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Planning a Street Requires Measuring Pain More Than Time

April 26th, 2013 by dk

Eugene city staff has been guiding a public process for considering possible changes for a short stretch of Willamette Street in south Eugene. Some want to keep the current configuration of two lanes in both directions. Others believe a better design would be a single lane in each direction, plus a left-turn lane in the middle, making room for wider sidewalks or bike lanes.

The final decision on the matter will be made by the Eugene City Council. They would do well to invite a recent alumnus to give them his perspective. Pat Farr is now a Lane County Commissioner, but he knows something surprising about traffic flow.

Ask yourself this question: “Who offers the better check-out experience: Safeway or Jerry’s?”

The single line check-out system at Jerry’s was recognized decades ago as one of that year’s best innovations for the industry. Farr was a manager at Jerry’s when the idea was hatched.

“I remember the day when Jerry Orem told me about it,” Lane County Commissioner Pat Farr recalled. “It was in 1981. Jerry had just returned from the Westside Post Office. He saw it there and asked me to help him bring it here.”

Farr took his staff to that post office. Then they improved the concept. They skewed the registers, so each clerk could look directly at the next person in line. They removed the continuous counter and trained cashiers to step toward the next customer to beckon them. If Wal-Mart’s greeters added a personal touch to the beginning of a shopper’s experience, cashiers at Jerry’s did the same for the end.

“You have to understand what it was like for Jerry,” Farr continued. “His office looked out at the cashiers. He could see how customers would get exasperated when the line they chose was too slow. Sometimes, they would give up — putting their items on a shelf and leaving the store. Jerry couldn’t bear that sight.”

Orem and Farr cured their customers of what grocery stores call “line envy.” Customers unconsciously profile those ahead of them, trying to guess which line will go fastest. When they guess wrong, they get upset. They want to blame those in charge for not opening more lanes — I mean, lines.

“Lane envy” is exactly the same dynamic, only with several tons of metal, glass and plastic moving at 30 miles per hour.

Here’s where the Jerry’s innovation becomes relevant. The amount of time it takes all customers to check out has not been reduced, but the pain people feel has. Farr remembers that customers at first didn’t like one long line, but once they tried it, they preferred it. “If you’re stopped, that’s bad! But any movement in the line makes it OK.”

Getting stuck behind somebody waiting to turn left is worse than being behind a customer paying with an out-of-state check, fumbling for their ID, or juggling a tired child. It’s worse because windshields lessen empathy. We’re staring at a bumper, feeling powerless.

A three-lane configuration for Willamette Street may increase the average travel time by a few seconds, but it also increases the reliability of that travel time.

Removing those vehicles waiting to turn left eliminates most of the “luck” we currently rely on when we navigate Willamette Street. Bad luck is experienced as stress, and that stress is not divided equally among the drivers affected.

One person running errands has a different stress level than the person trying not to be late to work for the third time this week. And neither is the same as somebody running late to catch a flight from Eugene Airport.

Researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute have defined this variable, giving traffic planners a new tool when combatting congestion. They call it the Time Planning Index. It doesn’t measure congestion itself. It measures the unreliability of trips in congested areas, because that’s where the pain occurs.

In other words, traffic engineers are learning just now how to improve the driving experience in the same way that Jerry Orem improved his customers’ experience in 1981.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.

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