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Turning Events into Transportation Experiments

Joseph Schofer says opportunities to experiment with transportation are all around us

Flash floods, heavy snowfalls, storm surges—extreme weather has the instant ability to test our transportation systems. It can highlight infrastructure weaknesses and probe our response mechanisms. According to Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil engineering in McCormick, some of the best transportation research comes from nature’s unplanned events.

“Learning opportunities are all around us,” he said. “But we let too many opportunities go by.”

In their recent article, “We Can Learn from That!,” Schofer and McCormick PhD student Raymond Chan urge academics, professionals, and government leaders to work together to create an experimental culture in transportation. By studying planned and unplanned changes in transportation, governments can learn what works and what does not and apply the findings to future events.

Joseph SchoferThe article was published in the spring 2014 issue of ACCESS, the magazine of the University of California Transportation Center.

Schofer and Chan note a resistance to study events as experiments as they might present new information that conflicts with an already established political position or public commitment to an idea.

“Politicians tend to self congratulate,” Schofer said. “They want to sweep failures under the rug; they don’t want to highlight mistakes. But if we could be honest about mistakes, then we can learn from them and ultimately improve transportation for everybody.”

Looking to and learning from history can greatly improve future responses. For example, when Superstorm Sandy devastated the New England coastline in October 2012, it claimed 286 lives and caused $68 billion in damage. As bad as it was, some assessments indicate that it could have been much worse. By learning from mistakes made during Hurricane Katrina, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority chose to shut down mass transit services in the face of the storm. It saved countless lives and dollars.

“New York made better choices by looking at how other transportation systems handled similar events,” Chan said. “We can look to other systems and pull together a collective experience to learn from.”

Schofer said other events, such as responses to gas tax increases, policy implementations, road closures, and construction disruptions, are fertile ground for transportation analysis. Failures and successes should both be viewed as opportunities for learning. 

In the article, Schofer and Chan call for cities to share archived transportation data to assess long-term outcomes and answer questions that may arise in the future. Data sharing allows researchers to analyze experiments and test findings.

“We do a poor job of taking advantage of learning opportunities,” Schofer said. “But what we learn from thoughtful analysis of experience can help us make better decisions in the future.”