A Balancing Act: Trying to Meet Society's Safe Transportation Needs
People want to feel safe as they move from place to place - but in today’s world, they also want to get going as quickly as possible.
R. Marshall Elizer, Jr., knows all about this challenge. As the Executive Vice President for the engineering consultant firm Gresham, Smith and Partners in Nashville, Tennessee, Elizer serves as manager of the firm’s transportation practice by leading a team of about 125 transportation professionals across seven offices in creating solutions for a variety of transportation projects. He is also a member of the American Public Works Association (APWA) and the National Transportation Operations Coalition.
He explained that safety has to remain an important focus, even when transportation users have other needs.
“Safety is foundational,” Elizer said. “As a transportation engineer, the bottom line is you’re trying to move people and goods efficiently and safely. You never lose the word ‘safe,’ and in everything you do it’s a consideration.”
He said students should bring this passion for people to transportation.
“We’re in this business to make things better for people and society in general,” Elizer said. “If you have that side to you where you want to serve the public and make society better, engineering is a great field to come to.”
He said that society’s needs have become more complicated since he started working in transportation in 1975, and that the popularity of different travel options has increased that complexity.
“People want to bike more, and they want to walk more,” he explained. “They want to be livable and healthy.”
Elizer said that because transportation engineers design systems to meet a variety of travel needs, they have to consider the systems “for vehicles, for freight, for people, for bicycles, and how all those systems are integrated.”
Systems include not only highways, but public systems for buses and trains, pedestrian walkways, and intermodal spaces, or, points at which these different transportation systems meet, such as a station where riders can transfer from a subway train to a bus, or a roadway on which bicycles join vehicle traffic.
Elizer said transportation engineers had to learn to integrate all these different modes of transportation to meet society’s safety needs and travel preferences. He explained that convenience was also a factor for clients in today’s modern, fast-paced communities.
“Several years ago, I was working for a city in Texas,” he began. “And there were traffic signals for left turns: the only way you could make a left turn at a traffic signal was to wait for a green arrow, which is called ‘protected only.’”
Elizer explained that a “protected only” type of traffic control made the intersections very safe, but also caused longer waiting times in traffic: drivers wanting to turn left would sit at the intersections - even when no traffic was in the way - because left turns through the intersection were only allowed during green arrows.
After receiving requests from the city’s council and leaders, all the left turn signals were converted from arrows to the typical round bulbs. This created a system known as “protected/permissive,” during which drivers could decide on their own whether to turn left through an intersection during a green light.
Elizer said this system was much more convenient for drivers.
“You could move a lot more traffic,” he explained, “but at the time there were more accidents because not all the movements were protected. People had to make choices.”
He said that community decision-makers faced a tradeoff, and they chose a little more convenience over a little more safety. This careful balancing act was always present in the transportation industry, Eilzer said.
“There’s a tradeoff in engineering every day, in every project, between how you designed it [the transportation system] ... and what the users think,” he explained. “You always are balancing and trying to understand ... those perspectives in the final solution.”
These solutions are never clear-cut, he said.
“Safety is not black and white: it’s always gray,” Elizer explained. “And you have to work with people who think differently than you ... and you mesh their desires, their needs, and their values with the engineering side.”
And how can students learn about this careful balancing act?
“Go work and go see the people in the business,” he said. “All of the engineers that work in the profession today love to talk about what they did. And they love to show off what they do.”
Elizer said that students have a great opportunity to talk to current workers in the field - at any level, from a construction site to a county or state government - to get an idea of what people do, where they do it, and how they do it.
“Just apply yourself,” Elizer suggested. “And learn as much as you can.”