Visiting Scholar Has His Eyes on the Road — Literally — in Search of Wildfire Impacts Climate adaption expert Mikhail Chester focuses on infrastructure vulnerabilities in a changing environment

LUSKIN UP-CLOSE

By Claudia Bustamante

For the next year, the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin will benefit from the research and expertise of a climate adaptation specialist.

Mikhail Chester, an associate professor of civil engineering at Arizona State University, has joined the institute as a visiting scholar, focusing his yearlong appointment on studying infrastructure vulnerabilities in a changing environment.

Specifically, Chester will study how roads are vulnerable to wildfires.

“Roads are not designed for the worsening conditions of climate change,” Chester said.

The old, conventional thinking about this problem was to map the hazards: Where will it be hotter? Where will it flood? Where do the roads and bridges intersect?

“Infrastructure are not fragile, brittle things. They’re tough,” he said. “What I’ve been trying to do is shine a light on how we can think more critically about what ‘vulnerability’ means.”

Last year, California experienced its largest and deadliest wildfire season. And despite a wet winter, the state is again braced for an active wildfire season spurred by rising heat and driven by winds.

In recent years, Californians have seen wildfires burn near, and eventually cross, freeways.

And yet, “for the most part, the asphalt is OK,” Chester said. “It turns out the biggest danger to roads is after the wildfire.”

‘As infrastructure professionals ― planners and engineers ― if we can’t recognize issues and make changes, we’re going to be irrelevant.’

— Mikhail Chester

A fire will burn up vegetation, creating ground debris. It will also shift the soil chemistry, making it less likely to absorb water. The two can combine to disastrous effects following heavy rains. In what has become a routine post-wildfire concern, rocks, mud and other debris flow down hillsides left barren from recent fires and wreak havoc on roadways and other infrastructure.

While at UCLA, Chester ― who hopes to engage with professionals across multiple campus disciplines, such as urban planning, engineering, climate science and public health ― plans to connect the state’s fire forecasts and transportation infrastructure with various environmental indicators, like terrain, vegetation and soil characteristics.

“When you connect the dots and put all these things together, ideally, you come up with a better way of characterizing vulnerability,” Chester said.

Once the risks are identified, local officials and policymakers can draft an array of responses ranging from strengthening infrastructure and managing forests to detouring traffic away from vulnerable roadways.

A civil engineer with a public policy background, Chester is a leading researcher on the interface between infrastructure and urbanization. His work on the environmental impact of transportation looks beyond tailpipe emissions to assess the role of roads, fuel supply chains and manufacturing.

In Arizona, with high temperatures and flash flooding, he has explored climate adaptation and resilience. He is also currently involved in an interdisciplinary study with UCLA on the sun and heat exposure a person experiences in their day-to-day travels.

All of this work, as Chester explains, is the groundwork for a larger question: How will we manage infrastructure for the next 100 years?

The world is rapidly changing and new technology constantly emerging. People will continue to demand more from an infrastructure that is rigid and not designed to quickly and efficiently accommodate changes such as, for example, autonomous vehicles.

“I think we are woefully unprepared for how we manage infrastructure or how we think about the problem,” said Chester, whose work aims to reimagine these concepts for the 21st century and beyond.

“We are so stuck with the status quo that I’m worried whether or not we can make substantive change fast enough. I think as infrastructure professionals ― planners and engineers ― if we can’t recognize issues and make changes, we’re going to be irrelevant.”

Taylor on ‘America’s Worst Freeway’

Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke to Mashable about the prospects for relief on “America’s worst freeway” — Los Angeles’ congested 405. Mayor Eric Garcetti has called for a transportation revolution that encourages ridesharing and emission-free cars and expands the system of rail, subways and electrified buses — all by the time the 2028 Olympics come to town. The plan includes a new public transit system through the 405 corridor. However, Taylor cautioned, “if that freeway becomes free flowing, it is an invitation to use it.” Los Angeles has built an enormous commuter rail system, yet public transit use is plummeting and auto ownership is rising, he said. Though it has been met with suspicion and hostility, his solution to fixing the 405 — charging motorists to use it — is the surest way to change ingrained driving habits, said Taylor, a professor of urban planning. He concluded, “There must be consequences to driving.”


 

Taylor and De León on the Challenge of Giving Up Cars

Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke with CalMatters about ways to change the habits of Californians who are reluctant to give up their cars. “If we can create environments where traveling by other means becomes easier and easier, people will drive less,” Taylor said. “The challenge is the transition.” He added that increasing housing density could help create pedestrian-friendly cities that render automobiles such a hassle that they become an undesirable accessory. CalMatters also spoke to Kevin de León, UCLA Luskin senior analyst and policymaker-in-residence, about the dual challenge of taking on the fossil fuel industry and convincing consumers to change their ways. “You are talking about persuading [millions of] individual car drivers in the largest state in the union to drive zero-emission vehicles, or take public transportation, or ride a bike, or walk, or rideshare,” de León said. “We drive internal-combustion cars in part because they are easy.”

Taylor on Nationwide Trend of Declining Bus Ridership

Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke with the Naples Daily News about declining ridership on public buses, a nationwide trend that has caused alarm among transit managers. In Florida’s Collier County, ridership on public transit increased for 10 years until 2013. Since then, it has steadily declined. In vehicle-friendly areas like Collier County, public transit offers a social service for people who can’t afford a car or access other transportation options, Taylor said. “Very few people make up the most transit trips,” he said, noting that the success of a program often depends on a small group of frequent riders.

Taylor on New Freeways, Same Old Congestion

Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke with KCRW’s Greater L.A. program about several freeway expansion plans in the region. For motorists hoping the projects would bring lighter traffic, Taylor tempered expectations. As the region grows, more people and goods will need to move around and the expanded freeways will eventually clog up again, he said. The key to relieving congestion is charging for the use of the road, which is “wildly unpopular” among motorists and elected officials, he said. The urban planning professor also linked the planned High Desert Freeway project, which would connect Palmdale and Lancaster with the Victorville area, to the affordable housing debate in the L.A. Basin. With resistance to higher-density housing near L.A.’s transit corridors, “we end up building out on the fringe, and then we have to accommodate the demand for the traffic out there,” he said.


 

Crowdsourcing L.A.’s Transit Challenges


 

Taylor on the ‘Longest Freeway Revolt in California History’

Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, was quoted in a Los Angeles Daily News story revisiting the 60-year grassroots battle against extension of the 710 Freeway. A group of South Pasadena residents known as the Freeway Fighters launched the campaign against connecting the 10 and 210/134 freeways in 1959, when the proposed route would have cut through their hometown. Different iterations of the freeway extension plan came and went until November 2018, when Caltrans abandoned the effort. “What is unusual about this one is how long it went on,” Taylor said of the 710 fight. “This is the longest freeway revolt in California history.” Called heroes by some and obstructionists by others, many of the Freeway Fighters recently shared their stories in an oral history project by the California State Library.


 

Taylor’s Journey From Transfer Student to Professor

A UCLA Newsroom article celebrating transfer students featured Urban Planning Professor Brian Taylor and UCLA Luskin Senior Fellow Tom Epstein, president of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors. Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies, was a Long Beach City College transfer student before getting his bachelor’s in geography and Ph.D. in urban planning at UCLA. “It just so happens that I recently hosted my now retired LBCC economics professor for lunch at the UCLA Faculty Club to thank him for changing my life,” Taylor said. “At the time I was studying to be a travel agent, and he convinced me to transfer to UC to study geography and economics instead.” At UCLA, 92% of transfer students come from California community colleges. “Completing a degree helps students not just to succeed in the economy, but also to contribute more to their community by helping people who are less fortunate or participating in civic affairs,” Epstein said.


 

Taylor on Public Opposition to Congestion Pricing

In a Los Angeles Times article about the prospect of congestion pricing in West Los Angeles, Urban Planning Professor Brian Taylor commented on public opposition to the proposed fees. The article explained the findings of the Southern California Association of Governments’ recently published study, which modeled the effects of a $4 fee to enter a 4.3-square-mile area of West Los Angeles and Santa Monica during weekday rush hour. According to the model, such a fee would immediately reduce traffic delays and miles driven within the area by 20%, leading to increases in transit ridership, biking, walking and carpooling. Despite the predicted successes of congestion pricing, many residents of the area expressed their opposition to the proposal. Taylor, director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, said that “people typically oppose the system before they’ve seen it work, [but] they tend to go majority opposition to majority support when they see it in practice.”


From Public Transit to Public Mobility

From Public Transit to Public Mobility

12th Annual UCLA ITS Downtown Los Angeles Forum on Transportation, Land Use, and the Environment

Presented by the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies

Date: March 1, 2019

Location: Japanese American National Museum (Aratani Central Hall)

100 N. Central Ave., LA,CA 90012

Registration: 8:45AM – 9:00AM

Event Program: 9:00AM – 5:00PM

Reception: 5:00PM – 7:00PM (Hirasaki Family Garden)

The 12th UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies Downtown Forum grapples with the public sector’s response to the dual trends of emerging new mobility services and declining public transit ridership.

What does the increasing role of private mobility options in cities mean for transportation agencies, public transit providers, cities, and the traveling public? Should innovation be encouraged, quashed, or managed? Many regions in California are making big investments in public transit to create a viable alternative to driving; are these burgeoning new services a threat or opportunity for these investments?

The 12th Annual Downtown Forum will explore implementation of the strategies discussed at the October 2018 Arrowhead Symposium, a 3-day in-depth examination of what’s happening in urban mobility amidst an inundation of new options, to how public agencies are adapting to accommodate, manage, and incorporate, and compete with new options while continuing to serve the public interest. The Downtown Forum advances strategies to implementation in four areas seen as critical to the public sector’s response to new mobility:

  • Successful models for the public sector to partner with private companies providing public mobility service
  • How public agencies can effectively obtain and use data to manage public mobility
  • Identifying and implementing the most impactful, cost-effective incremental changes to streets and transit service in order to double public transit ridership in the next decade
  • Coordinating implementation of new technologies and mobility services to enhance equity and quality of life

AICP credits available.

Lunch Provided. RSVP at https://uclaitsdtla2019.eventbrite.com