Kari Watkins

Name: Kari Edison Watkins
Title: Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech
Research interests: Transportation planning; transit planning and operations; traveler information; mode choice decision making; complete streets design

Urban Transportation Information Lab Website

A native of Detroit, ("The Motor City”), Dr. Kari Edison Watkins developed what would become a lifelong fascination with public transportation when she traveled to Germany as a high school exchange student. That interest has never abated.

“Going to Germany raised my awareness about how transportation can work,” she says. “It was the big moment, when I realized I wanted to pursue civil engineering.” 
After graduating from Georgia Tech with that civil engineering degree, Watkins worked as a consultant for almost 10 years before she found herself in graduate school.

Once again, her interest in public transit pushed her to more systematically investigate the subject. She began studying the barriers to transit usage and some possible ways to mitigate them.

Happily, Watkins’s doctoral studies at the University of Washington coincided with the emergence of smartphone technology, a development that offered some great research synergies. Watkins immediately saw the usefulness of employing these handheld devices to study and improve transit use. She focused on whether mobile phone technology had an impact on ridership and on perceptions of wait-time and safety. 

Her work eventually led to the development of an app called OneBusAway, which gave transit riders in the Puget Sound area real-time access to public transit schedules. That app now has more than 100,000 unique weekly users. 

As an associate professor at Georgia Tech, Watkins’s research continues to focuses on multimodal transportation and broader transportation issues like congestion, equity, and affordability. She focuses specifically on how better distributed information can remove barriers to alternate forms of transportation, like cycling and public transit. 

“There are a lot of ways to improve a transportation system. Infrastructure is critical, but costly,” she says.  “What can we do in the interim to make it better? Giving people better information tools is one way to do that. If people don’t understand the system, they won’t use it.”

Watkins has begun rolling out a OneBusAway application for the Atlanta area and is also working with the University of Central Florida’s (UCF’s) Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR), to study the impacts of OBA implementation in Tampa. Ultimately, she’d like to make it national program, available to transit riders in all cities and towns.  

The OBA technology is open-source so it can be freely edited and improved by software developers all over the world. And it works on a number of different operating systems. But, this does not mean Watkins’ work with it is finished. 

Working with Dr. Hans Klein, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy, she is reviewing the type of information that agencies are willing and able to provide the developers. The research team  is focusing on third-parties who provide data to transportation agencies and on getting a better understanding of the challenges of using third- party data. 

“If an agency goes from loop sensors or camera-based systems to GPS data, what about the underlying count data? GPS doesn’t give volume data, so how are agencies able to go from one type of data to another? It’s a leap of faith, in a way. There’s some risk management involved in relying on third parties instead of your own infrastructure.” 
This project is also exploring barriers that TMCs face in using third-party data and on the variety of data standards that are being used. 

Ultimately, Watkins would like agencies to open up their data so that software developers can use it to build new apps for them.  She is working with software engineers to make that happen, too.
“There’s a great vibe going on in the younger generation. They want to do weekend coding projects to create tools on behalf of these agencies,” she said. 

Looking at the big picture, Watkins knows that even the most forward-thinking transportation innovations will not be successful if they are not adopted by business, government and community leaders. That’s’ why she took a lead role in organizing the first TransportationCamp South in Atlanta in February 2013.

“It’s a neat event because it draws a really different mix - developers and transportation people – who each bring a very different skill set to the table. It’s not a typical public meeting that takes on a negative vibe. By using people’s input and drawing on their strengths, it turns public engagement into a positive.”

As much as she loves finessing her research into transportation, Watkins is just as passionate about her role as a teacher.  She is particularly fond of the senior design program. 

“It’s the last step before they go into real world – an opportunity for you to impact their education and give them all the little things they may have missed in the curriculum. It’s especially meaningful to teach a class like this if it’s your alma mater."



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