07 Nov 2006
Anyone who has ever been a commuter probably knows the upsetting feeling of being stuck in traffic of some sort. That is now the story of my life, as I am heading back and forth during rush hour on the Merritt Parkway in southwestern Connecticut every day. (Side note: it should definitely not be called rush "hour" in this case, since traffic is backed up at various points and times during the commute, generally between 6 and 9:30 in the morning and 4 and 6:30 pm.)
The Flow and Ebb of the Merritt Parkway
I've left my house at various times trying to beat the traffic rush or to catch a nice wave, perhaps when traffic associated with school wouldn't be so bad. And so I've learned a few things about the seasonal, weekly, and daily flow and would like to share. But please keep in mind, I generally only care about the distance between Route 8 and Norwalk.
Traffic is the best during the summer and worst during the first and last two months of school (September, October, and late April to mid-June, which I will call "peak" months). But traffic is still hardly bearable any time that school is in session.
Traffic has an inverse busy-ness to it. Driving south (more like southwest) in the morning, traffic is worst on Monday and best on Friday. Driving north in the evening, traffic is best on Monday, worst on Friday.
The hot spots (where there's worse traffic) depend in part on the season and the week, but in general look like this:
- Going to work during the peak months, traffic can be stopped starting where Route 8 and Route 15 meet (exit 52), if you're driving there around 7 am. If you get there around 8:30, traffic may have eased a little and will only start backing up around exit 48 (the Trumbull Mall). There's congestion pretty much the entire year between exits 47 and 44, but at least there are some fun ways around it (although side roads don't always save time, they're a little less stressful sometimes). If you choose the earlier commute time, it might be better to take the Merritt than the side roads from 44 to 40, but later in the morning it seems the "No Exit Zone" is worse than the side roads due to a large backup at exit 41 (side note: the No Exit Zone is the stretch of the Merritt Parkway between exits 44 and 42; there is no exit 43).
- Going home during the peak months, people getting on the Merritt at exit 41 can slow traffic all the way back to exit 40 sometimes, although it's rare that traffic comes to a stop for any prolonged period. Then it's slow from about a mile before exit 44 all the way to exit 46 (or 48, depending on the mood of the worst driver on the road at the time). If you can be on the Merritt by 4 pm, you're guaranteed an easier time on the road. If you leave work between 4:30 and 6 (or sometimes 6:30), you'll get some good practice exercising patience. Similar traffic patterns (but less congested) occur during the off-peak months.
The Side Roads
The fluctuating traffic patterns of the Merritt are discouraging, yet worry not. Slight modifications in your travel arrangements may help you maintain your sanity.
First of all, traffic may be backed up all the way to Route 8 during the peak months. The first step in saving some time may be taking exit 7 and then hooking up with Old Town Road.
Next, you can follow Old Town Road which eventually turns into Jefferson.
If you decided to get on the Merritt from Route 8 and test your luck, exit 48 could be a good bail-out point. You could take a left off of 48, then a right onto Old Town (past the Mall entrance), or you could even cut through the mall (go left instead of right around the Mall lot - it's a little quicker), then take a left out of the Mall lot, then a right onto Old Town.
I haven't yet explored the time-saving possibilities of the residential streets north of the Merritt between exits 48 and 47. Chestnut Hill seems a possible candidate, but a veritable cornucopia of roads seek the attention of avid side-street takers from there to Park Ave. Those streets merit exploring, however, as traffic is often held up on the Merritt at 48.
(I have since explored those side streets and found them profitable. Off of exit 48 take a right, then take a left onto Chestnut (which you turn onto before the 1st traffic light). Go to the end and take a left onto Madison. Then take a right onto Plattsville Road, which is the turn right before you cross over the Merritt. As Plattsville turns sharply to the left, veer to the right onto Waller Road, go through a stop sign and take a left at the "No Outlet" sign onto Plum Tree Lane. At the end you can then take a right onto Park Avenue, and a left at Bartling.)
If you can make it to exit 47, you may be in luck, as a right turn and then a left a little ways up onto Bartling can save you the hassle of facing one of the most untimely traffic lights in the history of humankind, found on Jefferson Ave. So if you take Bartling, you can then take a left onto Wedgewood, then a left onto Route 59, which is Sport Hill Road/Easton Turnpike, then a right onto Congress Street which will allow you to either get on the Merritt (WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT THERE?!), or to continue on side roads (good choice, rookie!).
