Become a Transportation Researcher

Three trucks drive down a mountain road.

It’s a well-known fact that many of the good things in life have their downsides too. Television has commercials. Bacon is unhealthy. Birthdays mean you’re getting older.

In transportation, this concept is especially true—particularly when we’re talking about the environment and our communities.

Carlos Gonzalez-Calderon, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Click a button to watch an interview with Carlos Gonzalez-Calderon:

Stephanie Everett, RK&K.

Click a button to watch an interview with Stephanie Everett:

Cars, for example, allow us to travel quickly and conveniently from place to place, yet they also pollute the environment. Similarly, building new roads or widening existing ones can reduce traffic congestion, but these improvements cost money that could be used to build schools or fight diseases. Even in transportation, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

But what if you could take away the downsides of the good things in life? What if bacon wasn’t unhealthy, cable was as commercial-free as Netflix, and cars didn’t pollute the environment?

Maybe it’s not possible to make everything perfect. Probably not bacon, anyway. But in transportation, it’s definitely possible to make things better. And that's where transportation researchers come in.

Carlos Gonzalez-Calderon is a transportation researcher who has helped cities all over the world mitigate the negative side effects of transportation. This includes cutting pollution, reducing congestion, and generally improving the flow of people and goods throughout the transportation network. One of his areas of expertise is inner-city freight—the movement of goods by truck in an urban area. In an interview with Fast Forward, Carlos explained that the way cities manage the movement of freight can have a major impact on its residents' quality of life.

Freight, Carlos explained, is something that all people rely on every day. It is the finished and unfinished products and goods that we use or depend on in our day-to-day lives, from the produce at the grocery store, to the electronics on retail shelves.

Freight usually arrives at its place of sale via a large truck. The good thing about freight trucks is that they allow companies to haul large quantities of goods over long distances at relatively low cost—cheaper than, say, by airplane. Unfortunately, you’ve probably experienced the bad things. Freight trucks are big. They are slow. They clog traffic. They emit a lot of pollution. For these reasons, many people complain about trucks on the road, even though the trucks are delivering the goods that those same people demand. Unfortunately, the bad things about trucks can be more than just a hassle. Carlos explained that in some cities with heavy freight movement, pollution can become so bad that people wear masks on a regular basis.

By applying problem-solving skills, Carlos and other transportation researchers are able to help cities reduce these negative side effects. And in many cases, the solutions are quite simple.

For example, Carlos has convinced many businesses to start receiving their deliveries at night. Why? Because during the day, when there are many cars on the road, even a single large truck can increase traffic congestion. In heavy freight areas where there are more trucks, this congestion is multiplied. And not only does traffic become backed up, the idling vehicles also release more pollution into the air. In fact, Carlos said, the amount of pollution released during heavy traffic congestion can be more than 300% higher than it would be during free-flow conditions. By having trucks deliver their freight at night when there are fewer cars on the road, Carlos saves cities from suffering the traffic congestion and pollution associated with daytime deliveries.

Other transportation researchers, like Stephanie Everett, are working on different ways to cut down the downsides of freight movement.

Stephanie is a transportation engineer in Baltimore, who normally studies ways to reduce traffic congestion. But for her master’s degree research project in graduate school, she studied a freight-related topic that’s of great interest to city and state governments.

One of the downsides of hauling mass quantities of freight by truck, she explained, is that it can be very damaging to a city or state’s roads and highways. Roads, she said, are designed to carry weights of up to 80,000 pounds over and over again for years at a time. However, many large trucks carry loads that are well over that weight, resulting in damaged roads in need of repair. Aside from the traffic jams and congestion that comes with road work, there’s another invisible cost; the money spent fixing the damage caused by freight movement is money that’s not available to fund education, health care, and other programs.

So, why not just limit truck weights to 80,000 pounds or less?

This seems like a good idea, but there are problems with it. For example, limiting the amount that trucks can carry requires them to make more trips. Additional trips leads to more fuel, more pollution, more traffic, and less overall efficiency. At some point, the downsides of the 80,000-pound limit start to outweigh the benefits.

Instead, what if you allowed trucking companies to haul more than 80,000 pounds at a time if they were willing to purchase a permit? This is one of the ideas that Stephanie and other transportation researchers have been testing. It allows trucking companies to decide whether it’s worth the cost of hauling more weight. Plus, the cost of the permits help cities and states pay for the road maintenance that’s required later. Overall, it is a win-win situation.

Another method researchers have come up with is to change the design of the trucks. When trucks are carrying heavy loads, the weight of those loads is distributed to the road at the point where the wheels touch the pavement—that is, through the truck’s axles. By adding a third or fourth axle to a two-axle truck, that weight is distributed on the road more evenly and does less damage. Think of a snow shoe: it distributes your weight over a wider surface area, which allows you to walk on the snow instead of falling straight through it. Many cities and states are allowing trucks to haul heavier weights under the condition that they add one or more additional axles to the vehicle.

When you think about it, none of these solutions are rocket science and all seem like common sense. Clearly, it is not true that you have to be a technical super-genius, a brainiac, or a whiz kid to solve society’s problems. Both Carlos and Stephanie would probably tell you that their ability to mitigate the side effects of transportation is less about being amazing mathematicians or brilliant inventors and more about having a few necessary traits. First, have open eyes and an open mind to recognize a problem exists. Second, you need the understanding that every problem has a solution, even if it's just small steps in the right direction. Third, have the determination to step up and do something. Many people could suggest making deliveries at night or adding another axle, but it takes a certain kind of person to actually bring those answers to life in the real world.

So, what would you do? What if you were given the chance to take away the downside of some of the good things in life, like transportation? (Bacon can wait.) If you enjoy answering that question, and if you’ve got the drive to turn that answer into more than just a daydream, then research might be right up your alley. And one thing’s certain—the world sure could use you.

Aaron Mack
Fast Forward: Volume 3 Issue 3 – Trucking & Logistics