Transportation is a substantial contributor to climate change, and the next generation of engineers can help to develop solutions. Exposing students to real-world experiences is extremely valuable in preparing them for careers in transportation.

Michelle Oswald Beiler

Michelle Beiler sees significant opportunities for civil engineers to affect change in sustainable transportation planning. But taking steps to try to reduce harmful emissions is only part of the equation.

Beiler says mitigation — the process of proactively aiming to reduce carbon emissions — is an important aspect of transportation planning. The goal should be to encourage alternate forms of transportation rather than expand highway systems, for example. In addition, consideration must also be given to potential impacts, such as sea-level rise or an increase in intense high-precipitation events.

"Emissions released in the past can affect the future. We have to protect our infrastructure and systems and prepare for potential impacts to come," she says.

Beiler's academic research focuses on adaptation — how to prepare transportation systems for climate-based changes that may occur 25 to 50 years down the road. When considering whether communities should invest in upgrades or repairs to a coastal transit facility, for instance, Beiler looks at map data and inundation models to see if the site is likely to be impacted by flooding and often suggests ways to reinforce or relocate the facility to avoid potential catastrophe.

"We have an opportunity to address the issue of climate change," says Beiler, who has also been researching sustainable rating systems for transportation infrastructure (such as roads and trails) since graduate school. More recently, she worked with Union County to study the impact of the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail on the greater Lewisburg community.

In the classroom, Beiler works to prepare civil engineers with technical skills in transportation design and planning, and provide them the opportunity to apply their skills to real-world problems. Her upper-level Sustainable Transportation Planning course lets students simulate real-life design projects both through course projects and a charrette activity. The charrette asks students to role-play individual stakeholders, advocating for their wants and needs based on their perspective on the project. "In the end, you get a design plan where everyone has a piece to contribute and they understand each other's views," she says.

Posted Sept. 29, 2017