A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 7

Day 7

Night Meeting for the Downtown Master Plan

Geneva Downtown on State Route

I'm late getting this post up because I attended a meeting of our Downtown Master Plan Committee. We are in the process of having a plan prepared for our downtown area which is a big deal for us because we have such an awesome downtown and want to make sure it stays that way. My main input to the plan is more on issues related to engineering such as traffic and infrastructure. Tonight we discussed the 33 areas that were targeted for potential redevelopment within the study area. But at the end we also talked about one of the main routes through our downtown. It's a four-lane state route with approximately 20,000+ ADT and diagonal parking on both sides. We have sidewalks on both sides that are about 10 feet wide abutting buildings constructed to the street line. The point of discussion was that our planners have gotten feedback that people feel uncomfortable walking along this road. However our records show minimal accidents in this area, (see photo on left) particularly related to the parking or pedestrians. But the planners felt they had to address these concerns and suggested some alternatives to the section. One of the designs had some of us concerned about the possible result of losing major amounts of parking for the sole purpose of picking up a few more feet of sidewalk with no proof of an increase in safety. 

Based on my experience with walking these routes regularly at night, people can't feel too uncomfortable because this busy route is always filled with people walking or congregating on the sidewalk. And that's one of the things we really like about the area. There's always so many people walking everywhere downtown – even on this busy route. As someone who has not lived here long, I think the reason people say they don't like the busy route as much is because the other main route through our downtown is a unique and charming roadway with five-foot sidewalks, a grass parkway, and buildings set back about 25 feet or more (see example of this part of our downtown below). It's hard for any other downtown road to compete with that one. And adding a few more feet to a traditional downtown sidewalk is not going to transform it into this other type of street environment. But the planners are convinced it will make all the difference in the world. While for us engineers we cannot justify negatively impacting the traffic to increase the perception of a nicer looking road.

Stream and pond in downtown Geneva, IL

And in a way, taking that stand is a little ironic for me because if you read my blog regularly, you know I am somewhat anti-car. Not that I hate them or anything; I just feel they are in their decline as a mode of transportation. The more I read and the more I consider the future of transportation, I am convinced we are on the brink of beginning the transition to a new system – one made up of something along the lines of PRTs co-existing with rail, bicycles, and pedestrians.  And I start to wonder each time I design and build something for cars, just how long a life it really has. So part of me wants to plan for something beyond a reliance on cars as the primary mode of transportation. But as much as I am ready to ditch my car for a pod tomorrow, the engineer in me understands that's not the reality of today. So for now I accept the fact that people still love cars and want to use them and my job is to provide the infrastructure for that in the best, safest, and most economical manner. Of course the engineers are only one voice in the entire process – many more have to weigh in before the draft plan is prepared. 


The rest of the day

Today was really busy; well most days are busy, but for some reason today seemed even more so. I started out again trying to keep up with emails but had to pull away to work on finalizing the property owner information for the parking lot we are constructing. I wanted to send the map and legal documents over to our city attorney at the end of the day, but will have to wait because I decided to have the interns check over our work one more time to make sure it is correct. Too often, I notice people get so busy and need to push work out the door that mistakes are made. I hate when I do that. So I've been trying to make a concentrated effort to have everything in our office checked by someone if possible. This is how it used to be when I first started working in engineering, and I think over the years this quality assurance check has been neglected more and more in our industry.

Road Project

In the morning, I ran out with the project engineer for our road project. He wanted to show me the condition of the concrete pavement that had been under the asphalt we ground off. One road was unusual in that it seemed to have no cracks. Most older concrete pavements I've seen have cracks so it was interesting to see one that did not. The other road we looked at was cracked in a typical fashion. Over the years, the city had been using an area reflective crack control before placing the asphalt. But last year the contractors told us in the future we will pay more for grinding if there is crack control material under the asphalt. So this year we did not use it. The engineer discussed using a crackfililng material. I was hesitant to do so because another engineer had shared a negative story with me about paving over asphalt that had been crackfilled. So I called him to again hear the story of his experience. He said the hot asphalt will cause the crackfilling material to bubble up through the new asphalt and damage the new pavement. Instead of using crackfilling material, it's best to use a type of sand mixture if you must seal the cracks. We discussed the matter a little more in our office and decided not to fill the cracks.

Annexation Inquiry

A person who lives nearby but not in our city called to see if it was possible to hook up to our water and sewer. This is a common call most engineering departments get every now and then. In our city, we require a property owner to annex into our city if they want to hook up to our utilities. So I explained this and how they could run utilities to their home. They said they would look into it more and call back if they decided to go forward. Fortunately in this case, I had already looked at how to serve this area. But if you get these calls and have not done this, it can be time-consuming because you have to look at all the maps and sometimes the elevations of the area to figure out how someone can get to utilities and how much it will cost.

GIS problem

One of our GIS users had a problem with their map that unfortunately I was not yet able to figure out. We have a line feature class that in my map shows up as a line. However, in their map, it is showing up as a polygon. I could not find this problem talked about anywhere online so will have to keep looking into it tomorrow.

