Backtracking on U-Turns

Backtracking on U-Turns image

Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: Vince Pornelos | posted September 05, 2014 12:51

The U-turn volte face

Erasing the BF legacy

Recently, the MMDA announced the closure of U-turn slots and the return of traffic lights to three junctions on congested Quezon Avenue and seven junctions on C-5/Katipunan, ostensibly to improve traffic flow. But weren't the U-turns instituted a decade ago to precisely do that, improve traffic flow? Is this another attempt to erase anything that smacks of the GMA-Bayani Fernando era? Does this mean a return to the motorist vs. traffic aide cat and mouse game of beating the yellow light? Or the mad scramble by bicycles and motorcycles to presume exemption from stopping at red lights? And when night comes and there's not a cop car's flashing beacon in sight, the mad dash to cross an empty intersection while the traffic lights glow red? This is quite a 180 degree turnaround from 2010 when MMDA was even proposing installing a roundabout at the Pasay Taft-EDSA junction.

Suite of options, traffic sweetener

Before we get another anxiety attack, take note that U-turns, No-left turns, roundabouts, traffic lights, channelized intersections, staggered junctions, no-right-turn-on-red and the like are just methods in a broad menu that traffic managers access and experiment with. As time passes, traffic volumes and public utility transit patterns do change and the authorities should be given the leeway and the tools to adjust accordingly. And exercise this leeway, MMDA not excepted, they do.

Congestion by U-turn or by traffic lights

As always, it depends on what constitutes congestion to one. For C-5 and Quezon Avenue congestion today means that ever since the Bayani U-turns, the sight of long queues of cars inching steadily along, with drastic slow downs at U-turn ports as drivers jockey into position to merge out or merge in to the U-turn slot lane. The alternative, the pre-U-turn scenario, were long queues of cars, standstill for minutes on end, waiting out the traffic light stop cycle to change. Then, after a short green light cycle to inch forward a few car lengths, another stop to interminably wait again, because the previous wave of forward moving traffic had bunched up with the further queue of cars waiting for the traffic light cycle on the next intersection to change. The upside of this scenario is that if you are driving a manual, you get a longer rest period for your tired clutch foot just as you again launch into a brief glide to 10 or 15km/h, only to stop again for minutes on end. Though in the traffic light system, you do get to see, from time to time, some stretches of empty road, this doesn't mean there's less traffic. In fact it means less than 100% efficient use of road space just because the next wave of cars is still being held back by the traffic light cycle.

Factual empirical measure

The best way to measure if traffic lights or U-turns is quicker is to do time trials at rush hour. For example, with all the U-turns intact, at 700PM on a Thursday evening rush hour, the Market-Market to C-5-Katipunan junction crawl takes 40 minutes. You do have stops but never are the stops too long. In the pre-U-turn days of 2003, when C-5 was peppered with traffic lights, it took one hour. The proof that traffic lights are better this 2014, is to find out if the return of traffic lights on this section of C-5 has improved on the U-turn systems's 40 minutes. But it doesn't, MMDA can still try a hybrid combining traffic lights with U-turns, which we will come to later. What's important is that MMDA should be honest with itself as the empirical data roll in. The numbers or data should be used objectively, not to be fudged to justify a premeditated decision or unsupported conclusion/hunch. And if wrong, they should be brave enough to admit it and go back to previous form.

The rationale

Back to the early noughties; the rationale for the U-turn slots is to ape the seamless traffic flow behavior of a roundabout. Though highly compromised into a dog-bone configuration, Michigan state used it successfully on many state highways. Of course, the success is dependent on how far the intersections are to each other and the volume of traffic taking up the merge space to each of the U-turn slots.

It all started with No left turns

The modifications to a pure U-turn systems, whereby only straight thru traffic is allowed by signal lights and left turns prohibited in 4-way traffic junctions worked well eliminating the queueing for left turns, thus avoiding clogged inner lane traffic. Left turn traffic went past the intersection, then filed into the U-turn slot installed some distance from the crossing. If one recalls, the whole U-turn experiment started with these hybrid combination of traffic lights, no left turn and U-turn slots on the EDSA North/West Avenue , EDSA East/Timog Avenue junction, most Roxas boulevard junctions, Quezon Avenue West/Timog Avenue Roosevelt Avenue Banaue St., augmented by U-turn slots further down EDSA, Roxas Blvd. or Quezon Avenue

T-junctions with combined U-turns and traffic lights hybrid

This hybrid modified U-turn slot with No left turn junction works also well for 3-way T-junctions whereby the main road prohibits left turns into the lesser road while left turners proceed forward to the U-turn slots. When the traffic light cycle of the lesser street turns green, both left turns and right turns are allowed going into the main road. This system combining traffic lights and U-turn slots may work in the UP, CP Garcia, Miriam, Ateneo, Eastwood, Calle Industria, Green meadows and Lanuza junctions on C-5.

So why close the U-turns?

Unfortunately, the MMDA chose to shut down the U-turn slots and go back to a pure all traffic signal set up. If the phenomenal spike in traffic volumes begin in earnest during the 'ber' months, chances are, allowing left turns at the traffic signal junctions will cause greater congestion on C-5 as the MMDA has also instituted the single file truck lane on the inner most lane, which complicates things further. With the U-turn slots closed, left turning traffic at the signal light junctions will conflict with the truck lane. The bunching that used to happen at U-turn slots will now be duplicated at the left turn slots, bringing us back to square one circa 2002, when there were a lot less cars on the road. With the trucks restricted to the inner most lane, yellow box rules at U-turn slot approaches should be enforced, if the U-turns are restored.

Pocholo's lament

While it is true that U-turns and roundabouts work with rules based cultures, which is foreign to our law of the jungle culture, the congestion at the U-turn slots is not all the fault of the limited maneuver space that some of our avenues allow. Like merging and keeping distance, the majority of Filipino drivers do not know how to execute a proper U-turn, as the late Gentleman Racing professional, Pocholo Ramirez used to lament. In contrast, one should see how many professional drivers of trailer trucks smoothly navigate these U-turn slots, considering the truckers were one of the first to protest the U-turn system during the early days of Bayani Fernando's MMDA. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that if traffic worsens, then the clamor to the return of the U-turn slots should immediately be heeded. Let's hope that the authorities avoid ostrich behavior by denying the failure of this traffic experiment, if it so happens.