Technology Taming Behavior — Or Just Making Bad Traffic Worse?

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Are modern traffic flow devices a good application of science and technology to tame what ultimately comes down to human behavior — or are they just getting our blood pressure up?

I’m definitely not a fan of traffic. You know, that endless automobile congestion and craziness that makes your blood pressure rise and occasionally gives rise to road rage. But I’m even less of a fan of modern traffic engineering. You see, I’ve done some research. I know that there are actually formal theories of traffic flow, mathematical models of flow management, and a host of specific technologies that have emanated from these theories, each one of which attempts to implement the latest findings. I also know that civil engineers really do attempt to use the latest scientific knowledge to make our traveling experiences safer and less frenzied. What I don’t understand, however, is this: how come it seems like every time a new traffic device is installed at an intersection somewhere, the traffic situation gets much worse than it was before the fix?

I’m being serious here. I’ve lived in several locales in different regions of the country, each with their own traffic nightmares. Still, I can barely think of a time when one of these new age regulation devices (e.g., computer-programmed traffic signals) actually made an improvement in an already unbearable situation. And I know of countless examples where things weren’t all that bad to start with and got ever so much worse after “improvements” were made. So, I set out to find out why.

What I’ve learned is that although the formal name for the theory of traffic management is called “traffic flow theory,” the net result of applying all the mathematical and technical principles that dominate the field of traffic “science” and technology is something akin to “traffic regulation.” That is, we now have the capacity to use many technical devices to help us regulate traffic more efficiently. These include induction loops embedded in the pavement that can “sense” the presence of a vehicle, infrared “cameras” than measure traffic flow rates, video cameras that can send real-time images to a master-control center, and computer-controlled signalling devices that attempt to match signal sequencing with the typical flow patterns for a given time of day. But while we can claim great advances in this ability to regulate, when all is said and done, the big question is whether we’ve done anything to improve traffic flow.

Back in the old days, many American cities had electrically-timed traffic signals on their major arteries. And because each city had a “central” business district, the traffic lights were timed to fire in a sequence that allowed morning travelers coming to work to stop for one light and then experience a high probability — unless an accident or some other disruption occurred — that the rest of their journey was a non-stop event. This was not great for side-street travelers. (The timing was reversed during the afternoon rush.) But to accommodate them, certain alternate routes were made available during peak travel hours to eventually place them on the major artery. In other words, despite the great number of cars, the bumper-to-bumper nature of things, and the sometimes relatively slow pace, traffic flowed, and fairly continuously, at that.

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Every time one of these new-fangled devices get installed on a route I have to travel, I start yearning for the old days. That’s because I know I’m going to end up stopping for every single traffic light along the way. I also pity the folks on minor feed streets who know all too well that because the highly sophisticated traffic signals we have are always permitting a different backed-up lane of traffic to flow, the major arteries never experience even a small “break” in the chain to allow these folks to smoothly enter the madness. This makes for a situation in which a “Good Samaritan” who might stop to let the poor soul in winds up backing up the main flow of traffic even more — or in which a frustrated side street traveler loses patience and darts out unsafely into the fray, sometimes causing a wreck.

Sometimes I think the whole situation with traffic management is just another example of how we’ve become entirely too dependent upon science and technology to manage our lives. We have so many mathematical models, clever devices, and computer programs that we don’t even have to think anymore about what we’re doing and whether the way we’re going about things really represents an improvement. Perhaps that’s why we’ve even forgotten how to get from here to there!

Am I alone in my cynicism and frustration about these modern marvels and their impact on our traffic nightmare? Or are there others out there in cyberspace who can testify to the fact that even our best technological wonders can end up making an already bad situation ever so much worse?

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