On the cover of this issue of the Texas Transportation Researcher, you see two very different photographs of the same stretch of road. Taken in 1957, the first shows U.S. Highway 81 as it was known then, leading north into Austin. The cars, what few of them are on the road, are made of steel and chrome. All in all, a quaint portrait of America on the go you can still see immortalized in television programs of the time like The Andy Griffith Show or Leave It to Beaver.
Contrast that with the bottom photograph taken in 2011. It’s the same section of road, now part of I-35, but a very different image. Not only do the cars have fiberglass bodies these days, but there are a lot more of them. Note particularly the number of semi trucks in this picture — a sign of economic vitality to some; a symbol of sluggish commuting to others. Progress has its ups and downs.
You might be more personally familiar with the second image, particularly if you live in an urban environment and drive to work every day like the Austinites in the photograph. Mobility — or congestion, as we tend to think of “immobility” — is getting worse in our nation. Those semis are indeed great indicators of an economy on the move, but of traffic on the move? Not always.
This quarter, our newsletter focuses on what the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) is doing to help solve the problem of congestion on our roadways. The issue’s center spread highlights TTI’s 2011 Urban Mobility Report and its findings that our quality of driving life continues to decline due to increasing traffic demands on a finite transportation system. Paired with this article is a story describing how the Texas Legislature has turned to TTI to work in collaboration with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to find solutions to this problem. Dubbed the Mobility Investment Priorities study, this new initiative will help prioritize the Lone Star State’s most-needed projects aimed at improving how we get from point A to point B.
Specific populations often face unique problems when it comes to mobility. Some rural communities nationwide, particularly those near bigger cities, are seeing rapid growth (resulting in “small town congestion” problems). Other areas, which aren’t seeing population increases, are facing commuter challenges related to resident populations growing older. Inside we cover TTI’s recent presentation on this topic to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
When a mass evacuation is called for — during a hurricane, for example — mobility can literally be a life or death concern. TTI has developed a prototype design for an urban evacuation model, which is detailed on page 11. We also profile two of TTI’s research facilities in this issue: the McNew Laboratory, which tests asphalt mixes, and the Visibility Research Laboratory, which specializes in assessing traffic signs and pavement markings. And last, but certainly not least, getting the word out to practitioners is vital to implementing the Institute’s research results. TxDOT’s latest tool for doing this is its video summary reports published via YouTube (see page 5).
Looking at those photographs on the cover, it’s easy to see how progress sometimes seems to get in its own way. Through research, it’s our job at TTI to help progress along by looking past the problem to the solution. We take a broader view and see beyond the bigger picture — even when it’s a photograph full of bumper-to-bumper traffic.