September 5



The AP put out this
intersecting article – Americans Driving Less as Car Culture Wanes.  Michelle Birdsall at ITE posted it on the
community bulletin board and asked how these trends will affect our profession, ITE, and transportation funding.  Here are
my thoughts –

Given the 20 to 30 something’s
preference for urban living, as well as the migration of baby boomers out of the suburbs, it's
reasonable to assume expansion on the edge of the suburbs is waning.  The
expansion of the suburbs is where the transportation industry has been most
active (and consultants have been most profitable) from post World War II until
the crash in 2009.  

Minnesota, we are seeing development activity pick-up, but it is largely
redevelopment/infill within the urban core and first ring of suburbs.  The
transportation infrastructure is typically in place around these developments
and all that is needed to accommodate their traffic is some traffic signal
tweaking.  Usually, expansion of intersections/roads is not possible in
these areas given the tight right-of-way and building setbacks.  

movement instead of vehicle movement will become paramount for traffic
engineers and planners to stay relevant.  This means Trip Generation needs
to be multi-modal.  It means our transportation models need to be
multi-modal.  It means our framework to approaching problems needs to be

industry is slowly becoming more multi-modal, but I think there will be a lot
of turf wars (or mergers) with organizations and professions that focus on vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians.  Architects and
landscape architects historically design the sidewalk facilities while we
design the roads and trails.  Our fields
will need to blend as these facilities blend more.

Transportation funding is
already going down in our current situation. 
Most of our funding is tied to gas taxes, which are going down because
people are driving less AND cars now travel further on less gas.

The funding issue is very
sticky – how do you take waning gas tax funds and apply those to non-vehicle
modes (although it is done to a small degree now)?  I definitely don’t have an answer to that,
but it’s hard to imagine a public funding boom for any kind of transportation.

So where does this leave a traffic engineer?  I think the traditional
traffic engineer who has a civil engineering degree will be less in
demand.  Planners/architects will nibble
away on the multi-modal edge of the profession while electrical/computer
engineers will nibble away on the automated vehicle edge of the profession.  ITE recognized part of this shift quite a while ago when the T in ITE went from Traffic to Transportation (to be more inclusive of transportation planners and other professionals besides traffic engineers).

Our profession will need to evolve significantly in order to stay relevant.  

  • There is another important role for traffic engineers in a future in which more projects are focused on non-car modes. If a project is designed to offer a new attractive non-car mode to some trips, how does one capture the benefits to the trips that remain in cars on the roads (decongestion effects). Often this will require re-engineering the existing road and/or junction infrastructure. Thus, paradoxically, good traffic engineering may be critical to the success of new transit (or similar) schemes.

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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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