ramp) and “sidezoomers” (drivers who zip up the adjacent, empty lane and cut into a gap at the front of the line) was both interesting and irritating, as Paul Horwitz notes at Prawfs, and not least of all because it takes a patronizing, moralizing tone towards sidezoomers, and because it assumes that the lineupper/sidezoomer divide — and corresponding lineupper resentment of sidezoomer — is universal. 

Is this a universal problem?  It is all too common for residents of the San Francisco Bay Area — the essay is based on the author’s experience with the Caldecott Tunnel, which lies in the East Bay hills — to assume that their experience generalizes across the country, across nations, and across time.  (And I say this as a native and long-time resident of the Bay Area.)  But of course it does not.  In my current little corner of the world, Pittsburgh, we have our own sidezoomer/lineupper divide, but the lineuppers are quite content to let the sidezoomers speed ahead and dart in front.  If it’s all that important to you, they seem to think, then go right ahead.  Pittsburgh lineuppers will even pause in traffic and create a gap for sidezoomers, then wave them in.  Resentment sets in occasionally if the sidezoomer doesn’t offer a reciprocal wave.  Courtesy, not time, is the currency here.

Courtesy isn’t the only currency.  The other, which the Times piece doesn’t mention, is risk.  I don’t look at this case as an ethical question.  It’s an economics question.  I’m an unapologetic, guilt-free sidezoomer, and I rationalize it this way:  If I drive up to the head of the queue, I run a risk that a gap won’t open.  I won’t sit there like an idiot and block all traffic behind me, waiting for a gap to open; I’ll take my shot, and if it doesn’t pan out (rate:  one failure about every 25 tries), I’ll drive past and drive around.  Lineuppers are far more risk-averse.  They want a guaranteed slot in the queue, and they’re willing to pay in time and idling costs.  The queue itself is, therefore, a primitive market that allocates spaces according to a form of price, i.e., what I’m willing to pay (and what others are willing to pay) in terms of risk.  (Is there some externality that I’m not accounting for?  Is my sidezooming imposing costs not reflected in lineupping behavior?  Correct me in the comments!)  If everyone had the same risk profile, then the traffic engineers’ ideal — the zipper merge pattern — would be observed.  But they don’t.

12 thoughts on “An Unapologetic Sidezoomer

  1. The costs of sidezooming are completely externalized (not an economist so forgive me if I’m using that wrong) so long as the sidezoomer is not negatively impacted by shame (i.e., is a jerk). Such a sidezoomer is unaffected by looking like an idiot, and can quite happily sit and block the through traffic behind him for as long as it takes for an opening to develop. Those trapped behind him suffer the consequences of his sidezooming ways. In my experience, your willingness to abandon the merge attempt is the exception, not the rule.

  2. Remind me to stay away from Pittsburgh highways! “Sidezoomers” is the “enhanced interrogation techniques” of line-jumping. I accept on faith your representation that you don’t block traffic. Most line-jumpers aren’t so nice. (And even slowing down in your line-jumping lane has effects on the following traffic, even if you don’t force people behind you to stop.) But more than that, there are fairness and, frankly, resentment harms that line-jumpers impose. Sitting in our cars, we don’t have to face other people, and that makes a difference–why don’t you take a risk and walk to the front of the line in the grocery store? Or jump to the front of one line when you’ve been standing in one that’s been idling for a while–after all, you’ve been in a legitimate line.

  3. Getting onto the Pulaski Skyway in Jersey City, I am constantly overwhelmed by sidezoomers whose hulking, gleaming new Sopranos-style SUV’s tower over my tiny old Ford Escort. They may be more efficient, but I feel bullied.

    Of course, Singapore figured this out long ago:

    “It takes more than technology to solve the world’s traffic problems. While Singapore succeeds with an iron fist, the United States waits for the invisible hand.”

    Of course, us enlightened free marketeers would never think of having more state intervention here.

  4. Mike, you’re single-handedly causing the downfall of civilized society.

    Frank, there is a certain power that comes from driving an old beat-up jalopy in a confrontation with a new, shiny, $50,000 Ford Escalade. In a game of dent-chicken, you will win. Feel the power.

  5. As Rebecca noted, I’m not a traffic-blocker. That would be an externality, but if I can’t find a gap, then I’ll drive on. (I don’t drive an SUV. I drive an Accord. So I can’t bully many other drivers, even if I wanted to.) The “resentment harms” (are “fairness harms” the same thing? Or different?) are what I think are missing in my case, even if assuming their existence doesn’t turn on a circularity, which I think it does. Lineuppers here don’t speed up to close gaps to prevent line-jumping. They don’t honk or make obscene gestures as line-jumpers. And when I am in line, I don’t speed up to negate line-jumping or curse the sidezoomers. That’s my point about this being a localized phenomenon, not a regional one.

