In Defense of Jughandles

New Jersey is a state a lot of people like to make fun of. It is popularly stereotyped by its two famous television programs–The Sopranos and Jersey Shore*–and is home to all sorts of crazy quirks, from the law prohibiting us to pump our own gas to the pungent odor north of Exit 13 on the New Jersey Turnpike to the fact that we all live, better or worse, within a modest drive of a major highway. I’m generally okay with my home state being mischaracterized by those who live outside it; they just don’t “get” New Jersey.

*It should be noted that the stereotyping is carried out by people who don’t understand either show.

But it does bother me when New Jerseyans themselves don’t understand when their state gets something right. Enter: jughandles.

Let’s be clear from the start: Everyone hates jughandles–not just New Jerseyans. It’s that everyone else doesn’t deal with them on an everyday basis like we do. At the same time, jughandles are great. Anyone who doesn’t understand why jughandles are great ignores the basic constitution of New Jersey suburbs, which essentially boils down to a dense residential population that has to drive to reach commercial zones.

For instance, Hollis Towns is the executive editor of my hometown newspaper, the increasingly irrelevant Asbury Park Press. Towns recently penned an editorial titled “New Jersey’s Jughandles Defy Common Sense,” in which he offers the same misinformed criticisms of jughandles that have been espoused for years. In essence, Towns think jughandles are stupid:

Where is the logic here? Why not simply install another traffic light so folks leaving can turn left and sync it with other lights to coordinate traffic? I’m sure traffic engineers have their reasons. I’d sure love to hear them.

Nevertheless, jughandles surely cost more than good, old-fashioned left-turn lanes and traffic lights. And if they were so successful, how come you can’t find them in most other traffic-clogged metropolises? We should get rid of these things and return sane traffic patterns to New Jersey. Let’s hear it for left-hand lanes and traffic lights.

The logic is very simple, Hollis: If we just add left-turn lanes and signal lights, we add congestion on the main road, time to everybody’s commute, and danger of head-on and left-turn collisions. At a typical intersection with left-turn only lanes, there are three phases for a traffic light: green for the main road, green for the left-turners, and green for the side road. Because the people making left turns aren’t penalized, everybody has to wait longer than usual.

The beauty of jughandles is that they punish selectively. Only the left-turners have to wait longer and, even then, that’s only if the jughandle is of the post-intersection reverse loop variety (i.e. the safest). With a jughandle in place, there are only two phases to the traffic light: green for the main road and green for the side road. Everyone going straight wins. And, on average, the wait at a jughandled intersection in an area with saturated traffic (which is most of suburban NJ) is lower than at normal intersections. If there’s a particularly bad jughandle, you can just go to the next one!

Furthermore, you drastically improve the safety of the intersection. Now, a lot of people claim that jughandles are in fact more dangerous than regular intersections. But although the number of accidents is higher in a jughandled intersection as compared to a regular one, they are increasingly of the minor, fender-bender type. Head-on and left-turn collisions (i.e. the ones more likely to cause serious injury and even death) are lowered in jughandled intersections.

Of course, this factor seems unimportant to Hollis Towns, who’s still pissed he can’t make a left on Country Line Road:*

The arguments I’ve heard in support of the jughandles are that they cut down on accidents, that the roads here are too busy and that they keep traffic flowing.

On the surface, these are all legitimate reasons. But, they hardly justify the additional cost of building them.

Seriously, cutting down on accidents doesn’t justify the additional cost? What would then?

*Apparently by Country Line Road, which I’ve never driven on, you can make a left when coming from one direction but have to go through a jughandle from the other direction. This example is often cited in jughandle criticisms, and I agree with it–with the caveat that the jughandle is probably not needed in one direction if it isn’t in the other.

From his earlier quote, you can also infer that Towns makes the ludicrous case that if highly congested metropolises like Atlanta and New York–in which he has also spent time–do not require jughandles, why should New Jersey? This is an actual argument from a man who is an executive editor of a local newspaper! He doesn’t understand the difference between New York City and suburban New Jersey! He doesn’t understand that NYC’s infrastructure wasn’t built within the last generation! Or that there’s not a lot of space for jughandles in an urban area! Or that turning left in those cities is nothing short of a nightmare when it isn’t a one-way street!

The real comparison is to be made to other suburban areas, like the ones I’ve been to in North Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware that don’t use jughandles. These places make life miserable at certain congested intersections or dangerous when you have to make a median left turn from a stop onto a road with oncoming traffic traveling at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour.

So, my fellow New Jerseyans, hate Snooki, hate EWR, and hate the two minutes added to each trip to the gas station waiting for it to be pumped. But love jughandles. They’re something we got right.

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