University of Minnesota Driven to Discover

The new Roadway Safety Institute, a $10.4 million regional University Transportation Center (UTC) established in late 2013, will conduct a range of research, education, and technology transfer initiatives related to transportation safety. Led by the University of Minnesota, the two-year consortium will develop and implement user-centered safety solutions across multiple modes.

The Institute will be a focal point for safety-related work in the region, which includes Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Other consortium members are the University of Akron, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and Western Michigan University.

Max Donath, professor of mechanical engineering at the U of M, serves as the new Institute’s director. In this month’s Catalyst, Donath shared his vision for the Institute.

According to Donath, the Institute will focus on addressing regional traffic safety priorities, educating the public, and attracting more professionals to the safety workforce by connecting with students.

Research topics will focus on two key areas, Donath said: high-risk road users and traffic safety system approaches. The goal of this work is to prevent the crashes that lead to fatalities and injuries on the region's roads.

One unique Institute effort will involve working with American Indian communities in the region to explore and address the unusually high number of motor vehicle crash fatalities on tribal lands.  "Our research will work to better understand why this is happening and to develop more effective solutions," Donath said.

Read the full Q&A in the April issue of Catalyst.


Along with warmer temperatures, April is a month to celebrate transportation, with Distracted Driving Month, National Bike to Work Day, and National Work Zone Awareness Week, which ends today.

University of Minnesota researchers have focused on work zone safety in a number of research projects. One current project is sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and led by civil engineering researcher Chen-Fu Liao. The goal of the project is to develop a smartphone app to assist pedestrians with visual impairments to navigate around work zones.

MnDOT to guide visually impaired through work zones with an app
KSTP, April 9, 2014

Other projects include:

See the full list of U of M work zone safety research reports and projects on the CTS website.

Bike to Work Day: progress in Minnesota, but miles to go

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30622_3.jpgBy Greg Lindsey

April 9 is national Bike to Work Day, a day to celebrate those who choose bicycling as their principal mode of transportation for commuting, and a time to encourage more people to consider this healthy, efficient transportation option. Minnesota has much to celebrate in terms of bicycle commuting. Bike-Walk Twin Cities and Transit for Livable Communities are wrapping up the National Non-Motorized Pilot Program, a federally funded program to demonstrate the potential to increase biking and walking through focused investment in infrastructure and other interventions. Bicycle commuting rates in Minneapolis have climbed to 4.5%, and Minneapolis now ranks 20th in the nation in bicycle commute share. This is a noteworthy achievement, especially considering our notorious winter weather.  These achievements, along with others such as the success of Nice Ride, our pioneering bike share program, have contributed to Minneapolis being named America’s most bike-friendly city by Bicycling Magazine.  Celebration of these achievements - which represent hard work by hundreds of individuals and thousands of commuters - certainly is warranted.

But we only need look across municipal boundaries to know we had better put more energy into encouraging bicycling than into celebration. Bicycle commute rates in St. Paul remain below 2% less than half the Minneapolis rate, and rates in most suburban, exurban, and rural communities remain even lower.  And the story remains essentially the same for all types of bicycle trips. Jessi Schoner, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Civil Engineering, is analyzing non-motorized mode shares for all trips recorded the Metropolitan Council’s recent Travel Behavior Inventory. Her analyses show that bicycling remains an urban phenomenon, with the share of all trips taken by bicycling highest in Minneapolis, followed by St. Paul, and then suburban and outlying communities. Why is this so? Better infrastructure no doubt is part of the reason, but there likely are other reasons, including housing patterns, access to employment, socio-demographic factors, and culture. Additional research is needed.

But this leads to additional reasons to be optimistic this Bike to Work Day: the commitments made by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to foster multi-modal transportation systems and the agency’s investments in research to increase understanding of bicycle traffic patterns. In 2013, as part of the Minnesota Bicycle and Pedestrian Counting Initiative, MnDOT funded the installation of the state’s first two automated, continuous in-street bicycle counters. These counters, which monitor bicycle traffic around the clock, 365 days per year, will provide new insights into the bicycle traffic volumes and their daily and seasonal patterns. While bicycle traffic monitoring in Minnesota is only in its infancy, it represents progress towards establishing the evidence base we need to determine how to make bicycling safer and to invest in bicycle infrastructure.   

