UT researchers launch new transportation center to analyze travel behavior, safety

Sarah Brager, General News Reporter

UT announced the launch of a new transportation research center that will analyze travel behavior and commuter psychology in partnership with other schools across the country.

Researchers from the Center for Understanding Future Travel Behavior and Demand, which will launch this summer, hope to make transportation more sustainable and equitable with their sociological approach to data collection.

“I think there is an increasing realization today that transportation, as I have always said, is the lifeblood of society,” said Chandra Bhat, director of the center. “Issues of broader goals of social well-being, safety, sustainability (and) equity is a huge issue today.”

The new center, which is hosted under the Center for Transportation Research, will be funded for five years through a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a UT press release. Bhat said by analyzing local, state and national travel patterns, the center hopes to improve the safety and resiliency of public transportation.

The center will conduct a survey where researchers will consistently analyze specific households and individuals over several years to track changes in their travel habits.

“I like to see transportation as a three-legged stool. … One is technology, the other is infrastructure and the third is traveler behavior,” Bhat said. “I’m not saying that work has not been done, … (but) we really need to emphasize traveler behavior much more so than we have in the past, especially as technology is evolving.”

Transportation needs are evolving rapidly, Bhat said, especially after people transitioned to working from home and ordering deliveries instead of running errands during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bhat said these behavioral changes must be analyzed further so infrastructure can be updated to match the public’s travel trends.

As of now, UT will work with seven other partners in the research effort: Arizona State University, California State Polytechnic University Pomona, City College of New York, Diné College (Navajo Nation), Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Michigan and University of Washington.

“The proposed work by the center will provide breakthrough and innovative research to fundamentally reexamine, understand and transform the scientific base for measuring, monitoring, modeling and managing traveler behaviors,” the U.S. Department of Transportation said in an email.

Bhat said the center is working on creating a website and establishing an advisory board to prepare for its launch. He wants the board to be a “collaborative ecosystem” of academics, public agencies and industry officials who can guide the five-year research process.