LISTEN: With technology driving transportation’s future, Mokhtarian is at the center of the action


Will we continue to own personal vehicles? Can public transit survive in a world with Uber and Lyft? What ever happened to those flying cars we used to dream about?

Patricia Mokhtarian explores all of that, along with how she’s using machine learning to predict travelers’ attitudes and improve transportation planning, in the latest episode of The Uncommon Engineer podcast from the College of Engineering out November 5.

Professor Patricia Mokhtarian

“Attitudes are fundamental to the decisions we make, and you will never find an attitudinal variable in any of these regional [transportation] models,” Mokhtarian told host Steve McLaughlin, Georgia Tech’s dean of engineering. “One [reason] is, how do we forecast them? To apply a regional model to look at what transportation will be like in 2025 or 2040, you'll need to predict the input variables that far into the future. And if you're talking about an attitude, who knows what they'll be?”

Mokhtarian, one of the world’s leading experts on travel behavior and the impact of information technology on transportation, said she’s working to use machine learning to analyze the attitude data she’s collected in smaller surveys and then estimate attitudes in the larger travel behavior data that regional transportation planners use in their forecasts.

“If we can do that successfully, we can start incorporating attitudinal variables into the models that use those datasets,” said Mokhtarian, the Susan G. and Christopher D. Pappas Professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Right now, they can't keep up with all the things we've just been talking about — automation, ride-hailing. None of these things can really be handled well by today's models, and we need to improve them so that they can.”

In a conversation that ranged from how millennials’ travel to telecommuting, Mokhtarian said her work has never been more exciting.

“Information technology was changing rapidly, which was one of the attractions to me of studying telecommuting and other applications, but transportation itself was pretty much same-old, same-old for decades on end,” she said. “But now, with the convergence of information technology and transportation technology, we're seeing this explosion of new transportation services, such as ride hailing, and, of course, automated vehicles just over the horizon.”

She also said she’s bullish on a future that will include air taxis and other kinds of flying cars.

“I think it's inevitable at some point. The question will be, what do we need to build around it from the standpoint of balancing competing interests? On the one hand, we want to get there fast. On the other hand, you've got to respect privacy, property rights, that sort of thing.”

Other highlights of the conversation:

Mokhtarian on ride-hailing versus public transportation

“It's a conundrum of sorts, because ride sharing can support public transportation, and that's obviously the hope, that it can solve the ‘last-mile problem,’ as we call it — you know, getting someone from home to the transit station and from the station to the destination. On the other hand, it can clearly compete with public transit. …

“The challenge, in some respects, for the transit companies is also to see themselves in the mobility business: not in the rail business or the bus business, but how can we work together with a variety of elements of the transportation package to make the experience more seamless for the passenger.”

Mokhtarian on the end — maybe — of personal vehicle ownership

“One thing that's being talked about a lot is mobility as a service. The idea is that, instead of owning a car, you subscribe to a mobility package, if you will. And for a certain number of dollars a month, you may get unlimited rides or a certain number of rides or a certain number of miles. And within that package, you can use any mix of modes that is most convenient. …

“A lot of people at the margin will adopt that. One question in my mind is the extent to which we'll still want to own [a car], you know? Have it in our driveway, have it at our disposal instantly, as opposed to having to wait for a vehicle of any kind to come pick us up.”

Mokhtarian on why transportation is a “misfit” discipline

“The issues are way beyond engineering, so that's one of the things that fascinates me and attracts me, and I think to a large extent my students as well. Transportation has historically been interdisciplinary, so in some ways we've long been a misfit, if you will, in kind of the more traditional engineering disciplines. So, of necessity, we've had to reach out to other disciplines such as urban planning, geography — in my field, psychology, sociology, anthropology, certainly economics.”