AMES, Iowa -- Hillary Isebrands was studying a year's worth of traffic data for the stretch of Interstate 80 east of Des Moines.
The Iowa State doctoral student in civil, construction and environmental engineering noticed the biggest jump in traffic was over 10 days in the middle of August. Counts were suddenly up by an average 7,000 vehicles per day, from about 30,000 vehicles to about 37,000. What was going on?
"We realized there was a huge spike during the Iowa State Fair," said Neal Hawkins, the associate director of traffic operations for Iowa State University's Center for Transportation Research and Education. "It's far and above any other event of the year."
That got Hawkins and Isebrands thinking about how all that traffic moves to and from the fairgrounds.
What are the patterns? How long are the backups? Can safety be improved? What happens when there's interstate construction or it rains and some of the grass parking lots aren't usable? Do people use shuttles? How do pedestrians get around the cars? And what about some of the other big events in Iowa: the Iowa State-Iowa football game in Ames and Iowa City, the state high school wrestling tournament in Des Moines and other big events at the Iowa Events Center in downtown Des Moines?
For the past year, Hawkins and Isebrands have been collecting traffic data and making observations during some of the state's biggest events. Their research project is supported by about $15,000 from the Iowa Department of Transportation. They're negotiating with the department to continue the project so they can analyze all the data and develop short- and long-term recommendations for improving traffic flows.
Sandra Larson, the research and technology bureau director for the transportation department, said the study's primary goals are to improve traffic safety and efficiency at these big events. She said the department is looking forward to hearing about some new ideas and perhaps trying them at upcoming events.
In addition to gathering data, the Iowa State researchers are bringing together traffic and security officials from the events as well as city, county and state law enforcement agencies. They're hoping to get everybody working together to improve traffic and make event operations more efficient.
And while their focus is on Iowa events, Hawkins and Isebrands said their findings could also apply to other places. Other states, after all, have state fairs, football rivalries and high school tournaments.
Because they're still gathering data, the researchers said they're not ready to make suggestions for improving traffic flow around the state fair.
But Isebrands made a trip to the fairgrounds on Friday. So how did she get there?
She parked at the Capitol and took a shuttle bus.