5 Lessons Every Transportation Engineer Should Learn


LADOT Should Have Learned Lesson 3

A recent article in the Institute of Transportation Engineers Journal, found here at Red Orbit, discusses the five important lessons that every transportation engineer should learn. When I was saw the title of the article, I was hopeful that it was going to be about how transportation engineers need to be progressive and think outside the box. I was dissapointed.

When Nicholas Whitaker and I went on a car ride with Deborah Murphy, she expressed exasperation that transportation engineers are still so concerned with "improving" roads as the key to more efficient transportation. Sometimes, because the readers of this blog and many of the planners and engineers to whom I speak are more progressive, it’s easy to forget how far we have to go to change the culture of transportation engineers.

Without further adieu, here is the list of five lessons every transportation engineer needs to know. Remember, this article was written by transportation engineers, for transportation engineers:

lESSON 1(sic): ONlY(sic) TRAFFIC ENGINEERS/ PIANNERS (sic) UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT OF LEVEL OF SERVICE

LESSON 2: TRAFFIC ENGINEERS/ PLANNERS KNOW TOO MUCH MATH

LESSON 3: THE PUBLIC OFTEN ARE THE REAL LOCAL TRAFFIC EXPERTS

LESSON 4: VISIT THE STUDY AREA SEVERAL TIMES DURING THE PROJECT, ESPECIALLY DURING THE MOST RELEVANT TIME PERIODS AND JUST BEFORE KEY MEETINGS

LESSON 5: UNDERSTAND EACH JURISDICTION’S TRAFFIC STUDY REQUIREMENTS, DESIGN STANDARDS AND HEARING/ MEETING PROCEDURES

Ok, so the five things transportation engineers need to know breaks down like this: "We’re smarter than everyone else.  However sometimes people whiners catch us because they know local conditions better than we do if we don’t live in the study area. Try and learn as much as you can about the local road conditions and don’t get slipped up by public process."

I would humbly suggest five other lessons that might be more relevant given what we’re seeing in our cities and around the world. I’m so confident that my lessons are better, that I won’t resort to shouting at you.

Lesson 1: There are ways to move people that don’t involve cars.

Lesson 2: Transportation projects should enhance the community character, not destroy it

Lesson 3: Environmental studies are part of the process of deciding how to proceed. Not something that should be rushed or subject to politics.

Lesson 4: Community plans are important guidelines in designing a road project. Don’t ignore them

Lesson 5: Listen to the people that live and commute in the study area. Projects get completed faster if there isn’t a judge involved

If you can think of any other suggestions, please feel free to fill up the comments section.

Image:revolute/Flickr 

  • calwatch

    I’ll take a stab at this, because I am a PE myself. While the five items selected by ITE are not the best ideas, yours aren’t exactly great either.

    1. Level of Service is an objective concept that can measured through calculations of flow, travel time, etc. The Highway Capacity Manual (HCM) is a research document that has proven the test of time over many situations. “There are ways to move people that don’t involve cars” is a nice statement, but LOS is calculated for all forms of transportation, including transit, bikeways, and sidewalks. In addition, it is the engineers’ goal to move the greatest number of people in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Unless given direction by policy makers, their natural inclination will be to design for auto flow, simply because there are usually one or more orders of magnitude more cars than there are people at any given intersection. Remember, staff cannot and should not set policy. It is the decision makers’ job to set the policy and punish those who don’t follow it. If the mayor had the political will to do so, he could counteract the LADOT’s automobile uber alles position with a swift replacement of head management and having his staff defund projects that don’t consider pedestrian and bicycle flow. When he doesn’t, that says something.

    2. “Transportation projects should enhance the community character, not destroy it.”

    The problem is that there is no good definition of “community”. I argue for the 710 extension, for example, by saying that removing all those cars on Fremont Avenue is going to make the homes along that street a lot more valuable, and the area around South Pasadena High School much safer (through removal of through traffic). But there are going to be negative externalities for the people in La Canada Flintridge, with the induced traffic, and for anyone that lives near the exhaust vents. Or take the “Fix Expo” crowd. Who represents a community’s interests? Not so easy.

    3. “Environmental studies are part of the process of deciding how to proceed. Not something that should be rushed or subject to politics.”

    Unfortunately, there are times when they have to be rushed. When the Santa Monica Freeway came down in 1994, we needed to move quickly on solving the problem, not get bogged down in studies. There are highway safety projects (structural safety) being delayed because State Fish & Game is understaffed. Most of the time, when politics are involved, they serve to downgrade a project.

    4. “Community plans are important guidelines in designing a road project. Don’t ignore them”
    5. “Listen to the people that live and commute in the study area. Projects get completed faster if there isn’t a judge involved”

    Once again, the community often doesn’t agree. You also have to define the community involved. Going back to the 710, I’m sure if you had a Countywide referendum on completing the 710, via a congestion priced tunnel which would pay its own operating costs and much of the capital costs, you would have overwhelming support. But the people living above the tunnel would complain. And, when you buy out the homes near the exhaust towers, they’ll complain that you are destroying their community, even though they won’t be breathing the car fumes.

    in summary, transportation engineers are experts whose opinion should be respected. Just like I don’t diagnose people with cancer, or the firemen how to put out a fire, the public relies on us to tell them that their bridge is failing, or that their roadway is under capacity. Their goal should be to provide objective information that helps decision makers and the public understand the costs and benefits of going forward or not going forward with a project.

  • Damien Newton

    in summary, transportation engineers are experts whose opinion should be respected. Just like I don’t diagnose people with cancer, or the firemen how to put out a fire, the public relies on us to tell them that their bridge is failing, or that their roadway is under capacity. Their goal should be to provide objective information that helps decision makers and the public understand the costs and benefits of going forward or not going forward with a project.
    —————————

    I want to say quickly that I didn’t mean for this to be an attack on transportation engineers in general. I meant for it to be an attack on that article in particular. It’s supposed to be about things a transportation engineer should know and it’s all about roads. Go back and use the find function on your browser and look for words like “transit” or “bike” or “pedestrian.” They’re not there. A couple of quick responses to CalWatch

    1) There is a bike LOS and pedestrian LOS standard too. They weren’t mentioned in the article and are basically ignored in traffic counts in LA. The standard for traffic counts is cars moved, not people moved and that’s a real problem.

    2) A fair point. I was trying to make a crack relating to the Pico/Olympic news from that day’s headlines there. A better “lesson” might be, “Every project needs to balance the needs of the local community with the needs of the travelers using the road. The plan that moves the most traffic isn’t the best plan.”

    3) There are times they need to be rushed, but those should be very few and very far in between.

    4 and 5) See #2

    Also, I don’t think the five things the article mentioned are bad things…but this is a magazine by transportation engineers for transportation engineers. Isn’t some of that stuff a little basic?

  • After reading this article, I went digging to find this video, but here it is:

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=uIieZBrsbYc

    Rita Robinson displaying the same disdain her professional engineers routinely demonstrate towards the people of Los Angeles.

    “Level of Service” is an objective measure – but then again so are measures that track the number of people being moved. Historic retail sales tax data is also an objective measure of the effects of transportation on an area.

    Social surveys of residents can measure “community” in a scientific manner.

    The fact is, there is plenty of good science that can be employed in roadway planning. Traffic engineers in the U.S. choose not to use that science. They choose to focus only on the movement of automobiles.

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