Is Overpass Weaving Legal?

Admittedly that’s an odd question for most folks, even in the context of urban traffic flow.

However, I suspect that many thoughtful drivers in Huntsville, Alabama know exactly what I’m talking about. To explain why, let me give some background on the local freeway known as Memorial Parkway, or as it is known around here, simply ‘The Parkway’, as it was for many years the only road that had ‘parkway’ in its name. It even has its own Wikipedia page.

A Parkway Primer

The Parkway was completed around 1955. At that time, it was a completely new road and it somewhat paralleled Whitesburg Drive, eventually merging with Whitesburg into one parkway as it headed south towards the Tennessee River Bridge at what is now Ditto Landing Marina. After the Parkway was completed, it had only one overpass, for Clinton Avenue near downtown. With a surrounding country-side that had little if any roads, there was no need for other overpasses. But if and when they were needed, the design called for overpasses going across the Parkway, leaving the Parkway as a surface-level controlled access road.

But Huntsville was just starting to grow rapidly due to the influx of Army and NASA employees into the area. The space race had begun and Huntsville was where the rockets would be designed and tested. This meant that farm lands started to become neighborhoods, with the first growth being in South Huntsville. Growth in West Huntsville and Madison would follow a decade or two later.

Human nature being what it is, you can see already that the easy (and much less expensive!) way to get a road across the new Parkway was to simply put in an intersection with a traffic light. And so over the next couple of decades, that is exactly what happened, as intersections became numerous.

Eventually, it was planned to start making the Parkway into a freeway again by building a series of overpasses running along (not over) the Parkway, which would be expensive, but really it was the only practical solution to traffic jams now that intersections had been built and stores had moved in all along the Parkway.

So, one by one, year by year, overpasses have been being build on the Parkway. It’s been going on since I was a teenager, and I’m going to retire in a few years. And the task continues of having overpasses all along the parkway from the Tennessee State Line on the north end, to the Tennessee River on the south end. Although the vast majority of the urban portion has indeed been completed.

A poster done by Dave Swann of The Huntsville Times at the height of I-565 construction in Huntsville

That’s the background on Memorial Parkway. What we have now is a very long stretch of overpasses which some have compared to a gigantic, albeit very mild, rollercoaster. It also has a correspondingly long road that weaves between the service road and the freeway, and this road is the actual topic of this blog post.

But is it Legal?

Perhaps it is the combination of the overpass design, along with the close-in urban setting, but there is a definite tendency of folks to weave in and out of the freeway, especially when traffic gets congested. I don’t mean typical weaving in and out of the lanes of the freeway itself; I mean weaving between freeway and service road, without ever getting out of the lanes that accesses both until they are at their intersection to leave the Parkway. See the diagram below; it’s the red lane.

Although many other cities I have driven in have a similar design to freeway access, Huntsville’s Memorial Parkway seems to be singularly fitted to tempting motorists into freeway weaving. Why do folks do this? It has advantages, as many have found out. For one, if the traffic is congested on the freeway, you can actually make progress faster by simply weaving as described here. But, if traffic is really bad, like when a wreck occurs, everyone is trying to get off the freeway, then there is no longer an advantage to travelling long distances this way.

I think the urge to weave reaches its peak as you approach the Governor’s Drive overpass from the south. Let me see if I can describe the scenario at that moment. Motorists heading north on the Parkway realize that up next is the I-565 junction and if it is rush hour, traffic will be filtering onto the service road from Governor’s Drive, so merging might be somewhat difficult in that half-mile long section of the Parkway.

Here, it can be challenging. The lanes heading north expand suddenly to twice their number, and a few poor motorists are trying to filter onto the freeway from Clinton Avenue, almost like a tragic afterthought. All the rest of the I-565-bound stampede, now freed to several open lanes and speeding up towards their exit, now want in that coveted Clinton filtering lane, but those Clinton Avenue motorists are going up both a curve and an incline to filter onto the Parkway, and so aren’t very fast. The tendency of I-565-bound cattle, er… motorists is definitely to speed up to get past the slower traffic and thus get into good position to exit onto I-565.

There is one solution for a few observant travelers, which again brings us back to our topic du jour: weave into the far right lane as you are on top of the Governor’s Drive overpass – one exit sooner than everyone else – so you are already in good position to access that far-right lane to get to I-565. Then all you have to do is overtake some poor guy trying to get up speed from way down on Clinton Avenue – piece of cake!

Here then, this blog reaches its crescendo (pardon my shameless mixing of cattle-driving and music metaphors) with the question: is freeway weaving as described above legal on the Parkway?

It’s difficult to find the answer to this searching on terms like ‘weaving’, ‘freeway’ and ‘traffic’ without turning up a majority of related-but-useless information. One solution was getting a crowd opinion. On NextDoor, the consensus was unanimous early on that it is ok, but as time went on, more than a few folks thought or felt it was illegal. (I think you have to be local to the area to see local content on NextDoor – sorry to readers elsewhere if this link doesn’t work!) . Alas, even the current Alabama Driver’s License Handbook doesn’t address this particular issue. Eventually, a retired magistrate chimed in and was of the opinion that is could indeed be subject to citation.

Wow – I think most folks really didn’t see that coming as the closest thing yet to an ‘official’ ruling.

But that’s not the end of it on NextDoor. A lot of folks are just as adamant that it is indeed legal, along with some considerable anecdotal justifications. Nevertheless, that’s where it stands currently.

Other Findings

In addition to whether it is legal or not, there were opinions as to whether it is a totally ‘nice’ thing to do or not. Most folks were ok with it, some weren’t. Although freeway weaving does tend to leave surrounding motorists with questions as to what your next move might be.

NextDoor readers also had varying names for this process, such as leapfrogging, staying in the lane, surfing, exit riding and my favorite from NextDoor: riding the ramp. My wife and I also have a private term we use with each other based on the illustration I drew above: the red lane!

One last point, brought out by NextDoor responders was the plight of motorists heading north on the Parkway who want to go to I-565 headed east. I was mainly thinking of folks headed west on I-565, but to head east, you have to get over to the right an additional lane which, once again, in crowded conditions make that roughly half-mile stretch pretty formidable if you don’t do our little weaving technique above Governor’s Drive.

If anyone is interested, a fascinating (well, it is to me!) book to read on the topic of traffic is by Tom Vanderbilt titled ‘Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)’. Check it out.

About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
This entry was posted in Traffic and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.