December 1


Advice for a Young Traffic Engineer

By Mike Spack

December 1, 2016

big data, career advice, civil engineer, Design, professional engineer, Road Design

A blog reader emailed me the following – he wishes to stay anonymous while he works this out with his boss, who may or may not also be a reader of MikeOnTraffic…

“I have a question that I thought would be good for you because of your expertise in the traffic industry and your blog (which I read every week and think is great). I am currently trying to decide if I want to pursue traffic or design as my focus. I’ve had experience in both areas and would say I have more interest in traffic, but was wondering about the job outlook for that profession? I remember a blog post you had that said you wouldn’t recommend traffic engineering as an occupation for your kids. In your opinion, would there be more future opportunities in the design or traffic field? My goal is to try to figure out what I want to specialize in before I get my PE (which will be in the next year).

Here are my thoughts:

  1. There is a Need for Civil Engineers! We’ve needed roads for millennia and that won’t change. Civil engineers will be needed to design roads and reconstruction projects for a long time.
  1. What do you love to do? If you love traffic modeling and capacity analysis, I believe you should pursue that. However, I believe this market will shrink over the next forty years as we have more real time traffic data and vehicles are routed by computers to balance the roadway network. To survive this shift, you should work to be a top 5% modeler/analyst. Pumping out basic traffic studies and signal timing projects will likely end in the next forty years.
  1. Look at Relevant Classes Before Choosing a Master’s Degree. I don’t think it makes sense that traffic modelers/analysts have a civil engineering degree and I think civil engineering master’s degree programs generally bear this out. I started the master’s program at the University of Minnesota and found there were only two classes relevant to me.
  1. Varied Backgrounds are Good. Over the next thirty years, we’ll see traffic modelers and analysts who have a more varied background. This will include data science, computer programming, economics, applied mathematics, etc.  Human factors and psychology, which is an undercurrent of traffic engineering even though most of us don’t take classes in those fields, will diminish with the changing technology of transportation.
  1. Get Big Data Experience. You may want to consider working for a big data company like Inrix or StreetLightData. You could also work for Uber, Google, Ford, Volvo, etc. I think a civil engineer with traffic experience who goes to get a master’s degree related to big data will have a lot of opportunities.
  1. New Opportunities in Road Designing. I believe roads will get narrower (less lanes and narrower lanes) in general and become more multi-modal in the urban core over the next thirty years. This is an opportunity for traffic engineering designers. However, we should need less signs, striping, and traffic signals with autonomous vehicles. I worked on one of the first woonerf’s in Minnesota at Mill City Quarter and we are working on a large project in Edina, Minnesota that is proposing a woonerf through its mixed-use development. No curbs, signs, or striping needed!

Anyone thinking about their career should read Cal Newport’s books So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. In a nutshell, he debunks the common advice to find your passion and then follow it. His thesis, which I strongly agree with, is find something you are good at and do the work. The joy comes after you are proficient and are then building mastery.

For this specific reader, I’d stay with traffic engineering and work to become world class at it since he prefers this work. For those who don’t have a preference between analysis and design, I’d lean towards becoming a road designer because I think there will be more opportunity in design vs. analysis.

What advice would you give young engineer? I would love to hear your thoughts.  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

  • Hey Mike,

    I think it’s also good to point out there is a lot going into traffic design. It’s not always Traffic Analysis vs Civil Design. That was the false dichotomy I faced in my BSCE program at University of Idaho. The classes focused on traffic analysis and the Civil Eng professors kept saying, “Yeah, but where is the design?”

    There are plenty of engineering decisions that go into signal design, signal timing, signal ITS, street lighting, etc. These are all elements of the Traffic system and stand out separate from roadway design. With Traffic (be it design or analysis) I find we have the best of both worlds. We get to assess and design for the human condition. In my experience, that means a lot LESS calculus/linear algebra and a lot MORE probability/statistics. So my question to the reader would be, “What kind of math do you like doing most?”

  • Don’t forget the safety side of traffic engineering. With the advent of the Highway Safety Manual, Vision Zero initiatives and similar developments, it could be a rewarding field to get into. And even if the reader does end up in traffic capacity work or highway design, he or she should have a working knowledge of how traffic control and geometric design decisions affect roadway safety.

    Human factors and transportation psychology are expanding now, as part of this growth in traffic safety engineering. They may diminish if automated vehicles become the norm, but I expect the adoption rate to be slower than the hype has it. Given that the average new automobile now costs more than what a median income family should budget towards cars, many people won’t be able to afford the new technology. Unless automated ZipCars or some similar disruption becomes a big thing, rapid market penetration is not likely.

    On the other hand, a junior engineer today is likely to retire in 2065 or so. Think back to 1975. Any projections you or I make are likely to miss the mark, except this one: mental flexibility will be an excellent trait to have.

  • I’d second some of these comments that there’s more fields within traffic engineering than just traffic impact studies and capacity analysis. There’s signing and striping operations, safe routes to school studies, safety engineering (both systemic and reactive), and of course the many areas where traffic and design overlap, such as signing and striping plans for reconstruction projects, work zone staging, roundabout design, and more. But yes, flexibility and versatility within traffic is certainly something to strive for.

  • The combination of intelligent traffic and traditional traffic will be the future of traffic engineering. By rising of autonomous cars, we need ITS engineers who have the great background of traditional traffic engineering theory and combine it with futuristic technologies.

  • This is interesting, However, the automation will not be sufficient to make decisions towards good traffic engineering solutions and I hope there is no need to be panic of the loosing opportunities for good traffic engineers and only change shall be they will be more good in transportation planning with easy data bases and decision making for transportation requirements will remain in high scale with the externalities of the automation. This is the natural theory you must follow.

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    Mike Spack

    My mission is to help traffic engineers, transportation planners, and other transportation professionals improve our world.

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