Busting gridlock

New online game from University gives high school students insight into the world of traffic engineering

By Rick Moore

When you're stuck in a long line of cars at an interminably long red light, it's hard to find any amusement value. But the University of Minnesota has found a way to turn the problem of traffic gridlock into an exercise that's informative and entertaining.

A new online traffic control game developed by the U's Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Institute is letting high school students try their hand at working in the engineering and transportation field.

"Gridlock Buster" is a game that incorporates ideas and tools that traffic control engineers use in their everyday work. Players must pass a series of levels while observing and controlling traffic in a variety of settings.

For example, a player might need to manage a high volume of traffic passing through an intersection, where long lines form if vehicles don't get enough green-light time. The more drivers are delayed, the more frustrated they get, causing the game's "frustration meter" to rise. Sound effects and animation simulate cars honking and drivers' fists shaking to illustrate the negative consequences of long traffic queues.

The game is based on work by Chen-Fu Liao, the institute's education systems engineer and staff member in the U's Department of Civil Engineering. Earlier this year, the U hired a consultant from Web Courseworks to make the game a little more flashy and fun to play.

"Kids are really into games, especially online games. We think creating a game like Gridlock Buster is a great way to engage them and get them interested in engineering and transportation," said Max Donath, director of the ITS Institute and a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. "The best way to learn is by playing."

"There's things that they learn that they didn't know before," says Haag. "When they drive home they're going to be thinking about the traffic lights."

Even the instructions between rounds entertain, like when the player first gets to a downtown setting. "Welcome to the grid," says the game's commander. "You know what to do by now just do it faster. And watch that Frustration Meter people get uppity fast in this neighborhood."

In late July, a group of high school juniors and seniors from the Twin Cities area came to campus and tried to bust gridlock online. They divided into groups, developed hypotheses on what would happen if they manipulated certain traffic variables, and tested their guesses. According to Shawn Haag, a program coordinator at the Center for Transportation Studies, the game gets students excited about traffic engineering.

"There's things that they learn that they didn't know before," says Haag. "When they drive home they're going to be thinking about the traffic lights.

Two days later, younger students from the Leech Lake Indian Reservation visited campus for the first time as part of the U of M's Summer Transportation Institute (funded by the Federal Highway Administration). They also enjoyed taking a crack at being traffic engineers. Cheyanne, 12, found Gridlock Buster to be both fun and challenging at the same time. She also learned something from the game's honking cars that drivers in the Twin Cities know all too well: "Sometimes people can be very impatient," she says.

An observer asked another 12-year-old, Phil, what his high score had been. "I don't look at that," he says. "I just concentrate on the cars."

That should be worth bonus points.

The ITS Institute is federally funded through the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) of the United States Department of Transportation. To try your hand at the game, go to Gridlock Buster.