Inman News

Today's traffic engineering stuck in neutral
Despite advances in technology, improvements are nowhere in sight

Arrol Gellner
Inman News

Someday, when the history of our Petroleum Age is written and the internal-combustion automobile is considered a quaint and rather silly conveyance on par with the oxcart, scholars will have a field day examining the myriad aspects of our vanished autocentric society. And without a doubt the most moribund and farcical discipline connected with this era will turn out to be that of the traffic engineers, whose automotive monomania helped turn the built environment into a playground planned almost exclusively around motor vehicles -- to the detriment of pedestrians, other modes of transport, and Mother Nature herself.

It may not seem odd that traffic engineers should be preoccupied with cars. But the word "traffic," it's well to remember, doesn't refer to automobiles by default -- it refers to the movement of people and goods. You'd never guess as much judging by contemporary usage, because the central and practically sole concern of traffic engineers across America has to do with moving cars around at the expense of all else.

Most engineering disciplines pride themselves on creating progress in their respective fields. In a single century, for example, aircraft engineers went from building sputtering kites of wood and paper to designing planes that can fly by themselves at 600 miles an hour. And in just 50 years, electronics engineers have made even more phenomenal strides: Consider the astonishing progress made in television alone, not to speak of computing.

Yet until very recently, the traffic engineer's only response to the demands of a changing world has been to bang out the same old two-note refrain: wider roads, more traffic lights. This is basically the same so-called solution that's been offered since the 1920s, even though neither strategy has ever shown much success in easing traffic congestion. Moreover, during the last two decades, while computers have been used to make virtually every two-bit consumer item smart, traffic controls remain determinedly brainless. Only recently has the consideration of "dynamic elements" even entered the realm of traffic engineering. The radical idea here -- are you sitting down? -- is that traffic controls should actually respond to varying conditions using sensors that measure traffic flow.

Hence, after 80-odd years of stubbornly resorting to the same ham-fisted repertoire of road widening and signal planting, some nameless traffic engineer apparently had the wit to wonder, "Gee, should our designs actually relate to what's going on? Should we try to make use of that wacky new computer technology everyone's talking about? Should traffic signals actually recognize that no one is coming the other way, instead of stopping people just for the hell of it?"

To which his or her colleagues no doubt responded: "Nah, that's crazy talk."

Given the glacial progress traffic engineering has made in the past eight decades, don't expect the introduction of dynamic elements, or anything else, to improve your neighborhood's traffic situation for a long, long time. By then, perhaps, our autocentric definition of "traffic" will have grown to reclaim those who walk, bicycle or take public transportation, leaving traffic engineering as it's currently practiced right up there with alchemy, bloodletting and other things we used to think made perfect sense.

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Copyright 2008 Arrol Gellner
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