Whether gathering data in the field or analyzing it in the lab, MU’s civil engineering’s transportation research team works to make our mobile lives smarter, safer and more economical.
MU Civil Engineering’s transportation research group is a data-driven dream team that handily tackles projects with local, state, national and international significance, many with life and death issues at their crux. Five faculty members, a program coordinator and 30 graduate and undergraduate students — give or take a few — gather and crunch the numbers on research that runs the gamut from safety to technology and into fields few would associate with transportation.
Members of MU’s transportation faculty serve on National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board (TRB) Committees and national grant panels. They are journal editors and advisers and have won best reviewer awards. Additionally, they are leaders in both their regional and national professional associations.
Team transportation meetings are held on Fridays. Discussion ranges from updates on progress and needs to workload adjustments and assignments to accommodate the many research projects team leaders have netted, worth $2.5 million over the past two years. Accolades for accomplishment and work well done are also on the agenda.
The diverse backgrounds and experiences of those leading the team make them a good choice for a variety of agencies looking for answers to transportation issues. Among many others, they have received research support from Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and other state DOTs; National Science Foundation; National Highway Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP); Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The team’s research results often are presented at TRB conferences and published in TRB journals as well as other international, peer-reviewed journals. They have been the state’s main contributor to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Official’s (AASHTO) Highway Safety Manual.
Besides solving problems or thoroughly evaluating the statistical knowns and unknowns posed by each project, the work gives students on the team experience with far-reaching, real-world transportation issues, an inordinate number of whom garner research paper and poster awards at transportation conferences. Additionally, the diversity of team members adds up to an excellent and unique set of transportation electives that is perhaps unlike any transportation program in the nation.
Current projects include the evaluation of innovative highway interchanges; highway and work zone safety; intelligent transportation systems; network vulnerability; public works; pedestrian and bicycle transport issues; and disaster response planning, among others.
Meet the team
Mark Virkler, who joined the department in 1978 as an assistant professor, now serves as department chairman for civil and environmental engineering. He is a national expert on pedestrian and bicycle safety. When he first joined the department, there was one other faculty member on the transportation team, and when his colleague retired, Virkler did it all.
“As a single researcher, I recruited and taught both undergrads and grads and tried to build enough content for a graduate degree,” he said.
As department chair, he is less active on the research side of the program, but he can take some credit for building MU’s transportation team and the department’s extensive transportation curriculum.
Charlie Nemmers, who serves as director of the college’s virtual Transportation Infrastructure Center, has been working in the MU College of Engineering since 1999, when he was hired by then department chair, Sam Kiger.
Though he doesn’t participate directly in the research, Nemmers serves as a spokesperson and coordinator who reaches out, searches for opportunities and is an advocate for the group. And while not exactly the asphalt that holds the group together, he is at least a striped line that winds through the team and also extends into a variety of other activities and collaborative enterprises.
“They do all the intellectual work,” joked Nemmers of his role on the transportation team. “I just sort of facilitate the activity.”
Professor Carlos Sun has worked in transportation engineering for nearly 25 years, 14 of them at Mizzou. He has expansive experience and expertise in a variety of transportation areas. His background in electrical engineering and the fact that he also holds a juris doctorate, add dimension to the research team’s expertise.
“We’re able to work with all types of people to handle issues related to transportation because we can collaborate on policy,” he said, using the example of research projects the team has undertaken in areas of disability compliance.
His early industry experience in electrical engineering has facilitated work with transportation technologies such as magnetic monitoring sensors and video image processing.
“In mobile work zones, we loaded cameras on truck attenuators [striped safety warning devices on the back of work vehicles that queue oncoming traffic to slow that also will reduce impact if drivers fail to slow] to see how drivers would react — speed, lane changes, space between lanes — and then post-process the videos with photogrammetry,” Sun said. The latter technology makes computational models from photos for reasonably accurate estimates of driver response.
“We integrate the research experience into undergrad curriculum to give our students a preview of what they might be doing in their careers,” Sun said. “We have an amazing group of undergraduates who also help with outreach to K-12 groups in addition to their work on research projects.”
Sharing leadership of the team is Associate Professor Praveen Edara, who landed in the MU College of Engineering in 2007. Edara came to MU from the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research, where he was the principal investigator on projects such as optimization of traffic sensors, scheduling for the state’s freeway service patrol, and for more than 10 years, has helped model large-scale hurricane evacuation scenarios. The latter is research he brought with him to Mizzou.
