Category Archives: communicating science

Ethics in Earthquake Engineering

The headlines blare: Italian Seismologists Are Going to Jail for Not Being Able to Predict the Future Scientists aghast over Italian quake verdicts Italy Orders Jail Terms for 7 Who Didn’t Warn of Deadly Earthquake These are just a few … Continue reading Continue reading

Posted in communicating science, Engineering Ethics, ethics, Itilian seismologists, Moral Philosophy

Can We Live With Traffic?

The following text presents my first draft for a five minute presentation I’ve been asked to give.  I will be presenting this work on June 27th to a review committee selecting presenters for a TEDx event at Virginia Tech, to be held in November.  The content of this short presentation is much lighter than a full 15-minute TED talk, and I hope that I’ve made good use of the five minutes allotted me.  I would appreciate any feedback you wish to give regarding the presentation, especially constructive criticism that can help me to improve the talk.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to present my idea worth sharing to you.
To begin, I need to make a confession; I like traffic. 

It’s not that I enjoy traffic because it gives me more time to listen to NPR; I have my driveway for that.  I like traffic because, to me, each car on the road is a tiny proclamation of productivity.  Traffic gets created when we have places to live, jobs to go to, money to buy groceries with, and play-dates to take our kids to.
Unfortunately, the natural consequence of traffic is conflict. 
At the simplest of conventional intersections, there are 32 different points of conflict.  Every time you travel through an intersection, there are eight places where you cross the path of a conflicting vehicle.  The points at the beginning and end are called diverging and merging conflicts, and are far less dangerous than the crossing conflicts found in the middle of the intersection.

As frustrated as we might feel when waiting for a light to turn green, the sequencing of signalized intersections is designed to keep those conflicting movements out of your path.  Traffic engineers would like to think that the world is in balance, with control wiping out conflict, but the reality is very different.

Between the ages of 15 and 44, you’re more likely to die in an auto accident than from any other cause.  This is heart-wrenching for me, because traffic is killing people; specifically, it’s killing young people.  In their first year behind the wheel, one out of every sixteen people will be involved in a crash that ends with someone in the emergency room, either injured or dead.  This problem is a personal one for me.


Jonas will be eligible to drive in 2024, Emily in 2026, and Isaac in 2028.  My children are not statistics, they are people, and they are my world; I would do almost anything to keep them safe.  That being said, I want them to get their licenses as soon as they are able.  I refuse to let my fear prevent them from living a full life.  Instead, I choose to turn that fear into action, which is why I am here today.

So what’s the idea worth sharing?  How do we keep the traffic and beat the conflict?

There exists a group of designs known as “alternative intersections.”  They have names like the Jughandle, the Median U-turn, the Restricted Crossing U-turn, the Displaced Left-turn, the Quadrant Roadway, and the Modern Roundabout.  For today’s mini talk I’ll confine my discussion to some of the finer points of the Modern Roundabout.

By design, vehicles traveling through a roundabout are hard-pressed to travel above 20 miles an hour.  Impacts at lower speeds generally cause less damage and fewer injuries, but the largest benefit of this design for safety is in the area of conflict.
The roundabout reduces the 32 conflict points of a conventional intersection down to 8, completely removing crossing conflicts.  Accidents still happen at roundabouts, but cars merging and diverging at low speeds result in far fewer injuries or deaths.  So why not replace every signalized intersection with a roundabout?  It does well up to a certain amount of traffic, but it doesn’t make sense in every situation; it’s not a silver bullet.  Other alternative intersection designs, some of which exist only on paper today, can help solve the problem.

For a design that only exists on paper it’s easy to show a theoretical benefit to safety, but there’s a lot of fear that drivers won’t know what to do, and it’s impossible to say ‘the one they built over there is working great.’  Advocacy is necessary to bring these so-called “alternatives” into the mainstream.  We can’t wait any longer to embrace these designs.  People are dying, our youth are dying, and we need to fix it.  I want my children, all of our children, to become joyous sources of traffic: driving to school and their summer jobs, taking their dates to the prom, and going on road trips.  I’m anguished over the thought of them becoming an injury or fatality statistic, and I need your help to keep them safe.

Thank you.

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, alternative intersections, communicating science, roundabout, TED Talks, transportation, unconventional intersections, virginia tech

Can We Live With Traffic?

The following text presents my first draft for a five minute presentation I’ve been asked to give.  I will be presenting this work on June 27th to a review committee selecting presenters for a TEDx event at Virginia Tech, to be held in November.  The content of this short presentation is much lighter than a full 15-minute TED talk, and I hope that I’ve made good use of the five minutes allotted me.  I would appreciate any feedback you wish to give regarding the presentation, especially constructive criticism that can help me to improve the talk.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to present my idea worth sharing to you.
To begin, I need to make a confession; I like traffic. 