And so celebrate this Bike to Work Day and thank your fellow Minnesotans for all they have accomplished. But also take time to reflect on the work that needs to be done to improve opportunities for cycling throughout the state, for we have miles to go. 

Greg Lindsey is a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. His areas of specialty include environmental planning, policy, and management. His current research involves studies of the relationship between the built environment and physical activity, specifically factors that affect the use of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. Lindsey presented some of his bicycle and pedestrian data collection research at the 2014 Minnesota Transportation Conference held March 4-6. 

Distracted driving: texting and beyond

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By Janet Creaser

teen.jpgMany drivers are likely to associate distracted or inattentive driving with cell phone usage, such as making calls or texting. Distraction due to calling and texting gets a lot of media attention and has inspired lawmakers to take notice. In Minnesota, texting is illegal for all drivers and making cell phone calls of any types, such as using a hands-free link through a vehicle or Bluetooth device, is illegal for teen drivers under the age of 18. However, cell phone use is just one of the more obvious forms of driver distraction. Driver distraction can be visual, cognitive, manual, or a combination of all three.

Texting involves all three forms of distraction: visual (looking at the phone and not the road), cognitive (mentally composing the message instead of processing roadway information), and manual (manipulating the phone keyboard instead of the steering wheel). This is why texting is considered to be a significant risk factor for drivers and why laws banning texting are becoming increasingly common in the U.S. Other tasks that involve visual and/or manual distraction include interacting with the radio, a navigation system, a mobile device such as an iPod, reading, eating and drinking. Although not all forms of distraction are equally distracting, all can be dangerous under certain circumstances.

Cognitive distraction can be more difficult for drivers to identify. Some forms of cognitive distraction include driving while preoccupied with other thoughts due to worry or stress, or when drivers end up “lost in thought.” Daydreaming or “being lost in thought” is estimated to be a factor in about 4% of crashes. Cognitive distraction can also occur during conversations with passengers or while interacting with a speech-activated interface in a vehicle (e.g., voice commands to make a call or send a text). When a parent turns around to talk to a child in the backseat, they are visually and cognitively distracted. In many cases involving cognitive distraction, a driver’s eyes are on the road but his or her mind is not, potentially resulting in impaired response times to driving events or hazards.

Driving researchers, practitioners, and safety agencies are all focused on better understanding the impact distracted or inattentive driving has on crash rates in order to identify countermeasures to reduce or prevent it. Distracted driving has become such a significant concern that the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) has set up, a website devoted to distracted driving. And here at the University of Minnesota, our HumanFIRST Laboratory investigates causes of driver distraction and ways to mitigate them.   

Janet Creaser is a research fellow at the University's HumanFIRST Laboratory and a CTS Research Scholar. Her research interests include examining driver distraction and driver responses to new road safety interventions, the development of driver support systems, and the effect of age on driver behavior, including the unique differences and needs of teen and elderly drivers.

Funding the nation’s transportation system using a per-gallon fuel tax worked well for decades. Now, however, the system is under severe strain, says Cornell University's Rick Geddes. Policies encourage motorists to drive more efficient vehicles, and people seem to be driving less. The fuel tax is not indexed to inflation, and its purchasing power has declined by about a third. Combined, these factors spell decreasing revenues just as investment needs are rising for our aging infrastructure.

Economists widely agree that switching to a system that charges per unit used—similar to how heat and electricity are paid for—is the best solution. The problem, Geddes says, is that a mileage-based user fee system "currently is a political non-starter." Geddes, a professor of policy analysis, developed a new approach for road pricing that he believes will make it more appealing: an investment public-private partnership (IP3) feeding a public trust fund. Geddes described the approach at the February 12 CTS Winter Luncheon in Minneapolis.

