A state partner of Portland State wants to make biking, riding and walking easier and safer. The Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium (OTREC) funds and manages the research behind Portland’s green bike boxes, and it pushes for more bike lanes, paths and public policies that allows Oregonians to walk from their homes to schools, work and groceries.
A federally funded program, OTREC is partnered with the following Oregon universities: Portland State, the University of Oregon, Oregon State University and the Oregon Institute of Technology. Every year OTREC receives $3 million from the federal government, which it matches with money from various sources including the involved universities, the City of Portland, Oregon Department of Transportation and faculty research grants.
The consortium’s interdisciplinary research informs transportation authorities in the best use of advanced technology-such as light rail systems-and how to support and encourage healthy communities. OTREC is one of 60 University Transportation Centers (UTC) sponsored by a U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) group called the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA).
The sponsorship efforts are ‘to increase the number of talented individuals working in the field of surface transportation,’ according to the 2008′-09 Annual Report.
OTREC is one of only 10 UTCs designated as a national center.
‘It’s getting a lot of national attention-USDOT uses OTREC as a model of successful UTCs,’ said Hau Hagedorn, research program manager of OTREC.
According to its stated mission, ‘OTREC is committed to providing relevant and high-quality research to assist local, state and regional agencies in their work and expanding the pool of highly trained graduates who choose to work in transportation-related fields.’
The most visible impact of OTREC can be seen all over town.
‘The city decided to install the bike boxes directly in response to the two fatal right-hook accidents that occurred nearly back-to-back a few years ago,’ according to Jon Makler, OTREC’s education and technology transfer program manager.
A second and highly valued part of OTREC’s mission is ‘to build upon our collective efforts and expertise to make Oregon a place where innovation, creativity and multidisciplinary collaboration on surface transportation research, education and technology transfer lead to more sustainable communities.’
It funds researchers in disciplines like urban studies and planning, computer science, civil and environmental engineering, business, geography, architecture and economics.
‘A lot of disciplines are necessary to better our understanding of current transportation related issues,’ Hagedorn says.
Last Fall, PSU hosted the first Oregon Transportation Summit, at which 200 transportation professionals and almost 50 of the 82 OTREC faculty partners attended.
One project, headed by Dr. John Gliebe, professor of urban studies and planning, developed a system to forecast travel that takes into account the ‘usage of bicycle infrastructure,’ such as bike lanes, paths and other peculiarities of bicyclists’ chosen routes. Most travel-forecasting systems, which local and regional governments use in the planning of roads, sidewalks, etc., assume that any given traveler will take the shortest path to a destination, an assumption that rarely holds true for bicyclists. Dr. Gliebe’s model accounts for bicyclists’ deviations from shortest routes in favor of routes with bike lanes and paths.
John Jeffrey Schnabel, associate professor of architecture, is looking into ‘capping’, the creation of space to covering existing freeways and rail yards. Often the created spaces are parks. In Seattle, Duluth, and Barcelona, capping has improved ‘walkability.’ Schnabel is investigating whether capping the Brooklyn Rail Yard in Southeast Portland could have similar positive effects.
Last August, Dr. Jennifer Dill, associate professor of urban studies and planning, became director of OTREC, after former director Dr. Robert Bertini moved on from OTREC to work as deputy administrator for RITA.
In a recent project, Dill examined ways in which governments can encourage and promote bicycling as a regular mode of transportation. While many Americans bicycle recreationally, very few commute on two wheels even though her study notes that 60 percent of personal trips are five miles or less.
Bicycling simultaneously reduces traffic problems and increases physical activity. Her research highlights the importance of bike lanes and protected boulevards in encouraging the use of bicycles for regular transportation. She also found that to increase bicycle use it is important to encourage a greater mix of land uses, such as combining residential and retail zoning to make errands via bike less daunting.
One of OTREC’s most significant accomplishments is the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) lab, which aims to save lives, time and money.
‘[Portland State’s] ITS lab is one of the only and best ITS labs in the country,’ According to Makler,
The ITS lab, an interdisciplinary effort, takes raw data provided by local transportation authorities like TriMet buses, traffic meters, on ramps and even some parking garages, and uses it to create arterial maps and models of traffic flow. The models the ITS lab help to determine things like: is mid-week traffic really better and how and when traffic back-ups occur.
This year, OTREC will fund 23 projects involving 18 graduate and seven undergraduate students. Also, OTREC funding has allowed OIT to offer a master’s in civil engineering, Makler said.
OTREC’s student of the year is Portland State’s Nathan McNeil, a master’s student in urban and regional planning. Currently, he is working with Dr. Dill and Dr. Christopher Monsere, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering to identify policies that improve active transportation-like bicycling and walking–outside of city centers.