It’s not that I enjoy traffic because it gives me more time to listen to NPR; I have my driveway for that.  I like traffic because, to me, each car on the road is a tiny proclamation of productivity.  Traffic gets created when we have places to live, jobs to go to, money to buy groceries with, and play-dates to take our kids to.
Unfortunately, the natural consequence of traffic is conflict. 
At the simplest of conventional intersections, there are 32 different points of conflict.  Every time you travel through an intersection, there are eight places where you cross the path of a conflicting vehicle.  The points at the beginning and end are called diverging and merging conflicts, and are far less dangerous than the crossing conflicts found in the middle of the intersection.

As frustrated as we might feel when waiting for a light to turn green, the sequencing of signalized intersections is designed to keep those conflicting movements out of your path.  Traffic engineers would like to think that the world is in balance, with control wiping out conflict, but the reality is very different.

Between the ages of 15 and 44, you’re more likely to die in an auto accident than from any other cause.  This is heart-wrenching for me, because traffic is killing people; specifically, it’s killing young people.  In their first year behind the wheel, one out of every sixteen people will be involved in a crash that ends with someone in the emergency room, either injured or dead.  This problem is a personal one for me.


Jonas will be eligible to drive in 2024, Emily in 2026, and Isaac in 2028.  My children are not statistics, they are people, and they are my world; I would do almost anything to keep them safe.  That being said, I want them to get their licenses as soon as they are able.  I refuse to let my fear prevent them from living a full life.  Instead, I choose to turn that fear into action, which is why I am here today.

So what’s the idea worth sharing?  How do we keep the traffic and beat the conflict?

There exists a group of designs known as “alternative intersections.”  They have names like the Jughandle, the Median U-turn, the Restricted Crossing U-turn, the Displaced Left-turn, the Quadrant Roadway, and the Modern Roundabout.  For today’s mini talk I’ll confine my discussion to some of the finer points of the Modern Roundabout.

By design, vehicles traveling through a roundabout are hard-pressed to travel above 20 miles an hour.  Impacts at lower speeds generally cause less damage and fewer injuries, but the largest benefit of this design for safety is in the area of conflict.
The roundabout reduces the 32 conflict points of a conventional intersection down to 8, completely removing crossing conflicts.  Accidents still happen at roundabouts, but cars merging and diverging at low speeds result in far fewer injuries or deaths.  So why not replace every signalized intersection with a roundabout?  It does well up to a certain amount of traffic, but it doesn’t make sense in every situation; it’s not a silver bullet.  Other alternative intersection designs, some of which exist only on paper today, can help solve the problem.

For a design that only exists on paper it’s easy to show a theoretical benefit to safety, but there’s a lot of fear that drivers won’t know what to do, and it’s impossible to say ‘the one they built over there is working great.’  Advocacy is necessary to bring these so-called “alternatives” into the mainstream.  We can’t wait any longer to embrace these designs.  People are dying, our youth are dying, and we need to fix it.  I want my children, all of our children, to become joyous sources of traffic: driving to school and their summer jobs, taking their dates to the prom, and going on road trips.  I’m anguished over the thought of them becoming an injury or fatality statistic, and I need your help to keep them safe.

Thank you.

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, alternative intersections, communicating science, roundabout, TED Talks, transportation, unconventional intersections, virginia tech

First Draft for Virginia Tech TEDx

This post is a little different from my usual content.


My dissertation research focus is on alternative intersection designs, and I am committed to spreading the word about these designs as far as I can.  To this end, I am nominating myself to speak at the upcoming Virginia Tech TEDx event on November 10, 2012.  Speakers will be chosen from among the students, faculty, and staff at the University.  I’ve written a first draft for the presentation I wish to give, should I be chosen to participate in the event.  It’s designed to be around 15 minutes in length, so it’s not a quick read.  If you have the time, I strongly suggest you read the post because I feel that the information is important.  If you are a student, alumnus, faculty, or staff member at Virginia Tech, and you agree that this information should be presented at the upcoming TEDx event, I would be very grateful if you could add your nomination to my own before the May 18th nomination deadline arrives.


Thank you,  John

Good afternoon, my name is John Sangster, and I’d like to start off my talk today with a confession: I like traffic. When I tell people that I’m a traffic engineer, the way I’m sometimes looked at makes me understand how divorce lawyers must feel; everyone knows that our jobs are necessary, but everyone wishes that they weren’t. Okay, so what’s that I said about liking traffic?

It’s not that I enjoy traffic because it gives me more time to listen to NPR, I’ve got my driveway for that. I like traffic because each car on the road means people are busy living their lives. Traffic is created whenever we have places to live, jobs to go to, money to buy groceries with, and play-dates to take our kids to. Sometimes I feel like each car on the road is like a small proclamation of productivity.

The reason I have a job, and the reason why I am here today to talk with you, is that individual trips are wonderful things, but having more than one car on the road naturally leads to conflict. Lots of cars on the road at the same time leads to lots of conflict. This idea of conflict is used within my industry to better understand and control the flow of traffic on the roads. The next time you drive through an intersection, I’d like you to ponder this concept of conflict.

Source: Federal Highway Administration

The simplest of intersections, with only one lane approaching from each direction, contains 32 different points of conflict. Each time you go straight through an intersection, there are six different points where you are passing through the path of another vehicle. The first two points are called diverging points, where cars traveling on the same path separate into different paths. These diverging points are a source of rear-end collisions, when a following vehicle makes an assumption that the leader will continue through, and for some reason the leading vehicle is forced to stop. The next four points of conflict you pass through are called crossing points; these locations are the most dangerous, and are the cause of head-on and T-bone collisions. The last two points you pass through are a bit less stressful; they’re called merging conflict points, and involve vehicles from separate paths coming together to move in the same direction; these conflicts usually result in side-swipe collisions, and are usually limited to property damage with many fewer injuries or deaths. The reason I want you to think about these conflicts when you’re out on the road driving, is because I’d like you to be a little more patient when waiting at a red light. There are good reasons for signalizing an intersection, and one of the best is to make sure that the other cars driving through it aren’t going to be in conflict with you!

Source: Federal Highway Administration

Tolkien was wrong; it takes two rings to rule them all. Common practice in the United States is to organize traffic movements according to the “ring and barrier design” as shown in the graphic. The power of the conceptualization is that it separates all of those conflicts we discussed so that nothing overlaps. Each individual movement cannot occur simultaneously with any movement in its row, or any movement located on the other side of a barrier from it. For example, movement one, a northbound left-turn, can only occur simultaneously with movements five or six, a southbound left-turn or a northbound through/right movement.

Now the world is in balance: we’ve got conflict, and we’ve got a control scheme to fix it; right? So how successful have traffic engineers been at keeping you safe on the roads? Not very.

The leading cause of death in the United States for people between the ages of 15 and 44 is motor vehicle fatalities. Let me say it again more slowly, because this is heart-wrenching for me; the leading cause of death for young people is from driving. According to the Federal Highway Administration, there were 2.5 million intersection-related crashes in 2007, 37,000 of which resulted in a fatality. For crashes resulting in injury or death, the highest rate is among 16-year old drivers, who experience 61.4 crashes per 1,000 drivers. I have trouble conceptualizing how much 61 out of 1,000 is, but I find it very easy to understand when put another way.

Among high school juniors, one student out of every sixteen will be behind the wheel of a car that is involved in a crash in which someone is injured or killed. I like the way that this image makes the statistic more relatable, but it still feels impersonal to me. I have three incredibly important, and very personal, reasons for the work that I do.

My son Jonas loves reading non-fiction books – his current favorite topic is space and the planets. His favorite color is orange. When he arrives at pre-school in the morning, he likes to sit on a bench for the first five minutes by himself quietly watching the other kids play before he ventures out to join them. He will be eligible to get his driver’s license in July of 2024.

My daughter Emily is extremely friendly and very polite, so long as you’re doing exactly what she wants. She likes to wear “piggy tails,” though she rarely sits still while I fix her hair in the morning. Her favorite color is purple. She likes to browse books at bedtime, and nearly every time I go in to turn out her light she’s got a book lying on her face. She will be eligible to get her driver’s license in April of 2026.

My son Isaac likes to sit on my lap and chat with me. I’m not sure what he’s saying most of the time; he keeps talking about some lady named “Nnnnnga” that I have yet to meet. He’ll be eligible to get his driver’s license in February of 2028.

I tell you these details because my children are not statistics, they are people; they are my life, and I would do anything to keep them safe.

I’ve now taken eight minutes of your time. I’ve explained why traffic can be a positive thing and should be valued, how it creates conflict, and how traffic engineers have been trying to control that conflict. I’ve explained the extent to which we’re failing to keep you safe, and why it’s personally important to me to change it. With the seven minutes that remain of my allotted time, I’d like to talk to you about recent developments in intersection design, which I believe to be part of the solution.

In the last five years a group of intersection designs have been given their own classification as “alternative intersections.” These designs have names like the Jughandle, the Median U-turn, the Restricted Crossing U-turn, the Displaced Left-turn, the Quadrant Roadway, and one that should be very familiar to the audience here today, the Modern Roundabout. Some of these designs have been regionally accepted for many years, such as the Jughandle in New Jersey or the Median U-turn in Michigan, but I’d like to focus the talk today on the two designs which have been gaining wider acceptance only recently. I’ll finish up by talking about the use of the Restricted Crossing U-turn design, but at the moment I want to discuss some of the finer points of the Modern Roundabout.

Source: Google Maps

I’m careful to specify this design as the modern roundabout, because it’s very different from the rotaries popular in the northeastern US fifty years ago. The diameter of the circle in this design is set as small as possible; only large enough to force cars to slow down as they travel through the intersection. Vehicles traveling through a roundabout are hard-pressed to travel above 20 miles an hour, which greatly increases safety, but this is not the most dramatic safety effect that we see.

If you remember only one thing from today’s presentation, I want it to be the image on the screen right now. Traffic begets conflict, there’s no escaping it, so traffic engineers attempt to control it. We fail at this, and people die. The reason why so many places are embracing the roundabout is that we go from 32 points of conflict to 8, and we completely remove all of the incredibly dangerous crossing conflicts. Accidents still happen at roundabouts, but the angle-type accidents that occur result in far fewer injuries and deaths.

