Bridge with gaps in center

Bridging the Gap

Project Aims to Increase Transportation Equity Through the Convergence of Information Technology and Transportation Infrastructure

By David Goddard.

The ease in getting from point A to point B can vary greatly due to a number of factors, including location, services offered, and economic disparities. Similarly, geographical and economic barriers to infrastructure development have created an automobile-dominated transportation system and a pronounced digital divide based on race, income, and how rural or urban the location is.

A new initiative backed by the National Science Foundation and led by UT, the Knoxville Community Development Corporation, and the United Way of Greater Knoxville hopes to change that.

Knoxville is a good test bed for this research, being a midsize city with some forms of public transportation, but one that in many ways almost requires a personal vehicle to navigate.”

—Micah Beck

In broad terms, the team hopes to look at data related to transportation and information technology accessibility in Knoxville, then look beyond those numbers to offer solutions to the problems they find, some of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. These solutions explore the convergence of transportation and information infrastructure—the ways that movement of data can leverage the vehicles that move people and goods throughout the city.

“Knoxville is a good test bed for this research, being a midsize city with some forms of public transportation, but one that in many ways almost requires a personal vehicle to navigate,” said Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Micah Beck, the principal investigator on the project. “There is a big divide in racial and ethnic income inequality, which is often tied to specific geographic areas around the city, and these factors also play into a person’s ability to move between locations.”

Along with Beck, team members at UT are Sreedhar Upendram, an assistant professor in the Institute of Agriculture, Courtney Cronley, an associate professor in the College of Social Work, Ozlem Kilic, associate dean for academic and student affairs in the Tickle College of Engineering, and Jerry Everett, interim director of UT’s Center for Transportation Research.

The team recognized the need to share data with the community and to bring information technology to bear in areas where it might be lacking.

To do this, they made working with the community a top priority from the start, recognizing the importance of wide involvement for both generating ideas and adopting any changes that the research might identify.

“We want to heavily involve our community, both for the diversity of ideas and experiences that they bring to the table as well as to help our understanding of their needs and their acceptance of recommendations,” said Beck. “Having them involved as much as possible should lead to a better, smoother process, which could then be replicated in other cities and other communities.”

Beck also pointed out that the convergence of information technology and transportation options could lead to greater equity in socioeconomic opportunities across the community,
making the project truly impactful for local residents.

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