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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66 · No. 6 > The Fast Lane to Innovation

May/June 2003
Vol. 66 · No. 6

The Fast Lane to Innovation

by Marci Kenney and Amy Stearns

University Transportation Centers provide our Nation with an effective vehicle for transportation progress.

As our Nation grows and strives to develop a safe, environmentally benign, and efficient transportation system, investments in human and capital resources are needed to explore new issues, address existing concerns, and chart innovative ground in the transportation field. Enter the University Transportation Centers (UTC) program. Aimed at advancing technology and expertise in the transportation field through education, cutting-edge research, and technology transfer at university-based centers of excellence, the UTC program awards grants to nonprofit institutions of higher learning to create and maintain research centers.

Dr. Joseph F. Coughlin sitting in a driving simulator (Source: MIT Center for Transportation Studies, New England UTC)

Dr. Joseph F. Coughlin is sitting in a driving simulator used by University Transportation Center (UTC) scientists for a research study.

A primary goal of the UTC program is to increase the number of students, faculty, and staff who are attracted to transportation work at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels. Each year, the research centers educate thousands of students in the many disciplines that comprise the transportation field, producing future leaders for the transportation community. The centers also build partnerships with State and local governments, transit agencies, metropolitan planning organizations, and industry.

History in The Making

In 1987, the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act authorized the creation of 10 regional UTCs. The program pledged a total of $40 million over 4 years and required that each UTC match Federal funds dollar for dollar. At the time, the mission of the UTC program was primarily transportation research and technology transfer.

Then, in 1991, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) designated another nine UTCs at named institutions and added education to the UTC mission. ISTEA authorized $115.5 million over 6 years.

The UTC program was expanded again in 1998, when the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) authorized $194.8 million for grants to establish and operate up to 33 UTCs throughout the United States for fiscal years 1998 to 2003. Through a competitive process in 1999, 10 of those UTCs were designated as regional centers, while the other 23 are located at universities named in TEA-21.

After a limited competition among the named universities in FY 2002 required under TEA-21, the program now comprises 26 grantees. TEA-21 also modified the program slightly, establishing education as one of the primary objectives, institutionalizing the use of strategic planning in university grant management, and reinforcing the program's focus on multimodal transportation.

Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT) Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) manages the program, with funding provided by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The requirement of matching Federal dollars continues, and UTCs must produce a strategic plan for USDOT, a directory of key personnel, research project descriptions, semiannual and annual progress reports, and final research reports, and each must operate its own Web site. All UTCs conduct research projects that address key national issues related to a USDOT-approved theme that directly supports the goals of TEA-21 and USDOT's overall strategic plan. The themes include organizational excellence, safety, security, mobility, economic growth, and human and natural environments.

Organizational Excellence

No organization or industry can flourish without the education and specialized training of future employees. UTCs prepare students to be leaders in their field through hands-on training and extensive research experience. Consequently, the transportation industry has a broad base of highly skilled and educated students from which to draw employees. USDOT and the UTCs also are dedicated to increasing the number of women and minorities in the transportation industry.

Under the current UTC grants, which began in 1998, 11 new transportation-related graduate-degree programs have been established at 80 participating universities. The new degree programs represent a permanent increase in the presence of transportation on the Nation's university campuses and thus in the number of students who choose transportation careers. (See "Results from Year 1 of TEA-21 Grants.")

Another role of UTCs in fostering organizational excellence involves technology transfer—the sharing of important research findings to ensure that all related programs and transportation professionals have the most up-to-date information possible. The UTCs thus pave the way for further scientific and technological advancement.

Safety

Safety is the primary concern of the transportation community. To create safer and more secure roadways and transit systems, UTCs across the Nation are developing more durable materials, designing and redesigning highways, and working to enhance traffic management. UTCs also are performing research to improve travel safety in different climates and educating drivers and highway personnel in safety and the prevention of crashes.

Driver using cellphone during testing (Source: UTC)

Use of cellular telephones and other electronic devices in cars can distract drivers like this one and lead to traffic crashes. UTC researchers are developing predictive algorithms to define the problem the driver distraction and promote safe driving practices.

"Road safety has to be approached on many fronts," says Dr. Daniel Turner, director of the UTC at the University of Alabama. "For example, our researchers are studying more effective ways of identifying drivers with diminished physical capabilities, including poor vision."

The Alabama UTC team, led by Dr. Cynthia Owsley, ophthalmologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, worked with the State's Department of Public Safety to develop standards and training materials for ophthalmologists who are evaluating the vision of drivers during relicensing. The goal is for all motorists to be evaluated based on the same effective criteria.

