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ASU experts present findings on the future of transit, infrastructure

January 11, 2017

From potholes and property value to cycling concerns to drone package delivery, professors take new look at issues

Imagine New York without cabs or Beijing without bikes. Imagine city neighborhoods without roads or buses. Now imagine ordering a T-shirt online and having it delivered via flying drone.

Transportation and infrastructure advances change society.

Recognizing the importance of innovation, research and sharing information across disciplines, a group of professors from ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning have gathered this week for the annual Transportation Research Board meeting to present their findings on some of the most cutting-edge breakthroughs in modern infrastructure.

The sort of forward-thinking going on at the conference is nothing new for ASU experts, whose transdisciplinary research on cities and transportation is advancing the field through innovations that include sustainable cement and new methods for installing utilities pipes, as well as improvements in areas such as transportation habit tracking and relieving traffic congestion.

Faculty from all across the university, including the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, the Global Institute of Sustainability, the W. P. Carey School of Business, the School of Letters and Sciences, the School of Public Affairs, the Global Technology and Development program and the American Indian Policy Institute are all conducting related work.

At the conference, Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning faculty are discussing everything from safer bike trails to roads in the sky. Here’s a look at some of the work being presented:

Drone delivery

Piggybacking or sky roads?: That’s not a bird or a plane in the sky — it’s an Amazon drone delivering a package.

But before it got to your backyard, a whole host of conundrums needed solving, including how to get it past Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport without disrupting flights, which route was fastest and whether it’s best go over or around Camelback Mountain.

ASU prof

Michael Kuby

Professor Michael Kuby was most concerned with fuel efficiency.

When it comes to package-delivering drones such as those being tested out by Amazon, they’re either electric (battery-powered) or they’re powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Either way, they need to be lightweight, which means they can’t carry much fuel, and in turn can’t travel very far.

There are two possible solutions to that, Kuby said. One is to have a vehicle that drives the drones around and launches them closer to their destinations so that they don’t have to be refueled as often.

The other — and the one Kuby has created a model for — is for the drone to get from the warehouse to its destination and back without the use of other vehicles or manpower. That requires stations along the way where it can recharge or refuel as needed. Kuby’s model makes it possible to map out the optimal route for the drone, one that ensures cost, fuel and time efficiency. 

“It’s a really challenging mathematical optimization problem because drones fly in continuous space,” Kuby said, meaning there could be obstacles — like planes and mountains — to navigate.

While companies like Amazon, FedEx and UPS are still deciding which method they’re likely to use, Kuby said, the time to be thinking about best practices for drone package delivery is now: “This is clearly the direction that the industry is headed.”


Transportation access: For every thing that makes up a city — from grocery stores, to bike lanes, to power plants — a decision must be made on where to place it.

The same is true for housing. Using data from the city of Tempe, Kuby has developed a model to determine the best location for affordable housing so that low-income residents can easily access jobs via public transportation.

When it comes to placing affordable housing, there are two main objectives, Kuby said: that the location is beneficial to residents (for example, by ensuring nearby access to public transportation to get to their jobs), and that each affordable housing structure is spread far enough apart to negate possible concerns — real or imagined — of surrounding neighborhoods about the effects of such housing on things like property value, crime, etc.

“The innovative part of this model is how we accomplished both of those objectives,” Kuby said.

Pavement and property value: Potholes and poorly patched cracks can be unsightly and annoying to drive on, but what sort of effect do they have on property value? According to assistant professor Deborah Salon, none.

ASU prof

Deborah Salon

Under contract for the Solano Transportation Authority in California, Salon compared data collected on pavement condition with home sales in the same area.

“We tried hard to find a relationship, because it makes sense that there would be,” she said, “but we just were unable to find it.”

It’s the first time the relationship between pavement condition and property value has been scientifically evaluated, and she was surprised at the results, though she hypothesizes that it may be because people consider the condition of the road to be a small factor when buying a house.

“There are a lot of good reasons (road noise, the environment, etc.) to improve roads, but property value is not the main one,” Salon said.

Taxis and ride hailing 

Deadheading: In many cities, there are two kinds of cabs: yellow and green. The difference is that yellow cabs can pick up and drop off passengers anywhere in the city, while green cabs can pick up passengers only in limited areas but can still drop them off anywhere in the city.

