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Civil engineering students and their professor apply big data to understand New Jersey’s bumper-to-bumper lifestyle.

On a 100-degree day in late July, civil engineering professor Tom Brennan and three students in his research lab made it snow.

No, indoor precipitation was not in the forecast: the snow storm was a computer simulation of an actual one that blew in pretty much out of nowhere on the afternoon of November 15, 2018, creating traffic nightmares throughout New Jersey.

Eyes glued to a computer monitor, they watched over a 20-second span that demonstrated their time-lapse depiction of the storm’s impact on major roadways: small green dots, indicating normal traffic flow on a map, began to turn yellow and grow, fusing and covering larger networks of roadways, and then became orange and ominously bigger. Suddenly, an eruption of red made huge areas of the state all but throb like a vein in the neck of a frustrated motorist.

“Everything starts to glow around 3 o’clock,” says Bob Dinger ’21 who, with his twin brother Tom and Steve Villaverde ’20, built the massive database that undergirds the visualization.

“The thought before we did this was that it was going to look bad,” says Tom Dinger, “and this is confirmation that it was bad.”

In just eight weeks, Brennan’s undergrad researchers laid the groundwork for a data tool he believes could prove highly valuable to traffic engineers in the future, helping them determine where to invest in public infrastructure.

He says the idea behind the project was to establish a baseline of what New Jersey traffic looks and determining, for lack of a better term, what’s “normal.” The thinking is that by later adding other variables, such rail and tunnel disruptions, and putting it all through machine learning, traffic might eventually be predicted as accurately as weather, or even more so. His aim is to quantify regional “congestion resiliency,” or the ability of an area to return to normal traffic after a disruption, he says.

“It feels like we’re adding something to society,” Brennan says. “Even though it’s not immediate, we hope we’re able to have a long-term impact on how people travel in New Jersey.”

For Villaverde, building the database was accompanied by an awareness that, as Jersey guys who travel the roads they were studying, he and the Dinger brothers would likely have constituted pings in the more than 16,000 “traffic message channels” from which some of the data came.

“It’s crazy, but I’m probably in this data set a couple of times,” he says. “It’s like, somewhere I drove past one of those, and one of those speed readings is me. We’re all probably in there.”

Whether they’ll still be in there as drivers in another generation remains to be answered. Villaverde is confident that widespread adoption of driverless vehicles will occur in his lifetime. Brennan, 45 years old, is dubious it’ll happen in his. Meantime, this summer’s research project can be supplemented over time, with accident reports, rail and airport delays, and other variables so that, maybe someday not too far in the future, when the radio news announcer says it’s time to check in on traffic and the weather, both will be in the form of forecasts.

One thing Brennan is sure of, though, is that while the role of traffic engineers will change, the demand for them will never vanish.

“There’s always a traffic cone,” he says. “The economy can go to crap, but you still have to repair the roads, you still have to keep people moving. And there’s always an engineer behind these things.”

Adapted from an article in the fall 2019 issue of TCNJ Magazine. Words by John T. Ward, a freelance writer based in Red Bank, NJ.