About traffic studies

Unless you’ve been in a coma or cave or maybe sequestered somewhere you’ve heard about the traffic problems on the George Washington Bridge last September.  Everyone is investigating:  A joint special committee of the New Jersey legislature, the United States Attorney for New Jersey, at least two Congressional Committees and a great many news investigative reporters.  But until subpoenas come due in a week or so and people have a chance to digest all the material that will be submitted, including listening to cell phone conversations and searching for text messages and email, there is likely to be no new information.  So in case you are suffering from bridgegate withdrawal, here is some information on traffic studies.

Trust Calvin Trillin to be on the case.  First, his poem as published in the Nation.

Fort Lee Jam   

Chris Christie insists he knew nothing at all
Re jams at the bridge lanes. Well, maybe.
But, now, those commuters are smiling. They say,
“So who’s in a bigger jam, baby?”

traffic study

And then we have his imaginary consultant’s report from the traffic study published in the New York Times Sunday Review.

FINAL REPORT OF A TRAFFIC STUDY CONDUCTED AT THE FORT LEE, N.J., APPROACH TO THE GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE, SEPT. 9-12, 2013

Object of the study. The study was designed to ascertain the effect on traffic if two out of three tollbooths at the Fort Lee, N.J., approach to the George Washington Bridge were closed.

Study designer. The traffic study was designed by Duane C. Milledge, Ph.D. Dr. Milledge was most recently the designer of a traffic study submitted to the agency that operates the two bridges that cross the Missouri River near downtown Kansas City, Mo. The design for that study calls for furnishing commuters on one bridge with $20 bills and instructions to say to the toll taker, “Sorry, it’s the smallest I’ve got,” collecting no tolls on the other bridge, and observing the result. Dr. Milledge is a member of the American Association of Traffic Engineers, a contributor to Queue Quarterly, and a Republican precinct captain in Summit, N.J.

Hypotheses. The principal hypothesis of the study was that the tollbooth closings might ease traffic flow onto the bridge, due to fewer cars from Fort Lee being able to gain bridge access.

Additional benefits that might accrue if the two tollbooths were closed permanently. It was posited that the space occupied by the two tollbooths in question might more efficaciously serve the revenue-flow needs of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey through a use other than collecting tolls — for instance, concessioning them out as a Shake Shack or a retail outlet for selling such souvenirs as George Washington Bridge coffee mugs, Springsteen memorabilia and CDs of Don Imus drive-time radio shows from the ’80s.

¶ Methodology. The methodology of the study was to shut down two out of three tollbooths and see what happened.

Interaction of researchers and commuters. The research team had no problem collecting data from individual drivers waiting to go through the one open lane, since their cars were virtually stationary. There were only 14 instances of violence directed at the survey takers, almost all of which consisted of commuters throwing coffee from travel mugs or paper cups. Fortunately, no researcher was scalded, since the drivers had been waiting so long that their coffee was cold.

…Corporal Sicola [research assistant]  found that 58 percent of the motorists in line shouted some imprecation, ranging from the sort often heard in the stress of a rush-hour subway or an overcrowded emergency room (e.g., “You people should burn in hell” or “You can take your study and stick it where the sun don’t shine”) to rare curses, presumably ethnic in origin (e.g., “May streetcars grow on the back of your throat”).

As we all know the lane closures were ended on Day 4, so a follow-up study is recommended.

Now, here is advice from Dr. Gridlock of the Washington Post on how to do an actual traffic study.

For close to three millennia— from the days of the Romans until the interstates were built — conducting a traffic study was simple, dreary work: send somebody out with a clip board to count ox carts or stage coaches or automobiles.

Did this create traffic jams on the Appian Way or Oregon Trail? Probably not.

Like everybody else who drives, Christie knows about traffic cameras. New Jersey has almost as many of them as it does cranberries,  and they outnumber the pigeons on the suddenly-controversial approaches to the George Washington Bridge.

Back in the days before he acquired a chauffeur Christie had to listen to the same radio traffic reports as the plebeians. As an observant fellow, he’s bound to have noticed that in the past decade they’ve gotten much more sophisticated.

Those cameras have helped, but a major advance has been because a company called Inrix and a few competitors take the heartbeat of traffic and supply local radio and TV stations with what they report. Inrix has a world-wide network of transponders installed in most trucks and what are called “fleet vehicles” — rental cars and delivery vans.

Those transponders provide real-time information, so your cheerful traffic reporter can tell you exactly how much traffic to expect — or where the major tie ups are — on, for example, the George Washington Bridge.

And then you can take the data collected and do some computer modeling.  Bill Baroni who was the one who tried to explain the fake alleged traffic study would have had some really nice charts to show them.  You don’t need poor Corporal Sicola!

Illustration by Peter Arkle for the New York Times

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