Public affairs students assist with traffic study

Graduate students Billy Hutchings (foreground, with clipboard) and Thaddeus Huff conduct a vehicle count at an intersection in Haywood County as part of a regional traffic congestion management project. (WCU photo by Ashley T. Evans)

Graduate students Billy Hutchings (foreground, with clipboard) and Thaddeus Huff conduct a vehicle count at an intersection in Haywood County as part of a traffic congestion management project. (WCU photo by Ashley T. Evans)

Students in the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University have teamed up with one of the nation’s top engineering, planning and architectural firms to conduct a study of traffic congestion conditions in the French Broad Metropolitan Planning Organization service area.

The students are working with the Louis Berger Group, which is developing a congestion management process for Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties, by collecting and analyzing data on regional traffic congestion issues.

“Our students are gaining invaluable experience on the process of data collection and analysis and will learn more about the process of regional planning,” said Chris Cooper, associate professor of political science and public affairs at WCU and director of the Public Policy Institute. “This project is a perfect fit with our university’s emphasis on providing students with learning activities outside of the classroom that also can help solve real-world problems facing our region.”

Among the activities of students involved in the project:

– Floating car studies, in which students travel in a vehicle at the average speed of traffic, passing as many vehicles as pass their car, to attempt to gauge congestion levels at certain times of day and on certain stretches of highway. Students have been conducting the studies both at peak times (typically 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m.) and off-peak times (2 to 5 a.m.) for several weeks.

– Bicycle/pedestrian counts. Although the Berger firm already has counts for approximately 40 locations in Buncombe County and has been working with the PPI to analyze this data, students will look to extend the study to additional areas to help determine the need for bike paths and sidewalks.

– Vehicle occupancy studies. Students count the number of occupants in vehicles, especially during morning and afternoon drive times, to help determine possible transportation demand management strategies.

Students involved in the project say they appreciate the opportunity to apply lessons learned in their course studies to help solve regional problems.

“Dr. Cooper manages the Public Policy Institute in such a way that provides all of us graduate assistants with great opportunities to connect our studies with working in the community.  This really helps us in developing practical skills,” said Billy Hutchings, a graduate student in the master’s degree program in public affairs.

“We also are able to apply this experience to the MPA program in general since these daily factors of life are so connected to public policy,” Hutchings said. “Government decisions given available budgets and resources, citizen involvement and the need for research and statistical analysis are some of the topics that come to mind when thinking about this project. “

In the traffic congestion project, students are working with Don Kostelec, a certified planner who is teaching a community planning course for the MPA program and who is a 1999 graduate of WCU’s political science program.

“A major component of community planning is transportation and infrastructure needs,” said Thaddeus Huff, a public affairs graduate student. “Through the process of gathering data while simultaneously taking the class, we are so much more aware of the factors that influence traffic patterns.  We find ourselves discussing the opportunities and constraints of improving traffic flow, such as alternate and public transportation, more pedestrian friendly environments, and the various issues involved with attempting to improve an existing infrastructure. “

For more information about WCU’s PPI, visit the Web site ppi.wcu.edu.