I am occasionally asked the question, “Just what is traffic engineering?”
Many people may think that traffic engineers do little else but adjust the traffic signals and put a lot of colored paint on the pavement, but I can assure you that we have our hands and minds in a lot more than that.
The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), an international professional organization, defines traffic engineering as "that phase of engineering which deals with the planning, geometric design and traffic operations of roads, streets and highways--their networks, terminals, abutting lands and relationships with other modes of transportation--for the achievement of safe, efficient and convenient movement of persons and goods."
When roads and streets were built many years ago, the biggest task facing the road builder was to keep them passable in all types of weather. The problem of moving large numbers of cars and parking them was not significant.
As the number of cars increases, taxing the capacity of our streets and highways, the field of traffic engineering has become increasingly prominent. Each year more people own and operate cars. Urban growth has increased the need for public transportation, for improved movement of goods, for new shopping and industrial centers, and for transportation terminals. Funding for new roads has decreased due partly to environmental concerns and partly due to the general economic downturn of the past several years. This has resulted in an increased emphasis on improving the existing road system as much as possible. Traffic engineers are on the forefront of helping to meet these challenges.
Traffic engineering extends beyond the local level. It plays a vital role in the functional design and traffic operations of the Interstate Highway System as well as the local highway and street system. The traffic engineer must formulate recommendations for the integration of freeways, arterials, collectors, local roads, shopping centers, and industrial complexes into communities which will serve the population and benefit future development. Traffic engineers design and operate highway control and communication systems and devise ways to expand capacity and improve safety of existing roads and streets.
Traffic engineering typically covers two major areas of activity: 1) team decision making about new streets, highways and other transportation matters; 2) responsibility for the efficient, convenient, and safe use of existing transportation facilities.
The traffic engineer is concerned with individuals and groups and their needs, desires, actions, characteristics, capabilities and limitations as related to the roadway system. His decisions affect all roadway users: drivers; passengers; pedestrians; disabled persons; all who may use the roadway network.
One of the tasks of traffic engineering is long-range transportation planning. Working with sophisticated, computer-aided techniques, engineers and planners try to determine future transportation needs. To effectively plan, we must have good data on which to base our predicted activity and levels of service. Interestingly, due to the recent economic downturn and slow recovery, a number of local roadway projects which would have soon begun to increase capacity and to maintain our concurrency status have been placed on hold or scheduled for a delayed start. As the number of new residents slows down, the need for expanded capacity also slows down.
I hope this short discussion has answered some of your questions about just what it is we traffic engineers do. In preparing this blog, I would like to acknowledge the use of the ITE Traffic Information Program Series (TIPS) sheets developed by the Florida Section of ITE, of which I was one of the authors. Please let me know if you have any questions about this topic or any other traffic related issue or concern..