Advice for a Young Traffic Engineer
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.