Episode 44 – Conspicuity, In Pavement Lighting, Stop Signs, NYC DeliverEASE, NJ Bridge Closure, Atlanta Traffic Snowpocalypse

Topics: Conspicuity, In Pavement Lighting, Stop Signs, NYC DeliverEASE, NJ Bridge Closure, Atlanta Traffic Snowpocalypse

Websites and Citations:

Episode 44 – Grab Bag
Hello and welcome to another episode of Talking Traffic. My name is Bill Ruhsam and I host this podcast and it’s sister website, talkingtraffic.org. Today is February 2nd, 2014 and this is episode 44 of Talking Traffic.
Today we’re doing a grab bag of topics. There has been a bunch of stuff piling up for me to talk about but a lot of it has been of a short and sweet variety. Rather than do an individual podcast for each, which would last about 5 minutes, I decided to put together several into a miscellaneous topic episode. I’m going to talk about conspicuity, in-pavement lighting, the first stop signs, and the September 2013 New Jersey George Washington Bridge traffic fiasco.
…and the Atlanta Traffic Disaster of 2014. But that’s at the end and it will be off-script.
First off, lets talk about one of the words I learned solely as a result of me being a traffic engineer: Conspicuity.
Chapter 2A of the Federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices or MUTCD describes the requirements and applications when it comes to traffic signs. The MUTCD is described in more detail in episode 9 of Talking Traffic, but to sum up, it is the manual in the United States which sets out the requirements and guidelines for putting up traffic control devices such as signs and striping. Chapter 2A uses the term “conspicuity” 10 times and I love saying that word. Conspicurity. Conspicuity. It’s like some friendly disease. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what it means, but just in case, Merriam Webster defines Conspicuity as the quality or state of being conspicuous. The MUTCD is solely concerned with making things more conspicuous, or in the language of chapter 2A-15, enhancing the conspicuity for standard signs.
You can do many things to enhance the conspicuousness of sigs including making them larger, putting up more than one of them (so-called double-indicating where you put an identical sign on the left hand side of the road), adding flags or flashing beacons, or my favorite, adding a strip of reflective sheeting to the sign post. You see this occasionally with stop signs, a long and tall strip of red reflective material that covers up the post. It does indeed make the sign more conspicuous leading to greater CONSPICUITY.
I love that word.
Another item that can lead to greater conspicuity is in-pavement lighting. In pavement lighting is just that, lights that are inserted into the pavement to, in the words of the MUTCD, “…warn road users that they are approaching a condition on or adjacent to the roadway that might not be readily apparent and might require the road users to slow down and/or come to a stop.”
Despite that very general statement, to my knowledge these in pavement lighting installations have been used universally at pedestrian crosswalks. They are set so that when a person presses the crosswalk button, they light up and begin to flash to alert approaching drivers that there’s a crosswalk ahead. Crosswalks are difficult to see from the perspective of the driver and these lights help their CONSPICUITY! Unfortunately, they’re also expensive and require maintenance. Any damage to the road surface almost invariably breaks the in pavement lighting power supply. There has to be a commitment on the part of the installing agency to maintain and repair them. The few before/after studies I’ve seen show that they are absolutely good things to install to increase the number of drives stopping for pedestrians, so that’s a good thing. Alas, they also seem to be falling out of favor amongst agencies.
Going off script for a moment…
The next item I’m going to talk about is the humble stop sign! Did you ever stop to think about what it looked like before it was Octagonal and Red? Because it used to be none of those things. The stop sign first came into being in Detroit in 1915 and the use in various cities around the country was varied in shape, size and color. In 1923, the first standardization determined that the stop sign be octagonal, and Yellow. It wasn’t until 1954 that the stop sign became a red background with white lettering like we see today. Red had been rejected in 1923, for any sign, because of visibility concerns. Back then, the sign sheeting didn’t reflect like it does today. It wasn’t until the 30’s that 3M invented retroreflective tape. Even then, it was low reflectivity, what you would see as the least reflective sign on the road today. Since then there has been a number of improvements in sheeting to the point where many signs are so bright that that special alphabets have been designed to avoid illegibility due to “over glow”. I talk about that briefly in episode 20.
Just a short interlude while I direct you to the show notes. I was recently send an amusing youtube video that is entitled “Redesigning the stop sign.” It’s a parody video envisioning what would happen if a major corporation today were in charge of the stop sign design process. I’ll put a link on the show notes but you can find it by searching for Redesigning Stop Sign on youtube. Don’t forget to go watch it.

