ridesharing in VT

Nathan Belz, PhD civil and environmental engineering candidate, and Brian H. Y. Lee, assistant professor, both in the School of Engineering at the University of Vermont were awarded this years Fred Burggraf Award, a national award that recognizes excellence in transportation research by researchers 35 years of age or younger.
Their research focuses on ridesharing in Vermont, how rideshares are formed, and broadening the question from how many passengers are in the vehicle to also include who is in the vehicle. Below, they answer a few questions regarding their research and what it says about transportation in Vermont.
Can you explain the research/study that you have recently been awarded for?
We wanted to study how people in Vermont share rides by offering some different perspectives and using unique data. Our thinking behind this problem goes beyond considering just how many people are in a vehicle but also who is in it and what their relationships are with each other. We were able to represent the availability of vehicles within different households, the efforts that household members take to coordinate trips, distances to work, and distances needed to accommodate passengers.
With a statewide analysis, we were advancing research on ridesharing as most previous work focus on cities or large metropolitan areas. Also, by studying Vermont, we were considering different human-made environments that are generally more rural than other places that have been studied.
Two key resources made this work possible: the 2009 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) and the Vermont E911database. The NHTS data for Vermont included an oversampling, which allows for sophisticated statistical analysis of how people travel in this state. The E911 data is a Geographic Information System (GIS) dataset that represents all residential and commercial locations in Vermont. This dataset is unique because it is one of only two that is publicly available for an entire state; the other is for Rhode Island.
How did you decide upon the topic?
In general, we are interested in why people do the things that they do in transportation. For this research, we wanted to better understand why some people share rides with others and with whom? It is a much understudied topic and relates directly to what transportation choices people have and consider. The bigger research questions that motivate us include why people make certain choices, how do they develop certain preferences, and what factors affect their travel behaviors.  This is particularly important for young people because the choices they make now, or the activities and practices they see adults do, can influence the habits that they form later in life.
You competed with a number of people who are researching in different areas of transportation. What makes your topic so special? What are its implications?
In addition to focusing on an understudied topic, using some unique data, and doing a statewide analysis, our study relates to some very timely transportation issues. Ridesharing can help reduce fuel consumption, congestion, pollution, and household spending on travel. It can also help improve the ability of non-drivers, such as youth, to gain better access to a wider range of activities.  Our study was able to shed some light on those who are already share rides and by learning more about them, we may be better able to support this mode and help provide more and better travel choices to a wider range of people.
How does this research fit into the larger goals of sustainable transportation, mobility and energy?
Our existing transportation system has a lot of excess capacity in the form of empty seats in people’s vehicles. In the face of budget constraints and environmental concerns, this system can be made more efficient by taking advantage of these unused seats.  Our research considers one way to move more people, rather than more vehicles. The emphasis on who and not just how many people share rides underscores the importance of social relationships in considering transportation problems.
Does the Vermont landscape and the Vermont mindset play a role in your research and its progression?
The data that we used was particular to Vermont.  Since this state is largely rural compared to the context of other studies on this topic, we were able to provide new insights on how built-environment affects the decision to share a vehicle. Settlement patterns here can leave residents very spatially disconnected but Vermonters manage to remain extremely socially connected. The sharing of resources and the consciousness of environmental issues and sustainability are very much a part of the Vermont culture and helped inspire us in our research.
How important are state policies with regards to this research and its advancement?
State policies are vital for creating and supporting sustainable travel choices. In a rural state such as Vermont, it can be difficult to provide good public transit service and many people are dependent on private vehicles. Increasing support for rideshares can help provide travel choices for those in need as well as making our transportation system more efficient. Some of our findings suggest that policies at both the state and local levels should aim to concentrate employment and commercial activities in central places.  The work end of commute trips appears to have a stronger influence on the choice to rideshare than does the home end.
How will you further this research from here? How will it move forward?
The NHTS is a rich dataset that can help examine ridesharing as well as answer a myriad of other travel behavior questions. Along with other researchers at the UVM Transportation Research Center, we will continue to use this and other data to better understand how engineers, planners, and policy makers can better provide transportation choices to the public. For example, one other graduate student is currently working under the supervision of Drs. Brian Lee and Lisa Aultman-Hall to examine how households allocate their vehicles to different household members and how this allocation affects fuel consumption.