PSU national transportation center using $15.6M federal grant to research mobility, transit systems, travel patterns to build stronger communities
Author: Katy Swordfisk, PSU Media and Public Relations
Posted: April 8, 2019

As one of five national University Transportation Centers (UTC), Portland State University is at the center of mobility and transportation.

PSU is in a unique class with other U.S. Department of Transportation UTCs at Carnegie Mellon University, University of California, Davis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Virginia Tech. The UTC program awards grants to colleges across the country to advance transportation research and technology, and prepare the next generation of transportation professionals. 

Three years into a five-year, $15.6 million DOT grant, PSU’s Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) — through its National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC) — is funding projects in Portland and beyond that focus not only on transportation but how improved  mobility of people and goods can build stronger communities.

The five-year grant is awarded in smaller, annual pieces. This year, TREC is accepting proposals for a slice of a $2.8 million pie. Applications are due for this round in April with decisions tentatively scheduled for June. 

“We’re always striving for research that’s going to have an impact, that’s going to be useful to practitioners and policymakers in some way to help them make decisions,” said Jennifer Dill, director of NITC and TREC.

That also means encouraging PSU researchers to look beyond Portland, she said.

“As a national center, we really do try to push our researchers to make sure that what they’re doing has some national implication,” Dill said. “On the other hand, there’s so much innovative work being done in Portland and in Oregon that it provides a good place to do research.”

Dill is working on a project concerning transit-oriented development, for example. She’s trying to find out if the travel patterns of residents who live in transit-oriented residential developments now move differently.

TREC partners with the University of Oregon, Oregon Tech, University of Utah, University of Arizona and University of Texas at Arlington to conduct these different studies evaluating mobility.

“We complement each other very well,” Dill said. “It’s one of the things that we’ve always aimed to do with the center, is to really collaborate.”

The next research funding cycle for TREC from the $15.6 million DOT grant will kickoff in the fall.

Dill said she’s especially excited about new opportunities for partnership. Take the pooled fund program as example. TREC works with external partners who have research proposals to leverage funds and develop a collaborative project. 

One project is looking at cashless fare payment systems being used with transit and how to make those systems more equitable. 

Equity is particularly important to keep in mind, Dill said, as we shift toward new modes of transportation — like Uber or Lyft — that are provided by private companies who might not factor equity into their business plan. 

Studying mobility and equity can only go so far, however. Dill said they are always looking at new ways to communicate their research and inform policymakers about those findings.

TREC hosts Friday Transportation Seminars that consider subjects including e-scooters and the Cascadia Subduction Zone. They also host webinars, bring in guest speakers and support K-12 education, including free summer transportation camps for Oregon high schoolers.

Dill said they’re now looking to go yet another step further and ensure studies plan for technology transfer — which are plans to get research used in practice. 

Grant applicants now need to have an explicit plan to implement their research as well as methods to measure performance.

“We really want to make sure that the research is having the biggest impact that it can,” Dill said.