So when a green cab has to drop of a passenger in an area of town where it is not allowed to pick up passengers, it has to drive back with an empty cab — also known as deadheading. The result is a waste of resources.

ASU Prof

David King

Using GPS data collected from green cabs in New York City, assistant professor David King was able to estimate just how often deadhead travel was taking place. Though he cautions the results are more suggestive than absolute, he found that in any given week, about 20 percent of the 350,000 green cab trips made required deadhead travel.

“I was trying to get an estimate of how much excess travel there is, which also has implications for the environment,” King said.

With the rise of ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, he added, cities need to get a handle on cab regulations before the same thing starts happening to e-rides.

“As taxi cab regulations are being reconsidered in cities, regions and states, we need to take into account that where we allow people to operate both on pickups and drop-offs will affect overall efficiency and environmental costs,” King said.

How do we get around?: Another issue we face with the rise of e-rides and other alternative forms of transportation — such as light rails and biking — is the way in which cities account for new development. In the past, cities based things like the number of parking lots and the amount charged for public transportation on how many cars were on the road. But as more people ditch their Dodge, other factors need to be taken into consideration.

The way things are right now, King said, “We don’t have a good sense for just how people get around.” To change that, there needs to be change in the way cities account for their transit habits.


Who rides where: It might seem obvious that a small girl is less willing to ride her bike across a busy intersection than a grown man, but proving it — in order to enact positive change — is another thing. 

To do so, Salon and researchers took data from the 2010-2012 California Household Travel Survey and compared it with detailed built environment data to look for correlations between behavior and the environment. Though previous studies had also examined that relationship, none had broken down the results based on demographic groups.

Salon’s study focused on three: children, employed adults and non-employed adults (including retired people). Within each group, differences between sexes were also accounted for.

What they found was that there was indeed a correlation between a person’s demographic group and their behavior. Employed men, for example, were more likely to bike in busy areas of a city, whereas women and children were less likely to do so.

What it means, Salon said, is that “if cities want to encourage more cycling, they need to provide safer places for everyone to do it. Safety is a big deal, especially for certain demographics.”

Crowdsourcing safety: Most of the time when someone has a crash on a bike, it’s not reported anywhere, said School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning Director Trisalyn Nelson. So when city planners need to prioritize locations of bike lanes or trails, they don’t have all the data they need to help them make those decisions.

ASU prof

Trisalyn Nelson

To help alleviate the problem, Nelson launched, a global online mapping tool that allows cyclists to record the location and details of near misses and collisions they experience. But she wanted to go further.

One of the issues “that comes up when you use citizen science as a crowdsource tool is that you don’t get the best representation” of everyone affected by the issue, Nelson said.

Now that she could mine data from the website, she could use it to get a more accurate picture; in particular, Nelson looked at how age and gender are related to the use of compared with broader ridership and the geographic distribution of incidents for the Capital Regional District, British Columbia, Canada.

In general, there were higher levels of interaction with the website by younger people, and females and people under 35 years of age reported more incidents in central urban areas.

Nelson was also able to use the data from to determine that multi-use trails — where people can bike, skateboard, rollerblade, etc. — have a higher risk of injury compared with cyclist-only facilities. In fact, there was an 11 percent higher instance of collisions at multi-use trail intersections compared with city road intersections.

“There’s an increasing tension between how we move through a city and our health and well-being and happiness,” Nelson said. “If we want healthy populations that are connecting to communities and moving through them in a smart way, this kind of research is really important.”

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The experience of youth

High school junior contributes to ASU research lab with computer skills.
16-year-old has taught himself several coding, scripting languages.
January 11, 2017

ASU provides opportunity for self-taught, teenage computer whiz to join research projects on climate change

Matei Georgescu uses a lot of data in his research, studying how a changing landscape can affect local climate and resources. He looks at how land changes, from undeveloped to developed, affect climate and rainfall and runs simulations that make long-term projections with the goal of finding a more sustainable future.  

