Weitzman News

Posted February 1, 2017

PennDesign Faculty Help Launch $14 Million Transportation Research Center

Erick Guerra, Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning, and Megan Ryerson, Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning and Electrical and Systems Engineering, are part of an interdisciplinary team from the University of Pennsylvania that was recently awarded a $14-million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University. The project, called Mobility21, builds on a previous research center with Carnegie Mellon and establishes a new national University Transportation Center (UTC) to help make transportation more efficient and to improve mobility, access, and safety.

The project kicked off on January 31 with a consortium meeting with nearly 30 transportation leaders from around the country sharing their work to address and promote issues of safety and mobility. Their insights, representing both the public and private sectors, will help to shape the initiative’s education and research agendas. According to Guerra, the Center's director of education and outreach, the gathering was designed to foster discussions with project partners to find out what they need, what research they are interested in, and in what ways Penn resources can be useful to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Northeast, and the country.

This collaborative approach is also reflected in the interdisciplinary makeup of the UTC team, led by Professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering Rahul Mangharam, which includes researchers from Penn Law, Wharton, Penn Medicine, and the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania. Indeed, Mobility 21 presents the first opportunity to bring together all the transportation research happening across Penn. “The UTC meetings [involve] everyone from the electrical engineers who make autonomous vehicles, drones, and robots, to the systems engineers who are working to plan the system with algorithms and data, to planners who are looking at how automation will affect transit and land use,” explains Ryerson, the Center’s research director. As Guerra points out, the wide array of participants is also an acknowledgement of the complexity of transportation systems: “There’s no such thing as transportation without land use; they’re intimately related, [so that you] really can’t have one without the other.”

Mobility21 earned the highest level of funding from the USDOT for its focus on solutions, policies, and technologies that directly engage with communities and contribute to an issue of national importance. This commitment to applied research, and the strength of Penn and Carnegie Mellon’s work on these issues, has also earned Mobility21 the support of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards.

The stakes for Mobility21 are quite literally life and death. As technology and automation evolve to improve mobility, how will that affect safety? How does the urban form of infrastructure shape human behavior and wellbeing?

Although the UTC’s collective research agenda and individual projects are still taking shape, Penn and PennDesign are well positioned to respond. Says Ryerson, “We have faculty ready to work through applied problems, and we have some of the greatest students ready to work on problems through research experiences.”