MTI Team Awarded NSF Grant

Professor Anna AlberiniEven before the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of public transportation has been declining throughout the United States. In response to this decline, transit agencies across the country are investigating new tactics to increase accessibility to public transportation.

Fairness and equity in mind, local transit agency, Driving Alexandria Home Safely (DASH), has implemented a fare-free public transportation program to give complimentary access to buses within the city. To assess the impacts of this free public transportation, the National Science Foundation granted funding to Professor Anna Alberini (AREC), and her inter-departmental research team, Professors Cinzia Cirillo (CEE) and Partha Lahiri (JPSM), all of whom are affiliates of the Maryland Transportation Institute (MTI) at the University of Maryland (UMD).

“It’s very important to see if new investments or new strategies can revitalize public transportation systems,” said co-collaborator Cirillo.

The unique experiment will use surveys and data analysis to examine the results of fare-free transportation on overall ridership, emissions of greenhouse gases, and traffic and congestion, as well as distributional effects on different income groups and ethnicities. The multi-disciplinary team, with experience in engineering, economics, survey methodology and mathematics are combining their efforts to collect data and provide evidence to other transportation agencies, which will potentially influence policy recommendations and promote increased accessibility to public transit.

“What excites me about this grant is not only the collaboration,” Alberini said, “but also the fact that we, at UMD, can do something that is beneficial and helpful to the local community.”

Professor Cinzia Cirillo

Though the use of public transportation impacts American citizens daily, especially in more densely populated areas like northern Virginia, there is little existing research on the topic. Alberini’s study on public transportation is necessary and timely, especially when large-scale infrastructure funding is being considered by congressional policy makers.

“There aren’t many studies like this. It’s very difficult to follow the behavior of people over time, and that’s why the NSF supported us in this idea,” said Cirillo.

With almost $170,000 in NSF support, the study will be completed over a one-year period, with parallel surveys to be completed both by users of the DASH fare-free transportation system and by members of the general public in control locations. The surveys include questions on trip information, travel patterns and bus accessibility, along with hypothetical questions on intended use of public transit if it were free. The survey answers will then be combined with modeling of regional travel to calculate different transportation outcomes, such as the emissions impacts of fare-free ridership.

Importantly, Alberini’s team initially began their interdisciplinary research on transportation effects through the support of the MTI’s Seed Grant Program. The MTI Seed Grant program seeks to promote collaboration as well as increase opportunities for external funding, and in this case, helped establish Alberini’s multi-disciplinary team.

Published February 18, 2022