Rat Running

rat maze

Rat running or cut-through driving refers to the use of secondary roads or residential side streets instead of the intended main roads in urban or suburban areas in order to avoid heavy traffic, lengthy traffic signals, or other obstacles lengthening a journey, even though traffic calming measures may be in place to discourage them and there may be laws against taking certain routes. Rat runs are frequently taken by motorists who are familiar with the local geography. They will often take such short cuts to avoid busy main roads and junctions (intersections).

The associations with ‘beating the crowd,’ the rush hour, and the rat race may have given rise to the term, or perhaps similarities were observed between the patterns of rat running driving routes and a rat running a maze.

Rat running is controversial. It is sometimes opposed by homeowners on the affected streets, as it is regarded by some people to be a disturbance of their peace; sometimes it affects house prices. Authorities often try to prevent it, but enforcement is difficult. Sometimes rat running is fought by installing traffic calming devices, including all-way stops, speed humps, traffic circles, and rumble strips, making some streets one way, or by blocking off certain intersections (junctions). Other places, including Montgomery County, Maryland, and parts of Minneapolis, Minnesota, have banned turning on certain streets during rush hours to prevent legal rat running.

Some motorists are protective of their own rat runs, keeping them secret in order to prevent others from learning their tricks and clogging up the roads they routinely use.

Motorists familiar with an area sometimes use side streets or other smaller roads that run in the same direction as the main road along a parallel route. These locals generally know the streets on which they are traveling and the pros and cons of making use of these streets as an alternative to the main road.

In some cases, motorists avoid stopping at a red light by turning onto a side street or into a parking lot (car park) before reaching the red light, continuing down the parking lot or side street, and turning at the cross street the motorist is approaching (typically, this turn is controlled only by a stop or yield (give way) sign). Since the light was red on the main road, it is now green facing the cross street, allowing a turn onto the main road and continuing the trip.

Waiting at other red lights can be avoided (in some countries) by turning right/left (depending on which side of the road vehicles in that country drive on) on red, making a U-turn, and then turning right/left again back onto the street in which the motorist was traveling. A motorist who was planning a left/right turn may be able to proceed sooner by making this right/left and U-turn, and then going straight through a green light.

Some rat runs take advantage of right turns being allowed on red (left turns on red, in drive-on-the-left countries) at many intersections in some places though a right turn on red may be difficult onto a busy street that has a green light even where permitted, an unobstructed right turn can be made when traffic making the opposing left/right turn has a green arrow. Motorists familiar with the intersection’s light cycle order may be able to time their moves.

Some motorists exit and then enter a freeway (motorway) at the same exit to ‘cut in front of’ other vehicles in a jam, or use temporary lanes designated for exiting and merging to pass stalled traffic. Some large streets have parallel small residential streets separated only by a small median, where homeowners park their vehicles. These sections may be used to bypass traffic jams. However, when a major event that draws a large volume of traffic takes place, local police have been known to monitor or block secondary roads to prevent motorists from the event crowd from using such streets to avoid the traffic.

Many communities combat rat running by putting in place traffic calming features such as chicanes, speed tables, speed cushions, kerb extensions and sections of cobblestones, and a variety of other measures to slow and restrict traffic. Other communities put physical barriers in place that completely block through-traffic along routes where rat running is tempting. The city of Berkeley, California, has one of the more extensive efforts in this regard, with dozens of concrete barriers set up citywide to block shortcuts (while still allowing bicycle travel). In Northern Virginia, shortcuts are discouraged by the construction of dead end streets, communities with no outlet, and confusing winding roads, thereby making navigation through the neighborhoods more difficult and time-consuming.

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