Associate Professor Alex Karner’s work aims to quantify the social equity, environmental, and public health implications of transportation projects and plans by using emerging data sources and developing new, open-source methods. A deep commitment to practice undergirds his research and teaching, and he routinely collaborates with community members, nonprofit organizations, and public interest law firms to identify pressing research needs and to improve conditions in communities experiencing transportation disadvantages. Some of his recent projects include analyzing how public transit service changed across the country during the Covid-19 pandemic, helping transportation agencies understand how well public transit systems connect people to opportunities and investigating how polling location closures affect the likelihood that people will vote.
At the UT School of Architecture, Dr. Karner teaches courses on transportation justice, geographic information systems, demography, and transportation policy. Prior to joining the faculty at UT Austin, Dr. Karner was an assistant professor at Georgia Tech. He previously held postdoctoral research positions in the Department of Transport Engineering and Logistics at Universidad Católica de Chile and the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University.
Your educational background is in civil and environmental engineering, how did you come to planning? Tell us a bit about this professional trajectory.
When I was an undergraduate engineering student, I thought I was going to spend my career designing and building bridges—structural analysis is simultaneously very beautiful and demanding. My trajectory was altered by two key mentors at Toronto: Willem Vanderburg and Heather MacLean. They were civil engineering professors thinking beyond an individual structure or system to understand how engineering activities were affecting people, society, and the environment.
Around the same time, I was learning about the consequences of automobile and fossil-fuel dependency. I decided that it was unethical to continue perpetuating these systems and began to develop critical perspectives on transportation systems in particular. I knew that transportation contributed about a third of greenhouse gas emissions, was critical for leading a meaningful life, and implicated global systems of oppression related to fuel extraction and production. A narrow engineering lens was inappropriate for undoing these harmful systems. I knew I needed an interdisciplinary perspective.
When searching for graduate schools, I wanted to stay within civil engineering but I sought out an advisor that was able to speak to my broader interests. I identified Deb Niemeier at UC Davis—she listed “environmental justice” in her research interests and had conducted work on air pollution and climate change that I found meaningful and substantially different from what you’d typically find in departments that more often conduct research on pavement materials and traffic modeling.
The first project I worked on in Deb’s lab involved examining a portside community in San Diego that was struggling to manage the impacts associated with increasing diesel truck traffic. The neighborhood was overwhelmingly Latinx and low income and the research opened my eyes to the historical and ongoing processes by which Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are simultaneously deprived of adequate transportation resources but saddled with the burdens of transportation infrastructure like air pollution, noise, visual intrusions, and crash risks that come with living near heavily traveled roads.
Ultimately, foregrounding race and my emphasis on justice and equity is what led to my professional transition away from engineering and towards planning. Going back to the origins of the planning discipline, there is a rich history of seeking to improve conditions for those with the fewest resources and choices and in working with communities. This is not the case in engineering.
What led to your focus on transportation and equity, specifically?
My early work at graduate school sparked my interest in the area. And as I dug into the literature and practice, I realized that it was woefully understudied. Transportation agencies had developed analytical processes and community engagement strategies that just weren’t working to improve conditions for the communities and populations most in need of affordable, reliable, convenient, and accessible transportation.
As I progressed through my dissertation, I was fortunate enough to work with a group of advocates who had been engaging in the regional transportation and land-use planning process in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area for over a decade. They realized that to make progress they would need to better understand and apply the information being generated about the plan’s performance from the agency’s complex long-range simulation model, but they didn’t have the technical expertise that would allow them to identify fruitful paths forward. I offered technical assistance with the models and was effectively able to translate the advocates’ needs into terms that could be applied by the engineers that were operating and maintaining the models. Several peer-reviewed pieces flowed from that work, including a critique of engineering practice related to transportation equity, a review of long-range plans, and an investigation of how critical historical events in California had created a transportation planning regime that was unable to deliver on critical promises related to climate change and equity.
