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U.S. Department of Transportation awards $1M grant to consortium including BYU

BYU, along with three other universities, will use the grant to research strategic implications of changing public transportation travel trends.

The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) awarded a $1M University Transportation Center (UTC) grant to a consortium of universities including BYU to study the challenges and opportunities facing public transportation in the 21st century. This UTC is one of four new UTCs which USDOT established to address the department’s strategic priorities over the next several years. 

This is the first time BYU’s College of Engineering has been invited to participate in a UTC project. Gregory Macfarlane, BYU Civil Engineering assistant professor, is spearheading BYU’s portion of the project. He was invited by the UTC director to collaborate on this project thanks to his research in models of transportation behavior.

The UTC, housed and led by the Georgia Institute of Technology in partnership with Brigham Young University, the University of Tennessee , and the University of Kentucky , will collaborate to further understand the strategic implications of shifting public transportation travel trends. 

The project is split into two areas of research: community analysis and modeling and simulation. Community analysis research will be managed by researchers from the civil engineering departments at Georgia Tech and University of Tennessee . They will work with transit agencies around the country to better understand how agencies are planning to deal with the challenges and opportunities of COVID-19, teleworking, ride-hailing, micro-transit and other related areas. 

Dr. Macfarlane and his BYU team will primarily be working on modeling and simulation. He will be collaborating with a team of civil and industrial systems engineers from Georgia Tech , the University of Tennessee and the University of Kentucky to use computational simulations to evaluate the strategies found in the community analysis research.

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Dr. Macfarlane conducts the majority of his research in the Transportation Lab at BYU (Dr. Grant Schultz and Transportation Lab pictured above).

While public transit agencies are expanding their operations through services like bus rapid transit (BRT) and microtransit, they are still facing competition from up-and-coming services like Uber, Lyft, and e-scooters. 

“Public transit is one of the only modes of transportation that can sustainably move large amounts of people in dense and growing urban areas,” said Macfarlane. “We hope that the center can create a sort of ‘menu’ of strategies that public transportation agencies and state and local governments might consider to keep public transit relevant deep into the 21st century.” 

Another major goal of this project is technology transfer, or taking the developed product and making it available to others for practical use. The developed models will be deployed in San Francisco and Salt Lake City. Additionally, the team is using open-source libraries and standards so practicing engineers can have access to the bleeding edge techniques. 

Dr. Macfarlane is excited about what the project could mean for BYU Civil Engineering. “Through our involvement in the center, BYU Civil Engineering students will see first-hand how technical methods like computer simulation interface with social issues like travel behavior and transportation policy,” said Macfarlane. 

He shared that the implications of this project reach far beyond those directly involved. Students will benefit greatly from the curriculum and knowledge-sharing that the UTC provides. The UTC will also be developing a series of public transit-based computer programming problems that will be used in a summer boot camp aimed at underprivileged high school students.

Students interested in getting involved and learning more about transportation policies like this can contact Dr. Macfarlane for more information.