Thursday, December 3, 2015

Opinion: D.C. traffic engineers are the best -- not!

Harry smiles circa 2007, some 40 years after he wrote three opinion pieces (typed originals above left). In this piece, he vents about D.C.-area traffic engineers. Do you think he ever changed his opinion? I doubt it.

One of the most enviable jobs in our modern society is that of the traffic engineer. I’ve often thought that this must be a most satisfying vocation, and that anyone who works diligently, with perseverance and ingenuity, must inevitably succeed at it. Furthermore, the successful application of the principles and techniques of traffic engineering are almost immediately visible – the feeling of accomplishment comes quickly.

Of course, the schooling and training must be long and intensive. I imagine every traffic engineer must go through a two-year internship as a traffic officer in the police department of a large city, where he can experiment with the various methods of impeding the flow of traffic. Then, I suppose, he also has to work with some sort of community planning group so that he can learn the intricacies of laying out streets and signal lights in random, haphazard patterns.

But I’m sure he doesn’t learn the real tricks of his trade until he’s actually on the job and can bring the full weight of his intellectual resources to bear on the problems of creating and sustaining the gigantic traffic jams which mark our metropolitan areas throughout the country.

Oh yes, you really have to hand it to them for that. I’ll bet that the traffic engineers from all the major cities get together for an annual celebration at least two or three times a year to boast about their successes. I can just hear New York describing some of his best traffic jams to San Francisco, for example, or Los Angeles challenging Chicago to create bigger and better jam-ups or else drop out of the race.

In my own area of the country, the metropolitan area of Washington, D.C., however, there is no question that we have the best traffic engineers in the world. Their work is a constant source of pride to those of us who are fortunate enough to commute from the suburbs every day, and there are countless instances of their genius.

One road, for example, which leads from the Pentagon to the Arlington Memorial Bridge, was a thorn in their side for years. It was a three lane highway, one way, and thousands of cars flowing out of the Pentagon parking lots each night sped through to the Bridge easily and quickly on their way through Washington to the Maryland suburbs. This situation must have been intolerable.

Finally, a particularly imaginative and persistent traffic engineer found a solution to this demoralizing problem. It was a stroke of genius, really. What he did was have one lane of that road chopped out entirely (those huge road building machines are very efficient at destruction, too) so that the remaining two lanes were exactly calculated to handle 66 percent of the traffic load. Now, of course, it takes 20 to 25 minutes to traverse a stretch of road which previously took about three minutes. You can’t beat that for improvement.

There are other examples, too, some of them even more spectacular, but too much praise may go to their heads. Anyway, I’ll stack my traffic engineers up against those of any other city in the country any time. Believe me, all of us around Washington breathe a prayer for them every night. And we sleep easier, knowing that our traffic engineers are on the job. It makes life more exciting, too, wondering what surprises they have in store for us tomorrow.

Stay tuned next week for a memorable "Season's Greetings." 

Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman 

1 comment:

  1. Les Evjen wrote:

    I share in Harry's disdain for traffic engineers. Over the years, and in all parts of our country, I have experienced their illogical designs, signage, and their 100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress. My conclusion is that all of the engineering students that fail in their chosen engineering sector are automatically shoved into traffic engineering where their failures fit right in to the culture.

    *Left turn lanes are the same length for roads with a 30 mph speed limit as they are for roads with a 65 mph speed limit forcing a vigorous application of the brake pedal.

    *Left turn lanes that force you over to the outside lane (and into following traffic) and then force you back.

    *Signs identifying roads with "local" names (locals don't need signs) that do not appear on any map.

    *Not getting bid invites out until summer so that construction can begin three months later than it otherwise could have thus insuring that travelers will have to deal with long, unknown delays to their destinations.

    The list goes on and on