The IP3 generates large, upfront concession payments that monetize asset value through public-private leases. All or part of the concession fee would be paid into a permanent fund—a type of public trust fund—to capitalize it. "If invested wisely, the fund generates a dividend forever to all citizen-owners of the transportation facility," he said. The remainder of the fund could be used to develop road projects and alternatives such as transit.

U.S. interstates have enormous value, and the country's well-known system of property rights and contracting enforcement make the U.S. market extremely appealing for investors.

Geddes said that moving from theory to implementation would involve addressing a number of issues, such as subsidizing less marketable rural roads, sharing revenues across jurisdictions, and determining eligibility for dividends.

Read the full article in the March issue of Catalyst.


Photo: Cindy Zerger

Across the United States, the Complete Streets movement is becoming more influential in planning, design, and engineering. As part of this movement, a variety of jurisdictions are considering a more comprehensive range of modes and users in their systems.

To help Minnesota practitioners implement Complete Streets in their communities, researchers from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs have published a guidebook filled with insights and best practices. The guidebook—Complete Streets from Policy to Project: The Planning and Implementation of Complete Streets at Multiple Scales—explores what it takes to successfully move Complete Streets from concept to implementation.

The guidebook is based on research funded by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Minnesota Local Road Research Board. As part of the study, Associate Professor Carissa Schively Slotterback and research fellow Cindy Zerger investigated Complete Streets projects in 11 locations across the nation.

Drawing on documents, site visits, and interviews from each location, the guidebook explores policy, process, design, maintenance, and funding approaches. It includes sections that feature background information, details on the study’s methodology, and six best practice areas that range from project delivery to promotion and education. The guidebook also presents key examples in each best practice category.

This approach ensures that practitioners not only learn about the best practices, but also gain insight into the approaches that might be best for their particular context.

“We hope this guidebook will allow practitioners in Minnesota and other areas to learn from other cities, counties, and regions that are moving from Complete Streets concept to implementation,” says Zerger.

Read the full article in the March issue of Catalyst. 


Photo: SRF Consulting Group, Inc.

There’s broad agreement that the U.S. transportation system cannot continue to be funded with existing financing and revenue-generation methods. What’s unclear, however, is how to pay for highway projects in the future. The current transportation funding system emphasizes user fees, but there is growing interest in alternative funding strategies. One promising strategy is value capture, which aims to recover the value of benefits received by property owners and developers as a result of infrastructure improvements.

In recent years, University of Minnesota researchers have helped lead the way in value capture research with a series of reports identifying value capture strategies. In a newly published study, the research team applied their previous work to a real-world scenario, with impressive results.

The new research, sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, focused on the planned development of Trunk Highway 610 (TH 610) in Maple Grove, Minnesota—a stretch of planned state highway delayed for years by state transportation funding shortages. Researchers set out to discover how the value of the enhanced accessibility provided by the planned improvements could be predicted and captured to help fund the project’s completion.

To accomplish their goal, researchers first defined a study area of about 10 square miles surrounding the unfinished highway segment. Then, they modeled property values based on five factors using parcel-level data. This model was designed to isolate the so-called “highway premium” by controlling for other factors that affect land value including water views, open space, railroads, transit stops, and existing highway exits. Using this model, researchers found significant evidence that the completion of the highway could lead to an over $17 million increase in property value.

Researchers expect these findings to have significant benefits for the TH 610 project and beyond.

Read the full article in the March issue of Catalyst.


Capacity—too much of it, or too little—is a top concern in the freight industry, according to speakers at the 17th Annual Freight and Logistics Symposium in December.

In the keynote presentation, Rosalyn Wilson, senior 
business analyst with Delcan Corporation, said both ocean and air cargo have too much capacity. Throughout the recent recession, ocean carriers continued to order and float new megaships, creating problems with overcapacity and low pricing, thus raising solvency concerns and uncertainty for shippers.

On the air cargo side, 
overcapacity is due in part from
 airline passengers choosing to carry on their luggage rather than pay to have it checked. As a result, the cargo holds of passenger planes have extra space for premium air cargo— which is estimated to have about a 65 percent profit margin for passenger airlines, she noted.

