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Mission Possible: Tackling Mobility, Safety, and Environmental Concerns to Create Safer Commutes

Michael L. Pack discusses making your commute safer and more predictable through information visualization and open-access to data.

Michael PackMichael Pack is being honored as a Champion of Change for his efforts as a leader in transportation.

I often struggle to explain to friends and family what I do in my transportation research job at the University of Maryland. Those who have seen Mission Impossible III might recall that Tom Cruise plays a secret agent whose cover story is that he’s a transportation engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation. His dual identity is foolproof. His ramblings on traffic theory inevitably put everyone to sleep 10 seconds into any discussion about his work, immediately halting any additional questions or probing. My struggles with describing this line of work aren’t with the perception of transportation research as a snoozefest. My challenge is that this field is so broad and far-reaching that I have difficulty getting people out of the mindset that transportation is only about bridges and traffic signals.

Transportation is the backbone of our civilization and the reason for our economic prosperity for the past fifty-plus years.  However, there are major challenges facing us today. In Washington, D.C., my home, it’s estimated that congestion alone costs over $2.7 billion annually, including 134 million hours of wasted time stuck in traffic and ninety-one million gallons of excess gasoline consumed. Nearly half of this congestion is due to crashes, disabled vehicles, and weather-related hazards. This preventable and manageable congestion costs individual motorists time and money, reduces the region’s economic competitiveness, and decreases air quality by increasing vehicle idling time and emissions.  If that weren’t enough, approximately 40,000 people die, 2.5 million people are injured, and over four million are involved in property-damaging crashes annually in the U.S. Getting into an automobile is the most dangerous activity most of us do every day.

Since my graduation, my objective has been to help improve traffic and safety on our nation’s roadways, not simply by building bigger roads, but by making better use of what we already have through intelligent transportation systems. I view it as my responsibility to ensure that the declining funding for transportation investments are spent wisely on solutions that make our roads (and the people that drive on them) smarter and safer by leveraging our existing infrastructure to its greatest potential. After all, those are my tax dollars, too.

Since 2002, I’ve been leading a talented young group of researchers and software developers at the University of Maryland to provide innovative web-based tools to Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and first responders. These tools allow public agencies to make better, more informed investment decisions through visualization and sharing of their own real-time data. This data includes things like incredibly detailed accident statistics, traffic congestion measurements, weather data, travel behavior, and other information related to the dispatch and actions of first responders. I spend countless hours working with state and local DOTs, transit agencies, and first responders to explain the benefits of opening their data up to one another and to the public—all of which can ultimately lead to less congestion, waste, better decisions, and fewer injuries on our roadways. Through the use of these visualization technologies, agencies can now answer tough questions that were previously unanswerable, make rapid decision on where to invest their limited dollars, provide better information to the public, and even speed up their response to life-threatening crashes.

I’m proud of the outreach, education, and visualization tools that I’ve brought to the transportation community. Let’s continue to invest in solutions to tough mobility, safety, and environmental concerns while simultaneously making better use of our limited transportation funding. I hope that these efforts will shed light on the importance of transportation and the need to encourage young, talented minds to get involved in this industry.  In doing so, I’m trying to make your everyday commute a little better, while also forcing Tom Cruise’s character in Mission Impossible to choose a better disguise.

Michael Pack is the Director of the CATT Laboratory at the University of Maryland and the creative director of Regional Integrated Transportation Information System or RITIS.