Sustainability Scholar takes on tough transportation challenge

Eric Gu has faced one of Indiana University’s thorniest policy challenges in his role as an IU Bloomington Sustainability Scholar: how to move hordes of pedestrians, motorists and cyclists along and across the traffic bottleneck that is the East 10th Street corridor.

“It is challenging,” said Gu, a freshman studying policy analysis in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “When I was working on this, I realized: When you make policy, you can’t satisfy everyone.”

But, he said, maybe you can adjust policies to make things better for most people. Possibly you can create incentives that encourage people to make better decisions. Those are the modest goals of his project, a study of transportation safety and mobility.

Eric Gu

Eric Gu

Working with Scott Robinson, planning services manager with the Bloomington Planning and Transportation Department, Gu carried out original research aimed at gaining a better understanding of the challenges involved in moving people through campus by car, by bike and on foot.

He observed and recorded traffic patterns and administered a survey of campus behavior and opinion. He also drew on City of Bloomington traffic data and previous studies and reports, including the IU Bloomington Campus Master Plan and a 2012 IU Transportation Demand Study.

The Shanghai native, who attended high school in Michigan, is one of 15 undergraduates participating in the 2020 Sustainability Scholars program through the IU Office of Sustainability and the Integrated Program in the Environment. The program pairs undergraduates with faculty mentors to conduct high-quality research in sustainability. More information about the program and links to stories about other Sustainability Scholars are on the Student Experience blog.

Gu approached his project from the perspective of transportation demand management, which seeks to manage the demand for transportation services rather than increase the supply. He looked for ways to discourage people from driving on 10th Street and encourage people to walk, ride bikes or take the bus.

He also focused on the mid-block pedestrian crossing island that was installed on 10th Street in front of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs building in August 2010. Does it improve safety? Did it worsen traffic congestion? How should those results be balanced and prioritized?

Reducing motor vehicle traffic can have multiple benefits: It reduces pollution, lessens the burning of fossil fuels that causes climate change, and potentially improves health and safety. But it’s not easy on 10th Street, one of the few east-west through corridors that carry traffic across Bloomington and funnel commuters to the heart of campus.

There’s no shortage of people walking. Residents of IU residence halls on Fee Lane flood across 10th Street every day, and so do students attending business, SPEA, geology and psychology classes. But many students who live off campus drive to class. Some motorists are students who drop off their housemates at classes and pick them up afterward.

And despite Bloomington’s reputation as a bike-friendly city, few students use bicycles to get around, possibly because they are perceived as unsafe. Seventy percent of respondents to Gu’s survey favored more bike lanes, although a lack of space would make it difficult to install them.

“My recommendation, really, is to have more bike lanes where you can,” Gu said. “And we should make biking more appealing to people.”

As for the pedestrian crossing island, Gu’s observations and city and IU data show it has clearly helped. Accidents dropped by 40 percent after the island was installed, and both the volume and speed of vehicle traffic was reduced by 30 percent.

But not everyone is happy. In Gu’s survey, about one-third of respondents complained that the island adds to congestion and slows traffic flow. Another one-third said there were pros and cons, and the other third liked the island. Some of those would go further and ban traffic from 10th Street.

Along with other Sustainability Scholars and student interns, Gu will present the results of his work April 29 during the 15th Sustainability Symposium sponsored by the IU Office of Sustainability.

Robinson, his project mentor, praised Gu for his engagement with the topic and his commitment to developing and carrying out a well-designed work plan. The results, he said, will contribute to city and IU planners’ understanding of the challenges of making 10th Street safer and more efficient.

Gu said he learned a lot from his first experience conducting research, and he wants to continue working on traffic policy and sustainability. He hopes to land an internship with the IU Office of Sustainability to work on those issues. And through his involvement with the IU Student Association, he intends to work with student government to advance campus sustainability initiatives.

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