DETROIT — Transportation officials and students involved in the field are taking a multidisciplinary approach to combine engineering skills and the research of scholars in public health and public policy to develop the future of transportation in the state.

Several hundred students and professionals in a variety fields attended a conference, titled the “Summit on Transforming Transportation: Economies and Communities”, to discuss the outlook for transportation in Michigan this past weekend here at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel. Officials from the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University — the universities that make up the University Research Corridor — also came together to exchange ideas on the topic.

Susan Zielinski, managing director of Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transportation, or SMART, at the University’s Transportation Research Institute, said the conference was held to brainstorm solutions for transportation problems in the state.

The conference was the first collaboration between SMART and the Transforming Transportation Research Corridor Consortium — a joint effort of the URC and professionals in the state that was founded in March 2010.

“What we’re trying to create is opportunities for students to be very engaged in transforming transportation through learning more about it and also through getting involved in it and learning through action,” Zielinski said.

In an address about linking research with action, Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, relayed the challenges facing transportation in Michigan. Issues discussed included providing transportation for the elderly and the environmental sustainability of transportation. Steudle said he is optimistic about the Michigan-based research being conducted by the URC.

“There isn’t any research going on in California or Florida or Virginia or Minnesota that couldn’t be done better here,” he said.

The conference helped participants understand transportation’s role in light of rapid changes in technology and politics, Steudle said.

Though the conference gave participants the opportunity to hear some interesting ideas, Steudle said it was more important for attendees to focus on solutions for the most pressing problems for public transportation. These include public safety, improving homeland security, the challenge of unpredictable oil prices and declining transportation funding.

“It’s an exciting and challenging time to be involved in transportation,” he said. “We’ve got some of the best minds, some of the best in the country sitting in this room. When we all work together, I don’t think there’s anything we can’t do, and there is no reason why Michigan can’t be the center of how transportation evolves and transforms well into the future.”

Tracy Swinburn, center manager at the Center for Value-Based Insurance Design at the School of Public Health, said she learned more about the transit issues in Southeast Michigan at the conference.

“For me, it’s a great chance to apply what I know from working in other areas to find out how I can better help or get engaged here in Southeast Michigan,” Swinburn said.

Public Health student Jeri Stroupe facilitated a panel discussion on transportation and public health during the conference along with LSA junior Mark Bradley, who works at the University’s Transport Research Institute. Stroupe said she wanted to get involved with the conference because she saw an opportunity to combine sustainable transportation and public health to promote healthier lifestyles.

“This is just a great way to get dialogue and discussion going and having people from different disciplines get on the same page,” she said. “There’s stuff here about CO2 emissions and efficient energy all the way to social equity issues related to transportation, so it’s a really broad scope, and it’s increasingly important to have people from these different fields talking to each other.”

Stroupe said the conference was an opportunity for students and professionals to discuss transportation solutions pertinent to the region.

“I think it’s really significant that they’re hosting this conference here in Detroit,” she said. “I think it’s just asking for revitalization, and I think transportation is one of the most critical drivers of that.”

Minetta Van Strien, a graduate student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, said she enjoyed the collaborative nature of the conference and the exchange of ideas between scholars and professionals, adding that the discussions were relevant to her education.

“It directly relates to my studies because I am interested in transportation but also sustainability,” she said. “I think there will be a lot of things that I can use for my masters project here and even the papers I have due next week.”

Rackham student Khawar Abbas Khan, who is also studying in the SNRE, said the conference allowed him to increase his knowledge of the transportation industry.

“This conference has been really good for me because, before this, I didn’t have any idea about how to make transportation more sustainable,” Khan said.

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