It can be hard sometimes to convince people to use something new, even if that something new is just for them.
“Just because you provide a service doesn’t mean people will use it,” said Chandra Ward, assistant professor of sociology, social, cultural and justice studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
That’s where she comes in as part of a $3.9 million project to study the Chattanooga transit system.
Led by Vanderbilt University’s Abhishek Dubey, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, the project is funded by a $2.1-million grant from the National Science Foundation and a $1.8-million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. It will study the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) to find ways to reach some of the city’s underserved communities in a cost-efficient manner.
The project, titled “Mobility for All: Harnessing Emerging Transit Solutions for Underserved Communities,” will explore methods of getting public transportation into neighborhoods not currently on any of CARTA’s established routes but still need transportation help at times, Ward explained. Reaching these neighborhoods involves what is known as “micro-transit,” which she described as “a public-transit—as it will be in this case—Lyft or Uber or perhaps, more specifically, like a ride-share shuttle.”
Those needing a ride would contact CARTA to schedule a pickup, she explained. “That’s responsive to the customer, taking them where they need to go when they need to go.
“We’re hoping to address gaps in current transit service such as off hours/days or areas not currently serviced by public transit. Ultimately, we seek to provide innovative transit options to meet the community’s needs,” Ward said.
As a social scientist, she will be a liaison between CARTA and residents of the underserved communities, working to understand their needs so public transportation in their neighborhood will be what they want and what they’ll use. One overarching issue in previous, similar studies is getting people to use “micro-transit” opportunities when they are available, she said.
“Understanding the way different communities find information, trust that information, leading them to act and understand what their actual needs are instead of making assumptions as researchers in the ivory tower, so to speak, is critical in making any innovative community intervention successful.”
For her part of the study, she will partner with Paul Speer, professor and chair of the Department of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt.
Ward previously has worked on research projects through the UTC Center for Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP), bringing a social science element by working with people affected by the project, whatever it is.
“It is important to talk with and study community members in order to ensure the success of projects like these because, as I said before, just because you come up with something innovative, doesn’t mean that people understand how to use it, how it will meet their needs, if it will meet their needs and thus has the ability to be actually useful once deployed,” Ward said.