“[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.
- Zhang, Lei and David Levinson (2010). Ramp Metering and Freeway Bottleneck Capacity. Transportation Research: A Policy and Practice 44(4), May 2010, pp. 218-235.
- Levinson, David and Lei Zhang (2006) Ramp Meters on Trial: Evidence from the Twin Cities Metering Holiday. Transportation Research: A Policy and Practice Volume 40, Issue 10 , December 2006, Pages 810-828.
- Zhang, Lei and David Levinson (2005) Balancing Efficiency and Equity of Ramp Meters. ASCE Journal of Transportation Engineering 131(6) pp.477-481
- Zhang, Lei and David Levinson (2004b) Optimal Freeway Ramp Control without Origin-Destination Information. Transportation Research part B Volume 38, Issue 10, December 2004, Pages 869-887.