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For Georgia State Students, EAR Program Opens a Window on Transportation Research


Photo taken during TRB workshop of the students (from left to right): Thomas Kelly, Ryan Brossette, Ming Tsang, Keith Kuslak, and David Matre. Photo taken during TRB workshop of the students (from left to right): Thomas Kelly, Ryan Brossette, Ming Tsang, Keith Kuslak, and David Matre.

The Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Exploratory Advanced Research (EAR) Program is all about finding next generation transportation solutions. An EAR Program project examining how driver risk preferences influence choices of route and travel departure times is also introducing the next generation of students to the world of transportation research.

The 3-year study, “Behavioral Sciences Approach to Testing, Validating, and Establishing Best Practices for Alternative Highway Revenue Collection: Experiments on Driving Under Uncertain Congestion Conditions and the Effects on Traffic Networks from Congestion Pricing Initiatives,” is funded by the EAR Program, in partnership with the University of Central Florida (UCF) and Georgia State University (GSU). Researchers are examining when and why drivers choose a tolled facility versus an untolled but congested parallel route.

Until now, understanding driver reaction to congestion pricing has been limited, partly because data are commonly collected via simple stated preference surveys that ask for responses to proposed congestion pricing. Although the surveys are useful for some purposes, these methods are known to generate biased and unpredictable responses. The EAR Program study used experimental economics to observe choices with precise monetary incentives, allowing researchers to assess responses to several congestion pricing schemes.

For several GSU students, participating in the EAR Program project opened up a new window on transportation issues. The students involved in the study were drawn from many different backgrounds unrelated to transportation, including economics, nursing, psychology, accounting, German, biology, and environmental science. As Karen White at FHWA notes, “One of the benefits of the EAR Program is bringing in people from other disciplines.”

“This was a huge project and I had to figure out how to get good people to work with,” explains Elisabet Rutstrom, the project’s principal investigator at GSU. In assembling the research team, students had to have a GPA of at least 3.0 and commit to at least 10 hours of work per week. “The average was 20 hours per week, with some putting in more time than that,” notes Rutstrom. Twenty-five students at GSU worked on the project, along with 25 from UCF.

Data collection began in June 2011 and ended in Spring 2013. Approximately 600 commuters from Atlanta, GA, of all ages participated in the study, along with 1,200 GSU students. Each study cohort lasted for approximately 2 months and involved all participants filling out an opinion survey and then taking a lottery choice test on a computer to estimate their risk level. Next, they would take drives on a simulator in the project laboratory and then a global positioning system would record their toll road use for 2 weeks. Additional drives on the simulator and lottery test choices followed, with then more field driving, surveys, and a final round of field driving. Participant payments during the study varied depending upon their route choices in the simulator and the field.

Project manager Ryan Brossette, who was part of the study from the beginning, recently finished a Master’s degree in Economics at GSU. “This was a good way to be introduced to an issue that really affects Atlanta,” says Brossette. “I gained insight and learned more about my capabilities working on the project. We learned about how to design a study so that there are salient choices.” David Matre, an undergraduate student in Economics who has been involved in the project since Fall 2012, also found the research intriguing. “I think it’s very interesting to look at traffic, how much goes into it, and how many different variables there are,” says Matre. Keith Kuslak, also studying Economics, started with the project as an undergraduate and is now a Ph.D. student. He plans to use data from the project in his dissertation. “It has increased my interest in transportation research,” notes Kuslak. “We learned how to set up experiments and how to apply the data.”

The study involved several stations located throughout the behavioral laboratory on the GSU campus, as well as laboratories held in the suburbs for commuter participants. Some stations contained driving simulators and some relied on paper and pen. Students would manage the stations and had the opportunity to progress in their responsibilities as part of the project. This gave the students valuable supervisory experience and practice in preparing for project curveballs. “The project required a lot of flexibility,” notes Brossette. “You have to be ready for things that come your way.” Thomas Kelly, a recent Environmental Science graduate involved in the study, adds, “I remember making one of my first executive decisions. My supervisor told me that I did the right thing.” He continues, “The project has been very rewarding and has made me consider the [transportation] field more strongly.”

Students not only managed the laboratories, but helped design surveys and the study’s randomization protocol. “Now students are learning to work with the data, and how difficult it is to analyze the data,” says Rutstrom. Ming Tsang, a Ph.D. student in Economics and part of the study since the beginning, concurs. “A lot of the things you have to learn by doing. This is the beauty of our experience with the project,” says Tsang. “It was really interesting to see things come together now that we are doing the data analysis. In the beginning I didn’t know much about transportation economics—this has made it come alive for me.”

“Learning through doing is key,” notes Brossette. “We are diving into this data in so many different directions now.”

Looking to the future, Rutstrom highlights that the study has been a valuable learning process. Once the project was up and running, the students kept it “running like clockwork,” says Rutstrom. “After this experience, it will be easier to start the next project.”

For more information on this EAR Program study, visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/advancedresearch/pubs/congestion/, or contact Karen White at FHWA, 202-366-9474 (email: karen.white@dot.gov).

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