“We have developed large-scale simulation models consisting of over 2,000 miles of roads and one million evacuees to assist with hurricane evacuation planning in Virginia” Edara said. “Study results, published in the state’s official manual, are very relevant [beyond the state of Virginia]. Additionally, the scholarly research generated from these projects has been published in top journals with my Ph.D. students.”
Edara and his students also are using simulation models to assess earthquake preparedness and disaster response for the St. Louis region.
With a joint appointment in civil engineering and the Department of Geography, Associate Professor Tim Matisziw splits his time between two academic homes but points out their obvious and not-so-obvious common ground.
“Transportation geography includes space, context and land use,” he said. “I worked on an environmental conservation project that involved landscape connectivity for amphibians. Those same movement systems also apply to transportation.”
Henry Brown, the newest member of the team, works as a research engineer on the transportation team and is generally involved in most of the team’s projects. During his 14 years as a highway engineer with the Indiana Department of Transportation, he was responsible for the design and coordination of several road projects.
“I have a practitioner’s point of view in implementing projects,” Brown said.
Brown is currently beginning work on a project to help local governments implement asset management. “You want to try to keep good roads in good condition,” Brown said. “Fixing the ones that need it most is actually the most expensive. If you optimize maintenance and keep the good roads in good condition, you get the most bang for your buck.”
Effectiveness of innovative highway interchanges
“Researching innovative road designs is one of our strengths,” said Edara, who came to MU with experience in designs such as the J-turn on Highway 63 south of Columbia and the diverging diamond at the Interstate 70 and Stadium Boulevard interchange. “We have some of this country’s first research programs in this area, and they serve as national models.”
Because a high percentage of high-speed vehicle crashes on expressways occur at intersections with minor roads, highway design innovators have devised an alternative design that improves driver safety: the J-turn.
In research funded by the U.S. DOT and MoDOT, MU’s transportation team examined video-derived data gathered from the J-turn site and a control site, as well as crash and traffic conflict analyses. Key findings showed that the J-turn produced a 31.2 percent reduction in crash frequency for all crashes and a 63.8 percent reduction in crash frequency for injury and fatal crashes.
Team researchers also found the design resulted in a 91.6 percent reduction in disabling injury crashes, and minor injury crashes were reduced by 67.9 percent. Left,turn right-angle crashes, almost always severe, were totally eliminated.
Diverging diamond intersections (DDI) are becoming increasingly popular in this country. Not only are they a very cost efficient retrofit to conventional diamond interchanges, but seminal research conducted by MU’s transportation team using three commonly accepted before-and-after evaluation methods showed them to be highly effective at reducing crash frequency. In the case of fatal injury crashes, the three methods showed a DDI decrease ranging from 60.6 to 63.2 percent, with total crash frequency reduced by 40.8 to 58.9 percent.
“We are the leading state in diverging diamonds,” Sun said. “Our research is impacting this state and others.”
Results of the team’s work will be presented at the TRB national conference in Washington D.C. in January 2015.
“We love working with our students,” Edara said. “They all work on funded research, and we publish with them in conferences and journals. While they’re here, we send them to conferences and most find internships in the summer and full time jobs when they graduate.”
Highway safety, intelligent transportation systems and smart work zones
“For the longest time, highway safety was difficult because there was no national guide,” Sun said.
MU’s transportation team has contributed to a multi-year national project to characterize and calibrate Missouri’s seven transportation districts. Virkler said he worked on the long-term project when he an active researcher.
“We had to look at samples that were representative of both urban and country roadways,” Sun said of the massive undertaking. “But now, we have a tool where every engineer in every state district can see how their facilities are doing and decide how to remedy problems.”
Team researchers looked at crash data from MoDOT, law enforcement agency data as well as measuring the effectiveness of safety measures such as cable barriers installed down the center of the interstate and the already-mentioned geometric road designs.
“We’re quantifying the expected reduction in crashes resulting from safety countermeasures,” Edara said.
Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) use technology to increase systems’ efficiency, safety and reliability. It is a research area to which the MU team has contributed for 15 years. The team conducted one of the very first comprehensive ITS studies using St. Louis as a model.
Because of the work they’ve done, MU’s team transportation also has been contributing to the federal Smart Work Zone Initiative, which utilizes ITS technologies
“Smart work zones are becoming more important as our cities are built out,” said Sun of the research he and Edara are conducting with the help of graduate and undergraduate students.
