Metering Motoring

Ramp Meter at I-35W

Ramp Meter at I-35W

 

“[If such drivers have no faster alternative route], Those are the people who I would encourage to change jobs or change houses” and “The City of Edina needs to build some arterials.”
– Mn/DOT Ramp Meter Chief Engineer (November 28, 1999 Minneapolis Star Tribune)

Ramp meters, traffic signals posted on freeway entrance ramps, seek to regulate the flow of traffic entering the freeway. They serve two main purposes; first, they limit the number of vehicles trying to merge simultaneously, smoothing traffic flow (and reducing crashes); second, they keep the total number of vehicles on the freeway trying to simultaneously use a critical bottleneck just below a threshold (capacity), so that freeway flow doesn’t exceed capacity, and thereby avoiding queueing. In and of themselves, those are both reasonable goals for managing a mature system, and most travelers readily accept traffic lights in other contexts. Yet somehow, in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, ramp meters became the transportation issue of 2000.

The reasons why are clear in retrospect, but may not have been in advance. As can be seen in the Figure, ramp meters were slowly deployed in the 1970s and 1980s, and became much more widespread in the 1990s. As road capacity was built out, additional roads became more and more difficult to build, not only in monetary cost, but also in political will. The leadership of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) viewed ramp meters as a way of stretching the system slightly further, eking out a small capacity improvement and a significant speed improvement at a cost much below that of adding lanes to the freeway.

Yet the Twin Cities continued to grow, as did peak hour travel demand. The primary effect of ramp meters is to move delay from the freeway to the entrance ramp. By the late 1990s, some commuters experienced long delays at some ramps, in cases upwards of 20 minutes. In 1999, Dick Day, a State Senator from Owatonna, Minnesota, a rural community outside the (metered) metropolitan area, pushed a “Freedom to Drive” package. This package called for shutting off all of the ramp meters, allowing all cars to use HOV lanes, and establishing the left lane as a passing-only lane. (Day claims to drive 70,000 miles a year, which averages to over 3 hours a day in his car – the reader can assess whether this is reasonable or hyperbole).

Day was able to obtain press for his initiative, and in November 1999, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the state’s largest newspaper, printed a large Sunday, front page piece on ramp meters. (The opening quote is from that article). Discussions with the engineers reveal several things. First, they were certain metering was the right thing, and they believed that shutting off the meters would be “catastrophic.” Second, they were indifferent to the fact that some drivers had long commutes so that others would have shorter commutes. They did not see ramp delay as an important metric. Rather, if the freeway flows were higher with than without meters, and at higher speeds, they knew they were reducing total delay (if more total travel is using the freeway, then there is less total travel on alternative slower routes). Third, they were highly resistant to outside analysis, probably because of distrust that the outcome would differ.

Nevertheless, to avoid the threatened shutdown, Mn/DOT commissioned three separate University of Minnesota studies to evaluate meters. One might suggest these studies were a holding strategy, essentially telling the state legislature “see we are studying this – please go away.” However, those studies did not involve shutting down the ramp meter operations, rather they would conduct computer simulations to examine operations with and without meters, compare metering approaches from a number of cities, and examine empirical data. Despite these studies, in May 2000, the Minnesota state legislature insisted on a shutdown experiment, which would last at least 4 weeks. A large consulting firm was hired to conduct the study. Many of Mn/DOT’s ramp meter engineers were excluded from the study process (their biases and lack of political acumen having been demonstrated), as were the university researchers (who were funded by Mn/DOT and therefore tainted by association). Traffic data were collected before the shut-off period, and then the meters were to be shut-off for a period of at least 4 weeks to conduct the study in October 2000. Because of weather, the study was extended a few more weeks. Due to the lack of catastrophe, the study was extended a few more, since it was clear that Mn/DOT could not return to the old metering strategy, and no new strategy was obvious. Eventually the meters were turned on (December 2000), but running at their fastest rate, so that queues would not get too long. Over time, a new strategy was developed to cap maximum waits at the ramps at 4 minutes.

Dick Day was not entirely satisfied, and Mn/DOT staff were unhappy with the shift in their worldview, but the residents of the Twin Cities seem happier with the system than before.

 

Adapted from Garrison, W and Levinson, D (2014) The Transportation Experience: Second Edition. Oxford University Press.

Further Reading:


Streets.mn is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

5 Responses to Metering Motoring

  1. lifelong MTC rider June 2, 2014 at 10:25 am #

    It just so happened that during the shutdown period, I was “reverse-commuting” from Minneapolis to St. Cloud along I-94. I’d be on westbound (outbound) 94 around 7:00 or 7:30 in the morning. My recollection is that, typically, with the meters on, inbound traffic was stop-and-go to Maple Grove, whereas with them off, inbound traffic was stop-and-go all the way back to Albertville! No wonder the loudest voices shouting “TURN THEM BACK ON!” were coming from the “exurbs.”

  2. Al Davison
    Al Davison June 2, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    I am definitely happy about ramp meters, even today merging was a mess with ramps without ramp meters in comparison to the ones with meters along 35E and 94 on my way to the U of M today. It just slows down the right lane of the freeway if the on ramp traffic is all merging as once (e.g 35E ramp to West 94 in DT Saint Paul).

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele June 2, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

      One other interesting pattern I see is that ramp meters discourage the use of urban freeways for short trips (one or two exits down the highway) during rush hour.

  3. Brendan June 2, 2014 at 5:07 pm #

    It is worth noting that ramp meters have distributive outcomes. Those with long commutes benefit more from maintaining “flow” than those with short commutes. Those with short commutes “pay” more in terms of wait time to enter the freeway. So we’re taxing the core cities, and subsidizing those with long commutes. Time, of course, being assumed to have value.

  4. Ken Duble June 2, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    These were tried on I-30 in Fort Worth when I was living there in the 70s and 80s. Once the freeway had been widened and reopened, they were no longer there.

    The signals seemed designed to counteract a self-defeating tendency of drivers to follow increasingly closely behind the car in front of them as congestion slows traffic. Rational behavior would dictate just the opposite: Permitting the car in front to establish distance allows one to adjust speed as appropriate for the merger rather than having one’s speed dictated by the need to avoid rear-ending the car up front.