Tips from the Traffic Doctor

Richmond VA (November 23, 2016) - With a record number of Thanksgiving travelers expected this holiday weekend, we turned to our nationally recognized traffic engineering expert John Leonard, Ph.D, for tips on navigating the roads.

Leonard is executive associate dean for finance and administration for the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering. As a professor in the Department of Computer Science, his research focuses on traffic flow theory and computer modeling of traffic congestion. Before joining VCU, he served as associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at and associate dean for administration and finance in the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech.

How does traffic in the Richmond area compare to Atlanta?  

As a driver in Richmond, I find our traffic just as bad as anywhere in the country. Traffic is frustrating and keeps me from getting to where I need to be. As a traffic engineer in Richmond, I see fewer congested highways, shorter peak-congestion periods and smaller queues. These all say good things about our great quality of life in Richmond. Plus—traffic congestion is a sign of a busy economy!

What’s the best way to get up-to-the-minute traffic updates?

I see three kinds of congestion: regular day-to-day stuff, construction-related congestion and accident-related congestion. For regular day-to-day congestion, nothing beats the instincts of a day-to-day commuter. Who needs traffic updates when you’ve got a human brain? The hard-core commuters generally figure out when to change lanes and what lane to take much better than any traffic program. For congestion-related congestion, I like to check Google Maps before I take a longer drive. Google does a good job of identifying where construction is happening and helps me look for alternate routes if necessary. For that random accident-related stuff, there isn’t much to be done. Traffic reports on the radio come too late to help me re-route my trip, but the reports do help me understand why my car isn’t moving, helping reduce my stress.

Is it better or worse to wait until the last minute to merge?

Zipper merging, or “late merging,” describes a set of rules that drivers follow when drivers are forced to merge lanes, for example at a construction site. As a traffic engineer, I like getting all scientific, building models and determining optimal workflow throughput and capacity. In real life, my usual approach is to go with the flow, be polite and pay it forward.

Does being a transportation expert mean you have any sure-fire strategies to avoid traffic jams?

No magic here, I pick the wrong lane just like everyone else!

If you get stuck in traffic, what do you do to stay calm?

I’ve learned that if it’s really important that I get there on time, I should force myself to leave earlier. When driving by myself, I enjoy listening to audio books.