King of the Road

We're using about 100 miles of fiber optic cable that eventually feeds to all the intersections. It includes 17,000 roadway detectors that tell us the congestion levels. We have about 400 video cameras where we can observe our intersections and streets in real time. And we have 25 changeable message signs where we can give information to motorists to advise them of congestion or a road closed ahead.

Now we're trying to send some of that information back to the public. They can go to a website and actually see what the congestion levels are on the streets. They can then decide, "Gee, do I want to take the freeway or do I want to take a parallel route to get to my destination?"

There's been a lot of talk about reinventing automobiles, especially in terms of energy efficiency. I'm wondering how our roads and cities are changing to accommodate smarter cars?

Cars are still going to travel on the roadways. But I imagine there will be more facilities to allow electric vehicles to be charged. That's maybe five to 10 years ahead. We don't see the roadway changing simply because the power source is changing.

But what we do see is that some of the newer vehicles will be equipped with radios that can communicate with something on the roadside. In time, maybe we'll be able to talk with the vehicle. Let's say we have a construction zone. And we'll put up the orange sign saying "Road construction ahead." Motorists will look at it and sometimes ignore it, not really believing that there's actual construction going on. What if we had a device on the roadside that could communicate with the car, equipped with a special radio, and give the car an audible message? "Construction ahead, slow down to 25 mph." There are prototypes out there that do this. And maybe that would be a more effective way to communicate with the motorist.

I bike to work every day and I find myself constantly wishing that all the cars on the road would disappear. What do transportation engineers take into account when considering bikers and pedestrians?

In the last few years, there's been a real emphasis on improving the environment for other modes of travel, for bicyclists, for pedestrians, and for the handicapped. We try to make our streets safer for pedestrians. We have a major program to put in flashing lights and a warning sign that will flash only when a pedestrian is crossing, called a smart crosswalk or smart activated pedestrian warning. We're trying to become credible with the motorists--when these lights are flashing, there really is a pedestrian, so yield to the pedestrian.

We've looked at some of our streets and determined that some are mainly for through travel but others are for retail and pedestrian friendliness. We've looked at how to make the sidewalks wider, how we can provide more streetscape features such as decorative lighting, trees, and crosswalks.

With bicyclists, there are activists in many of the major cities demanding more facilities for bicycles, so we're looking at how we can restripe our streets to accommodate bicycle lanes. I think in time there will be some streets where we'll deemphasize the streets for vehicular travel and make them available for bicycle travel.

Tom Vanderbilt's bestseller Traffic makes the point that even with new technologies, traffic ultimately comes down to human psychology. What role does this play in road design?

The challenge is that we're dealing with people. It is people who use the system, whether its pedestrians or bicyclists or transit users or the motorists. You simply cannot put up a sign that says, "Do this, do that" and just expect that they'll follow.

One example is that we've had neighborhood areas where we've tried to reduce the amount of cut-through traffic or commuter traffic on the streets. We've put in speed humps, checkerboard stop sign patterns, turn restrictions, so that it'll be difficult to use those streets and we think that will solve the problem, that traffic will just go back to surrounding arterial system. We've been partially successful but not entirely successful because some motorists will find another route through the neighborhood that we hadn't conceived of, that they're now taking because we restricted the original route. It is really hard to fool the motorist. We've got to provide a good alternative. We have to put in features to make the arterial streets more appealing.

And transportation engineering can't do it all; we really depend on enforcement and education. For example, we try to make pedestrian experiences as safe as possible, but if pedestrians are listening to an iPod or answering e-mail, they're not looking at traffic. That's not something we can solve with engineering. If motorists are inattentive because they're texting while driving, it's the same. It all comes down to people, and people have individual minds. They don't behave necessarily like you would want them to. 

Image credit: marc.flores/Flickr

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