Adaptable drivers avert expected gridlock

  • Article by: Jim Foti and Pam Louwagie
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • September 10, 2007 - 12:15 AM

If you want to know why there hasn't been metrowide gridlock in the wake of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, ask East Bethel's Lola Kjenstad.

Kjenstad, a legal secretary, had crossed the bridge a half-hour before it fell. The collapse changed many things, but not that she still had to travel 30 miles to work in downtown Minneapolis.

So, over several days, she tried different routes and logged how long each drive lasted. She settled on a route that took about 20 minutes longer than her former 50- to 60-minute commute, then shifted her workday a half-hour earlier to get a head start on both rush hours.

Her basic approach has been repeated thousands of times in recent weeks, as commuters experiment their ways to work. Adaptability -- on the part of drivers, transit systems and even the roads -- has kept the metro area moving.

The post-bridge collapse behavior of commuters is intriguing enough that the federal government is spending $17,000 to study it. And drivers' ever-shifting habits will be the key to how well traffic continues to move over the next 15 months while the new bridge is being built.

Changing routines

The morning and afternoon rush hours have been longer, with some people shifting their starting and quitting times and others changing their life routines. The YMCA in downtown Minneapolis was much busier in the evenings than during a typical August, probably with members waiting for traffic to clear before heading home.

Nick Thompson, an area manager at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), said that the morning rush hour started shifting right after the collapse -- "6 o'clock traffic volumes started occurring at 5 a.m." -- and the time changes have been accompanied by changes in commuting pathways: "Some people from 35W shifted to [Hwy.] 280, and some people who normally used 280 probably shifted to another road," he said. "It cascades."

While many metro freeways have been flowing fine, some places, particularly city streets near the collapse site, are "much, much worse," Thompson said.

City officials in Minneapolis say they've been doing what they can to keep traffic moving by changing the timing of signals on routes that lead to river crossings, putting traffic officers at major intersections and getting the word out to the public. And Don Sobania of the city's Department of Public Works welcomes additional ideas from drivers. "We've got a couple of hundred thousand scouts out there," he said.

Lanes of tranquility

In some places, all the highway turmoil has actually made traffic better.

Peter Larson works for a landscape architecture firm on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. While it's a bit trickier for him to pop over to northeast Minneapolis to visit a job site these days, he's been finding it easier to get onto southbound I-35W for his drive home to Edina, because there's not as much traffic coming from the direction of where the bridge used to be.

His colleague Justin Rechtzigel lives near Grand Avenue in St. Paul and commutes via Interstate 94, where a fourth lane has been created in both directions between Hwy. 280 and downtown Minneapolis. He had tried various city streets before the freeway was widened, and now "I just fly to work."

Despite widespread adoration, the extra lanes are scheduled to return to bus-only and emergency use once the new bridge opens. And with nearly all of MnDOT's "traffic restoration projects" in place, overall conditions are expected to worsen until the bridge reopens.

Bob Gibbons at Metro Transit is among those with a front-row seat to people's changing behaviors, and he's kept a particular eye on the 12 park-and-ride lots that offered free rides during the week after the bridge fell. Before the collapse, those lots, in the northern and eastern metro area, saw a total of about 2,200 cars a day. By Thursday, the tally topped 3,100.

Gibbons said his agency had 20 more buses on the streets last week than the week before, with about half focused on the University of Minnesota, where officials are expecting to sell 20,000 student transit passes this year, about 1,500 more than last year.

Learning something

Minnesota's unusual situation may provide lessons that can be used elsewhere: Three University of Minnesota researchers quickly got a $17,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to begin studying how commuters adapted to the traffic changes caused by the collapse.

The group will use traffic counts and surveys handed out at parking ramps to see how patterns change over time, with the hopes of developing a program that will help cities figure out what to do when there's a major traffic blockage.

Some commuters are more entrepreneurial than others, said David Levinson, an associate professor of civil engineering who's involved in the study. Some, like shoppers at a grocery store, will keep trying various routes or checkout lanes until they find the shortest one. Others will pick one and stick with it.

Researchers said they wanted to study the bridge collapse because it was an unforeseen major alteration to traffic.

"This is an interesting case because it's so stark and so significant," Levinson said. "People will remember the route they used to take. ... They might be able to explain the process they undertook in this particular case." • 612-673-4491 • 612-673-7102

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