"By training transportation safety professionals on how to identify those drivers whose diminished eyesight affects their driving skills," says Turner, "we are making our roads safer for everyone."

Another UTC concentrating on safety research is the University of Rhode Island Transportation Center (URITC), which is working to promote safer driving practices by reducing driver distractions. URITC researchers recently completed the first phase of a project in which they were able to quantify precisely how much distraction from drivers' use of cellular telephones and other electronic devices leads to traffic crashes. The project used eye- and head-movement sensors to collect data that will be used to develop predictive algorithms to define the problem of driver distraction. These capabilities then will be used to evaluate the response of drivers to various stimuli and road conditions.

Results from Year 1 of TEA-21 Grants

  • 3,360 students enrolled in transportation-related degree programs
  • 1,154 students receiving advanced transportation-related degrees
  • 569 students who belong to minorities
  • 350 female students
  • 388 students taking transportation-related jobs as their first career move.
  • 634 peer-reviewed transportation research reports and books published
  • 25,236 practicing transportation professionals participating in technology transfer and outreach activities

Source: http://utc.dot.gov/brochure/

Security

In the wake of the tragedies of September 11, 2001, concern about the security of our Nation's passenger and freight transportation systems has increased. This heightened awareness has led to several UTC studies on transportation security.

"Proper vulnerability assessments, planning, and training are key to preventing an incident," says Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University, a UTC since 1991.

An MTI research team, led by Brian Michael Jenkins, has published 5 research reports on transportation preparedness, including 14 detailed case studies of major attacks and 9 vulnerability assessments of major bridges, tunnels, and transit agencies. MTI also has developed a procedure for providing confidential information on vulnerability assessments, restricted for access on a need-to-know basis.

In addition, MTI has compiled a running chronology of every reported attack on a surface transportation system that has occurred worldwide since 1920. Finally, it has hosted four national symposia on transportation security summarized on "TransWeb," the Mineta Transportation Institute's Web page (http://transweb.sjsu.edu/pubs.htm).

During 2002, transportation security and operations managers throughout North America made 13,000 electronic downloads from "TransWeb" and requested more than 5,000 hard copies of the MTI research reports and symposia summaries. "Clearly," says Diridon, "there is great need and demand for this important security information."

Researchers at the Southeastern Transportation Center, University of Tennessee, conducted additional work focusing on the risks of terrorism-related cargo passing through intermodal freight terminals. Having assessed the potential risks at seaports, air cargo facilities, and rail-truck intermodal terminals, they published their findings in a report that is being shared with transportation officials to increase awareness and solicit recommendations for security improvements.

Mobility

Another focus of UTC research is the development of an effective and efficient multimodal transportation system. On various fronts, several UTC projects are looking at cost-effective and practical ways of moving people from place to place while eliminating delays and hazards.

Well-organized integration of transportation modes is key to maximizing mobility. A report from the National Center for Intermodal Transportation, a UTC partnership between the University of Denver and Mississippi State University, describes the effort to combine America's airlines, buses, and railways into one seamless transportation unit. According to researchers, the greatest hurdle in reaching this goal is the construction of terminals that serve multiple transportation modes, including air, rail, bus, and private automobiles.

Commuters waiting board subway

Researchers at MIT, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Police are assessing how public transportation can be made more attractive to older riders, thereby enhancing the mobility of the elderly. Here, commuters wait to board subway.

Another key to maximizing mobility is the accessibility of transportation to all populations, including the elderly. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Minnesota are two UTCs that are researching the needs of older people. Studies conducted at MIT are assessing the attitudes of older adults toward public transportation, and aiming to enhance their mobility by increasing their use of public transportation.

"In less than 20 years, one in four Americans will be over age 50," says Dr. Joseph Coughlin, director of the New England UTC and acting head of the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics. "Meeting the needs of our aging population will be one of the single greatest demographic challenges facing the Nation's transportation system."

One UTC-sponsored research project at MIT, in partnership with The Hartford Financial Services Group, is assessing the future mobility needs of the largest population group in the country: aging baby boomers, representing nearly 80 million Americans. The research is looking closely at where baby boomers will live and how individuals, families, and governments will help meet their demand for accessibility and mobility.

Another ongoing UTC-sponsored research project at MIT, conducted in collaboration with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Police, is assessing how public transportation can be made to be more attractive to older riders. Preliminary research indicates that older transit users demand better lighting, higher visibility of "concierge-like" personnel (not guards), and real-time information about delays—interestingly, services that would benefit riders of all ages. The researchers provided their findings to the MBTA for consideration and integration into their planning activities.

