The Joy of Urban Traffic Engineering

Urban traffic engineers are sometimes concerned that what they are doing as professionals to promote the safe and efficient movement of people and goods is not well understood or well recognized by the public or by elected officials.  Symptoms of the inadequate recognition and understanding include below-average compensation and the downgrading of the traffic engineering function within public agency organizations.  Despite these concerns, there are many joys and satisfactions in being an urban traffic engineer.

First, it is challenging and intereting.  Two very basic human needs are to be needed and to be loved.  Tackling the challenge of a job in urban traffic engineering fulfills the first of these basic human needs – you are doing something important with your life for the benefit of others.  It is a demanding job because so much is expected of you.  Motorists want an efficient transportation system, so that they will not be unduly delayed by red traffic signals or by traffic congestion.  Employers want their employees to arrive for work on time, and they expect exepeditious shipment of goods.  Motorists and pedestrians who become involved in traffic crashes demand corrections to the transportation systems to ensure that the crash will not be repeated.  Elected officials want the needs and desires of both travelers and employers to be satisfied – within a strict budget, of course.

That is enough of a challenge for anyone, but responding to this challenge in interesting because our branch of engineering has an ususually large human component.  The human component is most evident in the driver portion of the driver/vehicle/roadway traffic safety equation and in the emotions that sometimes drive the political decisions in transportation.

Second, the satisfaction in meeting this challenge comes the fact that you have the power and authority (within limits) to effect change.  For the most part, traffic signs, signals, and pavement markings are installed and modified under your authority.  Once you direct the change, and it is made, traffic operations are affected almost immediately.

A third satisfaction is being able to see a long-term project progress from conception to completion.  Taking the broadest possible view of your responsibiltiy to provide safe and efficient travel, you should be involved in the planning and design of new construction, as well as the operation of existing facilities.  This puts you in on the ground floor when the project is just beginning to be developed.  You will be part of the project justification process (traffic estimates, traffic impacts, cost estimates, benefits identification, grant application, etc.)  You will be involved in the plan preparation and perhaps right-of-way acquisition.  Finally, when construction is complete, will will operate the new or reconstructed system.  This involvement in the project from conception to completion gives you and understanding of how planning, design, and operation relate to each other.  You also understand how the transportation project impacts the needs of society.  Some projects could take 10 or more years to complete, but once the project is open to traffic you have a unique appreciation of how it benefits the public.

A fourth satisfaction is the development of your own professional artistry.  Through reflection in engineering practice, you develop a “feel” for your community.  You know which engineering solutions will work and which will be acceptable in your community.  You identify a constituency for transportation improvements and work with that constituency to make your community a better place to live and work.  Every once in a while you might receive a compliment in the form of a phone call or a letter from a resident – perhaps even a “well done” or “attaboy” from a city council member.  You are on your way to becoming well-respected.

So when the problems and frustrations of traffic engineering are about to overwhelm you, remember that you have some special talents and abilities that are very much needed by your community.  Those talents and abilities are in short supply right now.  The joys of traffic engineering are the satisfactions of taking on very demanding and interesting tasks and making your community a better place to live.