S1E1: What are CUTR and NICR?
Guests: Xiaopeng “Shaw” Li, Ph.D., NICR Director, Susan A. Bracken Faculty Fellow, Associate Professor; Fred L. Mannering, Ph.D., CUTR Executive Director, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Producers: Wayne Garcia, Blake Smallen, and Christina Loizou
Announcer: The following research is part of the National Institute for Congestion Reduction funded by the United States Department of Transportation through the University Transportation Center program. Learn more at www.nicr.usf.edu
Wayne Garcia: Welcome to Out of My Lane, a podcast of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. I'm Wayne Garcia, your host. This podcast is devoted to making your time getting from point a to point B more efficient and more enjoyable. Each episode will look at a different aspect of mobility and transportation, as we examine ways to make traffic less congested and travel options more plentiful and safe. Our guests today are two researchers from the USF Center for Urban Transportation Research, C U T R you'll commonly hear that called CUTR. And they are Dr. Fred Mannering and Dr. Shaw Li. Fred, Shaw. Thanks for being with us.
Dr. Fred Mannering: It's great to be here.
Dr. Xiaopeng Li: Yeah. Thank you.
Wayne Garcia: Today in this podcast, which is our first episode of Out of My Lane, we want look at what CUTR does and how it helps drivers, not only in the Tampa Bay region, but everywhere. And also, now CUTR is participating in part of a larger project and grant called "NICER" NICR.
Wayne Garcia: And we'll get to that in just a bit. Let me tell you about my guests. Dr. Mannering is the executive director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research, and he is a USF College of Engineering professor of civil and environmental Engineering. His research interests are the application of statistical econometric methods to data relating to highway safety, transportation, economics, travel behavior. That's interesting. I want to come back to behavior, and then a variety of engineering related problems. Dr. Shaw Li is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and affiliated with CUTR. He serves as the director of NICR here, which is a US Department of Transportation National University Transportation Center and NICR, N I C R. I know it sounds like I'm nicer than you, right. But, it is the National Institute for Congestion Reduction because if you're listening to this podcast, I know that you've sat in congestion before. You're probably sitting in it right now because people listen to podcasts in their cars. So here on Out of My Lane, I like to start each episode with asking you all, what is your daily commute? Like, let me start with Shaw Li. Dr. Li, your commute to every. Now, obviously in the pandemic, we weren't commuting, right? at all. Are you back to commuting and what is your commute like?
Dr. Xiaopeng Li: Yes, I commute a few days a week and I primarily drive to the university. And it's about 20 to 30, some minutes, depending on the traffic.
Wayne Garcia: And, what are you driving? If I can ask.
Dr. Xiaopeng Li: I just drive a regular passenger car, Sedan.
Wayne Garcia: Okay. All right. And, Fred Mannering, what's your commute like?
Dr. Fred Mannering: Well, yeah, I should mention before moving to Florida, I came from West Lafayette Indiana, which I had like a five-minute commute. So I didn't have to think. So when I came here, I'm like 18 miles away from the university. I live in Odessa. At first that it was a 35, 40-minute commute. I found it very frustrating because it was much longer than I was expecting. But after about three or four months, I got very used to it. And now, during the pandemic, when I didn't have to come in to work, I would just drive my car around to, because that's the commute time is a time to unwind if you pick the right roads. And the roads that I pick are usually these two-lane roads that are off the beaten path. So it's a very low stress and actually quite enjoyable time. And my commuting time is quite enjoyable.
Wayne Garcia: Let me start off with I guess the, the bigger picture CUTR has been around for, you know, quite some time in doing this research and it is I guess we could call it interdisciplinary multidisciplinary. Although you, two gentlemen happened to be engineers. I, I was struck by that behavior piece because this is not just an engineering problem of trying to deal with traffic. It's, you know, there's a behavioral component too. So, Fred, tell me what CUTR's mission is and, and how it goes about doing that.
Dr. Fred Mannering: Great. Let me give you a little background. CUTR was established in 1988 by the Florida Legislature and it also established an Advisory Board, which is instrental in guiding CUTR through various aspects of its research. It's founding director was Gary Brosh. We have excellent facility on the USF campus that was built in 1995.
