UA Establishes Transportation Research Institute

The University is bringing together an interdisciplinary team of researchers to address the many challenges of a rapidly evolving "transportation ecosystem."
May 17, 2016

The University of Arizona has established the new Arizona Transportation Research Institute, or AzTRI, equipped with the interdisciplinary expertise necessary to address the challenges of an ever-evolving transportation ecosystem with an eye toward partnerships and innovation.

AzTRI, operating under the UA's Office for Research & Discovery, includes researchers from across the UA campus. Ann Wilkey, a researcher with the College of Engineering, has been named associate director of the institute and will be working with experts including Larry Head, professor of systems and industrial engineering; Sally Stevens, professor of gender and women studies; and Jeff Burgess, associate dean for research in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

The institute has faculty from almost every college on campus. Also involved are the Eller College of Management, James E. Rogers College of Law, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, College of Optical Sciences, College of Science, and College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture. These representatives bring expertise in the diverse fields required to address the challenges of modern transportation.

Today, the "transportation ecosystem," as Wilkey refers to it, is much more complex than it ever has been. To be successful in creating innovative solutions to transportation problems, AzTRI needs to consider many facets of the problem simultaneously.

The average urban commuter in the United States lost 42 hours stuck in traffic last year, at an estimated cost of $160 billion, which includes lost productivity, fuel consumed while idling, and wear and tear on vehicles and roadways.

"Traffic congestion is at an all-time high. Commutes are longer, and air pollution has increased. I am thrilled that the researchers at AzTRI will be able to better the lives of Arizonans by creating innovative solutions to transportation problems," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, senior vice president for research at the UA. "This center will also be a place that industry partners can work with us to help solve some of these complex issues."

Head said the solution no longer is simply "building more roads."

Travelers have different needs and expectations. Innovations such as ride sharing have influenced the development of new transportation options and technologies. In addition, technologies are advancing and maturing to create connected and automated vehicles, along with connected infrastructure, a near-term reality that should make travel safer and more efficient.

"Driving is dangerous," Head said.

In 2015, there were about 34,000 fatal car crashes in the United States, and more than 3,000 of those were related to texting. If 34,000 citizens died in airline crashes annually, "we would ground the air fleets until we could guarantee safe flight," Head said.

Said Wilkey: "If your car could stop you from texting while driving, should it? Engineers can come up with that technology, but the question is 'Should we?' That becomes a legal question, an ethical question. Transportation is not just an engineering problem anymore."

The potential for funding in transportation is high. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, has allocated about $2.1 billion for research.

As the second state to authorize legislation for autonomous vehicle testing, Arizona now has the opportunity to create economic growth while addressing a national challenge. With AzTRI, the UA has positioned itself to lead these efforts.

AzTRI is one of two research institutes established this month at the UA. The Arizona Energy Institute recently was founded to address energy issues in a similar interdisciplinary fashion.