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Future Forward: Key Themes to Build Sustainable Transportation Networks

Todd Danielson on September 7, 2023 - in Articles, Profile

This particular interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can watch a video of the full interview above or by visiting bit.ly/447Hf1R.

Cathy Choi, PhD, is the chief sustainability officer and vice president of engineering at ClearFlame.

Backed by a PhD in mechanical engineering and three decades of experience in the energy and transportation sectors, Cathy Choi co-chaired a task force and helped create a report for the Engineering Research Visioning Alliance (ERVA) on “sustainable transportation networks” as well as the research needed to “forge a future system of transportation that is truly sustainable, fair and equitable for all communities.”

She defines a sustainable transportation system as one that doesn’t displace, or at least adequately provides, access to everyone. “We do that by ensuring we design for equity for every part of the system, whether it’s the different modes of transportation—rail, flight, vehicles—to infrastructure, which includes bridges and road systems as well as digital systems that support them.”

ERVA initiated this report because transportation is the largest user of energy in developed countries and the most rapidly growing energy consumer in developing nations—amounts that probably will double between 2015 to 2050. “Transportation activity is enormously impactful to the environment, people and communities we serve during the next 25 years,” adds Choi.

Priority Areas

The report identified three key themes on which to focus current and future research: 1) leveraging data to improve systems, 2) advancing the technologies we currently have to create versatile, sustainable materials, and 3) designing, not just adapting, transportation systems to be sustainable. 

Another recurring theme through her participation in the task force was the importance of urban planning. “A lot of times we get really deep into the technology, but it’s all really interconnected, making sure we get the voice of the customer,” she notes. “Urban planning is a large part of that—the collaboration among planners and engineers to meet local community needs. For me, it was really encouraging, the emphasis on human-centered design.”

Advice for Engineers

In terms of what engineers can do to help, Choi notes that the ERVA report is an excellent starting point. Many of its recommendations are familiar to engineers and their expertise, including data exploitation and designing for sustainable materials and uses. However, she cautions engineers to not forget about an element that may not come naturally to them: listening to the consumers and communities.

“Up-and-coming civil and structural engineers need to make sure that they don’t put at the ‘back burner’ the importance of the voices of businesses, customers and regulators,” she explains.

She cites bridge design as an example: “When we select the design and material used for construction of a bridge, engineers should consider the different vehicles that will use it now and in the future—whether it’s a personal car, bus, rail or walking—to make it sustainable,” adds Choi. “How are these different modes of transportation going to be powered and used?”

She also advises engineers to learn about system enablers, including sensors and models that provide valuable information. “Particularly for bridge technology, a sensor needs to be durable. It needs to be able to provide real-time information while being a cost-effective approach that’s extremely important to the design of your system and the solutions.”

Inspire Research

“This report aims to inspire our researchers today and in the future as well as those potential funding organizations, whether through public, private or nonprofit, so they support and pursue these research priorities we brought forward for engineering,” explains Choi. “By nature, transportation is interconnected. To avoid community silos, we need to be able to connect the communities. We’ll be able to build on these collaborative ecosystems that work for each individual community and then the larger communities as a whole.” 

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About Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson has been in trade technology media for more than 20 years, now the editorial director for V1 Media and all of its publications: Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping, and the video news portal GeoSpatial Stream.

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