In addition, MIT is facilitating U.S. participation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) Task Force on Older Adults and Transportation Technology, on behalf of the USDOT. In the fall of 2003, MIT will be hosting a multinational summit on innovative transportation technologies and services for an aging population, cosponsored by the Ford Motor Company, The Hartford, and other industry leaders in transportation.

At the University of Minnesota, researchers are looking at how a driver's ability to orient him or herself changes with age. Researchers aimed to determine first if older drivers have more difficulty orienting themselves in unfamiliar neighborhoods than younger drivers, and then, if found to be true, sought to determine if "wayfinding" actually interferes with how well they operate their vehicles.

Based on both real-world and simulation-based tests, preliminary findings suggest that the problem of orienting oneself is indeed more serious for older motorists and that the task of keeping oriented does in fact impair older drivers' ability to operate their vehicles. Once these findings are confirmed, training procedures can be developed to teach elderly motorists improved ways to stay oriented.

Lora Byala conducts a survey with an older subject (Source: MIT Center for Transportation Studies, New England UTC)

UTC Research Fellow Lora Byala conducts a survey with an older subject about his use of public transportation.

Economic Growth

Economic growth is vital to many of our country's small towns and rural areas. To improve economic viability in underdeveloped areas, several UTCs selected research related to rural transportation themes.

For example, researchers at the Mack-Blackwell Rural Transportation Center at the University of Arkansas examined ways to foster economic expansion in rural and small metropolitan locations that are disadvantaged by limited access to skilled labor, markets, business services, and technological expertise. Based on analyses of county data from 1986 through 1999, the research indicated that investments in human capital and highway infrastructure could compensate for the disadvantages associated with low concentrations of economic activity in rural communities.

"Efficient transportation systems lessen the isolation of rural areas, leading to the creation of new jobs and improved opportunities for development," says Dr. Melissa Tooley, director of the UTC program at Mack-Blackwell. "Stated simply," she adds, "transportation can increase incomes and improve the quality of life in rural areas."

At the Nick J. Rahall, II Appalachian Transportation Institute (RTI), the UTC at Marshall University in Huntington, WV, researchers are conducting a number of studies related to transportation and economic development in mountain regions. The researchers analyzed the economic impact of the 130-kilometer (81-mile) Greenbrier River Trail in West Virginia—a network of recreational trails converted from former rail lines and connecting corridors (referred to as a Rails-to-Trails facility). The RTI project aims to assess the economic impact of the Greenbrier Trail and to coordinate broad-based support to promote its use.

Based on data collected from surveys taken over a 17-day period in October 2000, the RTI study found that the trail represents a significant asset to the local economy. The trail was found to attract out-of-state tourists, with more than 60 percent of trail users coming from other States, and to be a significant revenue earner, with more than $82,000 brought in over the 17-day period from the out-of-state users alone. In addition, 90 percent of the surveyed trail users indicated that they were "highly likely" or "likely" to return in the future, suggesting that these return customers will bring future revenue to the State.

Results of the RTI project will be used to identify the local economic impact of other West Virginia recreational trail systems and to mobilize community support for the marketing and promotion of such trail systems. Already, a spin-off project is underway with the planning and development of a Charleston-Huntington-Kenova Greenway of interconnecting paths for cycling, walking, jogging, and other recreational activities.

Human Environment

The impact of transportation on the human environment (e.g., neighborhoods, business districts) can be positive or negative. With proper planning, traffic management, and continuous assessment, human environments and transportation systems can form a cohesive unit. On the negative side, however, new development and increased population also can result in traffic, noise, and safety problems for residential and business areas.

One negative impact associated with transportation in residential neighborhoods is cut-through traffic as motorists divert from main roadways to side streets. "Cut-through traffic in neighborhoods has been recognized as a nuisance for residents and a potential safety problem for both pedestrians and motorists," says Karl Zimmerman, graduate assistant researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M.

Through a UTC grant, researchers at the Southwest Region University Transportation Center at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University evaluated various methods for controlling cut-through traffic in neighborhoods, including use of traffic-calming devices on neighborhood streets and improved arterial street operation.

Initial research suggested that traffic-calming devices reduced volume, speed, and crashes on residential streets. "But," says Zimmerman, "our research indicated that those reductions occurred only in the areas where the traffic-calming devices were located. The devices do not necessarily cause network-wide changes to traffic patterns."

