In my youth I had responsibility for traffic engineering operations in Alexandria Virginia. For those that don’t know, Alexandria is a stone’s throw down the Potomac River from Washington DC which meant that every day some 300,000 cars would race through Alexandria to get from home to work in downtown DC. Needless to say, trying to manage that kind of vehicle traffic is like trying to manage the arrival of a Tsunami each morning and afternoon rush hour. Good luck. Despite the enormity of the challenge, I was surprised by how little people knew about their traffic engineers and the work they did. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a little insight into how traffic decisions are made here in Kent.
Kent may have comparatively smaller traffic volumes and relatively few congestion problems but the City staff still take their job very seriously. Traffic engineering is built on data analysis and computer modeling that takes the guesswork out of decision making. That’s actually very important because lives depend on making the right decision and unfortunately everybody with a driver’s license thinks they are traffic engineers.
Honestly, I’d have to say that out of all the positions in a city, traffic engineers get picked-on, pounded-on, and second guessed more than anyone else. They have to be a thick skinned lot because everyone has a better way to manage traffic.
I suppose I’m biased because my management style tends to favor letting the experts do their thing and trying to stay out of their way, but for some reason people just don’t extend traffic engineers the credibility that they deserve. Traffic engineering is actually a specialty and many civil engineers don’t even try to do it because it is so specialized. But that doesn’t seem to stop the cynics and skeptics from jumping right in.
Now I’ll admit that historically some of the traffic engineers brought this on themselves by not always being reasonable and relying on mathematical calculations instead of common sense. But despite that, I have to say, we need to give these guys a fair shake, and I can tell you that the engineering staff we have right now in Kent is second to none when it comes to combining engineering expertise and practical know-how.
Recognizing that citizen questions and requests for traffic changes are inevitable, the city has a process in place to review each request and make a recommendation to City Council. Here’s how it works.
When citizen requests are received they are brought before a small working team that includes the City Engineer, Public Service Director, Public Safety Director, Police Chief, Fire Chief and Community Development Director. This team is tasked with evaluating the request based on their areas of respective expertise and coming up with a recommendation. The recommendation will eventually makes it way to City Council and they will deliberate on the matter and where appropriate authorize the necessary action. (Not every matter has to go to Council, some issues can be handled administratively.)
To give you a flavor of the meeting, here’s the minutes from the last Traffic Safety and Engineering Committee:
To: Mr. Ruller
c. Mr. Locke
Subject: Notes of the meeting of Wednesday, June 20, 2007 at 3:00 PM
From: William Lillich
1. East Main St. intersection safety concerns
a. During the meeting in May, the committee had suggested that additional research be completed regarding the “No left turn” on Wilson @ Main. Absent new information, the prohibition was to be forwarded to the City Council for action. Recently, a replacement street light pole was erected within the pedestrian island. During the installation a new flashing yellow light was installed that partially faces the Wilson Ave. approach to the intersection. The committee has since decided to observe the effect of this new light through September, to determine if the turning prohibition is still necessary.
b. The committee reviewed a request from a citizen regarding traffic crash occurrences on E. Main at Elmwood. The resident’s concern had to do with the frequency of crashes there, and the means of the city to restrict traffic to reduce the crashes. A review of the traffic crash data will be completed, and traffic count data will be obtained, if available.
2. Haymaker Street light update
Chris explained that twenty of the poles have been found to have two or more mounting bolts damaged beyond the point where they are effective at stabilizing the poles. There is still additional information due from the study before a final plan can be developed. ODOT will also be contacted.
3. Summit St/Terrace Dr. left turn prohibition.
The group discussed a request from the University Architect’s office to suspend enforcement of the prohibition during the summer, while Terrace Dr. is closed during tunnel construction. Although this may cause an occasional backup, it was felt that is a minimal problem during the summer, and permitting the turns will keep some of the traffic from detouring through residential neighborhoods. After posting dated notification signs, the current prohibition signs will be bagged until completion of the project in August.
4. Downtown parking
At the request of the Parking Advisory Committee, the group began discussing some of the areas in the downtown in which previous parking changes had been proposed or approved. Most of the areas include locations that were considered in the 2004 report. Some would consider making most parking downtown diagonal to gain additional spaces, as well as implementing new spaces in areas where the parking has been previously approved. New diagrammatic illustrations will be drawn up for further analysis and consideration.
5. Traffic signal intersection evaluation process.
Some members began a trial run of traffic signal intersection evaluation process. Comments were developed application of the scoring matrix and funding
6. Downtown HC parking
The group discussed an email posted to the City Manager’s web site, in which the writer mentioned the concern for HC parking spaces in the Franklin Ave. area. There is some sensitivity for the needs of HC drivers, although many times the three HC spaces within one-half block of the area in question go unused. The matter will be forwarded to the Parking Advisory Committee for their input on the HC parking needs of businesses in the downtown.
Follow up actions:
1. Continued review of traffic data at the E. Main St. intersections.
2. Temporarily post permissible left turns on E. Summit St. at Midway Dr.
3. Prepare diagrams of parking space adjustments for the downtown for presentation to the PAC.