From the Motor City to CycleAtlanta: Dr. Kari (Edison) Watkins' journey

Dr. Kari (Edison) Watkins (CE ’97) thinks it might be a good thing for Americans to cool down their love affair with the automobile. Her research promises to make that separation a little less painful.

“A lot of people think of public transportation as a stinky old bus that you have to wait for,” says Watkins, an assistant professor of civil engineering whose work has focused on collective transit, alternative transportation, and real-time user information software.

"But if the service respects me, by being a nice, frequent, on-time vehicle, people change their attitude.”

Watkins has some impressive science to back up her claim, much of which she and her research group will present at the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) annual meeting in Washington, DC., Jan. 13 -18, 2013. Altogether, she will present findings from four research projects, each focusing on some aspect of multi-modal transportation planning and the use of technology in transportation.

Her interest in the subject runs deep.

“When I was 16 – and dying to drive like everyone else my age,” says the Detroit native, the daughter of an auto industry worker. “But then I went to Germany as an exchange student, and, for a whole year, I wasn’t able to drive. What I found was I could get around to any place I needed to get to because the connections between buses and trains were seamless. I experienced greater freedom as 16-year-old in Germany than I would have in the United States.”

In graduate school Watkins translated this revelation into an academic pursuit, collaborating with a colleague to create a computer app called “OneBusAway” (OBA) that allowed riders to know, in real-time, when the next bus is due to arrive. Over a three-year period, OBA was scooped up by more than 100,000 transit users in the Greater Puget Sound area.

She is currently working with her Georgia Tech graduate students to develop a similar app for Atlanta.

“What we found in Washington was interesting. In situations where people are waiting for a bus or a train, we find that they perceive themselves to be waiting for about twice as long as they actually are. So if a bus is late 10 or 15 minutes, they’ll perceive it to be about a half-hour,” she said.

“But when they had this app, they were able to see how long they were actually waiting. Their perception of the wait-time dipped. And they began sharing that information with others who were also waiting.”

Watkins thinks more people will take advantage of available public transportation if they do not perceive it to be a protracted waiting game.

“A problem that plagues the transit industry is wait time, something you don’t have when you drive a car,” she said. “If you are standing around on a corner, waiting for a bus and you don’t know exactly when it’s going to come, you can’t make a decision about doing something else. That’s frustrating.”

A survey that Watkins conducted three years after implementing the OneBusAway app in Washington backed up this hypothesis: results revealed “significant positive shifts in satisfaction with transit, perceptions of safety, and ridership frequency as a result of the increased use of real-time arrival information.”

But even this high-tech tool has its limits. In a paper Watkins will present at the TRB, she and co-author, Dr. Alan Borning, will explore how rider perception of the margin of error affects user satisfaction with real-time transportation-reporting tools like OneBusAway.

When she lived in Washington, Watkins was happy to use the OBA technology to commute to her job and to navigate the city with her two children in tow. Daily trips became opportunities to engage her children in discussions about what they saw outside.

When she moved to Atlanta, she had to adjust her routine – and develop another app.

“In cities that are relatively spread out, like Atlanta, collective transportation options can’t handle all of the demand, “Watkins explains. “Alternative forms of transport, like cycling, need to be a part of the mix.“

In the fall of 2012, she and her Georgia Tech colleague, Dr. Christopher Le Dantec, developed a smart phone app, CycleAtlanta, that tracks cycling routes in Atlanta. Cyclists love it because it allows them to share information about good routes, average trip times, and safety issues throughout the city. They’re not the only fans.

“The city can use the information we collect from this app to make future decisions about where infrastructure is needed to create bike-friendly routes throughout Atlanta,” Watkins said. “And this can, eventually, lead to more riders on public transportation. After all, bikes can take you to the bus station, and the train station.”

A 1997 graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology, Dr. Kari (Edison) Watkins holds a master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Connecticut and a doctorate in civil engineering from the University of Washington. In addition to authoring dozens of articles in the field of transportation, she is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2012 CUTC Wootan Award for Best Dissertation in Transportation Policy and Planning, the USDOT Eisenhower Scholarship, and the Women’s Transportation Seminar Puget Sound Chapter Helene Overly Scholarship. In December of 2012, she was recognized by the National Academy of Engineering’s Frontiers of Engineering program with an alumni spotlight.