Southwest Region UTC researchers also found that changes to local street speeds and all-way stop controls had minimal effect on cut-through traffic, while improvements to signal timing on arterial streets were effective at making those main roads more attractive as travel routes. Taking this work one step further, the researchers developed a model to help indicate the magnitude of cut-through traffic in a given neighborhood.

"This cutting-edge research is a first step in providing an engineering approach to evaluate the network effectiveness of traffic-calming devices and arterial improvements on the neighborhood environment," says Zimmerman. "Ultimately, this research will help foster safer, more human-friendly neighborhoods."

To maximize the positive impacts of transportation systems on the human environment, some UTC researchers are focused on expanding the use of public transit. Specializing in public transportation and alternative forms of transportation in urban areas, the National Center for Transit Research (NCTR) at the University of South Florida is exploring ways to eliminate barriers to transit use. Specifically, the NCTR researchers are exploring potential users' decisions about whether to use public transit and identifying problems encountered by existing and potential users that may prevent them from using the system in future.

Driving simulator (Source: MIT Center for Transportation Studies, New England UTC)

This bright red car is "Miss Daisy," the driving simulator used by UTC scientists to conduct research on older drivers.

Although transit officials have long recognized that service that is inconvenient (in terms of frequency or span of service) is a deterrent to transit use, NCTR's research will help classify levels of transit service quality in a fashion similar to how levels of highway service quality is classified. This classification will provide local officials with a better understanding of needed improvements in transit service.

NCTR staff also conducted research to determine how difficult it is for people to read and understand transit schedules and guides. Based on the results of this work, NCTR researchers are identifying effective design elements for use in written information materials to reduce confusion that may be a barrier to transit use.

Natural Environment

UTCs strive for environmental protection by researching quieter and cleaner highway materials, new modes of transportation, and improved means of assessing natural environments before development begins.

In line with this goal, the UTC at the University of California, Berkeley studied the possibility of undesirable side effects resulting from catalytic converters, a commonly used technology for reducing the vehicle emissions that cause air pollution. Specifically, the study measured the unanticipated side effects of installing catalytic converters on the light-duty vehicle fleet. Results indicated that use of three-way converters, in combination with fuel-rich engine operation, likely has contributed to increased emissions of ammonia.

Despite the adverse effects of ammonia emissions, however, use of catalytic converters has improved overall air quality. The study found that emissions of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and nonmethane hydrocarbons decreased significantly—by a factor of 2 to 3—from 1994 to 2001 alone. In short, the study's bottom line is a positive one because the light-duty passenger vehicle fleet has become cleaner over time.

Another important research subject concerning the natural environment is the identification and preservation of threatened and endangered species. A study by North Carolina State University's UTC, the Center for Transportation for the Environment, and Appalachian State University focused on the dwarf flowered heartleaf, a plant that is listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The dwarf flowered heartleaf has played a key role in several recent highway routing decisions in North Carolina, where it grows in seven counties. This UTC project, cosponsored by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), seeks to determine the current status of the heartleaf and to identify possible relocation sites and techniques to improve its reproduction.

Thus far, researchers have discovered 18 new populations of the plant and have collected data for systematic ecological analysis. They are using the information to develop a model that will help determine the critical habitat of the species and characterize areas where it might be relocated. The Fish and Wildlife Service will use the results of this work to evaluate species status and perhaps lead to its delisting as a threatened species. In addition, the results will enable NCDOT staff to better manage the State's preserves and make smart decisions concerning highway development in the area.

Adding Up to Making a Difference

The UTC program supports the goals set forth by TEA-21 and the USDOT through training of future leaders and a wide range of research. By investing in the UTC program, USDOT hopes to increase the numbers of talented individuals working in the diverse and complex field of transportation, and to promote a technologically advanced and efficient transportation system now and in the future. With the help of the UTCs, this Nation's best and brightest are paving the way to meet the 21st century challenge of safe, efficient, and environmentally sound movement of people and goods within the United States.


Marci Kenney is director for FHWA's R&T program at the Office of Program Development and Evaluation. Prior to joining FHWA, she worked for the Federal Aviation Administration in the Office of International Aviation as manager for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. She holds an M.A. in international studies from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and has received numerous performance and honor awards.

Amy Stearns is a grant administrator for the UTC program in RSPA's Office of Innovation, Research and Education. Her responsibilities include assisting the UTCs to accomplish the purpose of their grants and ensuring good stewardship of the Federal UTC grant funds. Stearns also represents USDOT on several governmentwide grants-streamlining initiatives that are simplifying the award and administration of Federal grants. She has a B.A. from the College of William and Mary.

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