As Americans we’re often known for embracing innovation. I’ll point to the state of Virginia as a positive example of this: in 2004 the first modern roundabout intersection was constructed in the state, and by 2008 the State’s road design manual was updated to say that whenever a roundabout will work for a given location, the state prefers it over the conventional design. I was pretty impressed when I found this out, because it feels like a huge accomplishment to make that large of a policy shift in a four year period. As fast as we’re adopting the design though, we’re still way behind the curve. The latest number I’ve seen says that the United States has installed 3,000 of these intersections; in contrast, there are 25,000 of them in the United Kingdom, and 30,000 of them in France. So why aren’t we replacing every signalized intersection with a roundabout? It’s because the roundabout is not a silver bullet; it performs wonderfully up to a certain level of traffic flow, working particularly well at places with lots of turning vehicles, but it doesn’t make sense in every situation.

Source: see ATTAP for video

In some cases where a major street and a minor street meet, there’s too much through traffic on the major street to accommodate a roundabout and we need a different solution. North Carolina has been using the Restricted Crossing U-turn on high-volume roads for a couple of years now, and they’re happy with the results. This design allows major street traffic to move in any direction it wishes, but makes the minor street approaches turn right, forcing them to make a U-turn down the road if they intend to cross through to the other side or take a left-turn. The ring-and-barrier design I discussed earlier comes into play here: by getting rid of the left-turn phase on the minor street approach more of the green-time can be given to the major street traffic. A small number of vehicles approaching on the minor streets take a much longer time to travel through the intersection, but a large number of vehicles approaching on the major street take a bit shorter time traveling through, generally breaking even overall. We’ve checked off the “do no harm” requirement for traffic mobility, so how does it perform for safety?

Source: Federal Highway Administration

This design isn’t as clean as a roundabout for safety, but it’s better than a conventional intersection, and it works in situations a roundabout does not. In all, we reduce the conflict points from 32 to 20, with the all-important crossing conflicts reduced from 16 down to 2. This is just an example of the types of designs that are available to replace our antiquated conventional signalized intersections.

You’ve given me fifteen minutes of your time and I greatly appreciate it, but I have a favor to ask of you. I need you to tell your friends about this; I need you to tell your colleagues about this; I need you to tell your elected officials about this. We can’t wait any longer to embrace these alternative designs. People are dying, our youth are dying, and we need to fix it. I can stand up here and talk until my voice goes hoarse about why we should build these and what is at stake, but I can’t change the world without your help. I want my children, all of our children, to become joyous sources of traffic: driving to school or their summer job, taking their dates to prom, or going on a road trip. I’m anguished over the thought of them becoming an injury or fatality statistic, and I need your help to keep them safe. Thank you. Continue reading

Posted in Academia, alternative intersections, communicating science, roundabout, TED Talks, transportation, unconventional intersections, virginia tech

First Draft for Virginia Tech TEDx

This post is a little different from my usual content.


My dissertation research focus is on alternative intersection designs, and I am committed to spreading the word about these designs as far as I can.  To this end, I am nominating myself to speak at the upcoming Virginia Tech TEDx event on November 10, 2012.  Speakers will be chosen from among the students, faculty, and staff at the University.  I’ve written a first draft for the presentation I wish to give, should I be chosen to participate in the event.  It’s designed to be around 15 minutes in length, so it’s not a quick read.  If you have the time, I strongly suggest you read the post because I feel that the information is important.  If you are a student, alumnus, faculty, or staff member at Virginia Tech, and you agree that this information should be presented at the upcoming TEDx event, I would be very grateful if you could add your nomination to my own before the May 18th nomination deadline arrives.


Thank you,  John

Good afternoon, my name is John Sangster, and I’d like to start off my talk today with a confession: I like traffic. When I tell people that I’m a traffic engineer, the way I’m sometimes looked at makes me understand how divorce lawyers must feel; everyone knows that our jobs are necessary, but everyone wishes that they weren’t. Okay, so what’s that I said about liking traffic?

It’s not that I enjoy traffic because it gives me more time to listen to NPR, I’ve got my driveway for that. I like traffic because each car on the road means people are busy living their lives. Traffic is created whenever we have places to live, jobs to go to, money to buy groceries with, and play-dates to take our kids to. Sometimes I feel like each car on the road is like a small proclamation of productivity.

The reason I have a job, and the reason why I am here today to talk with you, is that individual trips are wonderful things, but having more than one car on the road naturally leads to conflict. Lots of cars on the road at the same time leads to lots of conflict. This idea of conflict is used within my industry to better understand and control the flow of traffic on the roads. The next time you drive through an intersection, I’d like you to ponder this concept of conflict.

