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USC center leads multi-university effort to solve transportation issues

The university receives a federal grant to head a regional research effort that addresses challenges with transportation technology

LA Freeways
The grant awarded to the METRANS Transportation Center will help advance studies on the mobility of people and goods. (Photo/iStock)

A research center at USC has been selected to lead a multi-state effort to study and solve a range of transportation concerns, from issues with mobility to challenges that affect public access, under a new $12.5 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The METRANS Transportation Center will lead the Pacific Southwest Region University Transportation Center. It comprises several universities in the region spanning four states — Arizona, California Hawaii and Nevada — and the U.S. Pacific Island territories. METRANS is expected to match the grant, bringing the total award for the five-year project to $25 million.

The regional center is a partnership USC has with seven other research institutions in the Southwest: California State University, Long Beach; University of California, Davis; University of California, Irvine; UCLA; University of Hawaii at Manoa; Northern Arizona University and Pima Community College. The nation has 10 such regional transportation research centers in the country.

METRANS was established in 1998 as a collaborative research effort involving the USC Price School of Public Policy, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and Cal State Long Beach. The federal designation and grant will build upon METRANS’ ongoing efforts in interdisciplinary research, education and outreach.

“Our research priority area is improving mobility of people and goods,” said Genevieve Giuliano, the principal investigator for the grant and director of the METRANS Transportation Center. “We will focus on the following issues affecting states in the region: technology to address transportation problems, easing mobility for vulnerable populations, improving resilience while protecting the environment and managing mobility in high-growth urban areas.

“There’s something close to a revolution going on in transportation due to technological changes,” said Giuliano, who holds the Ferraro Chair in Effective Local Government at USC Price. “On the one hand, there are new types of services emerging like Uber, Lyft and peer-to-peer car sharing. At the same time, there is continuous movement toward automated vehicles.”

There is a need not only to move the basic research on automation forward, but also to address many policy issues to achieve automation, she said.

“We identified and developed our research program around the needs of the four-state region,” she said.

Transportation technology

The region is diverse in terms of population, employment and geography, which in itself is a challenge for researchers. It is a mix of large and dense urban areas, lower-density suburbs and towns, and rural areas.

“We have highly technical, very advanced places like San Francisco or Los Angeles, and then we have places where there’s not even optic fiber, such as in the rural areas of Arizona or Nevada,” Giuliano said. “When it comes to transportation technology, you have to decide who is going to benefit. You have to determine how to spread it around.

Can we develop ways of subsidizing transportation for people who cannot afford to pay $5 or $10 per trip?

Genevieve Giuliano

“We have extreme poverty in the Central Valley of California, in the tribal areas of Arizona and in parts of the Hawaiian Islands,” Giuliano added. “We also have extreme poverty pockets in the major metropolitan areas. We want to work on how we can increase mobility for these populations. How can we improve services? Can we come up with technology solutions? Can we develop ways of subsidizing transportation for people who cannot afford to pay $5 or $10 per trip?”

Giuliano also noted that the region is vulnerable to climate change and environmental shifts. Sea levels are expected to rise, the Southwest is in a drought and many areas are at risk of wild fire. Researchers must find ways to strengthen the infrastructure so it is more resilient to extreme conditions and minimizes damage to both people and the economy, she said.

“This is an integrative research effort,” Giuliano said. “We address passenger and freight across all surface transportation modes.”

METRANS is internationally recognized for its freight research. Using new methods of control and optimization, together with ever larger data resources, the research will develop innovative strategies to increase the efficiency of the entire transportation system, she said.

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