Browse more profiles
Why How We Get Where We Are Going Matters
Why How We Get Where We Are Going Matters


Dr. Kelly Clifton wants to know where we are going and how we are getting there. She is one of a handful of researchers in the metro region with the skills, knowledge, and backing to turn information about the ways we get around into tangible improvements in transportation planning and infrastructure.

Portland is a great city for many reasons. One of those reasons is that it is an easy place to get around in. The blocks are short. Many neighborhoods either have or are not far from services like restaurants, grocery stores, entertainment, schools, and healthcare. Public transportation takes riders just about anywhere in town and the surrounding area. For those who do not own a vehicle, but want access to one, there are car sharing options. Bicycling Magazine named Portland America’s Best Bike City of 2012; the Huffington Post followed in suit in 2013. And Walk Score ranks Portland as the 10th most walkable city in the country. 

But like any town, Portland has room to improve its transportation infrastructure and services. Many residents are not well-served. Children walk to school on busy streets without sidewalks. Large swaths of outer NE and SE Portland lack bike lanes. And frequent stop bus lines are concentrated near to the city center.

That is where Dr. Clifton comes in. A mechanical engineer, urban planner, friend to bicyclists and pedestrians, promoter of sustainable transportation and social justice, Clifton joined the Civil & Environmental Engineering faculty in 2010. She is a Fellow in the Institute for Sustainable Solutions and Director of the Oregon Modeling Collaborative.  She works with transportation agencies, research centers, the city, metro, state, and the public to investigate the ins and outs of how people get around. Her studies inform planners and policy makers of the transportation desires, needs, and demands of the citizenry. Dr. Clifton is also an educator whose students are training to enter the transportation and planning sector workforces.

“I like working on problems with solutions that have positive effects on society,” Clifton said. “That’s how I got interested in transportation in the first place.”

Dr. Clifton’s research does not just ask where people make trips to and whether they are walking, riding a bike, taking public transit, or driving. She also gathers data that contextualize what people do at the end of the trips they make. She has asked trip makers whether they would have used a different mode of transportation if, say, it were safe to walk in their neighborhood, or if there were bike lanes on the road. 

She wants to know how much money people spend at their destinations, as in a study she conducted of consumer behavior and travel choices. In this Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium (OTREC) sponsored study, Dr. Clifton sought to provide information and context to questions concerning investments in multi-modal transportation infrastructure and the impacts of mode shifts on businesses’ bottom line.

“The business community is concerned that if we take out parking places and encourage people to travel by modes other than cars that might mean a loss in revenue,” Clifton said. 

“There’s a perception, a negative and untrue perception that people who bike, walk, or take transit don’t have the same economic buying power as people who come by car. So we did this study, going to restaurants, bars, grocery and convenience stores and asked people how they got there and how much they spent.”

Dr. Clifton’s study concluded that there wasn’t a significant statistical impact on the amount a consumer spent at restaurants, bars, and convenience stores when they arrived by transit, bike, or foot. The study also concluded that infrastructure matters: how close was a transit stop; was there a place to lock bikes; were businesses close enough to take alternate modes of transportation? When the CEO of convenience store chain Plaid Pantry saw from the results of Dr. Clifton’s study how much bicyclists were patronizing and spending at the stores, the company started adding more places for customers to park their bikes. Clifton noted, “That’s just one of the small changes our research can bring ab out.”

With Dr. Clifton’s research, there’s the possibility findings could lead to changes in transportation planning, policy, and infrastructure of the large and longitudinal scale. Two OTREC sponsored projects Clifton is currently working on fit that bill. In one, she is collaborating with Metro, Robert Schneider of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and Jennifer Toole of the Toole Design Group on the development of a tool planners could use for pedestrian planning in regional travel demand models. Clifton notes not only will the tool be useful for planning purposes, but it will also support sustainability, public safety in decision-making, and help Metro adhere to state laws meant to address climate change.

“We lack sophisticated models for forecasting demand for bicycle and pedestrian transportation infrastructure,” said Dr. Clifton. “The tools we do have aren’t on par with the level of sophistication we have for motorized models. Now the problem is, if we’re not really thinking about budgeting for different modes, it’s going to look like there is a greater demand for automobiles. We want to level the playing field between models for vehicles and other modes of transportation.”

In another project building on work previously sponsored by ODOT, Dr. Clifton is investigating how people’s lifestyle choices could be used in planning. By lifestyle choices she means where a person lives, how they get around, and what their preferences are for living and travel accommodations in the future. In the second phase of this study, Dr. Clifton proposes to examine if and how these lifestyle preferences change over time. If planners could track changing lifestyle preferences, they could alter their maps of the future city: adding to and detracting from residential population density, rezoning to better suit the public’s needs, and making changes to transportation infrastructure to better suit transit choices.

“This project is looking into what people are interested in,” Clifton said. “We’re particularly interested in the Millennials who appear to have a slightly different trajectory than people in other cohorts; they’re buying fewer cars, driving less, staying in cities longer, waiting longer to get married, and having children later. On the other end of the spectrum, we know Boomers are interested in downsizing and moving back to the city. The question for planners is: are we in these trends for the long haul, or are they temporary?”

Urban planners bear the burden of needing to see into the future. Unfortunately for them, there is no crystal ball. Land use policy and investments in infrastructure today will shape the livability, sustainability, and economic vitality of Portland for decades to come. This is why how we get where we are going matters: the choices planners make today shape the city we will experience in the future. With the quantitative and qualitative tools of civil engineering, urban planning, and public, private, and community participation, Dr. Clifton can provide planners and policy makers with the data they need to make informed decisions about the infrastructure and services needed to get people in Portland safely where they need to go by whatever means they choose to get there.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted April 3, 2014