    There’s an analogy to be drawn between sidezooming (“it’s unfair”) and claims of IP misappropriation that I’ll save for later exploration. (Why invent around? Why not wait until that invention enters the public domain?) Similarities and differences hinge, as Rebecca hints again, at different social conceptions of legitimacy in different contexts. A queue of cars waiting to go through a tunnel isn’t framed by the same legitimacy norms as a queue of people waiting to buy groceries or waiting to meet the clerk at the local DMV.

    As for staying off of Pittsburgh highways, I agree, and not because of our different lineuppinig/sidezooming norms. Watch out for the “Pittsburgh left” and other not-so-entertaining departures from driving customs in New York, DC, and San Francisco.

  6. As someone who has many Pittsburgh family members that are “lineuppers” and frequently rides shotgun as they watch “sidezoomers” zoom… I wonder whether Pittsburgh drivers are actually more tolerant of the practice (as you suggest). I have a suspicion that they are actually just less flagrant in their displays of dissatisfaction with sidezoomers then a New Yorker or San Franer might be.

    Along this line of thought, I believe the largest (of several) external factors that is unaccounted for in your analysis is public perception. The traditional lineupper who silently (or fragrantly) resents each sidezoomer does not want others to see him/her as he/she sees sidezoomers. I agree that risk is a factor, I just don’t think it’s the only one, or even the largest one.

  7. Is “public perception” really an externality here? Or do the driving parties take that factor into account in making their driving decisions? Let’s assume that sidezoomers don’t care what lineuppers think of them and therefore discount public perception to zero. Let’s also assume that lineuppers care a lot about public perception — that is, the regard that their fellow lineuppers have for them, correct? — and therefore assign a value of 10 (on a 10 point max scale) to that factor. The relevant parties to the transaction are all the lineuppers and sidezoomers at the relevant traffic junction. Each group acts according to their own utility calculus. No externality results from this, I think — only a distribution of utility that bothers some people. What bothers is this: If the total public perception cost is 10, then why should lineuppers have to absorb all of that cost? That goes back to one of my original points: Courtesy is currency here, as well as risk. Jonathan’s distinction, if it’s right, confirms that point.

    Bottom line:

    If my fellow Pittsburghers are waving on the outside (fragrantly, which is an evocative typo, especially in this town that bathes in beer!) but seething on the inside, then that’s no externality; in both economic and psychological senses, that’s internalization.

    And one (I hope final) thought:

    If the lineuppers are silent seethers, there is no rational or ethical way for me to relinquish some of my sidezooming utility to any of them yet preserve the overall value of the deal. I could get in line, reducing my sidezooming utility without necessarily increasing total utility. Who is to say that all or even any of the lineuppers to whom I defer have fairness claims superior to mine? I can even offer a resentment/fairness claim of my own: Drivers who fail to adopt the median risk strategy, and who line up prematurely (rather than drive in both lanes to the merge point, to create the zipper), clog the highways. They think that they’re being fair; in fact, they’re being wasteful. That’s a little fanciful, but it’s no more fanciful than arguing that sidezoomers fail to account for silent resentment. Driving in America is generally quite a good testbed for economic theories, because it’s usually quite proper to assume that drivers act primarily in their own self-interest. Assuming that we drive primarily in response to direct and indirect social pressures puts the automotive cart before the proverbial horse.

  8. For a quick comment by a transportation engineer/scholar, see this blog note.

    To put his point in non-technical terms, if the merge point remains the same, why should the queue be longer — rather than wider? The “shared space” metaphor from Bollier’s post (in Frank’s comment) becomes quite interesting!

    To which one (not me) might respond: What if wider is safer in a traffic sense but is perceived to be unfair in a justice sense?

  9. I agree with Officer Morgan’s point of view that there’s nothing morally wrong with zipping ahead of a line if there’s space, and in the long run it’s more efficient. Though your behavior on the road (and anonymously online!) says a lot about who you really are. Generally I’d avoid being friends with someone I knew to be a sidezoomer and I’d avoid investing money into any company run by a lineupper.

  10. So, Carl, I take it you’re saying you wouldn’t invest in a company run by someone who you would want as a friend?

    Maybe I’m missing something, but that sounds like a pretty clear indictment of the stock market to me…

  11. I’m from India and I cannot tell you what a problem is it here. Especially with the condition of the roads and the disorderly management of traffic. People ‘sidezoom’ all the time here and I have personally heard curses thrown at them that I would never repeat. But I’ve been tempted once too often.
    So, in spite of all that fact that you are in a really developed country with excellent roads, in spite of the excuses- ‘my car is small’, ‘people don’t mind’ etc, I find myself completely unable to not judge you 🙂
    If positions were reversed, you’d understand.

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