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ASU Tackles Future of Transportation

Credit: Arizona State University

Source: Arizona State University/The Arizona Republic

Roughly 40 percent of the nation’s roads and major highways are not considered to be in good condition, and about 70,000 of U.S. bridges are structurally deficient. During the 2016 presidential campaign both candidates seized on our failing transportation infrastructure, each promising heavy investments to rebuild roads and bridges.

Now, while political leaders grapple with where to prioritize infrastructure investment, our transportation needs call for deeper, more complex dialogue than that offered in political talking points. Beyond rebuilding today’s infrastructure, we may want to ask ourselves what tomorrow’s roads, bridges and automobile alternatives might look like, and how we can prepare for coming change. What technological advances should we take into consideration? Will autonomous vehicles go mainstream soon? Which materials are best from sustainability and longevity standpoints?

No single government agency can address all these issues, but Arizona State University researchers are anticipating the future. Here’s a look at ASU’s role in answering the nation’s biggest transportation questions.


When it comes to crumbling roads and bridges, advances in materials are key to getting the greatest long-term bang for today’s transportation buck. Narayanan Neithalath, professor of structural engineering and materials at ASU’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, has been grappling with materials dilemmas for years. He appears to have found some solutions.

Concrete used for today’s roads and bridges easily cracks with temperature shifts. With cracking comes considerable repair work, and in areas where roads are salted during the winter, the steel underneath the concrete surface can corrode without notice.

In collaboration with researchers at UCLA and in Europe, Neithalath has experimented with a waxlike material mixed into concrete that allows the concrete to better expand and contract and handle temperature fluctuations without cracking.

His team also experiments with new materials to reduce the amount of Portland cement — the most common type of cement in general use around the world — needed in concrete.

Predicting Transportation Needs

Understanding current and future traffic patterns is key to prioritizing transportation investment. Figuring out how we use transportation resources today, and considering how we may use them in the future, is a complex game. Ram Pendyala, an ASU professor of transportation systems, is at the center of these tradeoffs.

The models attempt to account for all transportation circumstances and needs, factoring in driving patterns, mass transit use, demographics, economics, rider and driver profiles and emerging technologies, while also considering the potential for future changes.

Electric and Autonomous Vehicles

A second core area of study for Pendyala’s team is understanding how electric and autonomous vehicles will impact transportation systems.

Further expansion of the electric vehicles (EV) market can influence infrastructure plans and designs. With more EV, there’s a need for more charging stations. When building out new and rebuilding old systems, planning for this potential shift is critical.

Currently, battery storage and the short range for electric vehicles is a deterrent slowing their expansion, Pendyala adds, but if these technological solutions surface soon, infrastructure may need to play catch-up.

Beyond Cars, the Environment

Mikhail Chester, an ASU professor of transportation infrastructure, studies life cycle assessment of transportation systems, including vehicles, infrastructures and fuels. When looking at the environmental impact of travel, the emphasis tends to be on the tailpipe, he says, but there is so much more involved. Massive supply chains and infrastructure are needed to operate one car.

Chester also analyzes metro-area transportation infrastructures. Phoenix, he explains, has a relatively young and extremely auto-centric transportation infrastructure. As much as he would like to encourage less automobile use, some modes of transportation struggle for viability, given the configuration of the city. Placing bus stops, for example, in low-density suburban areas results in too few riders to justify the expense of sending a vehicle there. On the other hand, when it comes to light rail, the line is concentrated in the urban core, where residential and business density, as well as events and activities, support its success.

Read more at The Arizona Republic.



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