Traffic engineers are pretty competitive. This is our football game. We want to be out there thinking of smart new ideas that are safe. We get in our little group of nerds and it's, 'I'm smarter and nerdier than you.' We take our job pretty seriously, but it is fun. We affect hundreds of thousands of lives every day. —Tim Taylor
Ever wondered who creates and implements those crazy, counterintuitive intersections with the NO LEFT TURN signs that are so in vogue these days?
You know the intersections I’m talking about.
It appears the traffic engineers were possibly insane when they drew them up on the drawing board late one night, just for laughs. They’re silly with left-turn bans, U-turns and veering to the other side of oncoming traffic so that drivers are actually driving on the "wrong" side of the road. This can be so confusing for the uninitiated driver that online videos have been posted to explain why and how they work. You know things have changed when you have to be tutored to make a left turn in this state.
Well, anyway, I met one of the guys who designs and/or implements these things. His name is Tim Taylor. It turns out that Taylor is sane and devoted to his job, and that those intersections are considered high-tech and innovative. Oh, and they work, too.
I interviewed Taylor one afternoon, and all I can tell you is that I’m not smart enough to talk to him about traffic theory. It was like hearing Stephen Hawking explain black holes and quantum mechanics.
Some kids want to play football when they grow up and others want to be a doctor or lawyer or bass guitarist in a rock band: “Since I was a little kid, I wanted to do something with roads,” says Taylor.
Which accounts for the passion he brings to the job. He doodles intersections on paper the way football coaches draw up plays. He can’t drive by an empty lot without wondering what it will become in the future and how he will solve the traffic challenges it will create. That’s how traffic engineers roll.
“We are passionate about what we do,” he says. “Nerdly passionate. We feel we have a responsibility to get people somewhere safely and efficiently. That’s an exciting thing to think I can help people do that.”
Taylor’s job is not as simple as it sounds, largely for one reason: LEFT TURNS. Left turns are the bane of his professional life. Left turns are to traffic engineers what viruses are to ITs.
At a busy intersection, only a few hundred drivers want to turn left, while thousands want to drive straight through. The few impede the many because the latter must stop to allow the former to pass in front of them, if you follow. The traffic engineer’s challenge is to resolve, as much as possible, the conflict between left turns and through movements by getting those left turns through with the least stoppage of the through lanes as possible.
Taylor likes to say: “You can’t build your way out of congestion. A 20-lane freeway is not going to resolve the problem.” His point is that there are still intersections and people trying to make those left turns. One option is to have one lane pass over or under the other, but the cost is prohibitive and rarely utilized anywhere other than on a freeway. The solution, according to the best minds in the business, is innovative intersections.
To wit: The continuous flow intersection, or CFI. There are 11 of them in northern Utah, most of them in the Salt Lake Valley along Bangerter Highway. According to a UDOT tutorial online, the CFI allows cars to cross over to the left side before they get to the intersection, which reduces “conflict points” or places where traffic must stop for left-turn cars. Watch the tutorial for more clarification.
"The concept is new to Utah, but they've been using them in Michigan for years," says Taylor. "It's called a 'Michigan left,' or a 'thru turn.' "
Another innovation is the diverging diamond interchange, or DDI, that has been implemented on freeway on- and off-ramps in American Fork and Lehi. The design began showing up in the U.S. a few years ago. As Taylor puts it, “(DDIs) give the most through time to the heaviest movements. Lanes don’t cross an opposing movement, so no one has to stop.” There’s an online tutorial for this one, too.
For the 44-year-old Taylor, such innovations and their applications are what he lives for professionally. The son of a civil engineer, he grew up around the construction business. He majored in civil engineering at BYU because, “I loved solving problems and building things.” A scheduling conflict during his sophomore year forced him to drop a class and find a new one. A chance meeting in the hallway with professor Glen Thurgood proved fortuitous. Thurgood invited him to join a senior-level class he was scheduled to teach a few minutes later. The class — transportation and land-use planning — inspired Taylor's career.
“After my dad, Professor Thurgood has been the most influential person in my life,” says Taylor, who studied civil engineering with an emphasis in traffic engineering, earning bachelor and master degrees.
Taylor took a series of jobs with consulting firms around the country before returning to Utah, where he co-founded WCEC Engineers nine years ago. The company is frequently consulted by UDOT.
“Traffic engineers are pretty competitive,” says Taylor. “This is our football game. We want to be out there thinking of smart new ideas that are safe. We get in our little group of nerds and it’s, 'I’m smarter and nerdier than you.' We take our job pretty seriously, but it is fun. We affect hundreds of thousands of lives every day.”
He designed an intersection for the Daybreak development in South Jordan he describes as “the only one like it in the U.S. (Daybreak) came in and said we want to do this development, but we can’t handle the traffic. We came up with the concept.”
The 10600 South exit was another challenge he undertook. Northbound drivers on I-15 who are headed for South Towne mall must make a quick dash across four lanes of traffic shortly after taking the 10600 South exit to make a left turn into the mall. Taylor found himself doodling solutions at his desk and helped come up with a solution. Plans are underway to put a one-lane tunnel under 10600 South that will connect to Monroe Street, thus eliminating that scary left-hand turn.
The planning of intersections requires a lot of math, traffic flow theory, timing signal lights, sophisticated computer models and a collection of statistics that measure everything from traffic at peak hours to whether an intersection is safer than it was previously. It utilizes household surveys to learn average number of cars and people per household; preferred mode of travel; destination; and origination. It involves macro studies, which examine large areas of traffic, say, from Brigham City to Payson, and micro studies, which examine specific locations, counting cars and drawing up an intersection on the computer to simulate how it will operate under differing conditions.
“I’m usually thinking 20-40 years down the road,” says Taylor. “If I see a vacant piece of land, I’m asking what that is going to be someday, and, if it becomes that, what are the roads going to look like at that point. And not just the roads, but all modes of traffic — walking, biking, mass transit. It’s about making a complete system. Cars are only one part of it.”
And how does Taylor, a man who used to spend three hours a day in a car getting to and from work in Denver, get to work these days?
“I ride a bike or take mass transit,” he says, smiling at the irony. “I want to be doing something other than driving after my experience in Denver. I don’t want to be part of the problem.”