One often hears politicians, news reporters and even friends exclaim “researchers say . . .” hoping what follows will be taken as unquestionable fact. Ideally, science and research should be leveraged and used in an objective way. Why, then, when it comes to America’s transportation and mobility issues, don’t we leverage academia and university research more often to solve local, regional and national transportation problems?
That is exactly what the government and university researchers should be, and are, doing more of.
Governmental agencies and universities have generally had different perspectives and priorities. The government has near-term priorities, whereas university researchers work on a longer, continuous timeframe. But more and more, we’re seeing researchers and government entities (and industries too) wanting to work within a collaborative ecosystem. Government agencies are thinking big, and universities are putting more emphasis on undertaking socially relevant research to impact the community.
Texas is uniquely poised to be an incubator for national transportation solutions. We have an active network of entrepreneurs, technology industries and major universities with top-tier transportation research centers, yet we are facing some of the country’s most challenging traffic congestion problems and mobility equity issues.
But a substantial shift in transportation options is upon us, thanks to technology. For example, various technologies are advancing to market for connected and highly automated vehicles. And there is a huge potential to harness these emerging technologies to address our traffic congestion and mobility equity issues.
Take, for example, the city of Austin. The city is challenged with urban sprawl, long commutes, affordability and equity issues, and suburbanization of the poor. The same goes for Dallas, Houston and San Antonio and countless other cities in Texas and across the nation. All of these issues matter in how people get around. Lower-income people typically get pushed out of the downtown core as housing prices rise, and as they do, they can’t afford to find alternative transportation because public transportation often doesn’t reach the outskirts of town.
It is true that the government is becoming more proactive in engendering collaborative partnerships, including one U.S. Department of Transportation program called the Smart City Challenge. The challenge will invest money in one midsized city that can uniquely address transportation in a way that can be replicated throughout the nation. Austin is one of seven finalists. If Austin wins the challenge, it will create a link between all smart city efforts in Texas to create a smart state that would ultimately be the foundation of a smart nation.
The Smart City Challenge has already spurred several innovations. For instance, at the Center for Transportation Research at The University of Texas at Austin, we are working on a two-way open data sharing portal that will improve how transportation providers, including businesses and government entities, offer effective mobility services. This means futuristic transit stations, fully connected roads and wireless sensor systems that can pass along real-time data, and traffic lights that automatically adjust to weather and congestion. In other words, we are leveraging academic expertise to create real solutions for the average citizen.
Now is the time to take bold new initiatives, as it becomes more difficult and more expensive to fix our transportation and mobility problems with time. Technology has the potential to address many problems, but not all. The data that researchers will get in the years ahead will help us see the gaps — what communities currently aren’t taking advantage and how we can help move them along.
The future of transportation is going to be much more focused. It must be on-demand with accessible and affordable mobility. It is bike sharing. It is more ride-sourcing with companies such as Lyft and Uber. It is using more data-collecting and data-sharing for better safety and less congested routes. It is using cameras to detect unsafe driving conditions. It is enacting transportation policies at the local, state and federal levels that allow for change and growth. It is more connected/autonomous vehicles and more accessible public transit.
But most importantly, it is about providing for vibrant social communities, with mobility not being a reason for inequity in quality of life. And it will take government agencies, industries and Texas university researchers working together to make that happen.
Jen Duthie is the director of the Network Modeling Center at the Center for Transportation Research at The University of Texas at Austin. Chandra Bhat is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor and the director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin.