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As an alumnus and a member of the Advisory Council for the Civil Engineering Department at Cornell University, I was asked to lead a workshop during the summer CURIE Academy at Cornell’s main campus. The purpose of the summer program was to inspire young women in high school to consider a future in engineering and at Cornell University. The students were exposed to engineering through a series of workshops and exhibitions. My workshop entitled “Transportation: How you can be part of the Future” included a presentation and a group activity.

 Last summer, I gave a presentation on the future of transportation to high school students in Cornell’s CATALYT Program. It was followed by a group activity, which included some ideas that blew me away. This summer I gave an updated version of the presentation that included a new group activity. Last summer, I had the students design a transportation system of the future with no constraints to geography. For this year’s activity, the students worked in twelve teams of four to design Cornell’s Campus of the Future with a focus on mobility options. While designing the campus, the students were required take into consideration populations that are historically ignored when public spaces are created: persons with disabilities, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and international/non-native English speaking students.

The highlights of the workshop are:

  • The young women were shocked at the idea that people can have access to a car without owning a car. Of all my slides, we spent 20 minutes on a slide about car sharing programs such as Zipcar, Car2Go, and Getaround. The students asked me how the program works, the technology behind the programs, and what is being done with the data. One young woman suggested using the data in transportation models to get a better sense of how people move. (Did I mention these are high school students?). The biggest discussion was around the need to own a car and the impact on communities. They were excited about the idea that carsharing reduces the number of cars people owned, but they were concerned carsharing doesn’t do enough to reduce congestion. They also wondered if it was practical to do a carshare program with electric vehicles to reduce the air emissions.
  • Presenting as a team. While my instructions were to select a representative to present the ideas on behalf of the team, every single group presented as a team. They made sure everyone had a speaking role. One team told me, “we worked as a team, so we will present as a team”.
  • Cornell should consider e-bikes. Of the twelve groups, almost all of them included e-bikes in their campus of the future. They noticed that people bike around Cornell’s campus. However, they were also aware of the steep hills. (True story: I walked up E. Seneca Street exactly one time during my 2.5 years at Cornell. I almost died trying to get to the top). The students believed that having e-bikes allows people to have a sustainable and reliable form of transportation, while also having an electric motor assistance to get up the hills. Since e-bikes can be expenseive, they recommended an e-bike sharing program to ensure affordability for all students. One group wanted to see an autonomous e-bike sharing program to help students with disabilities be able to move around the campus.
  • When you can’t fix the weather go underground. Ithaca, NY gets cold and it snows. About half of the groups took this into consideration when designing their future transportation system. They recommended some form of underground transportation. Some recommended an underground subway or hyperloop. Some kept it simple and recommended underground tunnels for people to walk, bike, or use a mobility device such as a wheelchair. (For the record, I would’ve appreciated any of these options as a student).
  • Teleportation from a watch? I didn’t put any limits on their creativity. One team decided that by 2058, students would be able to teleport to their desired location on campus by punching in the coordinates. It sparked some interesting questions from their peers around the practicality and the science behind teleportation.

The more I work with young people, I’m confident the engineering profession is going to be in good hands. They are compassionate, idealistic, collaborative, inquisitive, and super smart. Yes, I’m going to hire all 48 of them (I wish!).

Photo of a classroom at Cornell University with 48 participants in the CURIE Academy

Photo of some of the participants in the CURIE Academy

Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.

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