next up! An interesting item popped up in my Alumni magazine. One of the civil engineering professors at RPI has been leading a program in Manhattan called NYC DeliverEASE. It’s a program that gives cash incentives to businesses in manhattan to accept deliveries during the night between 10 PM and 6 AM rather than in the middle of the day. The point is several fold: One, to get trucks off the streets during the busy daytime hours and thus reduce congestion and lane blockages caused by delivery trucks occupying spaces or lanes that otherwise would be used for travel. Two: to ensure a more reliable delivery of product to the businesses involved. If a truck is stopped by traffic or a crash or something, the time of delivery might range every day. This way, a business owner knows they’ll have their fruit or bic pens or whatever at the time they need them. Three: the delivery companies themselves will be able to more easily plan and schedule their routes if they don’t have to factor in a bunch of “what if” time to deal with traffic congestion.
An important point of this program is that these are “unassisted” deliveries. In other words, the truck driver has a key to the premises he or she is delivering to and does not need anyone present to accept the goods.
This sounds like a great program and I’ll keep an eye to see if New York makes a run of it. I’ll post a link to the final report on the show notes.
Now let’s get into the realm of opinion and ethics. If you were paying any attention to the news and the beginning of January you may remember the big kerfuffle over New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s staff being implicated in a scandal involving the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge which crosses the Hudson River from Fort Lee, NJ to New York City. This has turned into a political mess for the Governor and his fired aides, but that’s not what I care about. What I care about is the thinking that led to closing the lanes as a punitive measure and the engineers who may have been a part of it.
For the sake of disclosure, I should note that from a detail perspective, I know very little about this. I’ve kept up with the news articles but they are mainly concerned with the political fallout and the investigations, not the details of the even themselves. For example, the news has consistently reported “lane closures” but failed to mention exactly what that means. I know more now, but let me tell you about my opinion before that. Here it is:
When I heard about this fiasco, I was HORRIFIED. In order to close lanes on a major thoroughfare you have to have people out there doing the closings. You have to have equipment and barrels and coordinators. Those people generally work for a public agency and are in the charge (usually) of an engineer. In order for this traffic disaster to occur, some engineer somewhere had to say “yes Sir!” to a party apparatchik and send the staff out to close the road, ignoring a number of professional ethics along the way. I could conceive of reasons why the road closure might have legitimately occurred, but I was questioning the sanity of the people who actually did the work. There are many different codes of ethics that are a part of the engineering professions, but most of them are generally similar. Let me quote from the Canon of Ethics for the Institute of Transportation Engineers:
Section 1: The member will have due regard for the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of professional duties.
Section 11: The member will guard against conditions that are dangerous or threatening to life, limb or property on work for which the member is responsible, or, if not responsible, will promptly call such conditions to the attention of those who are responsible.
How about the Fundamental Principles of the American Society of Civil Engineers:
Engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor and dignity of the engineering profession by:
using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare and the environment;
There’s much more of course, but the basic standard of the Professional Engineer is to hold the public safety in the highest regard, over everything else.
Thusly I was appalled when I heard about the bridge. Somebody not a politician had to be responsible for the ultimate closing. I was dearly interested in what enginer was going to be fired and drummed out of the industry because of this.
However, later I learned that it wasn’t so much that lanes on the roadway itself were close as that several toll booth lanes were not staffed during rush hour. *That* I can see happening in a manner that bypassed all the people whose jobs are dependent on a certain exposure to public safety and the ethical standards that are required therein. Still, someone below the level of “Chief Aide to Chris Christie” had to be the one to tell the toll booth operators not to work on those lanes. Someone was the final “executive” level director that went along with this fiasco. I’ll be interested in the final report from the New York and New Jersey legislatures on what happened, by whom, to cause the approaches to the busiest bridge in the United States to become a parking lot.
The last thing I’m going to leave you with is another take on CONSPICUITY! It’s a last-ditch measure to keep trucks from entering a tunnel in Sidney, Australia where they do not fit. I’ve attached a link and embed to the show notes, however what they’ve done is to install a last-ditch, automatically activated waterfall at the entrance of the tunnel on which they project a BIG stop sign under emergency conditions. This water curtain is the last effort after multiple Stop advisories have been given to the trucker. If the driver ignores this highly conspicuous final effort, well I hope they have good insurance. Again, see the show notes for the link to the YouTube video.

And now I’m going off script to talk about Atlanta and the great 2014 weather meltdown…
And that’s it for today’s Grab Bag episode, which I guess should just be retitled CONSPICUITY! I love that word. Be sure to check out the Youtube links I mentioned in today’s episode.
Thanks for listening to talking traffic. If you like what you heard, or didn’t, be sure to let me know by leaving a comment on the show notes or sending an email to bill at talking traffic.org.
The music you’ve been listening to is by five star fall and can be found at magnatune .com. This episode is released under a creative commons attribution share alike 3.0 license. Feel free to distribute and/or modify this podcast, but please link back to me and to talkingtraffic.org.
Until the next time, have a great week and watch out for conspicuous items in the roadway. They are there for a reason. And listen to the weather service.

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