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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The wonders of two-way frontage roads in semi-rural Texas

Some rural-but-not-completely-country parts of Texas have some interesting situations involving their big freeways and their frontage roads. Depending on where you live, they may be called "feeder" or "access" roads, but they're all the same thing: a road that parallels the freeway for an extended distance and tends to connect the onramps and offramps to local roads.

This is a common situation in urban areas in Texas, but there, they are all one-way, matching the same direction as that side of the freeway. The fun part is when you get 30 or 40 miles out of town. There, they'll usually still have those frontage roads, but now they will be two way. This creates some interesting conflicts in practice.

Offramp

First, if you're coming off the freeway, you have the right of way no matter what. This is the case when it's a one-way frontage road and it's still the case out in the sticks where it's two-way, but now there's something new to worry about: oncoming traffic! Yep, you'll probably be exiting somewhere north of 50 mph and will have to make sure those oncoming cars on the frontage road notice you and yield. Otherwise, well, it'll be pretty messy.

City dwellers who are used to looking over their left shoulder to look for exiting cars moving the same direction will probably forget all about you. You get pretty good at anticipating other drivers and guessing at whether they have actually noticed you or not after doing it a few times.

But wait, there's more. This two-way traffic and yielding situation also applies to onramps. Imagine this: you're driving on a two-way frontage road, and you're going the same direction as that side of the freeway. You now have to bear left to enter the onramp. This means crossing the oncoming lane at a pretty good angle. Oh, and the people coming your way? They have to yield to you!

Onramp

So, in practical terms, you now also have to be a mind reader when getting on the freeway if someone else is coming your way. If they don't seem to be slowing down, you have to be ready to evade and/or abort your move to the onramp entirely.

The flip side of this is that if you're the one yielding, you may be there for a very long time. In the mornings when a bunch of people from far-flung bedroom communities go to work, forget about it. Entire convoys of cars will get on the freeway in packs, and the poor sucker trying to go the other way will just have to sit there and yield for all of them.

There is one bright part to this mess, and it's an unconventional local thing which seems to have come about organically: the right turn signal to say "I'm not actually getting on the freeway right now". Remember the two-way onramp? Oncoming traffic has to yield because you might be getting on and crossing right in front of them. By putting on your right turn signal, it's a way to say "if you trust me, you can hit the gas and get through here before another car comes behind me".

I should point out that when this happens, there is nothing but grass, dirt, and cows off to the right of the road. Your right turn signal is basically there to say "not only am I going straight, but I'm doing this to set myself apart from the people who will turn left without using their turn signal". Some people get it and some people don't.

The official explanation is probably something like "we only support two-way access roads when the traffic counts are below N, and then we convert them to one-way and all of this goes away". I'm not sure about what the state uses to determine when to convert them, but when they do, even more fun happens. People who have built houses up along those roads (and some of them have been around since the freeways went in back in the '60s) now have to drive "the long way" to get to certain places. They can no longer come out of their neighborhoods and turn left, since a one-way frontage road prevents that -- well, in theory, at least.

This is the sort of stuff they don't teach you when you cross the state line. You just have to figure it out as you go. Be safe out there.