Source: Federal Highway Administration

The simplest of intersections, with only one lane approaching from each direction, contains 32 different points of conflict. Each time you go straight through an intersection, there are six different points where you are passing through the path of another vehicle. The first two points are called diverging points, where cars traveling on the same path separate into different paths. These diverging points are a source of rear-end collisions, when a following vehicle makes an assumption that the leader will continue through, and for some reason the leading vehicle is forced to stop. The next four points of conflict you pass through are called crossing points; these locations are the most dangerous, and are the cause of head-on and T-bone collisions. The last two points you pass through are a bit less stressful; they’re called merging conflict points, and involve vehicles from separate paths coming together to move in the same direction; these conflicts usually result in side-swipe collisions, and are usually limited to property damage with many fewer injuries or deaths. The reason I want you to think about these conflicts when you’re out on the road driving, is because I’d like you to be a little more patient when waiting at a red light. There are good reasons for signalizing an intersection, and one of the best is to make sure that the other cars driving through it aren’t going to be in conflict with you!

Source: Federal Highway Administration

Tolkien was wrong; it takes two rings to rule them all. Common practice in the United States is to organize traffic movements according to the “ring and barrier design” as shown in the graphic. The power of the conceptualization is that it separates all of those conflicts we discussed so that nothing overlaps. Each individual movement cannot occur simultaneously with any movement in its row, or any movement located on the other side of a barrier from it. For example, movement one, a northbound left-turn, can only occur simultaneously with movements five or six, a southbound left-turn or a northbound through/right movement.

Now the world is in balance: we’ve got conflict, and we’ve got a control scheme to fix it; right? So how successful have traffic engineers been at keeping you safe on the roads? Not very.

The leading cause of death in the United States for people between the ages of 15 and 44 is motor vehicle fatalities. Let me say it again more slowly, because this is heart-wrenching for me; the leading cause of death for young people is from driving. According to the Federal Highway Administration, there were 2.5 million intersection-related crashes in 2007, 37,000 of which resulted in a fatality. For crashes resulting in injury or death, the highest rate is among 16-year old drivers, who experience 61.4 crashes per 1,000 drivers. I have trouble conceptualizing how much 61 out of 1,000 is, but I find it very easy to understand when put another way.

Among high school juniors, one student out of every sixteen will be behind the wheel of a car that is involved in a crash in which someone is injured or killed. I like the way that this image makes the statistic more relatable, but it still feels impersonal to me. I have three incredibly important, and very personal, reasons for the work that I do.

My son Jonas loves reading non-fiction books – his current favorite topic is space and the planets. His favorite color is orange. When he arrives at pre-school in the morning, he likes to sit on a bench for the first five minutes by himself quietly watching the other kids play before he ventures out to join them. He will be eligible to get his driver’s license in July of 2024.

My daughter Emily is extremely friendly and very polite, so long as you’re doing exactly what she wants. She likes to wear “piggy tails,” though she rarely sits still while I fix her hair in the morning. Her favorite color is purple. She likes to browse books at bedtime, and nearly every time I go in to turn out her light she’s got a book lying on her face. She will be eligible to get her driver’s license in April of 2026.

My son Isaac likes to sit on my lap and chat with me. I’m not sure what he’s saying most of the time; he keeps talking about some lady named “Nnnnnga” that I have yet to meet. He’ll be eligible to get his driver’s license in February of 2028.

I tell you these details because my children are not statistics, they are people; they are my life, and I would do anything to keep them safe.

I’ve now taken eight minutes of your time. I’ve explained why traffic can be a positive thing and should be valued, how it creates conflict, and how traffic engineers have been trying to control that conflict. I’ve explained the extent to which we’re failing to keep you safe, and why it’s personally important to me to change it. With the seven minutes that remain of my allotted time, I’d like to talk to you about recent developments in intersection design, which I believe to be part of the solution.

In the last five years a group of intersection designs have been given their own classification as “alternative intersections.” These designs have names like the Jughandle, the Median U-turn, the Restricted Crossing U-turn, the Displaced Left-turn, the Quadrant Roadway, and one that should be very familiar to the audience here today, the Modern Roundabout. Some of these designs have been regionally accepted for many years, such as the Jughandle in New Jersey or the Median U-turn in Michigan, but I’d like to focus the talk today on the two designs which have been gaining wider acceptance only recently. I’ll finish up by talking about the use of the Restricted Crossing U-turn design, but at the moment I want to discuss some of the finer points of the Modern Roundabout.

Source: Google Maps

I’m careful to specify this design as the modern roundabout, because it’s very different from the rotaries popular in the northeastern US fifty years ago. The diameter of the circle in this design is set as small as possible; only large enough to force cars to slow down as they travel through the intersection. Vehicles traveling through a roundabout are hard-pressed to travel above 20 miles an hour, which greatly increases safety, but this is not the most dramatic safety effect that we see.

If you remember only one thing from today’s presentation, I want it to be the image on the screen right now. Traffic begets conflict, there’s no escaping it, so traffic engineers attempt to control it. We fail at this, and people die. The reason why so many places are embracing the roundabout is that we go from 32 points of conflict to 8, and we completely remove all of the incredibly dangerous crossing conflicts. Accidents still happen at roundabouts, but the angle-type accidents that occur result in far fewer injuries and deaths.

