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Northeastern selected to lead research on nation’s pressing transportation challenges

Speeding Washington DC metro train

Northeastern University has been selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one of 18 “forward thinking and influential institutions” to lead research aimed at solving some of the nation’s pressing transportation challenges over the next three decades.

Earlier this month, Northeastern was designated a Beyond Traffic Innovation Center, through which researchers will explore data-driven solutions to transportation challenges the Transportation Department outlined in a new report, “Beyond Traffic 2045.” The report, two years in the making, found the U.S. transportation system—and the current planning and funding mechanisms—will not meet the anticipated demands of population growth, climate change, and new technologies like driverless cars.

The innovation centers were announced earlier this month in conjunction with the report’s release on Jan. 9. “Beyond Traffic 2045” explored major themes ranging from how people move and how things are moved, to how society adapts to rising global temperatures and how federal tax revenues are allocated for transportation needs—in order to align decisions with dollars and promote economic development with less congestion.

“In the next 30 years, our country will have 70 million more people competing for the use of our roads, transit and rail networks, and airports, and we are going to have to make some big choices about how we fund and prioritize transportation,” then U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “The Beyond Traffic Innovation Centers will bring together researchers, students, and thought leaders to develop the ideas we need to keep Americans moving and build a transportation system that works for everyone.”

The Northeastern team will focus specifically on the Northeast, one of 11 megaregions throughout the country identified in the report. In particular, the report cited greater regional coordination as a primary need in the Northeast megaregion, which consists of 11 states and the District of Columbia. The megaregion’s public transportation systems have the most demand in the nation, while the Atlantic seaboard spans 450 miles with a host of airports, ports, rail, and urban transportation systems.

The Beyond Traffic Innovation Centers will bring together researchers, students, and thought leaders to develop the ideas we need to keep Americans moving and build a transportation system that works for everyone.”

Anthony Foxx Former U.S. Transportation Secretary

The Northeast megaregion will serve as an innovation testbed for the Northeastern team—working in close collaboration with other stakeholders across government, industry, and academia—to develop new strategies and tools that enable transportation decision-makers to be more effective and responsive to current and future needs. Through research and outreach, Northeastern’s innovation center will harness Big Data to improve decision-making as it particularly relates to land transportation and transit systems.

As a whole, the innovation centers will convene leaders and other key decision-makers in each megaregion, as well as in rural communities, to discuss these challenges and coordinate related research, curriculums, outreach, and other activities. Together, they will play an important role in helping shape transportation policy and innovation in the coming decades.

Sara Wadia-Fascetti, professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate dean for graduate education, is leading the center’s efforts along with professors Haris N. Koutsopoulos and Matthias Ruth. Wadia-Fascetti’s research focuses on sensing technologies for condition assessment and diagnostics of infrastructure systems. Koutsopoulos develops real-time predictive analysis tools for transit systems and models for operations planning, monitoring and control of urban transportation systems, and Ruth’s expertise combines public policy and urban affairs with civil and environmental engineering.

The Northeastern team will also leverage the expertise of a host of faculty across disciplines in areas such as network science, public policy, resilience, and sensors and management systems, and will work closely with partners in industry, government, and academia. The project specifically builds upon and coalesces Northeastern’s research expertise in three areas:

  1. Physical infrastructure and sensing, primarily leveraging Northeastern’s VOTERS center, led by COE Distinguished Professor Ming Wang and which is developing new multi-sensor technology systems for cars and trucks that will allow for real-time assessment of road and bridge infrastructure across the country
  2. Streamlined services using data analytics, primarily leveraging the NU Transit Program—a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on helping transit agencies worldwide innovate in day-to-day practices and strategic planning
  3. Governance and policy, through the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy as well as the Boston Area Research Initiative—both of which are housed within in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and maintain collaborative relationships with public agencies in order to translate scientific research into innovations in policy and practice.

“You can have the best systems, the best technology, the best algorithms, but unless you have incentives in governance, you’re not going to see the changes that Beyond Traffic calls for,” said Wadia-Fascetti. “It’s really about bringing these three areas together, and using Big Data for better decision-making.”

Wadia-Fascetti said the designation is expected to lead to new research projects and facilitate new educational opportunities, including co-ops at the Department of Transportation. The research team has also proposed leading an Open Classroom series focused on Beyond Traffic and creating a series of online modules designed to educate the future workforce in transportation-related data analytics.