Dr. Fred Mannering: So it took us a couple years from 88 to 95 to get in that facility. And we currently have about 200 faculty, students and staff that work in CUTR. So the objective of CUTR is to solve a lot of transportation related projects. And this includes not just highway modes, but rail. We do a lot of public transit, obviously that was our initial goal being urban transportation. We did have a strong focus on public transit, but we are here to help the State of Florida in almost any imaginable transportation related problem that would come up.
Wayne Garcia: Is there, is there any single project that, you know, drivers might know or an improvement and things that you all have looked at that they have no idea that you were looking at?
Dr. Fred Mannering: Well, there's probably, I mean, there's probably so many, it would be hard to pick one out. I mean, we do, you know, motorcycle safety, you know, maybe something you wouldn't think about immediately as something under CUTR's domain, but it's, I mean, you can imagine, in the 30 plus years that CUTR has been in existence, we've done almost everything. So almost any, any road you go on in Florida has been touched by CUTR in some sense.
Wayne Garcia: How do y'all go about deciding of all the various pieces that go into traffic and congestion and mobility and multimodal means of traveling. How, how do y'all decide what you're looking at and what you can't look at because there's just so much.
Dr. Fred Mannering: Well, the, yeah, the primary motivation is CUTR is funded, externally. So, our sponsors determine what is important. I mean, we, we advise them, we can give them some ideas. Maybe we should look at this or that, but at the end of the day, what we decide to work on is governed to a large extent by government policy.
Wayne Garcia: Yeah. Yeah. And is it mostly government, is, is the client as it were, or are there private organizations that are just as devoted or even corporate interests, devoted to traffic?
Dr. Fred Mannering: Yeah, there, there are some, what CUTR does is mostly Florida Department of Transportation and the US Department of Transportation. So, it is mostly government, but there are some private projects that we do occasionally, but we're primarily, if you look at our budget, I'm guessing it's like 90, 95% is government driven at some level.
Wayne Garcia: So now that we know what CUTR is, let let's talk a little bit about NICR which is really the program that we are doing this first season of, Out of my Lane about because USF is part of this larger research effort. So. How do we get involved in this program from the USDOT to reduce congestion?
Dr. Xiaopeng Li: Sure. Maybe I can first explain what NICR is. NICR the full name is National Institute for Congestion Reduction and it is a National University Transportation Center. Enacted by the 2018 preparations bill, associated with a FAST act. It came with a three-year funding and every year the federal gives us about 2.5 million and we have a 2.5 million, local match. And that's gonna come up with a series of projects we've already issued about 40 projects in research, education and outreach. And these projects are conducted by about 60 faculty members from four member universities. They include USF being the leading institution, also UC Berkeley, Texas A & M, and the University of Puerto Rico - Mayagüez, so we're actually doing a lot of work about understanding the congestion, finding the innovative solutions to reduce congestion and doing education and outreach to have our solutions being heard and possibly being implemented by governments and industry.
Wayne Garcia: Yeah. How much does government industry listen to your kind of research? I would imagine in some fields, not so much, but in this field, it's gotta be quite a bit, right? Because you know, they're not doing the research, they're doing the construction for the most part.
Dr. Xiaopeng Li: Sure. So, I think, you know, transportation is a notion that is broader than just a constructing infrastructure. And it's also about how to manage and maintain the system including. Not only infrastructure, but also vehicles and users and human beings. Right. So, and we actually have very good partnerships with government, you know. As Fred mentioned, you know, NICR is also a component of CUTR and many of our research projects are integrated. And we have 100% local matching most of comes from state DOTs and when, when we actually develop the research project portfolio, we actually consolidated and communicated, frequently with the local government and, tried to use our, like intellectuals to, understand the problems of their concern and try to find the solutions. And, and also we have, some collaborations with, local industry, many of them are about the consulting firms, you know, helping the governments realize and implement, the, the projects, you know. Both government and industry, personnels have been involved in our, projects and stakeholders or, matching providers. That way we will ensure that our project is not just to doing fundamental research, but also having a significant component of the tech transfer and implementation.
Wayne Garcia: So how much does the US Department of Transportation sort of give you a laundry list of things that they would like to see researched, addressed, fixed? Versus it's a wide umbrella under congestion reduction. So how much of it is in your purview to say, "Hey, these are the things we think will make the biggest difference." Is, is that a blend of, of their thoughts and your thoughts, or do you have a lot of control in terms of where the research agenda goes?
