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Zipper merge explained: Settling the debate of what's right

On eastbound I-96 after Plainfield Avenue you’ll find a zipper merge, and some people are doing it all wrong.


If you’ve been driving around Grand Rapids this spring, you know construction is in full swing. 

A project the Michigan Department of Transportation is calling “The Flip” is resulting in major changes to I-96 and I-196. 

That includes reconfiguring the I-96 and I-196 interchange, creating dedicated exit lanes to East Beltline Avenue from eastbound I-96 and eastbound I-196.

With this work comes lane closures, and one of those is on eastbound I-96 after Plainfield Avenue. 

That’s where you’ll find a zipper merge, and doing it incorrectly can cause major problems.

The zipper merge is a seemingly simple concept, yet it is commonly done incorrectly in West Michigan. 

An expert with MDOT explained how it is supposed to be done. 

The scenario:

You’re driving along and see signs for a lane closure ahead, so you immediately get over. 

“People say ‘oh there's a lane closed.’ They think they’re being courteous by getting over early,” said John Richard, Communications Representative with MDOT.

Then you have cars flying past the long line in the open lane, and the drivers who try to stop them. 

“The vigilante lane straddlers, or the lane blockers—that just creates a very dangerous situation,” Richard said.

So who’s right?

“The person that's trying to use the open, available lane is doing the right thing within the zipper merge,” he said. 

The zipper merge helps reduce backups where there isn’t a clear line of sight. 

“You’ve got the Plainfield interchange, you've got the Leonard interchange coming up, and it's got curves in there too," he said. "That's why we want people to use both lanes because the back-ups would be, in theory, about half as less”

Follow the signs and use both lanes, until they tell you to merge. 

“This is where they want you to merge," he showed during the ride-along. "Because obviously you see the lane’s closed, but right now the volumes are so low it's not really an issue.”

It’s especially important during peak traffic times, and there will be plenty more of those before it’s all said and done. 

“The lane closures will be in place through mid-June," he said. "And then in mid-June eastbound 96 will be completely closed at Leonard, so watch out for that. That's going to go all the way through October.”

During those upcoming months when eastbound I-96 is closed at Leonard Street, the westbound I-196 bridge over eastbound I-96 will be removed, and the new eastbound I-96 bridge will be finished. 

Traffic will be detoured onto southbound US-131 to eastbound I-196. The ramp will be reopen by that time.

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