Miami researchers take on rush hour

MIAMI — The students sit at long desks, their eyes glued to big screens showing traffic-choked highways. A simulator allows the students to create a traffic accident and try to reduce the delay it causes.

Researchers at the Integrated Intelligent Transportation System Laboratory at Florida International University are working to advance traffic research, a field that has yielded technologies from optimally timed stoplights to highway ramps that measure vehicle flow.

The lab debuted last month in collaboration with the Florida Department of Transportation, as part of the Lehman Center for Transportation Research at the College of Engineering.

Forty-five masters and doctoral students seeking degrees in transportation engineering use the facility. Its director, Mohammed Hadi, says South Florida, where congested roadways can spur bouts of road rage, gives students ample opportunities to put research to test.

Cameras and motion detectors along the highway track traffic or vehicle speeds and transmit the information to the DOT. Lab researchers can use the information to see how many vehicles are being diverted or if traffic is slowing.

When ramp signals were built along Interstate 95, students participated in the research and went out to the field to see how the technology was working. The lab is also used to promote the 511 system of call-in traffic information. If the state Department of Transportation’s systems ever failed, the FIU lab could fill in.

One of the lab’s Ph.D. students, Yohannes Kesete, 27, came to FIU from the northeastern African country of Eritrea in hopes of learning how to improve road infrastructure in his homeland. He plans to return to Eritrea after several years of engineering work in the U.S. He’s fascinated by the fact that whatever the traffic issue, there’s always a solution.

“We can work as far as your imagination takes you,” he said.

Another international student, 37-year-old Patricio Alvarez of Chile, isn’t sure where he’ll put his degree to work, but that working on a problem as universal as traffic makes his education valuable in many places.

“Once you do this,” he said, “you have choices.”

John Augustine, deputy director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems joint program office, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, said researchers working in the field could develop systems to allow vehicles to communicate wirelessly and that alert traffic controllers to know, for example, when a car’s windshield wipers are activated.

Much of traffic research can be complicated mathematical theory. But Hadi says when he presents findings at often jargon-filled engineering seminars, the audience generally perks up. He doesn’t have to worry about people questioning the relevance of the research.

“Our field, fortunately, everybody knows it’s important,” he says. “All the audience members are, ‘Oh, I have that problem.’”