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Pat Mokhtarian: Taking a closer look at travel behavior

Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Professor Patricia L. Mokhtarian in her office, located in
the Sustainable Education Building

If you glance at the books that dominate Professor Pat Mokhtarian’s office at CEE, you might have a hard time guessing her field of academic study.

Tomes by French humanist Michel de Montaigne, American comedian Jerry Seinfeld and Greek poet Homer compete for shelf space with more scientific takes on her official area of expertise.

Which is?

“Travel behavior – everything from the impacts of telecommunications technology on travel behavior to the need to travel for its own sake,” says the former director of UC Davis’s Telecommunications and Travel Behavior Research Program.

“Those are some of the books that I use in a freshman seminar I teach on the joy of travel. Literature is one of the ways we can gain insight into the subject.”

Another way is quantitative research, a method that Mokhtarian has effectively used to explore the field of transportation for more than 30 years. Applying mathematical principles to the study of attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions of travel is  a rich and exciting challenge for Mokhtarian, who has authored more than 160 refereed articles in her field. It's also an area that requires careful attention to detail.

“People underestimate how difficult it is to measure attitudes, but it’s something that we think about all of the time,” she said. “A survey can be biased by the questions you ask, the ones you don’t ask, and the words you use to ask them. We are always reviewing for bias.”

Mokhtarian’s current research focuses on identifying and quantifying the factors that influence a commuter’s choice of transit mode. One of those factors is the ability to multi-task.

“It is possible that individuals will choose transit over the automobile for a given trip—even if the transit alternative takes longer—if they are able to use the travel time more productively," she said.

To test this, Mokhtarian and her research colleagues surveyed more than 2100 northern California commuters to measure their multitasking attitudes and behavior. The survey also queried general attitudes, mode-specific perceptions, and standard socioeconomic traits.

“We found significant evidence that multitasking enablers, such as laptops, positively influence alternatives’ utility and could account for a small but non-trivial portion of the current mode shares. For example, the model estimates that there would be 9.38 percent fewer public transit riders without the ability to use laptops while commuting. There would also be an uptick in the number of drive-alone commuters.”

As drawn intrigued as she is by transportation research, it wasn’t Mokhtarian’s sole academic focus. As an undergraduate, she majored in mathematics because she admired the symmetry of the subject, and because “with a math background, you can apply yourself to any subject – psychology, English, mathematics.”

As a graduate student, this reasoning led her to pursue an operational research degree – “something that would allow me to apply the quantitative method to practical problems.”

The practical problem she chose – transportation – came to her almost by happenstance, while she was in the midst of her master’s program at Chicago’s Northwestern University.

“I’d grown up in the South so I’d really never stepped on a bus, but there I was, living in Chicago without a car, taking the L [an elevated commuter train] and I began to think transportation could be a fruitful for me,” she said.

As our society has become more and more portable, mobile, and transient, Mokhtarian’s research has provided some data-based foundations for managing change.

For instance, Mokhtarian points out that some of her research has shown that, while the option of telecommuting has become more possible with the advent of laptops, smart phones, and other wireless technology, it is not always the most attractive choice.

“People don’t choose to telecommute for a number of reasons,” she said. “The act of commuting gives them some escape, a buffer between home and work, and a sensation of movement which is, in itself, pleasurable. In one case, we found a telecommuter who had to take a walk around his house before he could sit down and start work. The travel time was that psychological cue that let him know it was time to work.”

In addition to her work at Georgia Tech, Mokhtarian is the North American area editor of the journal Transportation, and is on the editorial boards of Transportation Research Part A, Transport Policy, Transportation Letters, the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, the European Journal of Transport and Infrastructure Research, and Travel Behaviour and Society.