When you're on Congress Street behind the rest stop, traffic is often backed up with a bunch of people who are pretending like they know the side roads. They don't. If you've been on Congress in the past trying to get to the on-ramp at 44, you've gone past a harmless little road called Morehouse, which is on your left. And you've wondered where it leads you, since the traffic backup can often be to that point. If you're feeling lucky, take Morehouse and remember these simple rules once you're on it: go to the end and take a right; go to the end and take another right; go to the end and take a left; then take a right onto 58 (Black Rock Turnpike). You'll escape from Suburbia in position to take the side roads through the No Exit Zone, or if you're feeling lucky, to get on the Merritt. But chances are, if you felt you had to take Morehouse, you should probably take Congress Street to the Cross Highway instead of getting on the Merritt.
If you've committed yourself to the side roads, two roads will get you through the No Exit Zone down to exit 42, where you can get back on the Merritt: Congress Street and the Cross Highway. Since you're already on Congress, make sure to watch out for the left turn onto Cross. The person ahead of you will probably make the same turn, but if not, make sure not to cross over the Merritt accidentally. Assuming you made that turn onto Cross, you'll soon take a right onto Redding, then a left onto Cross again.
After following Cross for a bit (including through stop signs), you'll come to a fork where you'll need to stay to the right. I think I've marked the correct location on the map. Then you'll battle your way (if you're there before 8:30 am) through a 4-way stop where a traffic officer may be slowing things up a bit. You may get lucky and get someone experienced, though. That's been the case for me recently. Then you'll come to a 3-way stop where there's a right turn lane onto Weston Road. If you're heading back to the Merritt, this is your turn. Be forewarned that on Weston you have to go through a 4-way stop and a stop sign and 2 lights just to make it onto the on-ramp for the Merritt. You could, however, get creative and go down 57 and eventually travel along Route 1 to avoid that mess. This isn't recommended. Although traffic around exit 42 is a bother, once you get on the Merritt, traffic will pick up speed between exits 41 and 40, thus saving you time versus the Route 1 option (of course, I guess it depends on where you want to go).
Step by Step Review
Since originally posting this article, I've decided to add in some step by step instructions so that the side roads can be followed from Route 8 all the way to exit 42 on the Merritt without having to pour through all the text above.
1. On Route 8 southbound, take exit 7, go through the lights up until the 4-way stop.
2. At the 4-way stop, take a right then a quick left to stay on Old Town Road.
3. Follow Old Town Road by going straight, or if you have to choose, turn right and then left again immediately to stay on Old Town.
4. Old Town turns into Jefferson. After the Light of Death, turn right onto Route 59 (the Easton Turnpike). (FYI, you can get around the huge line at the Light of Death by driving in the left lane, then signaling over to the right lane when you're past the light and after the right lane has emptied out. For those who might care, there is often a police car in view of that light.)
5. Then take a left onto Congress Street (which will go behind the rest stop).
6. At the second light, instead of getting onto the Merritt, make a left onto Route 58 (the Black Rock Turnpike).
7. Then at the first light, take a right which will put you back onto Congress.
8. Go straight through all stop signs, but eventually you'll pass a fire station on your left and see a sign for an intersection. Take a left there onto the Cross Highway. (You shouldn't have crossed over the Merritt.)
9. Go to the end, take a right onto Redding Road, cross over the Merritt here, then take your first left back onto Cross.
10. Go straight through stop signs again, but at a fork in the road take a right.
11. Continue straight through stop signs again until you come to a 3-way stop which has its own right turn lane.
12. Turn right at this 3-way stop, then go straight until you come to the left turn lane onto the Merritt Parkway.
Other Random Observations
I've heard that some people get off the Merritt at exit 41 (Route 33) and take side roads, but I haven't explored them.
Since I get off at exit 40, I don't know the traffic situation along the Merritt into Stamford. I can see that it is usually backed up starting at 40, so that must continue for a little bit (until 38?), and it probably gets messy around 35 and 34 (High Ridge and Long Ridge exits in Stamford). So good luck to those of you driving that far. If you're driving into the city (New York City), why on earth are you on the Merritt between 7 and 9 in the morning??? You should be leaving your house at 5 am (and you'll probably STILL get into a jam amongst yourselves!).