As Americans we’re often known for embracing innovation. I’ll point to the state of Virginia as a positive example of this: in 2004 the first modern roundabout intersection was constructed in the state, and by 2008 the State’s road design manual was updated to say that whenever a roundabout will work for a given location, the state prefers it over the conventional design. I was pretty impressed when I found this out, because it feels like a huge accomplishment to make that large of a policy shift in a four year period. As fast as we’re adopting the design though, we’re still way behind the curve. The latest number I’ve seen says that the United States has installed 3,000 of these intersections; in contrast, there are 25,000 of them in the United Kingdom, and 30,000 of them in France. So why aren’t we replacing every signalized intersection with a roundabout? It’s because the roundabout is not a silver bullet; it performs wonderfully up to a certain level of traffic flow, working particularly well at places with lots of turning vehicles, but it doesn’t make sense in every situation.

Source: see ATTAP for video

In some cases where a major street and a minor street meet, there’s too much through traffic on the major street to accommodate a roundabout and we need a different solution. North Carolina has been using the Restricted Crossing U-turn on high-volume roads for a couple of years now, and they’re happy with the results. This design allows major street traffic to move in any direction it wishes, but makes the minor street approaches turn right, forcing them to make a U-turn down the road if they intend to cross through to the other side or take a left-turn. The ring-and-barrier design I discussed earlier comes into play here: by getting rid of the left-turn phase on the minor street approach more of the green-time can be given to the major street traffic. A small number of vehicles approaching on the minor streets take a much longer time to travel through the intersection, but a large number of vehicles approaching on the major street take a bit shorter time traveling through, generally breaking even overall. We’ve checked off the “do no harm” requirement for traffic mobility, so how does it perform for safety?

Source: Federal Highway Administration

This design isn’t as clean as a roundabout for safety, but it’s better than a conventional intersection, and it works in situations a roundabout does not. In all, we reduce the conflict points from 32 to 20, with the all-important crossing conflicts reduced from 16 down to 2. This is just an example of the types of designs that are available to replace our antiquated conventional signalized intersections.

You’ve given me fifteen minutes of your time and I greatly appreciate it, but I have a favor to ask of you. I need you to tell your friends about this; I need you to tell your colleagues about this; I need you to tell your elected officials about this. We can’t wait any longer to embrace these alternative designs. People are dying, our youth are dying, and we need to fix it. I can stand up here and talk until my voice goes hoarse about why we should build these and what is at stake, but I can’t change the world without your help. I want my children, all of our children, to become joyous sources of traffic: driving to school or their summer job, taking their dates to prom, or going on a road trip. I’m anguished over the thought of them becoming an injury or fatality statistic, and I need your help to keep them safe. Thank you. Continue reading

Posted in Academia, alternative intersections, communicating science, roundabout, TED Talks, transportation, unconventional intersections, virginia tech

Exposure, Disclosure, and Promotion

Recently in my course on Contemporary Pedagogy we had a guest speaker.  Jon Udell came in to talk to us about “web thinking” and his career working in a collaborative web environment.  In reading a bit of the prolific material that Mr. Udell … Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Blogging, communicating science, Grad School, instruction, research, transportation, virginia tech, web presence

Exposure, Disclosure, and Promotion

Recently in my course on Contemporary Pedagogy we had a guest speaker.  Jon Udell came in to talk to us about “web thinking” and his career working in a collaborative web environment.  In reading a bit of the prolific material that Mr. Udell … Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Blogging, communicating science, Grad School, instruction, research, transportation, virginia tech, web presence

How I Roll

I had the opportunity for my course in Communicating Science to give a five minute speech on my research/study topic.  The format for my speech was based on what I learned last fall when watching an introductory video about the center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stonybrook.  At one point in the video, Alan Alda is emphasizing the importance of making it more personal, and this stuck with me.  If you want to see the before/after speeches from Stonybrook, check out the video below.

So how did I apply these ideas and make my own research more personal?  The draft for the speech that I wrote is below, and it’s pretty close to the speech that I actually gave.  It was a unique experience for me delivering five minutes of material with no props, and I enjoyed the challenge!

~

Good evening, my name is John Sangster.  Whenever I attend a dinner party, or meet other parents on the playground, the conversation naturally winds its way around to the question of what I am studying.  There’s always a pause before I respond, because I know what’s going to happen.  So I steel myself for it, take a deep breath, and say “I’m studying transportation engineering, but basically I’m a traffic engineer.”  The pause that follows this is usually longer than the pause that I took before speaking.  Most of the time I’ll get a placating response like “oh, that’s nice” or “hmm, that must be interesting,” but occasionally will be a bit bolder and they’ll tell me what they’re really feeling.  If you think back to the last time you swore at someone, odds are good that you were in your car at the time.  People have a visceral reaction to traffic, and telling someone that you are pursuing traffic for your career is like telling them you’re studying to be a divorce lawyer; everyone knows it’s necessary, but everyone wishes it wasn’t.  Most often I hear that such and such an intersection doesn’t work well, or that travelling on such and such road hits every red light at a certain time in the morning and someone should really fix it.  Every once in a while I’ll talk with someone really bold who will say “so… can I blame YOU for roundabouts?!?”  This, I think, is the funniest of all the responses I get, because yeah, to some degree, you can blame me for roundabouts.

