What is Traffic Engineering?

Traffic engineering deals with the placement of traffic lights.

Traffic engineering is a field of study that spans multiple civil engineering disciplines. It is concerned with designing transport systems, aiming to create safer, more efficient and economical systems for the world. Traffic engineering traditionally deals with things like bridges, roads, and railways, as well as traffic lights, signals, and other signals. Modern traffic engineering also makes use of more advanced technologies such as traffic sensors, dynamic signaling and central computers to handle traffic patterns in an effort to alleviate congestion.

Traffic engineering can study bridge safety.

The history of traffic engineering goes back thousands of years, to the great roads of ancient empires such as Rome. The first roads were built to last under the constant advance of humans and horses, and were generally designed to last for hundreds of years. Traffic flows were not an issue until much later, when densely populated urban centers experienced bottlenecks and dangerous traffic patterns, even in the era of horse-drawn carriages. Large streets were adopted to try to limit this problem and in response to the use of narrow streets as barricades during many of the great revolutions of the 19th century.

Traffic engineering in the United States saw a boom when the national interstate highway system was started.

In the early to mid-20th century, with the advent of the automobile, traffic engineering became an even more important discipline. In the United States, traffic engineering boomed during the 1950s. In 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act was passed, laying the groundwork for a national system of interstate highways, loosely based on the German Autobahn. Early traffic engineering in the United States therefore largely focused on strategic decisions, as an interstate system was seen as necessary to have a safer homeland.

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Traffic engineers assess traffic patterns and make recommendations on how best to improve them.

As traffic has increased in the United States and abroad, especially in urban areas, new areas of study in traffic engineering have opened up. The finite space for roads in cities made them particularly susceptible to bottlenecks, as they could not simply be expanded continuously, as had become the norm for the interstate system in more rural and suburban areas. Managing traffic flows became a big project as engineers tried to simulate and model traffic to better predict where lights should be placed, how they should be timed, and how roads could be changed to increase transport efficiency.

Modern communications and sensor equipment has provided a great benefit to traffic engineering by providing more informative tools to simulate real-time traffic flows. One particularly advanced system that was introduced early on was the NAVIGATOR, or Advanced Transportation Management System. It was built in Atlanta in preparation for the 1996 Olympics in an effort to minimize the negative impact of an additional two million visitors on the traffic network already bursting at the seams of Atlanta.

The NAVIGATOR system uses more than 450 closed-circuit television cameras to observe traffic and massive batteries of radar and video detectors to quickly identify accidents or growls so help can be deployed. The system was also one of the largest early deployments of metering traffic on on-ramps, leaving cars in a gradual trickle to ease congestion and stop traffic on the interstate highway itself. More than fifty changeable signals and information kiosks scattered throughout the city complete the system, allowing central controllers the ability to dynamically change the network and immediately alert drivers of changes.

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