Suyun Ma, PhD student in transportation engineering at the University of Iowa, grew up around innovative transportation systems in her hometown of Hangzhou, China. With free bike rental systems and a proposed Maglev (magnetic levitation) train — a train that is propelled by magnetic repulsion (see The Magic of Maglev), the city of Hangzhou boasts of being a breeding ground for transportation innovation. Suyun believes her hometown is what really inspired her to pursue a career in transportation.
With an undergraduate degree in management sciences and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning with a concentration in transportation, Suyun has a diverse academic background that has helped her gain a broader perspective on transportation as a whole. She believes her PhD program in transportation engineering will help her improve her ability to communicate with other transportation professionals.
High density roads and driving reduction
Suyun’s PhD research is about analyzing how the layout and pattern of built environments, such as street patterns and land use, can reduce car usage in the United States. Seeking to minimize driving, Suyun’s research identifies features of urban environments that make reduced driving an attractive possibility.
Her research analyzes data on the driving habits of individuals from 12 different cities in the U.S. The data covers a period of 10 months. With approximately 200 people at each site, Suyun has data from about 2,000 participants in total! Suyun uses this data to draw correlations, or associations, between participants’ built environments and daily driving mileage.
So far, her research shows that street pattern plays a large role in driving behavior; streets with higher connectivity and density tend to reduce vehicle driving while encouraging biking and walking. Connectivity refers to intersections or places where different roadways intersect and connect. The more intersections there are within the city’s road network, the easier it is to get from one road to the next and from one destination to another. Street patterns that have a higher density and connectivity provide plenty of streets to get riders from place to place.
Suyun’s study is unique in its inclusion of participants’ entire driving area. Earlier studies have revolved around driving habits only within residential areas, but Suyun expanded the scope to encompass the entire possible driving pattern of the participants. Though it makes her work stand out, Suyun admits that the sheer amount of data has been the most difficult aspect of her research. But, Suyun’s passion for her work and for transportation as a whole has kept her optimistic, and she plans to complete both her research and her PhD soon.
With her diverse background and goals, Suyun embodies the interdisciplinary nature of transportation. If you are interested in conducting research like Suyun’s, this PhD student has some advice. “If you are interested in transportation, you can always fit yourself into a certain area.” From social sciences to humanities, engineering to geology, transportation requires people from all backgrounds to keep it up and running.
Go! Magazine thanks the Mid-America Transportation Center (MATC) for supporting this article.