If you're going home on the Merritt in the evening, for whatever reason, you don't save as much time by taking side roads. Friday evenings, however, especially in the summer, may be sufficiently horrible as to encourage you to take them. It sure would be nice if people from New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts would stop driving on the Merritt during rush hour traffic during the evenings on Thursday and Friday.
If you're going home on the Merritt, sometimes traffic is backed up because of the Sikorsky Bridge (although they've just completed a lot of construction there). If the goal is Route 8, sometimes it's convenient to take exit 49 S (Route 25), then take the next exit (exit 6), take a left onto Old Town Road, and go straight through the lights onto Route 8 northbound. It's nice to keep moving.
When planning to drive on the Merritt, make sure you are aware of special events. Three day weekends mean that Thursday night traffic will be worse than normal. A heavy snowfall during the day means that everyone gets on the road earlier to "beat the traffic". The beginning of school means your commute time will possibly double. When school is finally out and your commute time is halved, joyous celebrations from the commuting community are completely appropriate (you'll note, however, that traffic reports don't vary much from the last day of school to your first day of driving freedom - I'm not sure those traffic reporters realize what a big change it is). School vacations (like around Christmas time) also mean better driving conditions.
My guesses on why the traffic is so bad? Too many before-school activities have parents driving kids to school (or they're driving themselves) in the wee hours of the morning. Of course, normal school activities mean a lot of drivers are out on the roads. Contractors are also out in force during the warmer months, which probably contributes to the traffic mess in April, May and June, and again in September and October. And it'd be nice if retired people wouldn't be out driving during rush hour. The OJ run can wait until 10:30 am.
Traffic is also bad because of those pesky commuters. (Oh wait, I'm one of those!) Since housing costs are so high in Fairfield County, people wanting to own a house often need to move east. That forces many to drive every day back to where their jobs are - lower Fairfield County. There isn't much public transportation that would do the job in a similar amount of time, so many people are willing to put up with the traffic (including me).
I think following some basic rules can help quell the number of cars on the Merritt Parkway. The FAQ page on CT.gov/dot shows what vehicles are allowed on the Merritt. No buses (which I see all the time), no trailers (I was driving right next to one when we passed a cop car, and the cop did nothing), and no commercial vehicles are allowed. I see "combination" plates all the time, which means that the vehicle is for personal and commercial use. But I doubt some of the vehicles I see are ever for personal use. The DMV probably finds it difficult to verify the status of these vehicles, so people lie. Doing so allows them access to the Parkway. If the DMV regulations were somehow more strictly enforced, we'd all have an easier time driving to and from work. (I wish I had a suggestion as to how the DMV could better regulate this issue; I just haven't looked into it at all).
Another interesting suggestion I've heard from my buddy Nathan (and from Robert Russo, a political candidate; see a Connecticut Local Politics Blog) is to close some I-95 on-ramps during rush hour to prevent local traffic from clogging the arteries. Maybe if some ramps were closed, people would switch from driving on the Merritt to driving on a less crowded I-95. I know that people switch to the Merritt from I-95 when the latter is coping with an accident.
There are also ways to drive that would help keep the traffic moving more smoothly. I won't get into those now, but they may be the topic of a future article.
The best solution is probably for thousands of people to voluntarily quit their jobs, move from Connecticut to another state, and leave behind a void that drives up the average salary in Fairfield County and allows me to buy a mansion in Westport, New Canaan, or Weston. If that is not feasible, you could all follow some of my suggestions and take some side roads (many of which were introduced to me by my buddy Steve). I also find that a quick listen to a traffic report will help ease my driving concerns. I suggest the following FM stations: 99.9, 107.9, 96.7, and 95.9. It's nice to know if a hit deer, downed tree, or stalled car is blocking the middle of the No Exit Zone so that I can avoid the mess.
You can check out some more resources regarding traffic and/or the Merritt Parkway below. See you in the concrete jungle!
Traffic Observations (I even agree with some of these!)
Connecticut Traffic Incidents (Check this site when you're leaving work!)
*You can also type in your zip code to Yahoo Local and see traffic problems in your area.