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Michael Kyte with traffic engineering students

A Picture Worth 1,000 Words

Virtual Technology and Design Bolsters Traffic Signal Systems Education

By Joni Kirk

Many drivers have undoubtedly wondered at times who is playing with traffic signals: why the light turned red just now, why the green light only lasted five seconds and why the other traffic has more time to move, among other questions.

Growing up, Christopher DeLorto asked those same questions: "What goes into traffic signal design? How can a vehicle stop safely or clear the intersection when that light turns yellow?"

"Some people complain about traffic," he says. "I actually wanted to fix it. It felt like traffic wasn't flowing efficiently, so I wanted to do something about it."

As a graduate student in civil engineering at the University of Idaho, DeLorto seeks to understand the complexities of traffic signal systems.

"It's a very practical thing," he says. "Everyone has experiences with traffic signals, whether or not they're driving a vehicle."

So how do educators help engineering students visualize the complex systems for managing traffic flow and safety?

"The industry has been struggling with how to train students to have one eye on traffic and one eye on the traffic controller," says Michael Kyte, professor of civil engineering in the College of Engineering. "Traffic engineers need to see – to visualize – complex processes to understand the myriad components and design a system more effectively."

Kyte is principal investigator on MOST, a project to develop curriculum materials and a simulation environment for traffic signal timing, which is funded by the Federal Highway Administration and administered by the National Institute for Advanced Transportation Technology. MOST enables engineering students to directly observe how the signal timing parameters that they select affect the quality of traffic operations at a signalized intersection. While the simulation is helpful, it was missing a key component: more direct visualization of the processes that go on in the traffic controller itself.

"We can't just take our students to an intersection and allow them to change traffic signals for practice," says Kyte. "We needed something that allows us to get as close as we can to the real world environment without screwing things up."

Kyte raised the issue with John Anderson, assistant professor of virtual technology and design (VTD) in the College of Art and Architecture. Anderson's junior-level design class agreed to create an enhanced simulation environment that would work Kyte's existing simulation program, but create scalable complexity. The VTD students worked with graduate-level engineering students, who have questions associated with the beginning learning process.

"Virtual Technology and Design emphasizes the use of visual environments to help solve real world problems," said Bryan Foutch, a junior in VTD from Spokane, Wash. "For our particular project, we wanted to create interactive technologies aimed at education. Traditional teaching mediums are static and good for basic information, but when you factor in complex, simultaneous systems, you need interactive tools."

"A picture's worth 1,000 words," says Foutch. "We're creating interactive pictures that are dynamic and show cause and effect."

Another bonus is that the virtual tool is scalable. In the works is the ability to add in a railway, pedestrians, multiple intersections or other factors to make the system more complex.

Foutch notes that the tool doesn't replace the expert educators, but complements their teaching. "It's a flexible tool that allows the expert to expand on a concept and show significance. At the same time, it allows the expert to pick apart the layers, addressing one thing at a time," he says.

"At first, I wondered why the program developed by the Virtual Technology and Design team had to be so graphical," says DeLorto. "Now, I'm starting to see that more graphical makes sense – it allows me to see how the system works as a whole. This is a useful industry tool that will help people visualize traffic signal systems – not just read about them."

Kyte is pleased with the progress this year. "They developed a tool that takes some of the data from the initial simulation tool and adds in a cool and informative look at timing process. It allows engineers to make connections between looking at traffic and looking at the timing process," he notes.

In July, the VTD and engineering team will present the simulation to the Traffic Signal Systems Committee from the Transportation Research Board, a part of the National Academy of Engineering.

Kyte is seeking funding to continue the simulation development next year. "We want to be able to work on a traffic system in real time," he says. "We're just scratching the surface of what we can do with virtual technology!"

"Traffic engineers need to visualize complex processes to understand the myriad components and design a system more effectively."