Fighting Rush Hour

 Image of dense, bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway.

We all know what it’s like to get stuck in a traffic jam. But it’s hard to picture what it must feel like for a traffic engineer, like Philomena (Mena) Lockwood, an assistant state traffic engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation. Her job involves keeping traffic flowing safely and efficiently over the states roads and highways. This means that every day when Mena drives home from work, she experiences the effects of her job firsthand.

Philomena Lockwood, U.S. Department of Transportation.

Click a button to watch an interview with Philomena Lockwood:

For the most part, Mena’s job must feel very rewarding. Even though there are just too many cars on the road to prevent traffic altogether, at least Mena knows that she’s dramatically improving the situation. She and her team have a lot of tricks up their sleeves that—short of building more roads, which are extremely expensive—go a long way to preventing gridlock.

For example, there are clever uses of technology. Cameras and sensors embedded in the roadway actually count the number of cars on the road and keep watch for accidents or stalled vehicles. The sensors relay this information to Mena’s coworkers at the nearby Traffic Operations Center. They can then notify the travelling public via radio, electronic road signs, or cellphone alerts that there is a stalled vehicle ahead and that they should use an alternate route. This strategy gives drivers the option of choosing a less congested route.

Mena’s team can even directly control the flow of traffic. Because sensors and traffic cameras provide her team with a real-time map of the traffic flow, including congestion hotspots, the team can respond accordingly in a number of ways. Is traffic backed up from interstate marker 29 to 32? Close Ramp A for five minutes. Is Tenth Avenue clogged from Pacific to St. Charles Ave? Reduce the speed limit there by 10 mph for the next half an hour. Reducing the speed limit, Mena informed us, actually improves the flow of traffic in most cases.

But Mena knows she can’t eliminate traffic jams altogether, no matter how hard she tries. Not yet, anyway—though there may be a day when self-driving and connected vehicles make traffic jams a much more uncommon experience. Until that day, Mena knows she can at least do her best. And if she can shave 10 minutes off of the average daily commute in her city, then she knows she’s making a difference.

But Mena isn’t just saving people time. She’s saving other resources, including taxpayer dollars. If you can keep traffic flowing without building additional lanes, you can save millions of dollars that could be used to pay for other things, like schools.

She’s also saving lives. On one particularly foggy section of highway, Mena and her team installed a system that can warn drivers to slow down as the fog gets thicker. Using an algorithm that Mena helped to develop, computers at the Traffic Operations Center relay the safest possible speed limit for the conditions to drivers in the area without over-slowing the traffic flow.

Mena’s proud of that accomplishment. Saving time and money is one thing. Potentially saving a life—that’s another thing altogether.

Tomorrow morning Mena will drive to work at the Traffic Operations Center. That evening she will drive back home. If she sees an accident or a stalled vehicle along the way, she’ll know exactly who to call. And if she sees a reduced speed ahead sign, she’ll slow down because she knows that if everyone did this they would all arrive at work or at home more quickly.

Mena will arrive to her destination on time, as expected. After all, she’s good at her job. And though no strangers will thank Mena on this day for being good at her job, she’ll know she did her part every time she puts her car keys back on the hook.

Aaron Mack
Fast Forward: Volume 3 Issue 2 - Highway