On the flip side, trucking, which is the largest component of the supply chain industry, has operated at 95 to 97 percent capacity for the past three years. Wilson believes this capacity crunch will create major problems for the industry by 2016 and 2017.

Other speakers also noted capacity issues—whether a shortage of drivers or an abundance of data. Chip Smith, CEO of Bay and Bay Transportation, said a major issue is the ability to find and keep enough qualified drivers.

Jason Craig, government affairs manager with C.H. Robinson, said a particular challenge his firm faces is what to do with the massive amount of data available in the supply chain—and how to get more out of it.

Cargill’s Randy Brown, vice president of transportation and logistics, said Cargill is rolling out an improved global analytics capability to make use of its data.

Summaries of the presentations are in the symposium proceedings, available on the event web page.


In a keynote address at the American Public Works Association-Minnesota Chapter fall conference, U of M civil engineering professor Roberto Ballerini asserted that the nation's security depends on its infrastructure.

At one time, the United States had an infrastructure second to none, Ballerini continued. Today, that once-great infrastructure is deteriorating. "Hundreds of thousands of bridges are functionally obsolete... this is mediocrity, and the biggest problem with mediocrity is that people get used to it and think it's okay." How have we let this happen, he asked, when Americans are the richest they have ever been?

From 1982 to 2013, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the United States expanded from $3 trillion to $14 trillion, explained Ballerini. "In 1982, we spent about 4 percent of our GDP on infrastructure investment, but in 2013 our infrastructure investment was less than 2 percent of the GDP. China, one of our biggest [economic] competitors...spends around 10 percent of its GDP on infrastructure." For each year we wait to invest in our infrastructure, he added, the cost to improve goes up.

The solution comes down to prioritizing and long-term planning, Ballerini said. "Building infrastructure provides a positive return on investment
for our nation. It creates jobs and technical expertise."

Minnesota Representative Alice Hausman is no stranger to the roadblocks that have recently hindered infrastructure funding in Minnesota. Last year, she penned an unsuccessful $800 million bonding bill that contained several infrastructure projects around the state.

Hausman said she faced opposition from colleagues that thought too many of the projects were focused on the metro area. Furthermore, she explained, many metro-area residents believe the bulk of their taxes are spent funding projects in Greater Minnesota.

In the past, infrastructure was not a partisan issue because everyone understood the need, Hausman continued, but now infrastructure funding has become very politicized.

"There were visionaries and courageous leaders in the past," Hausman concluded. "Somehow we have to find that political will once again to get across all of the artificial boundaries and come together to invest responsibly in infrastructure."

Read the full article in the Winter 2014 issue of the LTAP Exchange.


Nearly every time a highway or airport expansion is proposed, transportation planners face opposition from residents who fear the increased noise levels in their homes and businesses. Traffic noise is often mitigated with physical noise barriers, but the large, thick walls often draw opposition as well.

A new technology developed by University
 of Minnesota mechanical engineering professor 
Rajesh Rajamani as part of 
a research project funded
 by the National Science
 Foundation could soon
 provide a nearly invisible
 solution for transportation 
noise cancellation—and 
give transportation planners another tool for overcoming project opposition.

Noise enters homes close to airports and highways primarily through windows, and windows can transmit ten times the sound energy as walls can, says Rajamani. With this in mind, researchers set out to reduce the amount of transportation noise transmitted through windows.

To accomplish this goal, researchers created a method of active noise control for windows. Active noise control works by using speakers to generate a sound wave that is a mirror image of the undesirable sound wave. Superimposing an "anti-noise" wave of the same amplitude as the undesirable noise wave results in a reduced decibel level of noise in the environment.

The research team began by designing thin, transparent speaker panels to fit in the empty space between the two panes of a double-pane window. Then, the researchers tested the effectiveness of the new speakers, using them to cancel out undesirable transportation noise from outside the home while preserving the desirable noise from inside the home.

In addition to mitigating traffic noise, this new technology offers other surprising benefits. Researchers have found that the "smart window" speakers can actually be used as home audio speakers without losing any of their noise-control benefits.

Read the full article in the February issue of Catalyst.

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