Now… because I want to teach in the future, I’ve been studying all facets of transportation, focusing most strongly on traffic, a strength of mine from my years as a consulting engineer.  The bread and butter of a consulting traffic engineer is the ever-present big box store.  Every time a development is proposed, the local town or county, whoever’s responsible for maintaining the roads, requires a nice big three-inch thick report called a Traffic Impact Analysis Study.  This report tells how many cars will come to the building and leave from it, where they’re all going, and most importantly, how that traffic will change the travel time on the roads.  The amount of increase in delay determines how much money a developer is forced to pay to help reconstruct roadways or add lanes at traffic signals to make it all work.  The thing is, at $115 an hour it takes an engineer a long time to make a three-inch thick report, and between big box stores, gas stations, donut shops, subdivisions, and doctor’s offices, there’s a lot of reports to be done.  This is the kind of stuff I teach my students about.

For my own research roundabouts are the thing.  Well, not just roundabouts, but all intersections that fall into this broad category called “alternative intersections.”  There’s about a half-dozen of these designs in use in some part of the country, and all of them are a bit screwier than the roundabout.  What they have in common is that they increase the amount of vehicles that can get through going straight, by inconveniencing the minor movements, like side streets and left-turning cars, rerouting them in a way that lets more through cars go.  A huge benefit of these designs is that increase the safety of the intersection by reducing the number of conflicting movements that could cause crashes.  The roundabout’s a lousy example of helping the through movement, but it’s a great example of reducing conflict.  Some of the most dangerous traffic accidents are head-on collisions where you make a left turn without seeing the opposing car coming at you and they smash right into your front, or you go through a green light minding your own business and having a nice day, and then someone runs a red light and slams into the side of you in a t-bone collision.  Roundabouts completely get rid of these kinds of conflicts, leaving only fender-bender types of crashes as cars come together at an angle.  BUT… you say… EVERYONE HATES ROUNDABOUTS.  Unfortunately, I agree with you, everyone does hate roundabouts, and in the places around the country where those other alternative designs have been built, everyone hates those too.  So the focus of my research is to figure out how to explain the benefits of these alternative designs to everyone.  I have to convince people within my own industry, and in the general public.  Because the truth is that these designs are safer, and they do work better.  Thank you.

~

What are your thoughts on the speech?  Does it engage you?  Does it stir up some emotion?  How can I improve it?  Feedback, as always, is appreciated!!

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, alternative intersections, communicating science, Grad School, roundabout, transportation, unconventional intersections, virginia tech, web presence

How I Roll

I had the opportunity for my course in Communicating Science to give a five minute speech on my research/study topic.  The format for my speech was based on what I learned last fall when watching an introductory video about the center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stonybrook.  At one point in the video, Alan Alda is emphasizing the importance of making it more personal, and this stuck with me.  If you want to see the before/after speeches from Stonybrook, check out the video below.

So how did I apply these ideas and make my own research more personal?  The draft for the speech that I wrote is below, and it’s pretty close to the speech that I actually gave.  It was a unique experience for me delivering five minutes of material with no props, and I enjoyed the challenge!

~

Good evening, my name is John Sangster.  Whenever I attend a dinner party, or meet other parents on the playground, the conversation naturally winds its way around to the question of what I am studying.  There’s always a pause before I respond, because I know what’s going to happen.  So I steel myself for it, take a deep breath, and say “I’m studying transportation engineering, but basically I’m a traffic engineer.”  The pause that follows this is usually longer than the pause that I took before speaking.  Most of the time I’ll get a placating response like “oh, that’s nice” or “hmm, that must be interesting,” but occasionally will be a bit bolder and they’ll tell me what they’re really feeling.  If you think back to the last time you swore at someone, odds are good that you were in your car at the time.  People have a visceral reaction to traffic, and telling someone that you are pursuing traffic for your career is like telling them you’re studying to be a divorce lawyer; everyone knows it’s necessary, but everyone wishes it wasn’t.  Most often I hear that such and such an intersection doesn’t work well, or that travelling on such and such road hits every red light at a certain time in the morning and someone should really fix it.  Every once in a while I’ll talk with someone really bold who will say “so… can I blame YOU for roundabouts?!?”  This, I think, is the funniest of all the responses I get, because yeah, to some degree, you can blame me for roundabouts.

Now… because I want to teach in the future, I’ve been studying all facets of transportation, focusing most strongly on traffic, a strength of mine from my years as a consulting engineer.  The bread and butter of a consulting traffic engineer is the ever-present big box store.  Every time a development is proposed, the local town or county, whoever’s responsible for maintaining the roads, requires a nice big three-inch thick report called a Traffic Impact Analysis Study.  This report tells how many cars will come to the building and leave from it, where they’re all going, and most importantly, how that traffic will change the travel time on the roads.  The amount of increase in delay determines how much money a developer is forced to pay to help reconstruct roadways or add lanes at traffic signals to make it all work.  The thing is, at $115 an hour it takes an engineer a long time to make a three-inch thick report, and between big box stores, gas stations, donut shops, subdivisions, and doctor’s offices, there’s a lot of reports to be done.  This is the kind of stuff I teach my students about.

