DeFazio talks transportation with UO students and researchers

The students in professor Marc Schlossberg’s Bicycle Transportation course had a special treat recently as their classroom was transformed for the day into the setting for a high-level policy discussion that included one of the most influential lawmakers in the land when it comes to transportation issues.

The class included University of Oregon faculty members and others who looked at transportation through the lens of their own research — ranging from environmental law to psychology to computer science and civil engineering. But the students also got to ask questions of and hear from a distinguished guest who plays a major role in determining which transportation trends are likely to be implemented: U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio

The Springfield Democrat is the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman as well as a UO alumnus. He was joined by the UO’s Heather Brinton, director or the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center; computer science professor Stephen Fickas; psychology professor Elliot Berkman; planning, public policy and management professor Rebecca Lewis; and Oregon State University civil engineering professor David Hurwitz.

The class, which coincidentally was held on Earth Day, was a chance to highlight some of the innovative, multidisciplinary approaches the university is applying to what is one of the most critical issues facing society in the coming decades

And the students got a broad, behind-the-scenes look into how it all happens.

The hour-plus conversation ranged from the unexpectedly fast adoption of electric scooters to how to overcome the psychological and structural barriers preventing more people from walking or bicycling to nearby destinations. It even touched on how other futuristic modes of transportation, such as driverless cars, might accelerate cities’ use of streets for more space-efficient and low-carbon modes of transportation.

“We’re rethinking transportation in the 21st century,” Schlossberg, a professor in the School of Planning, Public Policy and Management, told participants, noting how all the scholars in the room should be considered transportation experts in order to advance research and its applications.

After each faculty member shared how their knowledge contributes to solving transportation issues, DeFazio shared an anecdote about a recent trip to a self-driving car technology company.

He saw a bunch of kids playing games around a parked car, which he learned was how the car was “learning” how to predict kids’ actions by having its sensors observe them playing. But he also gave insight into the dialogue in the halls of Congress about such technology when it comes to navigating autonomous vehicles’ liability issues.

“How is this all going to work?” he asked. “It’s going to be difficult.”

Much of the work at the UO actually addresses the question DeFazio asked, only it approaches it from a different perspective: Rather than asking how cars can better see people simply as objects to avoid, many researchers at the UO are asking how cities can actually be redesigned to prioritize people on foot, bike or scooter in the first place.

Schlossberg said the UO is uniquely positioned to be at the forefront of such issues because no other university can lay claim to the same range of faculty members applying their research to transportation, which includes planning, public administration, architecture, computer science, law, landscape architecture, business, journalism and other disciplines. 

Schlossberg also noted how it was DeFazio’s work more than a decade ago that set in motion this diversity of faculty members all focusing on transportation issues — including the actual course DeFazio was now taking part in — starting with the creation of the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium in 2005. That sparked a chain reaction leading to the Sustainable Cities Institute in 2009, the UO Urbanism Next Center in 2017 and the Applied Transportation Studies focus area earlier this year.

“We’re at a time when decisions about how we design transportation systems are either going to be part of the problem or part of the solution, and I really believe Oregon has a particular expertise and a real commitment to help communities meet their needs in this critical area,” said Brinton, of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center.

Students asked about issues relating to privacy concerns and climate change, and educating the public in order to overcome them. 

“We’re sitting in one of the world’s premier colleges of education, and if anybody can do that, we can,” said Berkman, the psychologist. “And Oregon is a great state for this laboratory model.”

“One thing that’s exciting to me is a year ago people weren’t even talking about scooters as form of transportation,” added Hurwitz from OSU. “Here’s a mode of transportation that didn’t exist a year ago and now they represent tens of millions of trips in the U.S., revealing a massive preference for a new way to travel for trips under two miles. Our challenge is to help cities understand how to capitalize on the opportunities and challenges scooters present in terms of street design, policy, equity and safety.”

DeFazio, who helped create the national Safe Routes to School program, said he was encouraged that the work at the UO also places a focus on how these new forms of transportation can potentially help more kids get to school and elsewhere in their community independently and safely.

In all, Schlossberg said the open discussion among the scholars and the congressman was a rousing success. It gave students the chance to contribute to a wide-ranging discussion among experts spanning multiple disciplines they ordinarily wouldn’t have access to in a classroom setting. In addition, it gave Schlossberg the chance to show DeFazio the long-range effect of legislation he backed more than a decade ago. The gathering also illustrated how well the UO is positioned to help communities across the United States be better able to meet the transportation challenges of the 21st century.

“I thought it was a tremendous experience for the students to be able to listen to candid talks and sometimes differing opinions from these scholars and Congressman DeFazio,” he said. “These are important issues that students are tackling as part of applied projects in this class, ones that will definitely be part of their professional work once they leave campus. This was a beneficial and fun way to involve them now.”

—By Jim Murez, University Communications