Kelly Clifton on rethinking transportation and new role with Maseeh College
Author: Cristina Rojas, Institute for Sustainable Solutions
Posted: January 30, 2019

From walking and biking to driving and mass transit, Kelly Clifton studies how the design of cities affects people's daily transportation choices.

Her work in transportation, land use, and travel demand research has made the Portland State University civil and environmental engineering professor a go-to resource for cities locally and around the world as they begin to rethink their transportation systems to create communities that are more accessible, safe, livable, environmentally sensitive, healthy and economically vibrant.

Clifton, a faculty fellow in PSU's Institute for Sustainable Solutions and a core researcher with the Transportation Research and Education Center at PSU, was named the new Associate Dean for Research in the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science in December. 

Clifton, who has put research into action to help guide local and regional transportation and land use development, brings a wealth of experience, connections, and expertise to the new position.

She has worked with the Portland-area regional government Metro to develop better models for capturing trips that pedestrians make, and helped Portland Bureau of Transportation officials revamp their system to support more multimodal options like walking, biking and public transit, and shift to a person-first approach.

"The ways people relate to a particular land development are going to change, and when we over-design for one mode like a car, it makes it difficult to be flexible and adapt to new things," Clifton said. "But when we think about people first before we think about mode, we build an environment that can last for a very long time."

She said emerging technologies in transportation like autonomous vehicles, drones, and e-scooters has put new attention on the field.

"We have an opportunity as academics and practitioners to avoid making the same mistakes that we've made before," Clifton said. "When the new technology was the automobile, we totally transformed our cities to accommodate that technology. What's exciting now is that the conversation is changing to discuss how do new technologies fit into the kinds of cities that we want rather than letting the technology lead."

She says cities across the country are more engaged now with the kind of work she and others do.

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New role, new challenges

Clifton brought her expertise as both an engineer and urban planner to Portland State in January 2010 when she was hired by the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science. She says sustainability is central to PSU's mission and was a big draw for her. 

"I think ISS has been a really important convener on campus around all the different ways that we think about sustainability," said Clifton, whose hire was supported in part by ISS. "Our motto, 'Let Knowledge Serve' is part of our culture and sustainability goes very much along with that. I think the challenge now is to see what's the next phase of taking this mission of sustainability forward."

In her new role as Associate Dean for Research in the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, she hopes to work with leaders across campus to make more interdisciplinary connections, from partnering with multiple colleges and departments to offer degrees around sustainable development, to campus-wide speaker series and new courses that have wider appeal for both undergraduate and graduate students.

"Thinking about the next set of sustainability challenges worldwide, climate change is hanging over us every day and we have to think about how we can put that at the forefront of everything we do here," Clifton said. "It's not going to be easy, but I think there are a lot of people who are really committed to that and I'm one of them."

She will also work to elevate the college's research profile and help advance the college's new strategic vision

"The goal is to create new knowledge and to disseminate it and to have our great scholarship be known," Clifton said. "We're going to focus on the college’s new strategic vision as a guide and start to look for ways that we can work together on a big project, as a college, with other units, or the new research centers."