InTrans / Jun 25, 2015

Transportation for dummies: Six lessons from a transportation amateur

Go! Magazine

Driving dummies in the front and passenger seats of a car.

Transportation. What exactly does that mean?  About nine months ago, my answer to that question would have been a vague, poorly-formed, “Umm, you know, cars and roads and airplanes. Stuff like that!” Little did I know the adventure I was about to embark on, traveling down the different roads, bridges, railroad tracks, and rivers that transportation users like myself take for granted every day.

In August 2012, I started my job as a student writer for the transportation magazine Go!, and I had to quickly grapple with my complete ignorance about the inner workings of transportation as I interviewed numerous researchers, professors, and directors of transportation centers. Even though I did my research and tried to appear as confident as possible, my lack of transportation knowledge eeked out when I found myself asking questions that were common knowledge for transportation professionals. Here are only a few of the lessons I learned on the job.

1. Nothing in transportation is an accident. You know that “Yield” sign at the end of your road or the new speed limit sign posted in your neighborhood? Those weren’t the work of some crazy midnight sign planter. The implementation of those transportation markers was probably the result of extensive hours of research and planning by engineers and other transportation professionals. They may even be in place for reasons other than their obvious purpose. For example, a PhD student at the University of Missouri, Ginger Rossy, explained to me that reduced speed limits in residential areas may make streets more bicycle-friendly. Even the very mixture of the road’s pavement is designed and continually improved upon, which leads us to lesson number 2.

Yellow and red yield signs.
Yield signs

2. There is a difference between asphalt pavement and concrete. Never, under any circumstance ask an engineer who works on pavement how his concrete is doing. It’s a cardinal sin. The difference between the two revolves around the material’s composition, if you really want to know. But the important takeaway message is: Never confuse asphalt with concrete! They just don’t mix.

3. Transportation structures aren’t too different from us humans. This may seem like a little bit of a stretch, but I support my original claim by referencing new technology that involves embedding sensors into structures like bridges. These sensors work just like your five senses, according to professor Chen at Missouri University of Science and Technology, and enable structures to actually tell us humans when they are starting to break down. Not only this, but researchers have come up with a pavement that can actually heal itself using the energy from the sun’s rays.

4. There are such things as alligator cracks. This discovery isn’t nearly as profound as some of the other others, but after I heard about these cracks that resemble the irregular geometric pattern of alligator skin, I was on the hunt for them everywhere. Proclaimed by professor Lee of the University of Iowa to be the worst kind of crack that could happen to pavement, I wrote my housing company a strongly worded letter when I discovered a whole family of alligator cracks in my apartment parking lot.

5. Transportation is everywhere. Transportation is the thread that brings everyone’s lives together in ways almost too vast to imagine. When you run around your neighborhood in your Nike tennis shoes listening to music on your iPod, you are the user of extensive transportation systems. Take your shoes, for example. Parts of them were made in different countries around the world, and they had to be shipped by train, plane, truck, and boat in order to make it to the factory where they were put together in the cohesive shoe that adds an extra spring to your step. Then, the item had to be transported to a store near you, where you either drove, biked or walked to go buy it. And that’s the simplified version. Rinse and repeat for your iPod. Furthermore, those sidewalks that you sprint down in your zeal for exercise? The product of economists, engineers, and city and regional planners. The crosswalks, the stoplights, bridges, all of those were designed with your safety and comfort in mind.

6. Without transportation professionals, we would all be zombies. A bit of a stretch again, but hear me out. Transportation is a dangerous business, due largely to us sporadic and unpredictable humans. Each year, thousands of people are injured or killed due to some transportation-related incident, but think about how much higher that number would be without the teams of dedicated individuals who strive everyday to make transportation safer for all of us unappreciative users.

Professor Shashi Nambisan, former director of Iowa State University’s Institute for Transportation, talked to me about cable median barriers that stand between lanes of oncoming traffic. These barriers keep wayward cars from crashing into drivers in opposing lanes of traffic if they swerve outside of their bounds. Because the barriers are cables and not a fortified solid wall, collisions are absorbed and the damage to the car and driver is lessened. This innovation and hundreds of others continually improve the safety of transport.

So, the next time you see a transportation professional, give him or her a big hug. That person deserves it. When it comes down to it, transportation is more than just a way to get from point A to point B; transportation is a part of who we are, and it is embedded in our very culture. You have the luxury to choose whether to ride a bus, drive a car (only if you are 16, of course!), walk, ride your bike, fly on an airplane, cruise on a ship, or chug along on a train. How cool is that?!  But without the countless dedicated workers, you would be stuck at your home all day, every day doing something incredibly boring… like cleaning toilets or picking weeds.

Go! Magazine thanks the Mid-America Transportation Center (MATC) for supporting this article.

By Kelly Mantick, Go! Staff Writer

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