AUSTIN (KXAN) - Three busy intersections on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard have turned into a laboratory for a group of civil engineering students at the University of Texas.
Valerie Kaiser sounds like a kindergarten teacher as she counts numbers out loud: "One. Two. Three..."
As she counts, she writes a tally mark in a spiral notebook. Tuesday, Kaiser and another classmate are posted at MLK Boulevard and San Jacinto Street counting cars, one by one, zooming through the intersection. They are studying traffic and traffic flow. One day Kaiser wants to be a civil engineer -- so far she's made several interesting observations.
"The p.m. peak hours from 5 to 6 are much heavier than the morning peak, so that's interesting to me. That makes me wonder maybe if people stagger when they arrive as far as how early their workday is, so there's still a rush to get out of this intersection," said Kaiser.
The students are posted from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. - 6 p.m. along three intersections, MLK at Brazos Street, Congress Avenue and San Jacinto Street. Putting students on the street is the best way for them to learn, said instructor Randy Machemehl.
"They get a chance to do the real thing, with the real tools, with the real traffic, the real people, and of course the most difficult part of the whole thing is the fact that every single one of these cars is driven by a human being and human behavior is one of the most difficult things to predict and deal with," said Machemehl, director of the center for transportation research at U.T .
That's one piece that's crucial to solving traffic gridlock; human behavior. The method and theory to traffic that students learn in the classroom are put to the test in the field. In addition to field work, students are also learning how important synchronizing traffic lights and traffic signals is. Drivers don't want to sit, waiting at traffic lights for a long time and pedestrians don't want to wait at crosswalks.
Machemehl has spent more than 30 years studying traffic, first as a professional engineer and now as an instructor teaching the next generation of civil engineers. He's seen traffic change dramatically in Austin.
In his observations, once traffic becomes a continual problem on the freeways, people tend to take the streets, cutting through neighborhoods -- something residents do not like.
To solve that problem, engineers have adopted "traffic calming." In short, it's speed bumps to slow traffic and discourage drivers from passing through.
Machemehl said solving traffic is a multi-step approach. Engineers must improve infrastructure and implement better management. He also said a big solution is if employers offer flex times to the work day.
"It's difficult to implement, but if employers would allow their employees to come to work a few hours later or allow them to work flex shifts, that would solve a big portion of the congestion problem," said Machemehl.
That may be something this semester's class recommends to city engineers. The class works closely with the City of Austin . In previous years, many of the students' ideas have been adopted by real engineers.
"Sometimes they come up with ideas that we had not even dreamed of. If it's good, yeah, we implement it." said City of Austin traffic engineer Ali Mozdbar.
At the end of the fall semester, the students will compile their data into a report and make a presentation.
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