Watkins Tackles Atlanta's Transit Conundrum
If you’re tuned in to transit-related news in Atlanta, you may have recently seen or heard Georgia Tech’s own Kari Watkins any number of places.
The assistant professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering — who is also a Tech alumna (CE 97) — has several projects related to sustainability, transportation and information, two of which have been the subject of media interest in recent months.
Watkins attributes the timing of this attention partly to events such as National Bike Month in May. She also cites an increase in transportation conversations in the metro Atlanta area following last summer’s failed T-SPLOST vote. The referendum would have generated $8.5 billion for a variety of transportation projects around the state.
“We’re all figuring out how we can optimize what we have and make better use of the space that exists,” Watkins said. “Even those who aren’t environmentally minded recognize the congestion and space issues and are tired of it. We have to make all our modes function better, which includes providing better information.”
Featured by NPR, Fox 5, Channel 2's People 2 People and The Chattanoogan, Watkins’ Cycle Atlanta app launched in October 2012 with collaboration from the City of Atlanta and Chris Le Dantec, assistant professor in Georgia Tech's School of Literature, Media and Communication. A second iteration of the app, which uses a smart phone’s GPS to track cycling routes, now lets users add notes and positive or negative feedback about their cycling experience.
“The data is being used in conjunction with a bike push the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition is making for bicycle infrastructure along Peachtree Street,” Watkins said. Despite the artery’s lack of infrastructure, she added, “we’ve learned all these cyclists are already there.”
The designers hope to improve the app’s ability to interface with the City of Atlanta, ultimately using the information to improve infrastructure in areas cyclists are already prevalent and to crowd source the best routes that they are already using.
One Bus Away
Watkins’ work doesn’t stop at bikes. She’s also busy integrating the Seattle-based One Bus Away (OBA) app into Atlanta’s transportation culture.
OBA, which has been featured in the AJC (twice) and Fox 5, enhances the commuting experience for bus riders by providing real-time tracking information for MARTA buses. The idea surfaced during Watkins’ dissertation at the University of Washington.
“The goal is to make OBA multiagency, multiregional and multimodal” she said, where it would ideally include bus and rail from local universities, MARTA, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, Cobb Community Transit, Gwinnett County Transit, the Atlantic Station shuttle and other systems equipped with GPS tracking. Future app versions will be multiregional, eliminating a manual switch users must make to tell the app they’re in Atlanta.
Someday, Watkins envisions, you will have an app that knows your route to work and what time you want to get there, and alert you if your bus or train is going to be early or late.
“It gives back some of the power you give away as a transit rider,” she said. She also plans to evaluate whether the app changes ridership or wait times.
Watkins, who’s also been consulted for transportation stories by both NPR and The Atlantic Cities, goes by @transitmom on Twitter. After several years of consulting and work in transit planning in Atlanta, she moved with her husband to Seattle to make the switch to research and academia. Once she finished her doctoral work at University of Washington, she was elated to return to Ma Tech as a professor.
Watkins has found a natural correlation between her work and family life. “I loved taking the bus in Seattle with my daughters because it was a great cross section of Seattle society,” she said. “Transportation is a part of having a sense of community, and being a parent makes you think about making our systems more sustainable for the future.” A bike commuter herself, Watkins rides into campus from Virginia-Highland most days, with the occasional bus commute mixed in.
While the work on Cycle Atlanta and OBA continues, Watkins will co-teach three courses this fall including one on intelligent transportation systems and another on multimodal transportation.