Bridge-gate aside, traffic studies do not stop traffic

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie walks through the U.S. Capitol December 6, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey recently fired two of his top advisers for their involvement in closing lanes on the George Washington to punish the town of Fort Lee. Christie's initial explanation for the lane closures, which caused a four-day traffic jam, was that they were part of a traffic study.

Traffic studies are kind of like the song "Brown Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison: at any given moment that song is on the radio somewhere in America. The same is true of traffic studies, says Steven Schrock, who teaches civil engineering at the University of Kansas. "There are studies going on constantly."

There are many reasons to do traffice studies, and they can vary greatly in cost. They can be as small as one person walking in a ditch along a rural road, measuring skid marks to determine the safety of curves, "and then the cost simply would be labor," says Schrock.

Or they can be massive, involving cameras and devices that count thousands of cars. One thing they have in common is that the main goal is to collect data. "Some people refer to traffic studies as merely an observation of the way that pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles are interacting with the built environment," says Oregon State civil engineering professor David Hurwitz.

As for the lane closures that occurred in New Jersey, they weren't part of a traffic study. Those types of lane closures are very rare. "You typically would not reduce the capacity of a system," says Hurwitz. "This is a public good we're trying to promote. You wouldn't want to increase travel times."

Data from traffic studies generally show that the number of drivers and the length they are driving have both been increasing, while transportation infrastructure funding has not kept up. "So then we're sort of stuck with what we have now, which is to go out and try to study it and figure out, with the limited funding we have, what can we do," Shrock says -- wh makes traffic studies even more important.

"If you only get one opportunity to make an improvement, you want to maximize the chances that it's going to do the most good," he says.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.
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