King of the road: How WVU Tech faculty and students are working to tame traffic
On the corner of South Kanawha and Church streets in Beckley, a group of students gathers, chatting and examining an odd contraption.
The device is simple enough. There’s a tall telescoping pole attached to a railing. It’s got a plastic box at about knee height and a little electronic bauble at the top. It doesn’t look like much, but on this chilly morning and in the hands of this crew, it’s got the potential to save lives.
The device? It’s a traffic camera operated by Dr. Amr Mohammed, a civil engineering professor who specializes in transportation and traffic engineering.
He and his students are putting it to noble use.
“Almost 40,000 people die every year in the U.S. from traffic crashes,” said Mohammed. “These crashes kill more people than wars and other means of transportation, like airplanes, combined, so one of our goals in traffic and transportation engineering is to improve safety for people and bring these numbers down.”
Mohammed has been teaching at Tech since 2012. When the University moved to the new Beckley campus, he saw an opportunity to put his students to work on traffic issues close to home.
Safety and flow
In traffic engineering, Mohammed said that the primary goal of most projects is twofold: safety and flow.
"We’re always looking at how to improve how traffic moves and enhance the safety of people when they drive. We want to improve congestion as well because it has a price. That price includes fuel consumption, pollution and delays. It also contributes to anger and road rage, so congestion has a real price on our health and our lives,” said Mohammed.
So the professor put his traffic engineering class to work on a number of projects. Students used the specialized camera to analyze traffic on the entire campus. One group focused on improving circulation, suggesting a one-way traffic pattern that would ease congestion. Others worked on a connection between Minnesota and Beaver avenues to add an additional exit point for campus. Another group tackled improving the traffic signal at the corner of South Kanawha Street and Beaver Avenue.
Senior civil engineering student Hilary Padjip is from Cameroon in Central Africa. Her project focused on public transportation with the goal of establishing a shuttle bus system on campus. She conducted a survey of students and said that her results were very surprising.
“A vast majority said they will still rather take their cars instead of a shuttle bus,” she said. “It was really interesting in the sense that it's one thing to have a design in mind, but it is another to actually seek the opinion of the community who will be using whatever it is that you design.”
For Padjip, the ability to actually follow through with a real-world project was a powerful learning experience.
“Real-life problems are not always as ‘perfect’ as in-class problems, so getting exposed to research early on is a good way to prepare students for the work environment,” she said.
Mohammed said that the projects were also a lesson in networking and sharing resources. Students worked alongside WVU Tech’s facilities office. They connected with the local fire department to collect traffic data for the city. They even garnered the attention of local political leadership.
"We had lots of talks with the mayor and he actually came to our presentation at the end of the semester,” said Mohammed. “He was very, very supportive.”
Recent graduate Adam Oldaker worked with Mohammed and the scout camera to complete his senior project. The Lesage, West Virginia native was always fascinated with how buildings and roadways were structured. He followed that interest all the way to a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and graduated last fall.
Oldacker used the camera to monitor the intersection at South Kanawha and Church streets. It recorded weeks of data, including “near-misses” and other incidents that could lead to a crash.
“The goal is to improve the flow of traffic around campus by analyzing and recording traffic data and observing the actions taken by both pedestrians and vehicles. Our hope is to improve the safety of the campus, make students feel safer and get people to where they need to go, faster,” he said.
He said the project has given him a new respect for the importance of good engineering.
“Civil engineers are responsible for the roads we travel, the trains we ride, the houses we live in and it doesn't end there. It's nice knowing our studies could save lives,” he said.
Oldacker even traveled to the Capitol Complex in Charleston to share his work with lawmakers and other collegiate researchers during Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol.
“Research is beneficial for any degree being pursued,” said Oldacker. “Class can be pretty routine and there's a step-by-step solution for solving problems. In research, you have to think a lot more because you go more in-depth into specific fields that classes only scratch the surface of.”
The most memorable part of the experience?
“The field work,” he said. “As an engineer, most of the work is done sitting at a desk. Field work was always fun because we get to be outside setting up equipment and talking to students and faculty. We had many people stop us to ask what we were doing.”
For Mohammed, this kind of experience is the perfect reason to put students to work on such projects.
"In any discipline, if you link your work to your actual desires and issues, you'll give it your best. If students enjoy solving a problem on their own campus, they will be very, very encouraged when they graduate to work in the same field and solve other problems,” he said.
As for that odd-looking camera, it’s just getting warmed up. Mohammed said that students will continue to collect data in future projects for the foreseeable future.
“Tech will grow,” he said. “And with more students around, we'll need to consider overall traffic safety. That means we’re going to be building on this research for many years.”