Dr. Xiaopeng Li: Sure. Actually these, University Transportation Centers start at,
Wayne Garcia: Can you give us a couple examples of, of, of, you know, the, maybe the most interesting or promising, areas of research that, are, are going on right now will be going on under the NICR program?
Dr. Xiaopeng Li: Sure. So, one aspect is about to utilize data on your stand, that congestion, you know, we're in the era of,
Wayne Garcia: So much data, right?
Dr. Xiaopeng Li: Yeah. Data, say big data and the transportation has changed a lot, in its landscape over the past a few decades in terms of, the technologies of, obtaining data and understanding the data. So, there are different transportation sensors. Some are instructed by public agencies like Florida DOT, city, and, some are provided by the industry players, like, those, trajectory data from, here and, TomTom. So, these data could be used to where we will understand, what has happened, what is happening and what will happen about the traffic systems. So that's actually one area we focus on. Another area is utilizing, you know, advanced methods, tools, and, options to manage, traffic congestion. For example, we have, a leverage, smartphone based app called One Bus Away. And that is an app to provide user's information about the transit bus and encourage the ridership of transit to, and as you see more people ride transit, then we will have less congestion and we have also projects about transit priority, how to coordinate transit buses with signals to have them travel faster. And if we have seen faster transit buses, we're gonna have more people willing to take buses and that's gonna reduce congestion consequentially.
Wayne Garcia: So many moving pieces of this and so much cool stuff y'all can find out if you. If you could just figure out why when I go home on I 275, at the end of the day, that middle lane is always faster than the fast lane on the left. That would be an innovation I'd be interested in. I have my theories. We'll talk later. How much, you know, I think people think about traffic in terms of, you know, the roadway. Like we need some more lanes here, like a physical thing, but we've already touched on that and you touched on it too. There's a behavioral piece. So you have behavioral researchers who are engaged in this. And I'm thinking that, there's, there's obviously a climate change piece of this as well, a motivation, because if you're sitting in a traffic jam, your, you know, your hydrocarbons going up in the air are gonna be, enormous. Are, are all of those pieces envisioned as, as part of the benefits of, of NICR?
Dr. Xiaopeng Li: Yes, exactly. The behavior component is, you know, important because essentially, you know, we involve lots of the humans. The, they are drivers, they're riders. They're all, even if they don't drive or ride, they're impacted by transportation activities, you know, one thing that you mentioned is about sustainability or climate, you know, transportation contributes to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, and also transportation related activities, probably consume about 70% of petroleum oil products. So we have a huge impact about, energy and emission air quality is greenhouse gas. So if we can better manage a traffic congestion, we will, also, reduce, the emissions, the energy consumption and that's gonna benefit to the, environment and the climate change, overall.
Wayne Garcia: How much of, how much of NICR looks at, and I know your personal research agenda is in this area of what I think has sort of the futuristic stuff, the self-driving vehicles, the you know, the, chain together self-driving units, you know, in, in improved trains and, you know, the old sort of magnet levitations systems ... does NICR consider all that as well? In terms of like, really what does this brave new world look like?
Dr. Xiaopeng Li: Yes, that's definitely the important component of NICR technologies. As I said, the technologies have changed a lot of the transportation landscape,
Wayne Garcia: Do you, do you see a future in, in our lifetime where people are not gonna have their hands on a steering wheel as the primary way of, of being and going somewhere, whether it's an automated, driving vehicle or a boss, a transit system, connected vehicles. Is, is that, is that our future in 20, 30 years?
Dr. Xiaopeng Li: Yes, I think I personally, I think that's gonna be our future and confident that we're gonna see that they come in. You know, actually there are already lots of the pilot projects that have demonstrated some, prototype technologies. You know, some, some of those are just a shuttle buses, you know, just to ride on a shuttle bus, you don't see a driver, but there might be one monitor to, you know, have like a computer game handle to monitor that vehicle just in case something goes wrong. And we also, if you're, I'm not sure if you, have visited Phoenix, recently, recently or not. VMO, which is previously known as Google car, they have, like regular operations of, of vehicles, other driver, you know, you, you can just use their app to help the vehicle and the vehicle will park it right at the curbside. You can in, there is no driver in it, but you can communicate with a remote operator and that vehicle will send your from point A to point B in Phoenix, within a certain geo fenced area. Of course, we, we should understand, you know, in order to widely deploy this technology, there could be still some, you know, obstacles and takes some time, particularly for all kinds of conditions. You know, I, I would say like a few years ago, like people were really confident. They were saying that, you know, if you read newspapers back that time, you would see reports like, you know, we're gonna see one hundred million vehicles running completely autonomously without drivers in the Europe, in the year 2020. But now this is already 2022. We haven't seen that happen. Now, there, there, there's always like hypes and, you know, settling down and then, you know, it's just like a, a stock market. It, It has some oscillations, but eventually it's gonna grow there. I think there are, we see that right now, the industry gets serious and they have, you know, the governments get serious and people are more receptive to that, that idea. And we see all sectors of the of society are moving towards that, direction. And I'm, I'm pretty confident that that will happen sometime in the future.
