Traffic engineers study factors that influence traffic conditions on roads and streets, including street lighting, visibility, and location of signs and signals, entrances and exits, and the presence of sites such as factories or shopping malls. They use this information to design and implement plans and electronic systems that improve the flow of traffic.
History of Traffic Engineer Career
During the early colonial days, dirt roads and Native American trails were the primary means of land travel. In 1806, the U.S. Congress provided for the construction of the first road, known as the Cumberland Road. More and more roads were built, connecting neighborhoods, towns, cities, and states. As the population increased and modes of travel began to advance, more roads were needed to facilitate commerce, tourism, and daily transportation. Electric traffic signals were introduced in the United States in 1928 to help control automobile traffic. Because land travel was becoming increasingly complex, traffic engineers were trained to ensure safe travel on roads and highways, in detours and construction work zones, and for special events such as sports competitions and political conventions, among others.
The Job of Traffic Engineers
Traffic engineers study factors such as signal timing, traffic flow, high-accident zones, lighting, road capacity, and entrances and exits in order to increase traffic safety and to improve the flow of traffic. In planning and creating their designs, engineers may observe such general traffic influences as the proximity of shopping malls, railroads, airports, or factories, and other factors that affect how well traffic moves. They apply standardized mathematical formulas to certain measurements in order to compute traffic signal duration and speed limits, and they prepare drawings showing the location of new signals or other traffic control devices. They may perform statistical studies of traffic conditions, flow, and volume, and they may—on the basis of such studies—recommend changes in traffic controls and regulations. Traffic engineers design improvement plans with the use of computers and through on-site investigation.
Traffic engineers address a variety of problems in their daily work. They may conduct studies and implement plans to reduce the number of accidents on a particularly dangerous section of highway. They might be asked to prepare traffic impact studies for new residential or industrial developments, implementing improvements to manage the increased flow of traffic. To do this, they may analyze and adjust the timing of traffic signals, suggest the widening of lanes, or recommend the introduction of bus or carpool lanes. In the performance of their duties, traffic engineers must be constantly aware of the effect their designs will have on nearby pedestrian traffic and on environmental concerns, such as air quality, noise pollution, and the presence of wetlands and other protected areas.
Traffic engineers use computers to monitor traffic flow onto highways and at intersections, to study frequent accident sites, to determine road and highway capacities, and to control and regulate the operation of traffic signals throughout entire cities. Computers allow traffic engineers to experiment with multiple design plans while monitoring cost, impact, and efficiency of a particular project.
Traffic engineers who work in government often design or oversee roads or entire public transportation systems. They might oversee the design, planning, and construction of new roads and highways or manage a system that controls the traffic signals by the use of a computer. Engineers frequently interact with a wide variety of people, from average citizens to business leaders and elected officials.
Traffic technicians assist traffic engineers. They collect data in the field by interviewing motorists at intersections where traffic is often congested or where an unusual number of accidents have occurred. They also use radar equipment or timing devices to determine the speed of passing vehicles at certain locations, and they use stopwatches to time traffic signals and other delays to traffic. Some traffic technicians may also have limited design duties.
Traffic Engineer Career Requirements
For a career in traffic engineering you need mathematical skills in algebra, logic, and geometry and a good working knowledge of statistics. You should have language skills that will enable you to write extensive reports that contain statistical data. You must be able to present such reports before groups of people. You should also be familiar with computers and electronics in general. You need a basic understanding of the workings of government since you must frequently address regulations and zoning laws and meet and work with government officials. A high school diploma is the minimum educational requirement for traffic technicians.
Traffic engineers must have at least a bachelor’s degree in civil, electrical, mechanical, or chemical engineering. Because the field of transportation is so vast, many engineers have educational backgrounds in science, planning, computers, environmental planning, and other related fields. Educational courses for traffic engineers in transportation may include transportation planning, traffic engineering, highway design, and related courses such as computer science, urban planning, statistics, geography, business management, public administration, and economics.
Traffic engineers acquire some of their skills through on-the-job experience and training conferences and mini-courses offered by their employers, educational facilities, and professional engineering societies. Traffic technicians receive much of their training on the job and through education courses offered by various engineering organizations.
Certification or Licensing
The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) offers certification as a professional traffic operations engineer (PTOE). To become certified, you must have at least four years of professional practice in traffic operations engineering; hold a valid license to practice civil, mechanical, electrical or general professional engineering; and pass an examination.
Traffic engineers should enjoy the challenge of solving problems. You should have good oral and written communication skills, since you frequently work with others. You must also be creative and able to visualize the future workings of your designs; that is, how they will improve traffic flow, effects on the environment, and potential problems.
Exploring Traffic Engineer Career
Join a student chapter of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) to see if a career in transportation engineering is for you. An application for student membership in the ITE can be obtained by writing the association at the address listed in the “For More Information” section at the end of this article.
Traffic engineers are employed by federal, state, or local agencies or as private consultants by states, counties, towns, and even neighborhood groups. Many teach or engage in research in colleges and universities.
The ITE offers a resume service to students that are members of the organization. Student members can get their resumes published in the ITE Journal. The journal also lists available positions for traffic engineering positions throughout the country. Most colleges also offer job placement programs to help traffic engineering graduates locate their first jobs.
Experienced traffic engineers may advance to become directors of transportation departments or directors of public works in civil service positions. A vast array of related employment in the transportation field is available for those engineers who pursue advanced or continuing education. Traffic engineers may specialize in transportation planning, public transportation (urban and intercity transit), airport engineering, highway engineering, harbor and port engineering, railway engineering, or urban and regional planning.
Salaries for traffic engineers vary widely depending on duties, qualifications, and experience. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that median annual earnings of civil engineers were $64,230 in 2005. Salaries ranged from less than $42,610 to more than $94,660. Traffic technicians made a median annual salary of $37,070 in 2005, with salaries ranging from less than $23,330 to more than $55,420.
Traffic engineers are also eligible for paid vacation, sick, and personal days, health insurance, pension plans, and in some instances, profit sharing.
Traffic engineers perform their duties both indoors and outdoors, under a variety of conditions. They are subject to the noise of heavy traffic and various weather conditions while gathering data for some of their studies. They may speak to a wide variety of people as they check the success of their designs. Traffic engineers also spend a fair amount of time in the quiet of an office, making calculations and analyzing the data they have collected in the field. They also spend a considerable amount of time working with computers to optimize traffic signal timing, in general design, and to predict traffic flow.
Traffic engineers must be comfortable working with other professionals, such as traffic technicians, designers, planners, and developers, as they work to create a successful transportation system. At the completion of a project they can take pride in the knowledge that their designs have made the streets, roads, and highways safer and more efficient.
Traffic Engineer Career Outlook
Employment for traffic engineers and technicians is expected to increase more slowly than the average occupation through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. More engineers will be needed to work with ITS (Intelligent Transportation System) technology such as electronic toll collection, cameras for traffic incidents/ detection, and fiber optics for use in variable message signs. As the population increases and continues to move to suburban areas, qualified traffic engineers will be needed to analyze, assess, and implement traffic plans and designs to ensure safety and the steady, continuous flow of traffic. In cities, traffic engineers will continue to be needed to staff advanced transportation management centers that oversee vast stretches of road using computers, sensors, cameras, and other electrical devices.