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.