Work zones account for about one-fourth of all non-recurring delays. Varying speed limits to accommodate the roadwork characteristically affects accident rates and severity. Attempts to modify driver behavior must be a careful balance between efficiency and safety. Researchers are able to test different speed limits using digital dynamic messaging and variable speed limit signs, ramp meters and other freeway traffic control systems. Because they are dynamic, they can be changed for testing purposes and to accommodate different levels of traffic at different times of the day.
Results for one of the team’s recent research projects showed that a reduction in posted speed limit using these methods did indeed get drivers’ attention, effectively reducing prevailing speeds and speed variances in short term Missouri work zones, thus making them safer.
“We are building artificial intelligence models to predict traffic in the next five minutes or the next hour,” Edara said. “By predicting conditions at a future time, we know pro-actively what form of traffic control system to use.”
As well as addressing potential traffic variance in work zones, models can predict necessary responses to “occasional” traffic events such as large sporting events, accidents and catastrophic weather events.
Edara’s work in this area has made him a nationwide expert.
Sun is part of a national study that is looking at environmental compliance following emergency situations such as the deadly 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo., and in the case of catastrophic hurricane incidents such as Katrina in 2005. It is an example of a project ideally suited for a civil engineer with a law degree.
“[After a disaster], life reverts back to normal but there are environmental issues and there are right ways to respond to be in compliance,” Sun said. “There are 30 laws for issues like noise, endangered species, historical properties, cultural significance, navigable waters and wetlands.”
He and others on the team collaborated with researchers from Saint Louis University to identify best practices in the case of environmental responses to natural disasters from bridge collapse to explosions.
As a member of the transportation team, Matisziw said he has enjoyed developing new transportation models and methods that also can be applied to different types of movement. One of the projects he worked on for MoDOT was resource optimization in prioritizing road striping.
“You figure out the best ways of assigning crews to the most efficient routes so they will have to travel as few miles as possible,” he explained.
The split appointment professor said he has enjoyed working with engineering students on the varied research projects and that all of the transportation problems they’ve worked on are practical, real problems.
“We expose students to the exact problems they’ll be facing in the workforce,” Matisziw added.
Matisziw also worked with MU’s School of Medicine on a grant received from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to look at mobility, lifestyle and health in a study about childhood obesity, enlisting the help of the transportation team on the project.
“We looked at how children’s physical activity might be influenced by land use and their ability to travel,” Matisziw said of the study that concentrated on students in fourth grade. “We got buy-in from the community and talked to parents and caretakers. Doctors wanted to find out what aspects of the urban landscape may play a role in increasing children’s level of physical activity. To do this, the children were outfitted with global positioning system (GPS) receivers and accelerometers to record their location and level of physical activity over a period of 33 days.”
Matisziw said that after analyzing what was a massive dataset, both vegetated parks/open spaces and built residential and institutional areas were significant drivers of greater physical activity.
Transportation researchers have worked to develop mathematical programming techniques to identify vulnerabilities in complex road, air and rail transportation networks, one of Matisziw’s specialties that ties nicely into work being done by others on the team.
“Networks of all kinds are dynamic and how damage presents itself depends on location, geographic context and more. We have been developing models to assist in the identification of worst-case scenarios of simultaneous damage to networked systems,” Matisziw said.
“If you can get a handle on what a worst-case scenario may look like, understanding of potential vulnerabilities associated with damaging events can be improved. If we can detect these vulnerabilities, mitigation and response efforts can be better prioritized,” he said of the work aimed at modeling disruptions to networked systems.
Edara and Matisziw are collaborating on a book chapter on the topic for the “Handbook of Transportation.”
Bicycle and pedestrian transport
“Sustainable communities have become a big research area,” Sun said. “We are working with the City of Columbia on bicycle safety.”
The transportation lab has a sophisticated driving and bicycling simulator that can be modified to represent any location. It is one of only two in the entire country.
Brown said the research team will be able to gauge rider response to the experimental markings they are testing using the simulator rather than taking chances with testing on busy city streets.
“We’re looking at wayfinding for bike riders and how you help them to follow a bike route with signage and pavement markings,” Brown explained. “We are looking at special striping and signage on the street and detectors for bikes at signalized intersections.”
Working with students on the team, researchers plan to bring in a variety of test riders to see them what is most effective for them.
“We work together on everything,” Brown said of the team’s various projects.