CTS celebrates 30 years of transportation research, innovation

Overhead view of cars passing through an intersection

In 1987, a new research center opened at the University of Minnesota that would begin a decades-long mission to catalyze innovation in all facets of transportation, from traffic flow and safety to pavements and bridges.

This year, the Center for Transportation Studies (CTS) celebrates its 30th anniversary, capping three decades of developing new tools to help agencies across the US improve transportation systems and provide objective data to inform elected officials on matters of transportation policy.

Over that time, many transportation research projects at the University have served as prime examples of how U of M research meets the practical needs of Minnesotans, in the Twin Cities area and throughout Minnesota, said Laurie McGinnis, CTS director.

“CTS brings together researchers, funders, and stakeholders to create shared understanding of new and emerging transportation issues and ensure that research is relevant and useful,” McGinnis said. “We relay the latest thinking and research findings and we help develop the workforce that will put new knowledge into practice.”

Driving innovation forward

Research at CTS focuses on several key areas through a variety of programs and facilities. One of these is traffic operations—managing the flow of traffic and reducing crashes. Years ago, CTS researchers invented technology to help transportation agencies record and analyze footage to improve traffic management. In 1991, this system, called Autoscope, was commercialized and it has since been used around the world.

Today, the Minnesota Traffic Observatory develops similar data collection tools to promote safer and more fluent traffic flow. For example, a camera system on high-rise rooftops near Interstate 94 in downtown Minneapolis, where crashes happen most frequently in all of Minnesota, helps CTS researchers and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to improve safety.

Another key focus of CTS is pavement design and repair. Ongoing research projects are exploring ways to create smoother pavements, more sustainable materials and shorter delays during construction projects to improve the more than 3 million miles of paved roads in the US.

In 1994, CTS researchers joined in an effort led by  MnDOT to form MnROAD, a live-traffic lab to study how cold climates cause damage to roads. When temperatures drop low enough, contractions in the pavement cause it to crack. Solving this problem could help roads last longer in Minnesota and other northern US states.

Presently, researchers are developing new materials and methods for paving roads. New asphalt mixes that include tiny graphite platelets may make road construction faster and more energy efficient. Meanwhile, new pothole patching technologies based on taconite have been developed and licensed for use.

While some researchers at CTS are focused on the material under drivers’ tires, others are paying attention to what’s going on inside the vehicles—specifically, with driver-assistance systems that help drivers navigate the roads safely and smartly. The Teen Driver Support System, developed at the HumanFIRST Laboratory, is a smartphone-based system that provides real-time feedback to teens about their driving habits and automatically reports continuous risky behaviors to their parents via text message.

Finally, CTS researchers are studying one of the most fundamental questions in transportation: Does the system get people where they need to go? For example, researchers have explored the relationship between workers’ qualifications for a given job and their access to it and found transit planning and workforce development could better serve disadvantaged workers.

Meanwhile, research into coordinating transportation services can help people unable to use their own car—such as those with disabilities, low incomes, or those who are older—access transportation options to meet their basic needs, such as attending work, buying groceries and going to the doctor. One of the studies found transit companies that coordinate services can increase cost savings, boost ridership, and improve service quality.

Paving the way for transportation

Looking forward, McGinnis said the curiosity and creativity of CTS scholars—brought out through their algorithms, models, guidelines, policies, technologies, and apps—holds potential to revolutionize how we think about transportation in a rapidly changing world. Some research will even lead to new technologies that are patented and commercialized, drawing in revenue and jobs for Minnesota.

Many questions are already on researchers’ minds going forward. How will self-driving vehicles become part of everyday society? How will travel habits change over the next 30 years? What challenges should we anticipate? Regardless of what the future holds, McGinnis said decades of experience have prepared CTS scholars and staff to forge ahead into tomorrow’s transportation issues.

“These 30 years have provided some amazing insights into the research process itself,” McGinnis said. “We’re able to see how research progresses over time from curiosity to discovery to innovation, which in turn has made transportation—and, more importantly, our lives—better.”