Episode 60: Technology Bytes. . .Traffic Control

This is Technology Bytes, episode 60, for April 28th, 2024.

Technology Bytes is a microcast where I share brief bytes on interesting technology.

My name is Joel.

Enjoy, and here we go.

So what technology do I want to talk about this week?

Well, it’s going to sound weird, but it’s something that the vast majority of us deal with on a daily basis almost, and maybe on a daily basis for the vast majority of us, and that is traffic.

Now, when you think of traffic, you don’t really think of tech, and that is true, because that is not really the focus of what I want to talk about.

What I really want to talk about is the technology behind the control of traffic, how cars flow from place to place, how buses, public transportation, trains, all those things, and mostly focused on cars, though, this week, and we’ll see how that goes.

So let’s think about all the things that control the flow of cars on any sort of surface where they’re allowed to travel, and so you think of things like stop signs, like yield signs, like roundabouts.

You think of things like stoplights and turn lights, which is part of the stoplight, but how they’re used, and then you think of the major thoroughfares, freeways, and interstate freeways, and all the things that go into that, and so I’m going to go through those kind of one by one a little bit and talk about my thoughts on that.

Now, I am pulling most of it out of thin air, because I am in traffic.

All these things that I talk about control what I do, but I have never worked in the industry, but I do have a brother that did, but we didn’t talk about it very much, so most of this is made up in what I think.

So let’s talk about stop signs.

I had a friend whose grandfather said there should be no stop signs.

There should only be yield signs, because stop signs cause congestion, and in rural areas where you have to come to a full stop when you know no one is at any of the other stop signs at that intersection, you could just slow down as you pull up and then go right through.

So there is some thought to that, and so what are the differences?

Well, stop signs are meant to impede traffic.

They’re meant to let traffic flow in other directions so that we don’t have a tie-up or a bad accident or things like that.

So while the yield signs may help with the traffic flow, stop signs may lead to a more safe environment, and so I think about pedestrians and yield signs and pedestrians and stop signs.

Well, with stop signs as a pedestrian, I am not as worried about a car just plowing into me as I might with yield signs, because I know all four corners are going to stop, and that allows me as a pedestrian to feel more safe crossing the street.

Now, what about roundabouts?

You know, it’s interesting because there are a few here in Arizona and a couple that I go through quite often, and I actually kind of like them.

My father-in-law detests them.

He thinks they’re worthless impedances to his getting where he wants to go, but the reality is that in a roundabout, traffic gets to keep moving, and so there is very little stopping in the roundabout, and then it’s a matter of moving in the roundabout to the place so that you can get out of that roundabout at the road that you want to go on, so they’re kind of unique.

I think obviously much more prevalent in England maybe or maybe Europe as in general, but I think it is kind of interesting, but the one thing that I do think is roundabouts with foot traffic seems to me like an accident just waiting to happen, and so in the midst of a country road where you’ve come up and there’s, you know, multiple places you can go, keep going straight, you can go left, you can go right, roundabouts may be a good idea because you don’t really have foot traffic in those regions.

You’re really just trying to flow cars in the best way possible.

So what about stoplights?

Well, it’s interesting that, you know, that’s kind of what stop signs and yield signs have graduated to, and so you have the, you know, the red, yellow, green, and where in a street sign yield means to slow down and see what’s happening around you before you proceed, the yellow light and a stoplight often indicates that you need to speed up to get through that intersection, but the thing is that when stoplights were first hung in roadways, it felt like a very big impedance to traffic, I think, because you’re stopped at a light and no one is coming either direction, any other direction.

You’re there by yourself, and you are not allowed legally to go until that light turns green, and so that really became a problem, and then some smart dude, girl, engineer, whatever, came up with a sensor system that says, hey, if there are no cars coming in any of the other direction, then I can just turn this light back to green, and that really changed a lot of traffic flow, and then you start getting used to that, and when you pull up to an intersection that doesn’t have a smart light, you just go ballistic if you don’t have a calm demeanor in a traffic situation, but it becomes very frustrating, and then you have intersections where you get a turn light or intersections where you don’t get a turn light, and sometimes I wonder how those decisions are made.

Maybe it’s how many cars are going through, maybe it’s just because it does impede the flow of traffic, but without turn arrows, I think there is some safety concerns, but that’s all to be considered when technology is driving traffic flow.

So what about freeways and how we drive on those?

So two things first, on-ramps and exit ramps.

Well, on-ramps have started to put lights on those in certain places so that it hinders how many vehicles at any one moment can get onto the freeway, and supposed to help keep the flow of traffic going, but it really stops traffic on the on-ramp, and then the other thing it does is oftentimes gives you maybe not enough space, depending on what you drive, to get up to freeway speeds, and so then you end up impeding traffic.

I understand why the lights are there, but not sure they always serve the purpose, but someone has done a study to say that works.

Obviously, on an exit ramp, there is no light.

It’s like, I’m sorry, you can’t get off here right now because the road ahead is too busy, and then you’ve got just the design of the freeway, how many lanes, and then we added carpool lanes and different things, but you know what I think when it comes right down to it, often all of the tech that drives traffic is to help it to move well, but also to help it to move safely, and I think there are designs that actually cause cars to slow down.

I think curves are put in certain places to break up a long straight stretch to keep people from going a hundred miles an hour or whatever, but all in all, I think it’s a tough nut to crack, especially as population grows, as there are more cars on the road, especially in the U.S.

where we don’t use public transportation.

Maybe it’s a bigger problem, and then I think I might have found the solution.

There’s an app on Apple Arcade that’s called Mini Motorways, and basically your job is in a given budget, and over a certain amount of time, you are to design roads to take people from where they live to where they work, and then you have to design railways to move material from place to place, and then you have to put in stoplights and roundabouts and yield signs to control the flow of cars so that people can get to work safely and on time and material can get around and those kind of things, and I think traffic engineers should have to play Mini Motorways for countless hours until they learn how traffic works and then build the roads that I get to drive on.

Well, I don’t have any more for today.

Thank you for listening as always.

If you have any comments or suggestions, you can send them to technologybytes at merrickfamily.com.

Thank you for listening to the Technology Bytes microcast, and I look forward to the next time we are together taking another bite of technology.

Joel Mearig @technologybytes