Research Driving Transportation Improvements
As Americans prepare to hit the road in large numbers this summer, drivers in the Commonwealth can enjoy the relative safety of Massachusetts roadways thanks to the leadership of the UMass Transportation Center (UMTC).
Since 1994, UMTC has led research and training in a broad range of transportation-related areas, ranging from road safety and operations to human factors to the relationship between transportation and climate change.
Housed in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s College of Engineering, UMTC is comprised of a core group of 11 faculty from several departments, as well as a team of 20 full-time employees. UMTC has also built a network of nearly 150 affiliated researchers from universities primarily around Massachusetts and New England, offering stakeholders streamlined access to research support and collaboration across diverse areas of expertise.
While UMTC has grown and expanded its research portfolio over the years, its mission has remained the same: to improve transportation mobility and safety for the benefit of all citizens of the Commonwealth. In 2023, UMTC became the administrative home for the New England Region's University Transportation Center (NEUTC), which UMass was chosen to lead by the U.S. Department of Transportation under a five-year, $15 million grant. The goal of the centers is to advance state-of-the-art transportation research, technology and safety.
UMTC is well known for its traffic safety and operations program, known as UMassSafe. In general, this research follows a three-step progression: Researchers analyze traffic data to understand existing patterns; develop counter measures and test them out in simulations; and collaborate with government agencies to implement changes and test them out in the field.
Using a myriad of data sources, including a data system containing every traffic crash and citation issued in Massachusetts going back decades, UMTC researchers analyze patterns, often linking different data sets, to develop a complete picture of conditions leading to crashes. Through this work, they have also become leaders in data quality, recommending improvements to crash report forms to improve the quality of data collected, said Michael Knodler, Jr., UMTC director and associate dean of research and graduate affairs in the College of Engineering. UMTC also hosts national summits on improving traffic safety practices.
Much of the traffic safety research focuses on human factors, such as driver comprehension.
Knodler explains, “When a driver experiences a sign or a traffic signal, what is their level of understanding? How do they interpret and respond to it? Now, we’re doing a lot of that same work with automated vehicles. If person is driving a car with self-driving capabilities, how do they interact with that vehicle?”
For this work, the driving simulator technology in the Arbella Insurance Human Performance Lab (HPL) is key. “Within the lab we have a full car in which drivers interact with a virtual world ‘outside’ on screens. We can use it to design and test any situations we want,” said Knodler.
When the Big Dig was being developed in Boston, the team built a scale model of it in the driving simulator to test out the driving experience. This provided useful insights that ultimately led to changes in signage configuration to improve driver experience and safety.
UMTC researchers also conduct simulation studies with specific populations, including new drivers, older drivers, and drivers with medical conditions such as ADHD. They’ve also have studied the effects of alcohol on driving along with how advanced technology (e.g., automated vehicles) changes driver behavior.
“The driving simulator has been immensely useful in doing experiments with these vulnerable groups and risky driving situations because it allows for a safe environment to test different vehicle and roadway designs without the risk of a crash,” said Shannon Roberts, assistant professor in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and co-director of the Human Performance Lab.
Finally, the researchers test out their simulation-based findings in the field, using technology such as mobile Lidar, which uses remote sensing to produce 3D models of the surrounding infrastructure. These infrastructure data then serve as the basis for further research to address pressing issues in transportation and beyond, like connectivity, accessibility, and equity for all road users.
For example, PhD student Emily Hennessy is currently using sidewalk infrastructure data from several large cities to research the reduced sidewalk connectivity available to pedestrians with mobility impairments. “The first step of addressing structural inequities is highlighting where and to what extent they exist,” Hennessy said. “I’m hopeful that this research can make progress towards identifying and prioritizing this accessibility issue.”
UMTC works closely with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), carrying out applied research to meet the department’s identified needs. As one important example, UMTC helped develop the Commonwealth’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan, intended to reduce highway fatalities and serious injuries. UMTC also helps host two major MassDOT conferences every year, with each convening around 1,000 people: a MassDOT Transportation Innovation Conference, and a “Moving Together” conference, which focuses on pedestrian, bicycle, and public transportation.
Preparing Tomorrow's Transportation Workforce
Workforce development is a key focus area for UMTC. The center offers numerous training and education programs to prepare UMass Amherst students and the members of the public alike for careers in transportation. Undergraduate and graduate students in the College of Engineering can take transportation courses, and master's students pursuing degrees in civil engineering may specialize in transportation.
Through its Baystate Roads program, UMTC offers technology transfer training to municipal Departments of Public Works employees across the state. Other programs train both public and private employees in technical, safety, and personal development skills. The On-the-Job Training grants program helps people from underrepresented groups achieve employment in transportation.
“We meet folks where they’re at and help prepare them for a career path, whether it’s doing pavement inspections or building roads with a construction agency, or getting commercial driver’s licenses,” said Knodler.
The Road Ahead
Nearly three decades in, UMTC continues to expand its scope to address emerging areas in transportation, from automated vehicles to the impacts of legalizing recreational marijuana. The intersection between climate change and transportation is also a major area of concern—whether designing roads and bridges that can withstand more extreme storms or promoting reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. UMass is also one of the few universities to offer a course on pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.
In recent years, UMTC has also developed new programs in air transportation. In April 2022, it celebrated the opening of a new Aviation Research and Training Center at Westover Municipal Airport in nearby Chicopee, Mass. A state-of-the-art, 360 degree 3-D simulator reproduces the experience of being in an air traffic control tower for research and training purposes. Longer term, UMTC plans to offer academic programs in air transportation, Knodler said.
Additionally, UMTC, along with partners from several other departments on campus, has established a new UMassAir program, as incubator for the adoption of Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UAS), or drone technology. This program provides workforce training in operating UAS technology and explores research applications, ranging from bridge and pavement inspections to precision agricultural and remote sensing.
“We’re able to capture a lot of high-quality data relatively quickly in places that can be difficult to access otherwise,” said Knodler.
Finally, UMTC is exploring issues of transportation equity—a longstanding concern that is only recently emerging as an area of focus. For example, the city of Boston is starting to make certain bus routes free to ensure all residents have their basic needs met. There are also discussions about using scooters or e-bikes to transport people the last mile after public transportation.
“We need to make sure we’re serving people equitably. At the end of the day transportation is really about connecting people with opportunities,” Knodler said.
This story was originally published in June 2022.