CEMS UVM faculty take a "Vermont perspective" that seeks to improve transportation design while lowering human impact on the environment. 

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 To-morrow 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.” 


Dowds, Jonathan, Karen Sentoff, James L. Sullivan and Lisa Aultman-Hall. Assessing the Impact of Network Resolution and Origin-Destination Aggregation on the Stability of Transportation Network Criticality Rankings. Forthcoming Transportation Research Record 2653. DOI 10.3141/2653-11 

Aultman-Hall, Lisa, Chester Harvey, James Sullivan and Jeffrey LaMondia. (2016) The Impact of Long-Distance Tour Generation and Travel Attributes on Data Collection in the United States. TRANSPORTATION, Volume 43 Number 6, November. DOI 10.1007/s11116-016-9754-y

Harvey, Chester, Lisa Aultman-Hall, Austin Troy and Stephanie Hurley. (2016) Streetscape Skeleton Measurement and Classification. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design. doi: 10.1177/0265813515624688


Sarah Tuff Dunn