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Center Aims to Advance Sustainable Transportation

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The National Center for Sustainable Transportation, based within the University of California, Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies, will focus on zero-emission vehicle and fuel technologies; low-carbon infrastructure; low-impact travel and sustainable land use; and institutional changes that will promote sustainable surface transportation. Wikimedia Commons/Roman Boed

A consortium led by U.C. Davis has received U.S. DOT grant money to found the National Center for Sustainable Transportation.

October 1, 2013—The University of California, Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS-Davis) announced last week that it had founded a new research consortium, the National Center for Sustainable Transportation, funded in part with a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The center has been designed to improve the transportation community in general and help the DOT meet its strategic goal of environmental sustainability; it will do so initially by mobilizing research teams to explore how various methods of surface transportation can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the effects of climate change. The center also represents how U.C. Davis and the consortium members would like to see civil engineering training redefined for future generations.

“Today’s engineering students need a new kind of training that will enable them to effectively contribute to efforts to improve the environmental sustainability of our transportation system,” said Susan Handy, Ph.D., a U.C. Davis professor of environmental science and policy who will be the director of the center, in written responses to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. Handy is also the director of the U.C. Davis Urban Land Use and Transportation Center.

The sustainability center, she said, “will be developing a model curriculum on sustainable transportation [that] universities may draw from in updating their own curricula. Most importantly, we need to take a more interdisciplinary approach to transportation education,” Handy said.

Additional consortium members that will support the center’s activities through their existing transportation research centers are the University of California, Riverside; the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles; California State University, Long Beach; the University of Vermont; and the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

The center will be housed under the umbrella of ITS-Davis, and its network of members will generate research, tools, and real-world strategies that can be delivered to state departments of transportation, metropolitan planning organizations, and local governments.

Research supported by the center will focus on environmental sustainability with the goal of balancing environmental, economic, and social equity needs, Handy pointed out—the approach known as the “triple bottom line.”

“The transportation field has made much progress on addressing environmental impacts, particularly for air quality, but has only just begun to tackle the climate change challenge,” Handy said. Initial research efforts will focus on four main areas: zero-emission vehicle and fuel technologies; low-carbon infrastructure and efficient system operations; low-impact travel and sustainable land use; and institutional change, particularly within federal, state, regional, and local agencies. The work will focus specifically on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from passenger and freight transportation across multiple transportation methods, Handy said.

“The transportation sector has been very resistant to innovation and to change, and that’s a larger overarching theme that we’re addressing—how do you accelerate innovation in the transportation sector,” says Dan Sperling, Ph.D., a professor of civil engineering and environmental science and policy and the director of ITS-Davis, who will serve as the new center’s executive director.

While some of the strategies that will be explored by the center are well known—plug-in electric vehicles, which can reduce transportation costs and emissions, for example, and mixed-use developments that encourage walking and bicycling instead of driving—others, such as the focus on broadening the scope of education related to transportation, are not.

“From a university pedagogical perspective, transportation education has been rooted in civil engineering in the past, [and] all we need to do is broaden that,” Sperling says. “We have to broaden the education [and] we have to broaden the types of people and skills that are involved in transportation.”

While the initial $5.6 million in funding provided by the DOT covers two years, Sperling notes that the center hopes to receive additional federal funding in later budget cycles. The initial federal grant will be matched with $5.6 million from state, regional, and local agencies.

Environmental sustainability is one of five major goals that the DOT presented in its strategic plan for 2012-2016. More information is available in its fiscal plan, Transportation for a New Generation.



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