Professor Kari Watkins featured in CoE Cares Spotlight

Via Georgia Tech College of Engineering:

Are you already dreading your commute home this evening? Kari Watkins isn’t, and she doesn’t want you to either.

Watkins is the civil engineering professor who’s been all over the news lately thanks to the app she co-created, One Bus Away. She’s also a bike commuter who says you don’t have to be a “super cyclist” to ride through town on two wheels. In a city where car culture is endemic, Watkins advocates easier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly ways to get around.

Can you tell us what your work at Georgia Tech focuses on? 
I focus on what is often called sustainable transportation. The goal is to make the transportation system environmentally friendly, more efficient economically, and also more socially friendly by looking to other modes and trying to make multiple modes feasible options for people.

How did you get interested in mobile apps as transportation aid?
I was living in Seattle, and I already had a bit of a focus on how to make public transportation function better and was trying to travel on transit with my daughters. The city of Seattle has a fantastic transit system, but it was really hard to locate places that were really, really easy by transit. There was no good way to do that search on existing tools, so I tried creating a program on my own.

This program I created was called One Bus Away. It was pretty crude, but then I met Brian Ferris, a computer science Ph.D. who said, “I can make this work the way you want it to.” In addition to that, he had this idea for making real-time information more accessible. The two of us started working together and dreaming up what all of these different tools could be that would make it easier for people to use transit, and to overcome some of the barriers to using transit.

What is your daily commute like?
I live in Virginia-Highland, and I actually take a different mode on different days of the week. I am mostly a bike commuter because it is a great way to get my exercise. But I am kind of a wimpy bike commuter, so if it’s a rainy day I take the bus. If I have places to go -- because of the way the city of Atlanta is sort of spread out -- there are times when I have things I have to do that I can't get to, so sometimes my husband and I will trade. We only own one car in our house.

What would you suggest to employees who drive cars and are interested in other ways to commute?
I would say to ask around to other people who you have seen biking or taking transit and such, because I think it seems really overwhelming at first. You have built up this habit of using a certain mode and you have to relearn how to get around in a new way. There are some programs that will set you up with a buddy, like a bike buddy or a transit buddy, who can help you see how it would be. You may not know the tools that are out there; you may not know that something like One Bus Away exists to tell you how many minutes until the bus is coming. Likewise with cycling, there may be some great shortcut that you don't know about that would make your bike trip really nice.

Most people are like, “Oh, I love to bike but it’s going to rain and I don't want to show up to work soaking wet.” Once you are actually taking that mode, you get used to the habits, so you know where the showers are and where the bike racks are. And you know what kind of gear to have so that when you get dumped on in the rain, you have a proper raincoat. 

What can students or employees who want to ease Atlanta's dependence on cars do to help?
In the transit realm, there is Citizens for Progressive Transit. They do a lot with raising awareness and helping MARTA understand the rider perspective. Atlanta Bike Coalition, on the bike side, is a fantastic organization, and having them in my corner as a cyclist has been a huge asset. I biked down Ponce after a lot of the snow storms, and there was so much gravel. I am not some super cyclist – with something like the bike lanes on Ponce, I am still a little intimidated. I biked after the storm and with all this gravel, I was afraid I was going to bite it. So I wrote an email to the Atlanta Bike Coalition. They contacted the city, and those bike lanes were swept.

Do you have a favorite MARTA station?
My favorite MARTA station is the No. 36 bus! I think a lot of people discount the bus system in Atlanta, and they think if they can't get to a train station and take a train, then transit is never going to work for them. The same community is on my bus -- many days, there are people I know when I get on and we say good morning. There is one guy that I told I was going to this conference in Paris, and he told me about several little coffee shops that were his favorite. I went and tried a couple of them, and they were fantastic. There is another family whose daughters I am watching grow up before my eyes. We talk about the schools and parenting tips. These are experiences that if I were sitting alone in my car would never happen.