Interest in this subfield was growing at that time, and it became clear that I could keep working in the area. I feel very lucky because I get to do community-engaged work that has the possibility to improve real-world conditions while also producing research that generates scholarly interest. Planning is an amazing and incredibly rewarding field for linking service and research so closely.
Your work aims to quantify the implications of transportation projects via emerging data sources and developing new, open-source methods. What do you see as the future for this? How do you see this progressing as new technologies are developed?
I think there can be great value in using emerging data sources to their full extent. But I’ve come to realize that more data does not necessarily lead to better decisions or better outcomes for low-income people or BIPOC populations. A couple contemporary examples are great illustrations—smart cities and automated vehicles. Outfitting a city with sensors to track when trashcans are full, air pollution is high, or public transit is late can seem like progress, but at the end of the day, people need meaningful work, social connections, affordable healthcare/childcare, quality education, opportunities for recreation, the ability to vote, and a transportation system that facilitates their connections to these things. We don’t need more data or sensors to help us understand that this is the case. I would argue that a smart city should provide for the needs of all residents. Technology can potentially help here, but there are real political and institutional questions related to power, resources, and wealth that need to be addressed first.
Similarly, automated vehicles are being sold as a solution to transportation problems, but they will only have a marginal and short-term effect on congestion and will likely lead to more travel and people living further from their jobs and key destinations—meaning more emissions, e-waste, and less physical activity. I’m, of course, assuming that automated vehicles are even a viable technology, which remains to be seen and is questionable.
Transportation is another area where we don’t need new technology to solve the problem. My recent research has focused on the concept of “accessibility” that involves understanding how easily people can reach and engage in the activities they need to lead a meaningful life. This work takes advantage of new data, but it’s trying to get at relatively simple concepts that capture the fundamental benefits of transportation systems. Greater accessibility is associated with enhanced choice, well-being, and activity participation. It’s affected by transportation infrastructure but also land use – where things are located in space. And it can be quantified using very sophisticated data or simply reasoned through with only limited information. When you think from an accessibility perspective, you realize that housing is critical—limited housing choice and high costs force people to search at ever-further distances from the places that they need to travel. Many of our transportation problems are actually land-use problems. Solving them requires taking on entrenched neighborhood interests and powerful real-estate developers, but it can be done. In the US, unfortunately, continuing to build out transportation infrastructure and trumpeting new technologies seems to be the easier path, so that’s why we see so much interest in those two topics.
As a fast-growing city, Austin is faced with many different planning challenges, including traffic and transit accessibility. How have you engaged Austin’s specific challenges, or used Austin as a testing ground in your teaching and work? How are you involved in the local transportation community?
The problem of “traffic” is given outsized importance in our transportation discussions across the country. Traffic results from many people wanting to travel to the same place at the same time. It is an indicator of economic activity and vibrancy. In virtually all locations in the US, aside from the densest areas of Manhattan, the car will always be much faster than public transit in all cases. Building out massive construction projects like I-35 in Austin or I-45 in Houston will only lead to small improvements in travel times. And those improvements will erode as people adjust their travel patterns and residential/workplace locations to take advantage of them. Traffic cannot be “solved.”
Rather we must give people viable alternatives to traveling in private vehicles that offer speed and convenience. The way we do this is by dedicating road space to more efficient modes like walking, bicycling, and public transit. Austin is, fortunately, investing in its future through Project Connect, a 30-year, $7 billion public transit expansion. The agencies involved in implementation are also thinking about coordinating transportation and land use planning to ensure that many people and destinations will be close to high-quality public transit. This is a good sign. I am an ex-officio member of the Project Connect Community Advisory Committee that is providing feedback and guidance on the plan’s likely equity impacts. I’m also engaged with the City of Austin in research developing a comprehensive housing and transportation cost indicator. And in the spring, I will employ Project Connect as a case study during my transportation justice, accessibility, and equity class.