UT professor receives 3 grants focused on transportation accessibility


Joelle DiPaolo, News Reporter

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the March 1, 2022 flipbook.

Regional planning professor Alex Karner received three grants totaling over $400,000 for projects investigating transportation accessibility in the U.S.

Karner’s first project analyzes how closing voting locations impacts voter turnout, while the second aims to develop an Austin housing and transportation cost analysis tool and the third examines the disparate impacts of transportation policies on Black communities as well as how to make reparations, said Karner.

Karner said all of the projects aim to amend transportation and housing policies that have harmed lower-income communities in the past and to to hold officials accountable in the future.

The Democracy Fund, a charity aiming to improve the U.S. democratic process, granted Karner $100,000 in September to work on the first project, known as the Voter Turnout and Accessibility Measurement project. Researchers will use statistical models to determine how the number of available voting locations impacts the number of voters, Karner said. These models will also be used to determine how polling locations can impact voter participation in specific communities.

“If we can estimate statistical models that get at the relationship between proximity or travel time and likelihood of voting, then we could say, ‘If you close locations, you’re going to lose this much voter participation,’” Karner said. “The important thing is figuring out … the demographics that are affected by any shift in polling locations.”

The city of Austin granted Karner and assistant architecture professor Gian-Claudia Sciara $60,000 in October for their work on the second project: a housing and transportation cost analysis tool for Austin. Sciara said that although there is national data about the relationship between the two, having more community-specific data can help the city increase affordability. 

Karner said knowing these metrics can help the city with their housing and transportation policies.

“Locations where transportation costs are particularly high … might be ideal to locate a new express bus route,” Karner said. “It’s about having the information that can empower the city to advocate for certain land use and transportation options.” 

In November, the Transportation Research Board granted Karner $250,000 to investigate the role of transportation policies in harming Black communities throughout the country. Karner said their goal for the third project is to alleviate some of the harm caused by transportation decisions.

“It’s kind of a one-two punch of being heavily burned by the infrastructure and not benefiting from it,” Karner said. “The goal of the project is to come up with policies and practices that transportation agencies can use today to redress that historical impact and atone for the violence and harm.” 

Kendra Ma, policy analyst for the Thrivance Group and a partner on the project, said they plan to create a primer for officials and a community guidebook for citizens so that they can hold their elected officials accountable. 

“We need elected (officials) to be informed about why historical policies are still making an impact today, and what they can do to change that,” Ma said. “If you’re increasing access for people, make sure that you’re really serving the people who have been harmed the most and also including them in the decision-making process.”