Real-World Solutions For Cars and Communities: How UVM Understands Infrastructure Resiliency

In the Fall 2017 issue of “SUMMIT,” the magazine published by UVM’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Science (CEMS), Sarah Tuff Dunn wrote the following article featuring the TRC’s Dr. Lisa Aultman-Hall. For the full issue click here

“Beep! Honk! To most people sitting in a gridlock, those sounds are irritating. But to Civil Engineering Professor Lisa Aultman-Hall, they’re the legacy of many decades of infrastructure and systems engineering.

“I’ve been obsessed with transportation my whole life,” says Aultman-Hall. “My dad worked in the railroad industry, and I remember sitting in traffic congestion as a small child in Toronto and being intrigued — where is the bottleneck?”

Decades later, she and other Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) faculty are answering more complex questions, and much more, about congestion, resiliency, the environment and social equity and mobility as they apply their research skills toward real-world solutions for cars and communities. As Scientific American Mind reports, demand for urban transportation is expected to more than double by 2050, bringing true the 1925 prediction of Swiss architect Le Corbusier who wrote in The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning, “The motor-car…has completely overturned all our old ideas of town planning.” This concept has also influenced ideals for rural places like Vermont, says Aultman-Hall.

After receiving her Ph.D. in civil engineering from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario Aultman-Hall taught at the University of Kentucky and the University of Connecticut before coming to UVM in 2006. Since 1995, she’s worked on more than $20 million in grants, some her own research projects and many were large programs intended to attract diverse disciplines to the study of transportation systems. A director of the Connecticut Transportation Institute and founding director of the UVM Transportation Research Center, she brings a unique interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving.

“The advantage of being in Vermont is having the Vermont perspective to not be obsessed with urban congestion as the critical issue,” says Aultman-Hall, who has written 60 referreed journal papers and 85 technical reports in addition to participating in 116 presentations, invited seminars and conference papers. “I’ve come from an environmental motivation — seeing how we change our designs and systems operations to lower our impact on the environment.”

She’s also concerned about social equity. “People have such unequal access to mobility,” says Aultman-Hall. Working with both graduate and undergraduate students and collaborating widely across the UVM campus, she has focused not only on transportation system design but also innovative data collection including online and in-vehicle travel surveys. In 2014, Dr. Aultman-Hall was named UVM Graduate Student Senate Outstanding Faculty Advisor. “I would not know how to look at a bridge in Vermont and say, ‘Yes, I am sure that is resilient to a 100-year storm,’” says Aultman-Hall. “But my CEE colleagues do. I can look at the location and say, ‘Is that serving critical travel demand and connections based on the travel demand data we collect.’”

“You need to have different people looking at different parts of a complex system,” she says. “In interdisciplinary work, the language is so hard, but through meetings and brainstorming, you come to realize you are thinking the same thing, just using different words.”

Travel demand patterns tell an analyst which links in the network are most critical for connectivity and thus require upgrades or adaptations to correct for vulnerabilities. Aultman-Hall relies on her faculty colleagues Eric Hernandez, Arne Bomblies and Mandar Dewoolkar to round out the systems approach to the problem. “This is not the way scientific discovery used to work,” says Dewoolkar.

“It’s very exciting to see how a particular decision in engineering or social realms cascades through the system and ultimately affects how to change legislation.”

A specialist in geotechnical engineering, Dewoolkar is able to collaborate with Aultman-Hall on infrastructure vulnerability; Bomblies brings in his expertise in hydrology and adaptation to climate change; and Hernandez, meanwhile, has expertise in structural dynamics, uncertainty quantification and inverse problems in structural engineering, which creates a dynamic team able to expand with other disciplines in order to ensure our transportation system functions well at critical times such as those during extreme weather.

“The most exciting aspect of my current work is longdistance intercity travel,” says Aultman-Hall. “It’s really fascinating to me that in our transportation system analysis, we’ve kept air and highway transportation in completely separate realms. For climate-change resiliency, we have to consider them integrated.”

Ultimately, the study of built infrastructure at UVM comes down to seeing the forest for the trees. The roads and the vehicles are about the people inside them – delivering accessibility and mobility to individuals. “Cars can be a wonderful thing, but we don’t use them in an optimal way,” says Aultman-Hall. “So when we focus on infrastructure we must focus on the travel behavior on that system — where people are coming from, where they are going to, and why.”


HAVE WE FINALLY REACHED THE AGE OF THE ELECTRIC CAR? Listen to this interview with Lisa Aultman-Hall here.”

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