Fun with Traffic Engineering

For five years I served as the City Traffic Engineer for the City of Orange, California before Retirement 2.0.  Although dealing with the politics inherent in a smaller city was challenging, the position was a lot of fun and very satisfying.  There were a couple of cool things I did worth mentioning.

Probably the most interesting thing I did during my tenure there was creation of the City’s Traffic Management Center (TMC).  A TMC is used by cities or counties to monitor traffic conditions and signal operation, and can allow for real time changes in the event of traffic accidents or unexpected congestion.  All the coolest agencies have them these days.  When most engineers say they “created” a TMC, they mean they hired a series of consultants to figure out what they needed, install it, and make it operational.  Then they hand it over to agency staff when its done.

That wasn’t the case with Orange.  The transportation department staff built it.  We did the planning, wiring even even fiber optic connections.  Coming from LIGO, this stuff was child’s play.  We installed all sorts of radio and fiber optic communications, as well as CCTV cameras at many intersections.  And we did it cheap.  Damn cheap.  At one point I picked up a  roll of several thousand feet of  fiber optic cable at a swap meet for $70.  It normally would have cost around $3,600.  Can you say “petty cash”?  The amazing and beloved transportation staff later pulled this swap meet fiber optic cable through existing conduit and we interconnected four traffic signals over a half mile.

Here’s paper I presented at a professional conference about how one goes about doing their own TMC.

And here’s the considerably more entertaining PowerPoint presentation I did for the paper.

After the paper was presented, we continued expanding the system to the point it connected 53 traffic signals to the TMC, as well as 30 CCTV cameras.  This was primarily done by fiber optics but also included high speed copper data links and wireless Ethernet connections.  Our system encompassed just about everything short of carrier pigeons, and it all worked.

Why do all this?  Isn’t it just money wasted on “toys”?  Uh, no.  Because once an infrastructure like this is in place, serious traffic signal coordination can be done (i.e., the magic).  For that we hired a consultant to do the data crunching.  When finished, the results were amazing.  What follows is an excerpt from a report I presented to the City Council just before I retired.  Note the benefit/cost ratio.   It sounds unreal but is quite accurate (I checked it several times as I didn’t believe it).  I’m sure the Council didn’t really appreciate what their staff had pulled off, as they kind of gave me a “whatever…”  look and wanted to move on to the next item.

The City’s Traffic Management Center (TMC) has been an effort underway for a little over three years.  In that time it has been transformed from an unused room at the Corporate Yard to a state of the art traffic management facility unlike anything any city comparable to Orange has.  Through two separate fiber optic installation projects, over 15 miles of fiber optic cable have been placed under City streets, connecting 53 traffic signals to the TMC, as well as providing high speed data communications capability between City Hall, the Police Department, the Water Plant and Fire Station 5.

With the completion of the Iteris consultant services agreement for timing and coordination of City traffic signals in mid-September, the final phase of full implementation of the TMC has been accomplished.  This coordination project included 45 traffic signals, covering 11 miles of the City’s most significant arterials (Katella, East and West Chapman, Main Street and Tustin).  The final results from the signal coordination report are dramatic.

The timing project will reduce delay on the coordinated arterials by 479,000 hours per year.  That equates to about 3 ½ hours for every man, woman and child in the City of Orange.

  • We expect to save our drivers about 700,000 gallons of gasoline per year.
  • As global warming emerges as a consideration in projects, so does the issue of their “carbon footprint”.  This timing project is calculated to reduce CO2 emissions in the first year by 6,800 tons, the carbon equivalent of taking about 1,300 cars off the roads for a year.
  • Taking all the delay, emissions and fuel saving benefits into account over the assumed five-year life of the project, the benefit/cost ratio for the timing project 162 to 1.  That is, for each dollar the City spent on the timing project, our residents will receive approximately 162 dollars in various benefits over five years.

The other neat thing I did was kick off the push to implement a railroad Quiet Zone in Orange.  This is where under Federal law, specific  physical safety improvements are made to railroad crossings and trains are thereafter prohibited from sounding their horns (except in emergencies, of course).   As Orange has several rail lines running through residential areas, and many crossings, the residents were rightfully pissed about the train horns.  I prepared a comprehensive report for the Council as to how the City could implement a Quite Zone, and what it would cost.  This eventually ended up spurring the Orange County Transportation Authority (the agency managing transportation for the entire County of Orange) into establishing a Quiet Zone program for all of Orange County. Due to its vociferousness, the City of Orange was one of the very first cities to have the installation completed under this program, and today the train horns are silent in the City of Orange.

Yeah, it was all a lot of fun.  But Retirement 2.0 is better.