For my own research roundabouts are the thing.  Well, not just roundabouts, but all intersections that fall into this broad category called “alternative intersections.”  There’s about a half-dozen of these designs in use in some part of the country, and all of them are a bit screwier than the roundabout.  What they have in common is that they increase the amount of vehicles that can get through going straight, by inconveniencing the minor movements, like side streets and left-turning cars, rerouting them in a way that lets more through cars go.  A huge benefit of these designs is that increase the safety of the intersection by reducing the number of conflicting movements that could cause crashes.  The roundabout’s a lousy example of helping the through movement, but it’s a great example of reducing conflict.  Some of the most dangerous traffic accidents are head-on collisions where you make a left turn without seeing the opposing car coming at you and they smash right into your front, or you go through a green light minding your own business and having a nice day, and then someone runs a red light and slams into the side of you in a t-bone collision.  Roundabouts completely get rid of these kinds of conflicts, leaving only fender-bender types of crashes as cars come together at an angle.  BUT… you say… EVERYONE HATES ROUNDABOUTS.  Unfortunately, I agree with you, everyone does hate roundabouts, and in the places around the country where those other alternative designs have been built, everyone hates those too.  So the focus of my research is to figure out how to explain the benefits of these alternative designs to everyone.  I have to convince people within my own industry, and in the general public.  Because the truth is that these designs are safer, and they do work better.  Thank you.

~

What are your thoughts on the speech?  Does it engage you?  Does it stir up some emotion?  How can I improve it?  Feedback, as always, is appreciated!!

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, alternative intersections, communicating science, Grad School, roundabout, transportation, unconventional intersections, virginia tech, web presence

Inspiration on Tap

I’m currently taking a course in Communicating Science, and as I sat down to write about it I thought I’d start off with a discussion on whether or not this course meets my needs.  On second thought though, I may be jumping the gun a little on that one.  My immediate goals for the course relate to my desperation to successfully pursue a job when all of this grad craziness is over, and to that end my desire is to make a good impression with search committees; this would involve discussing my research material informally with other professionals, discussing my material in a panel interview setting, and presenting my material to a large group of students in an engaging way.  Coming back to this write-up after a short break the goal already feels small and shallow, and I need to broaden my horizons.  Perhaps a better long term goal would be to develop my ability to inspire curiosity in others, regardless of the format of communication.  If you boil away all of the fear related to finances and responsibility to my family, it’s the desire to inspire curiosity that’s driving me to pursue a faculty position.

I recently heard a story that contrasted two dinner parties, one attended by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professors, and a second attended by celebrated performing artists.  The person telling the story had the pleasure of attending both dinners, as their career bridged both of those worlds.  The reflection from the storyteller was about how much more enjoyable the dinner had been with the first group, and how at first this had been surprising.  In retrospect the difference turned out to be independent of the two group’s respective areas of expertise, and was instead based on whether they were involved in learning and teaching.  The professors were, in general, more interested to learn anything and everything that came their way, which made for more interesting discussion.  Hearing the story brought on a flood of memories for me of conversations held with those who lacked curiosity.  For a while I’ve been observing that I never felt like I fit in outside of academia, and perhaps it can all be boiled down to people who view learning as a lifelong task, and those that don’t.  The desire to learn is such a fundamental component of my psyche that it becomes physically painful to spend time with people who are closed to new experiences and ideas.  As my brother-in-law would say, it makes my hair hurt.

So coming back to my purpose in the class… Yes it’s true that I need to make a positive impression on a search committee at some point in the near future, but once that’s done it’s completely done, and for the rest of my life my need will be to inspire curiosity.  The atmosphere in today’s classroom is not like it was in our grandparent’s time; a question posed to the class gets more blank stares and indifferent shrugs than eager responses.  It’s not the fault of the students alone; we’re all complicit in allowing mediocrity to be an acceptable state of being.  I remember a time in seventh grade (it took me longer to realize it than others) when I realized that it estranged me from my peers when I answered questions.  How many of us were forced to become underground learners as we made our way through school?  The most painful thing for me as a student was having patience when the teacher asked a question and no-one answered, because I knew that half a dozen people around me all knew the answer, and if they weren’t going to answer it then I shouldn’t either.  Hindsight being 20/20, I now see that keeping quiet didn’t actually change my standing with any of the popular kids, and that my happiest classroom experiences were when my excitement for a subject overruled my hesitation to express myself and I engaged.

Next to engaging my own kids in the wonder of the universe, I think my favorite activity is inspiring others, especially students, to actively engage and seek knowledge/wonder.  Curiosity is my anti-drug.  The light of understanding that shines in someone’s eyes when they have a new insight is ambrosia for my academic palate.  How then will I connect with the undercover learners in my own classroom, and convince them to show their true faces in front of their colleagues?  I’d like to learn to do this; we can all dream.

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Posted in Academia, Blogging, communicating science, family, Grad School, instruction, wonder