Engineering school students, professors helping optimize Balloon Fiesta traffic flow: UNM Newsroom

Faculty and students at the University of New Mexico School of Engineering continue work to optimize park and ride bus service during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which will draw tens of thousands of visitors during the annual event from October 1 to 9. .

“Our goal is to continue to make the system work better and better every year,” said Claude Morelli, a researcher in the Department of Civil Engineering, Construction and the Environment. “We have looked at a lot of data that we have collected through video monitoring and other means, and we see many small things that can be done to improve things and potentially have a big positive impact on the customer experience. .”

Morelli began his work with Balloon Fiesta in 2019, becoming involved after seeing media reports of traffic issues at the Fiesta’s Park & ​​Ride lot during the 2018 event. He felt that he and his colleagues at UNM could contribute their expertise to develop engineering-based solutions.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Balloon Fiesta, and with the lifting of pandemic restrictions, officials are expecting large crowds.

Morelli and a team of undergraduate and graduate students continue their work for the third year (the event was canceled in 2020 and took place at reduced capacity in 2021), thanks to funding of $10,000 Provided by Albuquerque Councilman Brook Bassan.

“The level of funding isn’t huge, but it allows us to collect high-quality data on park-and-ride bus operations that we wouldn’t be able to get otherwise,” Morelli said. “It also allows us to employ students and teach them how to enter data very carefully into our database so that it can be used for research purposes.”

The funding pays for Morelli’s time during the event, days that often start in the wee hours as crowds begin to arrive each day. He has extensive experience in multimodal transportation planning and has been involved in a wide variety of projects in several states, including a traffic mitigation strategy for the Aspen Music Festival and transit service plans in the resort towns in Colorado and Wyoming.

He said the project had two main goals: data collection and analysis, and passenger queuing and system configuration.

Morelli worked with a group of undergraduate students from the School of Engineering who analyzed video of bus operations and pedestrian traffic. This means that students go through many hours of video collected on site before and after Balloon Fiesta events, including from a drone, and record many different types of data elements in spreadsheets. For example, as people leave Balloon Fiesta Park after each event, students measure how long it takes to spot buses to load, open bus doors, count bus-sized groups of passengers to place in boarding corrals, loading passengers onto buses, and setting buses on their way. Students also observe similar processes during the influx period before the events take place.

“When you collect data, you start to see patterns, which leads to recommendations for improvement,” Morelli said. “We hope to offer insight into how Balloon Fiesta could increase the passenger carrying capacity of its bus service. If the capacity increases are large enough, there should be a noticeable impact on the quality of the parking experience and even traffic operations along I-25 and surface streets during Balloon Fiesta events. Currently, Balloon Fiesta buses carry the equivalent of approximately one and a half lanes of freeway capacity in both directions. We hope to be able to bring the system to a level of future operational efficiency that would be equivalent to approximately two lanes of freeway capacity in either direction.

Morelli said they apply what’s called the “queuing theory,” which is the process of managing people online. He will work alongside Su Zhang, assistant research professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering and associate director of the Center for Earth Data Analysis, to mark pavement locations at bus terminals. where stanchions, barriers and other devices are installed to create the queues and passenger counting stations.

To make the project work, Morelli worked closely with an experienced team of Balloon Fiesta transportation professionals, led by Liz Aldaz, Park and Ride Operations Manager. She is a dispatcher who supervises nine radio channels for the buses. She works with what she calls “Team A”, a group of experienced and dedicated transport managers.

Aldaz has worked in the transportation industry for 42 years, starting at age 18 as a school bus driver, a job she held for 36 years. She retired from public schools in Rio Rancho and is in her sixth year working with Balloon Fiesta. During the event, his day starts at 3 a.m. and ends at 1 p.m.

“We only sleep about two or three hours, but I love it. I’m retired and I do it because it’s a passion,” she said.

While traffic will undoubtedly be heavy, Aldaz is ready to welcome the crowds to the event and provide a safe and enjoyable experience.

“The safety and well-being of our passengers is our #1 priority, and I couldn’t do that without my A-team,” she said. “It’s going to be amazing, and we’re happy to welcome everyone back.”

UNM undergraduate students involved in the project receive free Balloon Fiesta tickets as well as course credit. Their involvement was facilitated by the Engineering Student Success Center.