Miscellaneous Tasks

  • The frames I had picked out last week for those inlets on our road project were delivered today.
  • We met today with members of other departments to discuss the project I talked about above where we are designing a new parking lot in our downtown.
  • And finally I had arranged for several engineers in our office to listen to the webinar on PROWAG that was hosted by AccessibilityOnline. It was very good and informative.



A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 6

Day 6

Staff Development Meeting

This morning we had our staff development meeting where all representatives of all departments meet to discuss active developments in our city. Today we talked about several proposed and on-going prospects along with some discussion of proposed changes to regulations. One of these issues related to the creation and management of historic districts will be further discussed tonight at the council meeting. For those who are interested, here is the link to our live meetings that begin at 7 pm CST: http://www.geneva.il.us/channel10.htm

Southeast Plan

Last year, the city applied for and secured a grant to study a large undeveloped area lying southeast of our city. This area currently lies outside of our corporate limits. But based on existing boundary agreements most of it will annex to our city should owners decide to pursue annexation at some point. We are about half-way through studying and preparing the plan. Today we met to further discuss access and transportation elements.

Permits and Bonds and Insurance Claims

I had several calls and emails today related to permits and bonds required for the work. One was the followup from last week. Another was a claim we received for alleged damage to a vehicle on one of our road projects which I passed along to our contractor. I also prepared a review letter with comments for a development asking to install an improvement along their parking lot.

Other Miscellaneous Tasks

The other part of my day was spent preparing the property owner information for the block where we plan to construct a new parking lot. Our interns had done most of the research work running down the current owners and copying the deeds. However, I needed to review them and put them on the map in the correct locations. Tomorrow I will finish this up so I can send it to the city attorney. He will then prepare the necessary documents for the areas where we need easements.

I also tried to get through more of my email but didn't make much of a dent. All together it sure seems like meetings and email take up a lot of everyone's day. The key is trying to find the time in between to get all the work done!



Public Hearings Held City Camp Style

This year, I have been involved with two initiatives in our county. One is Kane County's Transit Plan which is just ending and the other is our Downtown Master Plan which is just beginning. Each planning process is professionally managed and both have or will go through all the traditional steps of gathering public input. This usually consists of forming committees of stakeholders and having committee meetings and public hearings. Then all comments and input from these meetings are assembled and worked into the plan. But we all know that as much time and effort as everyone puts into drawing out ideas, it is difficult to get a large majority of folks really talking at these events.

Citycamp Chicago 2010

In the same time period, I have attended several "barcamps" or unconferences related to government and social media. These events are incredible because they offer the opportunity to learn and share ideas in a comfortable and informal setting. The environment is also conducive to developing networks and connections to others who care about the topics discussed. And the energy at barcamps is usually so intense that everyone, even that normally reserved person, ends up contributing.

One awesome camp I attended in January in Chicago was CityCamp. This event drew over 100 people who spent two days talking about ideas for increasing government performance. And the event format seems to be taking off – over the last few days I have been watching a discussion on the e-democracy site about several efforts to host CityCamps throughout the world. But organizers are also expressing an interest in having something solid come out of each camp. This got me thinking – wouldn't it be awesome to use the CityCamp model as a planning tool. If each planning initiative, like the transit plan or downtown plan, could include a "CityCamp," along with the more traditional methods, we could generate a lot more ideas and discussion. And in the end, everything would get incorporated into the formal plan. 

If I worked in a government position responsible for launching community plans, I would definitely try this out because I see a huge potential for success. Instead I can only encourage others responsible for community planning to take the initiative to try out this technique. And I would definitely be willing to help! (Contacting Kevin Curry, one of the CityCamp organizers, for advice is also a great idea – he's an awesome resource!)


Using Unity3D to Simulate a City

Most of my exploration of virtual worlds for engineering has been in Second Life and OpenSim. However, this year I have been looking more at Unity3D. Engineers are conservative and seem to dismiss virtual worlds like Second Life and OpenSim. Even though these programs are 3D modeling tools, they don't resemble nor do they use the typical CAD tools engineers are used to working with. Because Unity3D works well with these CAD tools and better resembles modeling programs, I suspect it will find greater acceptance by AEC groups.

As an example of what can be done with Unity3D, I show below a crude example of importing DEM files into Unity3D. While the process is fairly easy, I still have some issues with the elevations looking too exaggerated, and there is an area that does not have contours. I also need to figure out how to apply the aerial images to the ground. So I still have a lot of work to do to refine this, but I thought it was pretty cool to be able to import contours and see the flat land transform immediately to reflect the topology of my city. I put some water in the model to indicate the river which helps to highlight the dam and islands. But I have yet to add any buildings, trees, or other features.

 Fox River Valley in Geneva, Ill.


Screenshot from Unity3D of Fox Valley River Valley through Geneva, Ill.


















Another cool aspect of Unity3D is it can be embedded in a browser. Below is the static representation of what I created showing a view looking north through the river valley. Eventually I can add the capability for someone to travel through this model of my city with an avatar.

[WP_UnityObject src="http://www.publicworksgroup.com/images/stories/test1.unity3d" /]