how traffic led to my interest in operations research

A news story about the traffic in my hometown of Chicago suggests that perhaps the traffic isn’t horrible. When I mean horrible, I mean like last year’s ten day traffic jam in China. Chicago’s traffic is pretty bad. The US Federal Highway Administration has reported that Chicago has the worst traffic in the US. Whenever I visit my family back in Chicago, that becomes painfully obvious. The sheer number of traffic reporters in Chicagoland is a sign that the traffic is bad. However, IBM reports that although the traffic in Chicago and elsewhere in the US is bad, it could be worse.

Of the 20 cities surveyed by IBM, Chicago is the third least bad in terms of the “commuter pain index.” That’s not something to be too proud of, since only the cities with the worst traffic in the world were surveyed (see the infographic here).  The traffic in the other US cities surveyed (New York and Los Angeles) is not as painful relative to the traffic in Beijing and Mexico City. This is a reminder of how operations research models of traffic systems and networks will be needed for many years to come, particularly in countries that are rapidly becoming more industrialized.

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago in the 1980s, the ‘burbs were rapidly expanding. The transportation network didn’t keep pace. New subdivisions were added and only later were the narrow two lanes roads connecting the subdivisions widened. It didn’t solve all of the traffic congestion, but it helped. I used to watch traffic collect at various intersections and try to understand why it occurred. Sometimes the demand just exceeded capacity (as it did during rush hour) and sometimes lights were too short and turn lanes were needed. I always had an eye for efficiency, and the constant traffic gave me plenty of opportunities to think about efficiency.  As a result, I have a weird kind of fondness for Chicagoland’s traffic. Traffic was my gateway to operations research. It was an indirect path, but my fascination with traffic motivated me to take optimization courses when I was in college. I don’t research traffic or networks, but I eat up news about traffic, why a piece of paper blowing across the highway can make it so bad, and what can be done about it.

Did you have any childhood interests that directly or indirectly led you to operations research?
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