Wayne Garcia: Yeah, I think, I think those technologies have already outstripped or, or outpaced, shall we say the behaviors of people or at least the understandings of people? I haven't been to Phoenix, but I just was in Las Vegas and I took, Elon Musk's little, piece of a loop that's designed to be even bigger. And, you know, it's really interesting that the design is that, self-driving electric vehicles, will be able to take, you know, groups of two or three, in very narrow tunnels and so I was like, "Oh, I gotta try this. I gotta get, you know..." I was out there for a conference and went in there and there's a driver and I'm like that kind of, and they, so the thing is that Nevada state law hasn't caught up and allow driverless entirely driverless vehicles. So, we don't quite have, like in the movie Total Recall the Johnny cab yet, yet we'll say, we'll say yet. So. It wrapping up then, we've got this tremendous resource, here in Tampa, but all, all over the United States and in, and in Puerto Rico with researchers doing this work, I'll, I'll sort of end it with like, you know what, what's your dream outcome of, of, of this NICR program. I'll start with Shaw. And then I, I want to ask Fred as well. What do, what, what do you wanna see? What do you envision?
Dr. Xiaopeng Li: Yeah, I, I want to say that from a several aspects, first of all, so we could get a really better understanding of the systems. You know, we can really provide a new knowledge for us to understand, what a congestion really is and, what, causes congestion and, you know, what are the possible ways of looking into, the congestion management and secondly is about implementation and tech transfer. I would hope to see that governments and industry will utilize the products and outcomes of the NICR research and, and education activities. You know, improve their practice and,
Wayne Garcia: And Fred what's, what's a win in NICR look like for, for CUTR
Dr. Fred Mannering: You know, I think NICR, in addition to providing, you know, multiple sort of what I would call short term solutions to congestion reduction, the longer term solution that was touched on here is the fully autonomous vehicles, right? Cause that not only would that potentially reduce congestion substantially, but safety, is a, you know, is a big concern and that has the potential to you'll really get us to near zero, fatalities and injuries on the highway. But there with that said, when you think about next 10 or 20 years, when you have a mix of autonomous vehicles and human vehicles, it's gonna be an amazing time to research, but how human react to autonomous vehicles is going to astonish. Behavioral scientists. And so we are gonna have a 10 to 20 year period where the, you know, studying the interaction of autonomous vehicles and human driven vehicles is gonna be fascinating. But once we get to fully autonomous then becomes just an engineering problem. And you know, what sort of distinguishes transportation engineering from other engineering fields is we have to deal with the human element, right? Cause when you're building a building, you can design, you know, just for seismic events or whatever. But when you're designing a transportation system, you have to consider how humans are gonna respond. And that makes it a challenge, but it also makes it fascinating in many respects.
Wayne Garcia: Oh, that's great. Well, thank you for both joining us today. Out of My Lane this season, our first season, is devoted to looking at all of the great research being done at CUTR and especially that being done through the NICR program. And so each episode, going forward, we'll focus on one of the many things we touched on here today. All kinds of really cool innovations and just insights into things that a lot of us just take for granted in terms of our day-to-day life. I'm Wayne Garcia, and on behalf of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida, thanks for listening. We'll see you next episode.
Announcer: The National Institute for Congestion Reduction, NICR, is a Transportation Research Center focused on innovative congestion strategies. The center is composed of researchers from the University of South Florida, the University of California, Berkeley, Texas A & M University, and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez and funded by the United States Department of Transportation.
Announcer: For more information, please visit www.nicr.usf.edu