If it sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is — and that’s where 16-year-old Vishesh Gupta comes in. The BASIS Scottsdale junior is a computer whiz and the rare example of a high school research assistant working in a top-tier lab.

“He is a junior in high school, and he has the technical abilities of a student who is entering grad school,” said Georgescu, an ASU associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Georgescu and Gupta’s pairing reflects an innovative solution from ASU that helps a gifted community member excel and succeed to the peak of his potential.

Gupta’s interest in computers began in fifth grade when he took online tutorials on computer science. That summer, on his own, he built a web page for his adventures on “Super Mario Galaxy 2.”

“At the time, I thought this could be a hobby,” Gupta said.

Each summer since, Gupta would teach himself a new coding trick. But then what?

“I had done all of this computer work over the summers, but there weren’t any practical uses for it,” he said. “I learned all of this stuff, and then I didn’t know what to do with it.”

'He's been eager to help'

Georgescu and Gupta first crossed paths in April.

Gupta was looking for something to do with his computer skills when his older brother suggested he apply to work in Bruce Rittmann's lab at ASU’s Biodesign Institute.

Gupta was too young to work around chemicals, so Rittmann referred him to Georgescu, whose work uses ASU’s supercomputers to crunch data and make sense of disparate measurements.

For his part, Rittmann often welcomes high school students and teachers into in his lab to help and observe. He says the experience has propelled students.

“We have had several who have gone on to great success,” Rittmann said. “Our first intern was Smitha Ramakrishna, who eventually graduated from Harvard. Another early one was Emerson Reiter, who is a graduate of Stanford.”  

Still, heading into the first meeting, Georgescu needed to be convinced that hiring a high school student was a good idea.

“I sat down with him and asked a few questions about climate change and climate variability,” Georgescu said. “I knew when we talked that he was insightful. He was asking probing questions. He had good questions about climate and our dialogue was just that, a two-way conversation revolving around methods and techniques, applicability of computers to the field of climate modeling. I was hooked.

“Now we are planning for Vishesh to be with us through the upcoming spring semester,” he added.

Gupta works most closely with Scott Krayenhoff, a postdoctoral researcher who projects climate and hydrology outcomes using data models.

Krayenhoff needed somebody to analyze the figures before they’re put into a simulation.

“Vishesh’s ability with data processing and analysis has been a great asset in our work,” Krayenhoff said. “He’s been eager to help and a quick learner.”

The projects they are working on include the Urban Water Innovation Network, of which Georgescu is ASU’s principal investigator as part of a 16-institution network. Another focuses on improving emergency preparedness during extreme-heat events in a partnership with Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan.

“We are trying to enhance our understanding of the urban environment, with an emphasis on human health impacts, energy demand and socioeconomic groups and vulnerable populations,” Georgescu said.

Gupta has constructed a database of observed extreme-heat events for the nearly two dozen regions of focus over the U.S., ranking them based on intensity and longevity to guide the historical simulations conducted for a variety of cities. 

To do this, Gupta — without the security of a classroom setting — learned several new computer codes and software packages that analyze data types ranging from netCDF to binary. In months, Gupta taught himself GrADS, Python and R codes.

Sixteen-year-old Vishesh Gupta (front) poses in front of Phoenix climate data, with associate professor Matei Georgescu (left) and postdoctoral researcher Scott Krayenhoff. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

'This gives me a way to use it'

Georgescu now wants to recruit more high school students, saying they’re a valuable resource to tap. In return, he said, he can provide an enriching research experience.

“Vishesh is a 16-year-old, and he will be a co-author on our research,” Georgescu said.

For Gupta, the experience gives him a chance to expand his technological reach and pursue his passion in computer science.

“I have learned three computer languages and four scripting languages. Climate change is interesting, and I’d like to apply computer science to other disciplines, like architecture and astronomy.”

It also keeps his computer science skills sharp.

“I have this talent,” Gupta said. “This gives me a way to use it.”

Top photo: Sixteen-year-old Vishesh Gupta pulls up climate models on the computer with associate professor Matt Georgescu watching on Friday. The BASIS Scottsdale high junior works with Georgescu and postdoctoral researcher Scott Krayenhoff to analyze existing data to project outcomes on climate and hydrology as the result of certain types of land development. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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