Around Prince William: Little things add up

Zipper merge from Virginia State Route 234 onto Purcell Road.

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It started out as a conversation about Gov. Ralph Northan’s proposal to eliminate annual motor vehicle safety inspections.  As I pondered the issue, I realized we were talking about a “drip.”

In the business world, we learn to watch small expenses.  The best way to increase profit is to reduce costs. Small expenses -- “drips” -- add up to become a significant hit to the bottom line. 

It’s time to start looking for transportation “drips” to reduce congestion. Every time we take a car off the road or eliminate something that slows traffic, we stop a “drip.”   

Eliminating the annual safety inspection is a good example of a “drip.”  It takes cars heading to and from inspections off the road for hours, or perhaps a day.  It’s time to start looking for other “drips.”  

Perhaps the most “drips” occur because many people simply don’t understand traffic rules.  Have you ever made a left turn at a four-lane road and noticed how cars on the other side of the intersection wait to see if you turn into the correct lane? How often have you waited for a car on the other side to see if it turns into the correct lane?  There are usually cars backed up on both sides.  Of course, the correct choice is to turn into the left lane from the left lane, or right lane into right lane.

How many times have you watched drivers fail to allow someone to merge when two lanes merge into one, a zipper merge? If executed properly, zipper merges reduce traffic backups.

At stop signs, I wait for cars coming from my left to see if they are going to turn or go straight before pulling out onto the road. Some don’t bother using their turn signal. Others use their turn signal just before they turn. In either case, the people in line behind me and I wait.

Those traffic examples are all “drips.”  There are many more “drips” worth looking at.  We can fix these traffic “drips” with appropriate signage, public education, and stricter enforcement.  Although these appear to be minor annoyances, the cumulative effect on congestion would result in a measurable contribution to helping people get where they want to go faster.

Let’s think out of the box for a moment.  Online retailers such as Amazon have taken a lot of cars off the road.  Some local brick-and-mortar stores are having a tough time competing.  Perhaps public policy and economic development should “connect the dots” between businesses who sell things and how those things are delivered to consumers.  

Prince William County might consider innovative solutions to connect local businesses with online ordering and consolidated delivery not only to compete with the “big dogs” online but also to reduce traffic.  This might also be an idea for a local entrepreneur.  Good idea?  Maybe.  A traffic “think tank” that looks beyond roads, brainstorms, and focuses on “little things” otherwise overlooked is a good idea.

A model to predict something is no better than the variables and assumptions defined therein.  Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate exactly what goes into transportation management models.  The little things when multiplied by how often they occur and how they might be eliminated would, in my opinion, have a measurable effect on the results.

No matter how many miles of road we build, how many buses and rail cars we deploy, or how many carpools we encourage, traffic remains a mess.  Perhaps it’s time to start looking at the small stuff.  “Drips” add up to become big stuff quickly.

Al Alborn is a political and social activist in Prince William County. His column appears every other week.  You can learn more about Al at

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